Book Review: “Maids, Wives, Widows” by Sara Read

Maids, Wives, Widows: Exploring Early Modern Women’s Lives, 1540-1740 by Sara Read is a book I’d been wanting to read since it was originally published in 2015 by Pen & Sword. I became acquainted with Dr Read through Twitter, and she subsequently has contributed two popular articles here on The Seventeenth Century Lady.

In her book, which is 192 pages long (including bibliography, a black-and-white image section, and index), Read covers a very interesting and wide spectrum of things associated with early modern women and their day-to-day lives – from marriage, food sourcing and preparation, childbirth, raising children, work, literacy, midwifery, religious belief, criminality, fashion, and much more.

Being as my areas of research have unsurprisingly overlapped with Read’s, there wasn’t a whole lot I hadn’t known about before – but I did indeed learn some new facts, historical figures, and works of literature – which made me happy (I don’t know about you, but learning always makes me excited and giddy). One of the bits of the book I enjoyed most were her giving the probable origins for certain popular sayings, such as “sleep tight” and “left on the shelf” –  I didn’t know this before reading her book.

I was very pleased to read that Read shares my opinion that seventeenth-century women did not wear knickers (panties) under their shifts – something I also wrote about in my book, The Stuarts in 100 Facts. This subject had been troubling me for some time, especially after I read a rather critical (albeit indirect) post about this matter from a friend and fellow writer of historical fiction. The fact that Read is an expert in these matters has set my mind at rest, and for that I thank her.

Read, an academic, is neither verbose nor opaque like some works by academics can be (Trevor-Roper comes to mind, sorry!) – her style is clear and enlightening. I was relieved to see she didn’t judge the seventeenth-century people in her book by twenty-first-century standards (I have, in the past, put down some history books in which the author has done this).

I look forward to reading more from Dr Read.

TSCL rating: 4.5/5

Hear ye! 2 thoughts — so far — on “Book Review: “Maids, Wives, Widows” by Sara Read”:

  1. Sarah Johnson

    I believe, Andrea, that the Brits were on the cusp of knicker-wearing, so everyone can be correct. In Pepys’ Diary (which you can follow daily on-line) he has an entry in 1663 about watching to see if his wife puts them on because it will be an indication on whether or not she has a lover. (Don’t ask me why that’s an indication.) Elizabeth Pepys was brought up in France and usually wore them. The annotators tell me they were common in France by that time — and France was the fashion trend-setter even then.

  2. Andrea Zuvich

    Hi, Sarah, and thanks for your comment. Yes, that’s right about Pepys – and I did mention this in my book, The Stuarts in 100 Facts, but nevertheless, it was not the norm (as Dr Read confirmed, and has also been stated by Liza Picard). I’ve probably read hundreds of primary sources from the seventeenth century by now and the only one that I’ve come across that mentions such a thing was the aforementioned one by Pepys. To my knowledge, there is no extant article of this type of clothing from the Stuart period so unless some evidence shows up, I’m going to have to keep saying they didn’t wear ’em 🙂


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