09.10.11, Kowaleski and Goldberg, eds., Medieval Domesticity

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Arlene Sindelar

The Medieval Review 09.10.11

Kowaleski, Maryanne and P.J.P. Goldberg, eds.. Medieval Domesticity: Home, Housing and Household in Medieval England. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xiv, 317. ISBN: 978-0-521-89920-8.

Reviewed by:
Arlene Sindelar
University of British Columbia

The articles assembled in Medieval Domesticity: Home, Housing and Household in Medieval England by editors Maryanne Kowaleski and P.J.P. Goldberg invite us to explore the language, ideology, architecture, and geography of medieval English women and men to determine what home and household signified in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

This volume emerged out of the 2005 conference of the Center for Medieval Studies at Fordham University, co-sponsored by the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York, bringing together an impressive array of established and rising medieval scholars, many connected with York's Household Research Group. Its consequent interdisciplinarity illumines our understanding and challenges our assumptions of the complex cultural meaning of home and household in medieval England and contribute to a fuller understanding of what the editors have termed "medieval domesticity." They have hospitably arranged the chapters to guide us smoothly through the significance of the house building, its furnishings, and the activities and relationships of its inhabitants. The same-page footnotes, detailed index, and consolidated bibliography make the volume's scholarly contributions even more pleasantly accessible.

Goldberg and Kowaleski's essay gracefully makes the obligatory introductions, draws out the book's theme, and discusses the terms that bind the collection together: home, household and domesticity. Providing a broad overview of each chapter, the editors clearly make their case that the studies reveal a "culturally distinct understanding of bourgeois domesticity" that sets it apart from other medieval households in town and country, as well as distinguishing them from modern household models. These medieval bourgeois households were characterized not as much by patriarchy by the male head's authority over his dependents, as in the shared rituals of work, board, and bed of husbands and wives joined in Christian matrimony and moral responsibility.

Felicity Riddy establishes this thesis in "'Burgeis' domesticity in late-medieval England." Challenging the historiographical influences of both Philippe Aris' conclusion that the public and the private did not emerge until the seventeenth century and that of the nineteenth-century model of separate gender spheres, she argues that a distinctive model of domesticity emerged in England as a major component of medieval bourgeois identity in the fourteenth century. Focusing on the language of identity and intimacies of daily life, Riddy explores the terms used in contemporary literature and moral instruction, as well as in a variety of legal documents. She contends that the late-medieval bourgeoisie identified themselves as a specific group with common characteristics; that these characteristics included a physical house in which "working, provisioning, and living" were not separated from one another; and where orderliness, craftsmanship, and privacy were all valued and defended (26). It is during the fourteenth century that the limits and understanding of the public and the private were contested not only in London courts, but in London homes as well.

The editors next grouped together the essays that deal directly with the material aspects of house and home. "Buttery and Pantry and Their Antecedents: Idea and Architecture in the English Medieval House," by Mark Gardiner, digs out from the archaeological evidence, household inventories, and a broad array of other documents, the cultural influences on the development of the late-medieval domestic floor plan. Gardiner argues that the twelfth and thirteenth centuries witnessed considerable experimentation in the organization of domestic space that reflected significant social changes, setting the structural pattern of both house and society into the sixteenth century. The scheme of hierarchical order taught in the popular books of courtesy significantly influenced domestic architecture that attested to both the householder's status and the capable regulation of his domain. The separation of the buttery and the pantry and their position relevant to the central hall signify not only the cultural importance of the opposition of drink and food as wet and dry, but also variation in authority among servants and the careful delineation of public and the private space within the house and household.

Sarah Rees Jones' article, "Building Domesticity in the City: English Urban Housing before the Black Death," and Jane Grenville's "Urban and Rural Houses and Households in the Late Middle Ages: A Case Study from Yorkshire" further relate architectural transformation to social and cultural developments in their research into the origin of the distinctive timber-framed urban houses. Jones identifies the layout of urban house plots and the nature of housing for both the elite and the less affluent in medieval English towns. Enterprising, often ecclesiastical, urban freeholders had subdivided their plots and constructed smaller timber-framed houses along the street for rental; but the use of written charters extended to their subtenants the common-law protections these freeholders enjoyed for their own burgage tenure. Thus the inhabitants of these distinctive timber-framed urban houses grew into the artisan and petty merchant class of the fourteenth century. They still may have been tied by proximity and rent to their landlords, but their houses fronting the street represented their reduced dependency upon them. Despite this "new urban consciousness," Grenville contends that surviving ties to the countryside continued to translate to town the tradition of urban patriarchal households which retained the country home's communal architecture described by Gardiner in chapter 3. The familiar organization and structure provided opportunity to integrate dependents freshly arrived from the country into the urban setting. Both architectural traditions continued side by side revealing elements of the town's emerging social hierarchy.

"The Fashion of Bourgeois Domesticity in Later Medieval England: A Material Culture Perspective," by Jeremy Goldberg, focuses more on what the houses contained. By exploiting the surviving medieval household inventories, Goldberg distinguishes three distinctive models of household: peasant, bourgeois, and mercantile. He discriminates between them by comparing the amount of wealth invested in two broad categories of goods, those that are used inside (for daily living) or outside (for earning), and in two narrower categories, those items for particular use in eating or in sleeping. That the bourgeois and mercantile urban household models both reveal greater investment in bedroom items than in the peasant household reveals the greater voice these wives probably had in household expenditure. Goldberg argues that expenditure on items used in the hall for eating were probably as important to the husband as to his wife, but that outlay of resources on the more private bed chambers was more intimately connected to the wife.

