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A woman's work, 1523
Plenty of advice… but who's giving it?
Good advice sometimes comes in strange wrappings. Some years ago, I came across a short passage of 16th century writing which contained what is rather modern advice, and would not sit out of place among the many guides to productivity and time management that proliferate online and adorn the shelves of bookstores. I have recently finished reading the wonderful Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman, which puts a lot of this into the important perspective of a finite life. In short: we’ll never get everything done.
Nevertheless, sometimes it’s handy to have rules of thumb for making decisions and managing the to-do list. Here is that advice which had caught my eye, which wouldn’t seem out of place in a ‘getting things done’ manual:
May fortune sometime, that thou shalt have so many things to do, that thou shalt not well know where is best to begin. Then take heed, which thing should be the greatest loss, if it were not done, and in what space it would be done: then think what is the greatest loss, and there begin. But in case that thing, that is of greatest loss, will be long in doing, and thou mightest do three or four other things in the meanwhile, then look well, if all these things were set together, which of them were the greatest loss: and if all these things be of greater loss, and may be all done in as short space as the other, then do thy many things first.
The 500-year-old advice in question comes from The Boke of Husbandry, by ‘Master Fitzherbert’, first published in 1523. ‘Husbandry’ here refers to the effective management (or man-agement, as the gendering here is part of the story, as we’ll see) of a farm or country estate.
Scholars have argued over the identity of ‘Master Fitzherbert’, but it is generally accepted that he was either John Fitzherbert (1460-1531) or his younger brother Anthony (1470–1538). Both grew up in Derbyshire, sons of a lord of the manor at Norbury, land which is still held by Anthony’s descendants to this day. So the estate management must have gone well.
Anthony had a successful legal career, becoming a judge and a notable author of a legal textbook. We know little about John, but he ran the Norbury estate for half a century, so it doesn’t seem a wild proposition that he was more likely the author of The Boke of Husbandry. The book itself primarily abounds with practical advice about running an estate, and is of course written from the privileged position of someone who probably didn’t get their hands very dirty. The editor of the 1882 edition, philologist Walter Skeat, commented: “it is clearly the work of a country gentleman, rich in horses and in timber, acquainted with the extravagant mode of life often adopted by the wealthy, and at the same time given to scholarly pursuits and to learned and devout reading”.
So “rich in horses”, in fact, that the book lists the 54 qualities of a horse. There is an abundance of information about when and how to sow and harvest crops, raise livestock, treat their diseases and more. Ultimately it is also set in the context of a devout Christian faith, and it champions thrift and sobriety. Aside from the time management advice above, there is much about frugality in particular:
Thou husband that intendest to get thy living by husbandry, take heed of the saying of the wise philospher, which sayeth: Adhibe curam, tene mensuram, et eris dives. That is to say: take heed to thy charge, keep measure and thou shalt be rich…
Adhibe curam… if a man attend not his husbandry, but go sport or play, tavern or alehouse, or sleeping at home, or such other idle works, he is not then worthy to have any corn…
Tene mensuram:… he that doth more expend than his goodwill extend, marvellous it shall not be though he be greeted with poverty… Eat within thy tether.
(By which he means, of course, “spend according to your income”. The richness he alludes to is in fact of the spiritual kind, although that is perhaps easy to say when you have land and servants.)
There are plenty more nuggets of wisdom, some of which might still be at home on the self-help shelves…
“There is a seed that is called Discretion, and if a husband has that seed, and mingle it among his other corns, they will grow much the better…”
“I learned two verses at grammar school, and they be these… A drop of water pierceth a stone, not only by his own strength, but by his often falling. Right so a man shall be made wise, not only by himself, but by his oft reading.”
“It is better the practice or knowledge of an husbandman well proved, than the science or cunning of a philosopher not proved…”
“[To] keep measure, you must spare at the brink, and not at the bottom… [he means one should not spend too much at the beginning of the year.]
