Medieval Domesticity: Home, Housing and Household
25th Annual Medieval Studies Conference
Saturday March 12-Sunday March 13, 2005
The Empty Household: Women, Production, and Gender Conflict at the End of the Middle Ages

Derrick Higginbotham, Columbia University

My paper investigates the theatrical representation of women and their relationship to the disappearance of high-status productive labor from the domestic sphere in late medieval England. During the commercial revolution, a shift in production occurred in which the bulk of commodity production for local sale moves from its traditional location in the household to other locations, such as shops in growing market districts or outside the walls of the city where the costs of production were cheaper for the master-artisan overseeing production. This long-term social process of emptying the household of socially valued production initiates the creation of a supposedly autonomous domestic sphere for women, a household sphere that is materially and symbolically over-determined by consumption and a productive labor that has fallen in social status (Howell 33).

For the purposes of this paper, I will focus on the little studied play, “A Mery Play Betwene Johan Johan the Husbande, Tib his Wife, and Sir Johan the Preest”, which depicts this late medieval economic transformation of the household from a site of production to a site of consumption and ‘menial’ labor through its representation of gender conflict within marriage. This play opens with Johan Johan, the husband, standing alone inside his house delivering a speech to an audience of “maysters” on the whereabouts of his missing wife, Tib (Bevington 1). This absence of Tib at the beginning of the play marks one of several absences in the household. Later on, the audience discovers that Tib has fled to London to join friends in an act of production no longer sanctioned within the home and that Tib and Johan Johan are childless. The childlessness of this couple, in fact, underscores the emptying out of all kinds of productive activity—the making of anything, even babies—from the household, an absence of productivity that engenders conflict within the marriage. My paper will examine this representation of gender conflict in this play, arguing that it illuminates the historically specific and symbolically mediated domestication of women’s work inspired by the re-organizing of the relations of production in late medieval England.


Works Cited
Bevington, David, ed. “A Mery Play Betwene Johan Johan the Husbande, Tib His Wife, and Sir Johan the Preest”. In Medieval Drama. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975.

Howell, Martha. Women, Production, and Patriarchy in Late Medieval Cities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

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