Goldberg's conclusion is supported by some of the points made in Janet Loengard's article, "'Which may be said to be her own': Widows and Goods in Late-Medieval England." Her analysis of the household goods associated by urban courts and wills with the rights of the widow binds the wife closely to the bed chamber and its material furnishings. She clearly shows that although common lawyers might have allowed that a widow's right to her paraphernalia extended only to the clothes on her back, the practice of husbands and canon law testifies to a much greater degree of ownership that often extended to the linens and furnishings of the chamber.

Marilyn Oliva's contribution, "Nuns at Home: the Domesticity of Sacred Space," also deals with household furnishings, demonstrating how spiritual domesticity was expressed in the material objects of daily life in the monastery. The sacralization of domestic objects by stitching them with decoration of religious significance meant that nuns' daily activities led them seamlessly from household activities to spiritual devotion throughout the monastery. Although unique within this collection of essays by its subject falling outside the secular household, this chapter is linked to the others by its analysis of material objects and interpretation of the dual significance of space within the home.

The last four chapters leave the material and step into a less tangible space within households and their relationships, interpreting evidence left in medieval literature, art, and the games people played. Nicole Nolan Sidhu plunges into a gender analysis of Chaucer's "Clerk's Tale," very popular then but less appreciated today, and convincingly argues that its cultural significance lies not in what its assumptions about women, but in its appeal to medieval men. Taking into consideration contemporary ideals of masculinity, especially in a domestic context, and the differences between his telling of the tale and other versions, Sidhu contends that Chaucer reconstructed the story to appeal successfully to medieval bourgeois male sensibilities, who had few if any behavioural models among late medieval saints. Chaucer's narrator, whose comments invited his contemporary male audience to judge the abusive husband Walter, evoked their sympathy for the humble obedient wife Griselda, and roused their masculine responsibility to value and protect women in their household properly. Sidhu references and build's upon Shannon McSheffrey's conclusions that medieval bourgeois masculinity was defined as much by men's ability to control their own behaviour as the behaviour of their male and female dependents, and that this lay male Christian identity was reinforced by their public role and civic responsibilities.[1]

A religious masculine model that did appear in late medieval lay and clerical culture was that of the Old Testament figure of Abraham. "On the Sadness of Not Being a Bird: Late-Medieval Marriage Ideologies and the Figure of Abraham in William Langland's Piers Plowman" examines Langland's texts to explore what it reveals about attitudes toward marriage. By comparing the B-text of Piers Plowman to his revision in C-text, to both Chaucer and Thomas Hoccleve's poetry, Isabel Davis concludes that Langland's employment of Abraham reveals the late-medieval cultural anxiety about the moral inferiority of marriage to celibacy and his careful efforts to bridge secular and clerical world-views by negotiating a "dignified, if tragic, place for wedlock" in late medieval urban society (231).

Nicola McDonald's engaging chapter, "Fragments of (Have Your) Desire: Brome Women at Play" turns to documentary records that have seldom been employed as creatively to discover the significance of play within the household. By her analysis of the games deliberately included in the well-worn fifteenth-century Book of Brome, rather than its didactic contents previously studied, McDonald discerns the "ludic space" the home provided for women and its cultural significance in their lives (239). The cipher puzzles, dice game, and unique version of "Arise Early," a rhyming poem of basic advice for the married householder, all reveal the gentry home as a place where women's sexual desires and romantic expectations may be not only have been articulated, but legitimately performed.

The twelfth and final chapter of Medieval Domesticity is an essay by Mary C. Erler, "Home Visits: Mary, Elizabeth, Margery Kempe and the Feast of the Visitation." Although the Feast of the Visitation was not re-established by Pope Sixtus IV until 1475, there is considerable evidence for its relative liturgical familiarity in fourteenth-century England. Erler examines this devotional evidence in church art, illuminated manuscripts, meditations by Nicholas Love, and the book of Margery Kempe to further understand late medieval concepts about the meaning of home in the context of visiting. She argues that Margery re-enacted Mary's visit to her cousin Elizabeth in her frequent travels, and that she regarded this secular domestic practice of female visitation as a spiritual service in which the household becomes a space for instructive religious conversation. Like McDonald, Erler emphasises that the home provided a context and space for female agency in a role not usually perceived or approved for them. On the domestic stage provided by the home, women could legitimately serve not only by supporting each other physically and emotionally in their roles as wife and mother, but spiritually as well through Christian instruction, an activity akin to the preaching denied them elsewhere.

The varied contributions housed within Medieval Domesticity combine to form an excellent, multi-disciplinary study of the contents and meaning of the late medieval English household and home. Its composition emphasizes the importance of all available sources to further our understanding of medieval topics. The articles are all of a reasonable length; the sophisticated arguments are clear and generally articulate. Several have useful illustrations or tables organizing the contents of inventories that are helpful in comprehending the evidence. This is a book that should prove useful in research and in teaching--some of the articles, like Riddy's appear particularly appropriate for classroom assignment--and worth many return visits.



1. Shannon McSheffrey, Marriage, Sex, and Civic Culture in Late Medieval London (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006). Sidhu cites McSheffrey's articles in Jacqueline Murray, ed., Conflicting Masculinities: Men in the Middle Ages (New York: Garland Press, 1999), 243-78.

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Author Biography

Arlene Sindelar

University of British Columbia