In the course of researching this, I was amused to spot Rowland Prothero, President of the Board of Agriculture under David Lloyd George, quoting both “Eat within thy tether” and “Spare at the brink, and not at the bottom” in a 1916 parliamentary discussion about food rationing in World War One.1
So much for a man’s reasonable advice about managing one’s resources. But one of those resources… was women. Fitzherbert seems wise enough to know that he shouldn’t tell women how they should conduct their labours…
there is an old common saying, that seldom doth the husband thrive, without the leave of his wife. By this saying it should seem, that there be other occupations and labours, that be most convenient for the wives to do… a little will I speak what they ought to do, though I tell them not how they should do and exercise their labours and occupations.
… but he certainly doesn’t stint in listing “what they ought to do”, and it’s a long list. In fact, it’s in that section of the book that the ‘getting things done’ advice comes from: it is specifically addressed to women to work out what’s most urgent in their (huge) list of tasks and then get on with it (the gendered issue of household management of course persists to this day, as research this month corroborates). You can read his guidance for what is “convenient for the wives to do” below…2
First in a morning when thou art waked, and purposed to rise, lift up thy hand, and bless thee, and make a sign of the holy cross… And when thou art up and ready, then first sweep thy house, dress up thy dishboard, and set all things in good order within thy house: milk thy cows, suckle thy calves, strain thy milk, take up thy children and array them, and provide for thy husband's breakfast, dinner, supper, and for thy children and servants, and take thy part with them. And to [send] corn and malt to the mill, to bake and brew withal when need is. And meet it to the mill, and from the mill, and see that thou have thy measure again beside the toll, or else the miller dealeth not truly with thee, or else thy corn is not dry as it should be.
Thou must make butter, and cheese when thou mayest, serve thy swine both morning and evening, and give thy poultry meat in the morning: and when time of the year cometh, thou must take heed how thy hens, ducks, and geese do lay, and to gather up their eggs, and when they wax broody, to set them there as no beasts, swine, nor other vermin hurt them…
And in the beginning of March, or a little before, is time for a wife to make her garden, and to get as many good seeds and herbs as she can, and specially such as be good for the pot, and to eat: and as oft as need shall require, it must be weeded, for else the weeds will overgrow the herbs. And also in March is time to sow flax and hemp… but how it should be sown, weeded, pulled, rippled, watered, washed, dried, beaten, braked [bruised in a special machine for crushing flax], tawed [dressed], heckled, spun, wound, wrapped and woven… and thereof may they make sheets, broadcloths, towels, shirts, smocks, and such other necessaries, and therefore let thy distaff be always ready for a pastime, that thou be not idle…
May fortune sometime, that thou shalt have so many things to do, that thou shalt not well know where is best to begin… [See the full paragraph at the top of this article.]
It is convenient for a husband to have sheep of his own, for many causes, and then may his wife have part of the wool, to make her husband and herself some clothes… It is a wife’s occupation, to winnow all manner of corns, to make malt, to wash and wring, to make hay, shear corn, and in time of need to help her husband to fill the muck-wain or dung cart, drive the plough, to load hay, corn, and such other. And to go or ride to the market, to sell butter, cheese, milk, eggs, chickens, capons, hens, pigs, geese, and all manner of corns. And also to buy all manner of necessary things belonging to household, and to make a true reckoning and account to her husband, what she hath paid.
[Fitzherbert does at least try to be egalitarian about mutual trust, which is perhaps more than many men would have done in his era.]
And if the husband go to the market, to buy or sell, as they oft do, he then to show his wife in like manner. For if one of then should use to deceive the other, he deceiveth himself, and he is not like to thrive. And therefore they must be true either to other.
I could peradventure show the husband’s diverse points that the wives deceive them in: and in like manner, how husbands deceive their wives: but if I should do so, I should show more subtle points of deceit, than either of them knew of before. And therefore me seemeth best to hold my peace… And thus I leave the wives to use their occupations at their own discretion.