Sara Butler

title.none: Ross, ed. and trans., Accounts of the Stewards (Sara Butler)

identifier.other: baj9928.0503.008 05.03.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Sara Butler , Loyola University New Orleans,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Ross, Barbara, ed. and trans. Accounts of the Stewards of the Talbot Household at Blakemere, 1392-1425. Series: Shropshire Record Series vol. 7. Keele: Centre for Local History, University of Keele, 2003. Pp. xxiv, 219. $27.00 (pb). ISBN: 0-9536020-4-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.03.08

Ross, Barbara, ed. and trans. Accounts of the Stewards of the Talbot Household at Blakemere, 1392-1425. Series: Shropshire Record Series vol. 7. Keele: Centre for Local History, University of Keele, 2003. Pp. xxiv, 219. $27.00 (pb). ISBN: 0-9536020-4-4.

Reviewed by:

Sara Butler
Loyola University New Orleans

Even for those medievalists who immerse themselves in the records of the Middle Ages, it can often be difficult to get a sense of what it must have been like actually to live in the medieval world, with all the inconveniences and shortcomings of daily life: little access to fresh fruit or vegetables, undrinkable water, a wardrobe of very few clothes, meagre pharmaceutical knowledge, and no centralized heating. It is perhaps even more challenging to appreciate that these deficiencies describe life at its best in the medieval world; the poor suffered much worse hardships and suffering than we can ever really understand. Certainly, from our modern Western perspective where little is wanting, that kind of everyday existence is almost inconceivable. The cavernous gap between the reality of everyday life in the Middle Ages and our imaginations can only be filled by works like Barbara Ross's skilfully edited and translated edition of the Accounts of the Stewards of the Talbot Household at Blakemere 1392-1425. Examining a wide variety of records, from weekly expenses of the steward to yearly accounts, and even accounts of ale, Ross paints a picture of the life of a wealthy family in the medieval period. In doing so, she has created a source that will be of invaluable use to social historians whose specialties range from diet to medicine to wages to popular religion.

Most obviously, Ross's volume of household accounts can be best used to gain further insight into the medieval diet (for both humans and animals--for example, the records supply numerous comments about the baking of bread with bran and oats for the household dogs). Life in a wealthy household at the end of the Middle Ages was clearly a vegetarian's nightmare. Although an astonishingly wide range of meats and fish (including oysters, shrimp, lobster and even whale meat) was consumed on a regular basis, vegetables and fruit make very rare appearances in these accounts. As expected, bread and ale dominate the records. Interestingly, accounts of ale make it possible to track the amount of alcohol consumed by householders on a daily basis. Ross estimates 1 and 1/2 gallons of ale per person per day, which she recognizes as excessive (the more usual figure is one gallon). It is noteworthy that such a high figure does not take into account the seventy 750 ml. bottles of wine consumed by the household every day (although probably limited to a smaller circle of people) (78). Historians of violence in medieval England, as far back as James Given's 1977 study entitled Society and Homicide in Thirteenth Century England, have often laid the blame for high levels of violence in the later Middle Ages on the inordinate amounts of alcohol consumed by the medieval populace, without offering any concrete examples--Ross's study may well provide that crucial evidence.

What is perhaps most surprising about the family's diet, however, is the quantity and variety of spices purchased repeatedly by the Talbot family. Pepper, ginger, mace, cloves, sandalwood, cinnamon, sugar, even saffron were regular staples in the family pantry, and Ross makes it clear that trade in luxury items of this sort can be traced back to the days of the Anglo-Saxons (4). Historians of medicine will find it useful to survey the number of spices bought specifically for medicinal purposes. For example, savin, a drug made from the dried tops of shrubs, commonly used for the procurement of abortions, the treatment of asthma, and the destruction of intestinal worms, seems to have been another common staple of a wealthy medieval home. Other medicinal spices, such as aloes and physic (both purgative drugs), or must (unfermented wine used medicinally) also make an appearance in these records. It is unfortunate, however, that one of the Lord Talbots, who sometimes suffered from "colikapassyon," a sickness brought on by "unwise eating practices" (179) is described as addressing the problem with "a lot of medicina," without providing any more enlightening detail about the nature of the medicine administered.

Finally, historians of popular religion will find Ross's volume a goldmine of information. The accounts supply comprehensive information on this one family's payments to ecclesiastical officials, offerings, tithe payments, funeral expenses and preparations, and almsgiving during this brief period. The accounts do not merely detail the amount of money spent by the family; they also provide some insight into the quality of their piety. Although the records often note that alms were made to "various paupers," at times, they make it clear whom the lord deemed most worthy of alms.

Ross's work is not just a translation of these accounts. Her introductory chapter, as well as her brief preparatory remarks at the beginning of each account, adeptly places these records in context. She provides detailed insight into the lives of both the Talbots and the Le Stranges (the family who occupied the home prior to the Talbots--the sole heiress, Ankaretta Le Strange of Blakemere married Richard, Fourth Lord Talbot in the late 14th century). Both marcher families were instrumental in regulating the confusion and disruption caused by Welsh incursions into England, and the interplay between marcher lordship and Welsh insurgents plays out in the background of all of these records. Ross also provides an insightful commentary into life as a woman in this period; her records give her the opportunity to examine, among other things, marriages as family alliances, the difficulties of being both a widow and a foreigner under English law, and the high number of female brewsters (some married, some single) whose services were employed at various times by the family. Moreover, in both the formal introduction and her preliminary comments to each chapter, Ross attempts to highlight the number of ways these records can be used to better understand the medieval household, which, as she points out, "is not an easy one for a 21st-century reader to grasp" (xix). She calls attention to trade relations (both local and long-distance), luxury goods, transportation difficulties, ale production, debates over the number of meals consumed by the household on a daily basis, and the number of employees working in a medieval household. In an effort to make this work more readily accessible to readers, she also provides a useful glossary with a discussion of medieval money, weights, and measures, and a selected bibliography of readings relevant to the Le Strange and Talbot families, and the medieval household in general. This meticulous and assiduously-organized text equips the reader with everything one needs in order to understand these records in context. As such, it should prove to be a valuable source for medieval historians.