The Medieval Review 11.01.01

Egan, Geoff. The Medieval Household, Daily Living c. 1150-1450. Medieval Finds from Excavations in London, vol. 6. Rochester: Boydell Press, 2010. Pp. xiv. 60.00 ISBN 9781843835431. .

Reviewed by:

Jane Grenville
University of York

This is a reissue of the Museum of London's catalogue of everyday medieval objects, originally published by Her Majesty's Stationery Office in 1998. Readers should be aware that it is a straight reproduction of the earlier text, not an updated edition. The only amendments are a foreword to the second edition by the principal author, Geoff Egan, neatly fitted in between the old pages xiii and 1 without disrupting the text, and a small supplementary bibliography of the essential material published since 1998. With only ten references, it is exiguous indeed, squashed into the bottom of the original bibliography in a smaller font size to make it fit. Such are the exigencies of modern publishing; I have sympathy with Boydell, who have done us a service by republishing this useful volume and clearly needed to keep the costs down to make it affordable (the quality of the photographs has suffered), but cannot help a twinge of disappointment that more could not have been made of the opportunity.

The scope of the volume excludes the specialist categories already published earlier in the series: knives and scabbards; shoes and pattens; dress accessories; textiles and clothing; and medieval horse equipment. What we have here, then, is a fairly eclectic collection, drawn together under the broad heading of "household" but including the building materials of the dwellings that contained the households, and some objects that might more logically be considered as related to business and trade, although the extent to which such activity was undertaken from a merchant's dwelling may make the distinction somewhat fuzzy. In between we have a huge selection of everyday objects. You will find fittings such as hinges, pintles, hooks and window cames; mounts and accessories from furnishing, such as metal chest mounts and handles; locks and keys; lighting equipment; and a wealth of non- ceramic household equipment such as table and kitchenware, and even fragments of glass urinals. The conditions of preservation are such that much organic material survives, so amongst the leather objects are a costrel (Cat no. 731) and a cover, probably from a pouch rather than a book (Cat. no. 929) and a couple of balls (Cat nos. 968 and 969) and there is a good selection of fragments of lathe-turned wooden vessels. But much of the organic material has already been inventoried in the earlier volumes in the series, as noted above, and the materials most commonly illustrated and described here are metals, bone and glass, with some ceramics in the form of building materials, curfews and lids. Ceramic vessel series form the basis of the dating of the finds, but the details of their forms, functions and dating are dealt with elsewhere (A. Vince (1985) "The Saxon and Medieval Pottery of London: a Review" in Medieval Archaeology vol. 29, pp. 25-93).

These finds give us a marvellous picture of London life in the later middle ages. We see the luxury items of the very rich such as enamelled glass drinking vessels (Colour plate 8), imported glass jugs and vessels (Cat. Nos 653 678), and a delightful pair of pewter lids with canine handles (Cat. Nos. 537 and 538). More mundane, but not less interesting, are the large collections of hinges, hooks and chains that give us an insight into the craft and the art of the smith, ratcheted up a notch when we come to the complexities of padlocks and their keys. The lighting of houses with candles with illustrated through a fine series of candleholders and prickets, while the operations of the kitchen are represented by skillets, skimmers and cast vessels. Although the needles, thimbles and reels might not be seen as specifically gendered--leather-working and tailoring being carried out by both sexes--a number of spindle whorls do indicate women's work specifically and it is interesting to note Egan's comment that "These ubiquitous items remained remarkably plain through the 300-year period considered (in comparison, for example, with the elaboration and diversity seen in men's bladed weapons...)" (6). Another fascinating and rare object associated with women is a fragment of a jet bowl (Cat. No. 972), since drinking water associated with jet was deemed to ease the pains of childbirth (299). Leisure items are represented by children's toys, by gaming pieces and by musical instruments.

The provenance of this rich assemblage provides us with both its greatest strength (the confidence we can have in the dating of the various pieces) and its greatest weakness (not one of them can be associated with a particular household, nor even with another piece that may have been found adjacent to it). The reason for this? They nearly all come from rubbish dumps, specifically from dumps that were created by successive reclamations of land from the River Thames. In the 1970s and '80s, as London began to redevelop intensively, a series of rescue excavations were undertaken. Away from the riverside, relatively little survived from the medieval period, because of subsequent digging of cellars, but on the riverbank itself, the medievals had thrown out successive revetments and filled up the space behind them with household trash. The dates of these deposits have been established from coin and ceramic evidence and the fresh breaks in many of the pottery sherds and lack of decomposition in the organic material suggests that much of the refuse was recently discarded when it was deposited in the riverside dumps. This gives us a very close date for the material although of course, waste from rich and poor households is inextricably muddled together.

For historians and archaeologists alike, this catalogue provides a wealth of primary material for further analysis. The introductory essays and commentaries on individual categories and pieces are excellent. Parallels are principally drawn with material from stratified deposits in excavated houses in Winchester, where the conditions for organic preservation were less favourable but where the inter-relationships between objects and their context could be better understood. Since the original publication, as Egan points out in his short introduction to the second edition, important collections from York and Meols have been published and opened up huge potential for comparative study. Furthermore, interest in the history and archaeology of domesticity has grown (see, for example M. Kowaleski and PJP Goldberg, eds., Medieval Domesticity: Home, Housing and Household in Medieval England, [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008]). Scholars from both fields will find much to mine in the rich seam of evidence presented in the London catalogue.