Joel Rosenthal

title.none: Woolgar, The Great Household in Late Medieval England (Rosenthal)

identifier.other: baj9928.0102.006 01.02.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Joel Rosenthal, SUNY--Stony Brook,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Woolgar, C. M. The Great Household in Late Medieval England. New Haven, CT, London, UK: Yale University Press, 1999. Pp. x, 254. $35.00. ISBN: 0-300-07687-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.02.06

Woolgar, C. M. The Great Household in Late Medieval England. New Haven, CT, London, UK: Yale University Press, 1999. Pp. x, 254. $35.00. ISBN: 0-300-07687-8.

Reviewed by:

Joel Rosenthal
SUNY--Stony Brook

The (great) household is obviously a topic of considerable interest, whether we come to it from the perspective of upper class and gentry social and political configurations, or from that of consumption and display and related economic issues, or from that of popular and privatized religion, or from that of architectural styles and innovations and of cultural patronage. It is a topic that Christopher Woolgar has made very much his own (though not exclusively his own), and he comes to this scholarly-cum-general survey with a two volume edition of household accounts and some specialized articles already to his credit.

In effect, Woolgar serves as a well-briefed guide, poised to take us on a tour of some great households as we can reconstruct their internal workings and personnel and physical characteristics from surviving household and financial accounts, normative texts on domestic and private life, architectural remains (in varying states and conditions of survival), and physical objects and manuscript illuminations. Furthermore, rather than having to brave chilly rooms above country pubs and the rigors of steamy coaches navigating the back roads on their way to Maxstoke in Warwickshire or Collingbourne in Wiltshire, we can sit back and let Woolgar-- largely instructed by representative material for the aristocracy (Joan de Valence, Countess of Pembroke and the Stafford dukes of Buckingham), the gentry (the Multons of Lincolnshire and the Catesbys of Northamptonshire), and a few select individuals (Sir John Fastolf and bishops Mitford of Salisbury, Arundel of Ely, York, and Canterbury, and William of Wykeham and Henry Beaufort of Winchester)--take us in hand.

Drawing mainly on these case studies (and a lot of material about the royal court, and wherever else he can dip for pertinent information), Woolgar's guided tour is arranged to address those aspects of the late medieval household that he expects us to inquire about: size, membership, and hospitality; servants; space and residences; rhythms of the household; food and drink; cooking and the meal; the senses, religion and intellectual life; travel, horses and other animals. He estimates that England contained 1000-2000 households that in some sense could be considered to be 'great' ones; served by a permanent staff, major centers of hospitality, consumption, and patronage; an imposing physical presence, whether a fortified castle moving toward domesticity (by the 15th century) or a comfortable manor house from the very planning stages. And between 1200 and 1500 there were significant changes in the story, changes that reflect the 'transition' from high medieval to early modern: fixed residences rather than the earlier pattern of constant (if regular and predictable) itineration, the market economy as the main source of food and supplies rather than the earlier reliance on home manors and the world of receiver generals, paid servants rather than retainers with feudal links, as service grew in importance over honor and status, and comfort and privacy rather than formality and fortification (at least in a relative sense: better drains and some interest in eating still-hot food rather than in the elaborate rituals of the great hall).

In some respects this book is a 'life and times' volume; social history, history with (most of) the politics left out, as G. M. Trevelyan once preached and practiced. But in other ways there is a fair amount of hard analysis and some pithy data, amidst the lavish illustrations and the sensible if familiar general comments. My own brush with low-level quantitative research (stemming, of course, from the late 1960s and 1970s) has left me with a high regard for what I am told in a TABLE (my emphasis), and Woolgar's presentation of data on household size as measured by gross income, staff, grooms, recipients of alms, and horses (Table 1: pp. 12-13) talks of the bones beneath the flesh of narrative. The 'daily routine' of household life (Table 6, p. 85) gives a glimpse of how the day was paced and, by inference, of when and where people of importance may have conducted their 'business' as we use the term. This table carries us from 4 in the morning, when the Earl of Northumberland's cooks had to arise on their summer schedule, through 10 at night, when the Duke of Clarence had the gates shut (in 1468). Though I suspect that Clarence should have kept his gates shut most of the time, and that his mother's household was less ecclesiastically bound than her oft-cited domestic routines indicate, this is good stuff to chew on concerning the realities of eating, sleeping, praying, and setting up expectations for our inferiors to try to live up to.

If I am overly susceptible to tabular information, I am likewise prone to pay compliments to such presentations as the map showing the itinerary of John de Valence in 1296-97 (pp. 48-49), or the chart that sets out the costs of some specific feasts (p. 203). We get an idea of the range of practice and magnitude covered by the general rubric, 'great household', when we see that festive expenditure could run from the mere L11 that Katherine of Norwich spent in 1337, burying and commemorating the death of first husband, to the lavish L513 that Archbishop Warham deemed appropriate for his installation at Canterbury in 1505.

The illustrations in this book are not only lavish and handsome, but they are especially apt and illustrative. Virtually every aspect of the topic, as Woolgar lays it out, is enhanced by such material. The Tickhill Psalter's illumination of the slaying of Ish-bosheth by Rechab and Baanah--not quite a household reference for most of us--shows a sleeping watch- woman, too tired from her work at winnowing and bagging corn, to stay awake in order to keep out the unwelcome guests. On a more prosaic note, we can turn to The Queen Mary Psalter for its December scene of pig butchery, or to the photograph of Fastolf's would-be castle at Caister, Norfolk, for an example of gentry pretensions and wealth.

As Woolgar has blocked out his project, I have few criticisms. We have some excellent detailed work along this line--most recently, ffiona Swabey's book on Alice de Brienne--but judicious generalizations are always welcome. Though the Yale Press deserves credit for bringing out this attractive book, the absence of a bibliography is not compensated for by a few pages of abbreviated references or a glossary (from "All Saints" to "yeoman"). Scholarship should be able to assert some demands, if only to fly the flag of tradition (from the battlements, perhaps, as we come over the rise as see the towers of such a great household as the one existing and functioning with the walls of Warwick Castle).