09.10.01, Svensson, Medieval Household

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Benjamin Hudson

The Medieval Review 09.10.01

Svensson, Eva. The Medieval Household: Daily Life in Castles and Farmsteads, Scandinavian Examples in their European Context. The Medieval Countryside, 2. Turnhout: Brepols, 2009. Pp. xvi, 382. ISBN: 978-2-503-52590-7.

Reviewed by:
Benjamin Hudson
Penn State University

Medieval Household is an archaeologist's view of the domestic, industrial, and cultural aspects of four sites in Sweden: Dalby parish, with particular attention to the now deserted settlement of Skinnerud; the parish of Gunnarskog and its abandoned settlement of Skramle, the ruined castle of Saxholmen on Saxen Island in Lake Vänern, and the fortress of Edsholm between Grums fjord and Lake Vänern. All four locations are in Värmland in western Sweden, a region that is on the border with Norway.

The book is divided into five parts. The first is "Introducing Everyday Life in Castles and Farmsteads," which gives the author's theories on social organization and interaction. There is also a discussion of the methodology that is employed in the book. The next part is "Landscape and Settlements" in which the five sites are introduced together with a description of their geography and that of the surrounding area. "Artifacts, People, and Space" is the third part, in which there is a description of the material remains uncovered at the sites. Much of the work was done, at least in part, by the author who gives a detailed account of the items as well their context. The scene shifts in the following part "In Other Parts of Europe" when fifteen sites elsewhere in Europe were considered sufficiently similar to the Swedish ones to be usefully compared: Huis Malburg, "Oude Huys" and Polanen in the Netherlands; Alt-Wartburg and Bergeten in Switzerland; Cefn Graeanog in Wales, Hill Top Farm, and Lewes Castle in England; Bystřec , Koválov, Lelekovice, and Konůvky in the Cech Republic, Dalem, Schnellerts, and Ulm-Eggingen in Germany. The conclusion "Summing Up Human Practice" combines the information from the Swedish excavations with the material from elsewhere to offer theories about daily life, community and social modeling.

The most useful parts of the book (and the bulk of the narrative) are the second part on landscapes and settlements and the third part on artifacts. The author is intimately familiar with these sites through her field work and provides many helpful insights on the geography of farmsteads and their relationship to the non-agricultural elements of the vicinity, as well as the distribution of materials within the settlements. She gives detailed descriptions of the terrain and human remains and the narrative is complemented by diagrams and list of objects. The discussion is very useful on the relationship and interaction of hamlet with surrounding countryside. Peasant exploitation of local resources is shown to have been more dependent on external factors than is generally believed. Iron, for example, was smelted for local consumption, but the increase of its manufacture was tied with an expanding, but fluctuating, export market. The variation can be judged from the distribution and age of the iron workings.

The author argues persuasively that archaeology is a vital component for cultural history, yet asks her readers to take many of conclusions on trust. Statements such as "I believe that the Skramle peasants considered themselves just as good as the new nobles..." are interesting, but some support beyond one type of evidence, in this instance clothing artifacts, would be useful. Reference to literature or historical records complementing the material remains could give guidance to readers. Often there is an interpretation of material evidence that seems hardly justified by the separate items. A collection of artifacts uncovered at Skramle that includes unworked soapstone, needles, stone axes, and scissors is designated spiritual, but there is no explanation why these ordinary items are thought to have a connection with popular belief. The discussion on the lack of evidence for the consumption of wild game by the peasants of Skramle and Skinnerud offers the unconvincing conclusion that they took only the boneless pieces home, rather than the more probable reason that hunting and fishing without the lord's permission was poaching and punished severely.

Only for one site--Edholm--is there any effort to interpret the artifacts with the help of history. While hamlets such as Skramle and Skinnerud are not expected to feature in the scanty medieval records, lack of historical appreciation is a serious deficiency for Saxholm, which was on the important waterway of Lake Vänern. The existing castle seems to date from the later Middle Ages, but the role of the lake in the history of Sweden explains why it was built and indicates the reason for the type of artifacts it contained. Late in the eleventh century, control of the lake and its environs was contested between the Norwegians and Swedes. King Magnús III of Norway claimed the lands west of the Gaut-Elf River and Lake Vänern, and then the territory as far as Vermaland. He invaded the area as far as Lake Vänern where he had built a turf and timber fort on Kvalthinsey. Magnús' invasion was especially destructive in the forest districts. Although King Ingi of the Swedes soon recaptured the region, fears of subsequent invasions ensured that it remained a semi-fortified zone. A conference among the monarchs to secure the border did nothing to detract from its strategic value. So a fortification on the lake was not a novelty and there were sound strategic reasons to have a military presence.

Together with a historical background, greater familiarity with the human activities that make up a large part of the book's discussion would give a more nuanced appreciation of the importance of the selected sites. The impressive survey of farmsteads and fields remains for example, might include more discussion of the technical or environmental issues. Agriculture underwent important changes from the first millennium to the end of the medieval period and helped to improve the condition of the peasants who lived on a knife's edge between survival and starvation. Specialization in production was becoming more widespread throughout Europe after the twelfth century and Sweden was no different. Awareness of that development gives insight into why the juxtaposition of a farmstead with a large cow shed together with farmsteads devoid of corrals does not indicate a commune, but an operation devoted to stock-raising.

The reader would benefit occasionally from more insight into the author's methodology. The fifteen hamlets and castles outside Sweden, for example were supposedly chosen on the basis of several criteria, but only a few, general clues are given to the reader. This makes the ensuing discussion less useful than it might be, especially since the similarities are not obvious. In the same way, the distribution maps of artifacts would benefit from being more specific for individual items and less concerned with the author's grouping into a class of materials. A chart of artifact distribution at Skramle involves sixteen separate items ranging from a "toy stone" to a crossbow arrow, but there is no individual identification on the map.

At times there are misunderstandings of some basic medieval institutions. The parish, for example, is presented here as a local assembly, rather than a unit for ecclesiastical administration. There is a similar misunderstanding about the purpose of castles. The author sees them solely in financial terms, as a part of the tax collection system. Castles in the Middle Ages were projections of military power, plain and simple. They could be adapted to many uses including the collection and storage of taxes, but there were cheaper and easier ways of collecting dues. Castles were expensive to build, expensive to maintain, and really functional for military purposes. There were cheaper and easier ways to collect taxes than building a castle.

Eva Svensson's The Medieval Household Daily Life in Castles and Farmsteads. Scandinavian Examples in their European Context is beautifully produced with an extensive bibliography, superb photographs, and well-produced graphics.

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Author Biography

Benjamin Hudson

Penn State University