Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Woman carrying water from a well
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    This image depicts a woman at work fetching water. It is set against a picturesque backdrop which includes grass-topped hills and large, abundant trees. The foreground is covered in grass and an assortment of different shrubs and plants. The woman is placed toward the front and center of the illustration and at an angle, clearly serving as the focus of this scene. She is framed by a fountain on one side and a house on the other, as if she were walking toward the door of the house. Her activity is highlighted by the giant tub on her head, full of water, which we can infer she just filled from the source behind her. The physicality of this endeavor is underlined by the way the woman has picked up her skirt with one hand, while still holding the tub of water on her head. It appears that the woman is both carefully balancing the water and making sure not to trip over her dress. Furthermore, the woman’s hair is fully pinned up and away from her field of view and she has no adornments in the form of jewelry or embellished clothing. However, the brighter pink color of the dress makes her stand out clearly in this setting.

    This image is from an illustrated copy of the Tacuinum Sanitatis from around 1450. The text, a handbook about healthy living, was originally written in Arabic in the mid-eleventh century by Ibn Butlān, a physician born in Baghdad. The first extensively illustrated copies were commissioned in Northern Italy in the fourteenth century and are associated with the court of Giangaleazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan. This manuscript was made in the Rhineland in Germany and is written in Latin. The German translations of titles were added in the sixteenth century. The illustrations are thought to have been copied by a German artist from the Tacuinum Sanitatis manuscript, Vienna 2644, made in Lombardy. These manuscripts present an idealized view of nature and society. There is rich imagery, with representations of flowers, fruits, vegetables, and medicinal herbs. People go hawking, gather crops, tend animals, and prepare and sell food in more than 200 scenes that depict abundance and order.

    The manuscript portrays both the nobility and the well-to-do as well as servants and peasants in its illustrations. This particular image is representative of the physical labor performed in many of the scenes. Servants often lived in the home of their employer and were given board and lodging in addition to wages. Both men and women were servants and they tended to be younger, unmarried people. Carrying in water would have been an everyday chore for women. In fact, in most representations of peasants, they are seen working, rather than hunting or feasting, activities reserved for the nobility. Women performed highly rigorous labor and chores. While there were still divisions of labor between men and women, tasks such as this were left to women.

    From the stream coming out of the fountain, to the water in the tub the woman is carrying, water is an important element here. It was used in many aspects of life, from medicine, to hygiene and, more broadly, to general well-being. Herbal water, used for things like mental health, as well as pain relief, was one of the most significant usages of water. For example, washing your head with warm water was said to relieve headaches. In terms of cleanliness, bathing as well as washing food and boiling vegetables was highly recommended. In addition, running water was deemed "cleaner" and better for disease prevention, and this image clearly highlights the flowing water. For domestic purposes such as this, many well-to-do people got water from their own private wells. This saved time and labor required to get water from a communal source and safeguarded the source from contamination.

  • Source: Gallica, Bibliothèque nationale de France
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Health Housework Medicine Peasantry Servants Water Work
  • Geographic Area: Germany
  • Century: 15
  • Date: 1445- 1451
  • Related Work: BnF Ms Latin 9333 digitized, 1445-1451.
    View of opened manuscript, BnF Ms Latin 9333, fols. 36v and 37r.
    Woman harvesting capers, BnF Ms Latin 9333, fol. 21v.
    Woman carrying water, Biblioteca Casanatense Ms. 4182, tav. 169, 1390-1400, Italian, Tacuinum Sanitatis.
    Women making pasta, Biblioteca Casanatense Ms. 4182, tav. 84, 1390-1400, Italian, Tacuinum Sanitatis.
    Women making black bread, BnF Ms Latin 9333, fol. 61v.
  • Current Location: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Ms Latin 9333, fol. 86v
  • Original Location: Germany, Rhineland
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Manuscript illuminations
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Parchment; Inks; Paints
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): //
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources:

    Alexander, Jonathan. "Labeur and Paresse: Ideological Representations of Medieval Peasant Labor." Art Bulletin 72, 3 (1990): 436–452.

    Daunay, Marie-Christine et al. "Tacuinum Sanitatis: Horticulture and Health in the Late Middle Ages." Chronica Horticulturae 49, 3 (2009): 22-29.

    Gordon, Sarah. "Mens sana in corpore sanus: Water, Wellness, and Cleanliness in Five Fifteenth-Century Medical Manuals." Bodily and Spiritual Hygiene in Medieval and Early Modern Literature: Explorations of Textual Presentations of Filth and Water. Edited by Albrecht Classen. De Gruyter, 2017. Pages 424-440.

    Hoeniger, Cathleen. "The Illuminated Tacuinum Sanitatis Manuscripts from Northern Italy ca. 1380-1400: Sources, Patrons, and the Creation of a New Pictorial Genre." Visualizing Medieval Medicine and Natural History, 1200-1550. Edited by Jean A. Givens, Karen M. Reed and Alain Touwaide. Ashgate, 2006. Pages 51-81.

    Mendelsohn, Loren D. "The Tacuinum Sanitates: A Medieval Health Manual." Petits Propos Culinaires: Essays and Notes on Food, Cookery and Cookery Books 99 (2013): 69-89.

    Paris, Harry S. et al. "The Cucurbitaceae and Solanaceae Illustrated in Medieval Manuscripts Known as the Tacuinum Sanitatis." Annals of Botany 103, 8 (2009): 1187-1205. Available open access.

    Squatriti Paolo. Water and Society in Early Medieval Italy, AD 400–1000. Cambridge University Press; 1998.

    Whittle, Jane. “Introduction: Servants in the Economy and Society of Rural Europe.” Servants in Rural Europe: 1400-1900. Edited by Jane Whittle. Boydell & Brewer, 2017. Pages 1–18.