19.06.22 Coleman, Household Inventories of Helmingham Hall

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Kate Kelsey Staples

The Medieval Review 19.06.22

Coleman, Moira, ed. Household Inventories of Helmingham Hall, 1597-1741. Suffok Records Society. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2018. pp. xxxvii, 342. ISBN: 978-1-78327-274-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Kate Staples
West Virginia University

Household inventories provide a fascinating glimpse into the lives of their compilers. These four inventories, transcribed and edited by Moira Coleman, were penned in 1597, 1626, 1708, and 1741, and detail the household possessions of the Tollemache family. These inventories span a period of time that witnessed the rise of the Tollemache family from gentry to noble status, and, with painstaking care, Coleman guides the reader through this transformation with attention to the political and social contexts and the built environment of the house and its lands, as well as other properties.

The inventories are held in the Helmingham Hall archives in Suffolk county, England, and the house itself, remarkably, has been owned continuously by one family since it was built around 1510 (159). The first inventory was undertaken by Lionel Tollemache, who served as sheriff and Justice of the Peace of Suffolk under Elizabeth I (xvi), and the other three inventories were initiated by his descendants. In total, the inventories in their original format comprise roughly 200 pages of itemized dishware, implements, clothing, and spaces. Some of the manuscripts were further annotated either by the compiler or by a second hand at a later date (xv-xvii). Coleman explains that unlike probate inventories which noted the value of the goods recorded, household inventories identified the location of goods within a home at a specific, crucial time, which is most often not elaborated upon (xix). Further, each inventory in this collection had unique qualities. For example, the 1626 inventory was heavily annotated with notes of specific goods that were moved to the family's new residence at Fakenham Magna, whereas the compiler of the 1708 inventory specifically provided dimensions to most of the goods he noted in the record (dimensions were not present in any other inventory here). Although the motives for compiling the documents were not explicitly stated and each inventory had distinctive features, the descriptions in these inventories were uniformly rich; the compiler remarked upon the shape, material, age, color, size, use, and provenance of the objects and spaces that he surveyed.

One of Coleman's primary goals with this volume is to expose the ways in which these inventories reflected the changing definition of the household from the sixteenth to eighteenth century (xx). Perhaps the most striking support of this claim can be seen in a comparison of the goods described in the 1597 inventory with that of those detailed in the 1708 inventory. While the 1597 inventory was replete--10 folios worth! (p. 28, note 54)--with doublets and cloaks that were cut, pinked, striped, and slashed in black and green satin, white fustian, russet velvet, and "Valentia blew cloth" (29-34) in the wardrobe, by the 1708 inventory, the compiler's focus was on the decoration of the chambers instead, which were bedecked with materials of say, silk, damask, serge, worsted, velvet, linen, leather, calico, damask, linsey woolsey, and various types of woods, and that were tufted, fringed, embroidered, and "jappaned," or lacquered (120-127). This shift from describing goods that adorned bodies to those that trimmed spaces certainly seems indicative of a shift in the understanding of what comprised a household. Perusing the inventories, one can also see the development of technological innovations, the expansion of trade networks and imperial enterprises, and the shift in the family's interests over the 150-year period with the notation of sundials, clocks, locks, and table forks (e.g. 48, 57, 71, 120, 130, 132; the 1626 inventory includes frequent references to locks), musical instruments (e.g. 4, 51, 129), and the proliferation of particular artwork such as Hogarth prints and European cityscapes (e.g. 136-137, 144). Across the inventories it is also possible to glimpse shifts in fashion and clear expressions of identity through such details as "olde fashioned" furniture (61), cushions decorated with pomegranates (29 and 80), and a "duble gilte boulle with a cover" from Elizabeth I (41), as well as the diversity in tableware with dishes marked for specific uses such as "glasses for jellies" and "tea dishes" (115) and writing desks (e.g. 64, 135). Coleman's assertion that goods in the inventories clearly expressed the personality and lifestyles of the possessors is well supported by the work of other scholars such as Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson who have recently argued for the connection between goods, their materiality, and the spaces in which they were used for understanding the identities of middling groups in the early modern period (A Day at Home in Early Modern England,2017).

Beyond the luxury items owned by the Tollemache family, instances of recycling, or the evidence of "household economy" as Coleman describes it (38, xxiv), can be seen in these household inventories. For example, in the 1626 inventory, the annotator included a note of reusing a "darkeā€¦French greene cloathe cloake" from one property to decorate furniture (78) in another. The inclusion of references to the reuse of materials, as well as the recording of used goods elsewhere in the inventories, points to a society in which secondhand goods were circulated and repurposed up and down the social ladder. Because these records were maintained by one family in one lived space, one can make fruitful comparisons across time and space like these as well as envision the changing use of that space as needs and desires dictated, imagine the influences acting upon this household's daily activities, and, perhaps most importantly, consider the importance of these records for understanding broader societal structures like the economy and its operation.

At the end of the volume, Coleman extends her analysis of the inventories with two appendices and a glossary that span 175 pages. In appendix A, she undertakes a perambulation with each of the four inventories in order to reflect upon the exact location, and, where possible, relative size, of each room in Helmingham Hall. In this expansive appendix, which includes diagrams to accompany each inventory superimposed upon a 1720 survey of the property, Coleman cross- references the inventories, explaining in greater detail how the use of the rooms and passageways changed over time, for example, with the new addition of a staircase (168), the creation of new rooms like the butler's pantry by 1741 (184), and the connection of formerly separate spaces (185). From this analysis, she argues that the Tollemache family successfully altered Helmingham Hall to meet their needs. Throughout most of this section, as elsewhere in the edition, Coleman is careful to make a note of that which might be conjecture, but at certain points her speculation eclipses her evidentiary base. For example, in discussing the jam-packed 1626 inventory (relative to the other three inventories) which includes more rooms than the 1597 inventory, she suggests the wealth of material goods and their spaces included indicates "a greater degree of leisure and pleasure than enjoyed by the family thirty years earlier" (167). This could be the case, but without corroborating evidence of the motives or decisions of the compilers, certainty is elusive. In appendix B, Coleman contextualizes the 1626 inventory with careful research about the house and property of Lugdons in Fakenham Magna, Suffolk, which the Tollemache family leased from 1622-1665, drawing upon records kept at the Helmingham archive and elsewhere. Through an exploration of indentures, surveys, and contracts, this information helps the reader understand the lifestyle of the 3rd baronet and 2nd Earl of Dysart and his family. At the end of the work, Coleman includes an extensive glossary to help guide her reader through the inventories. Not limited to definitions alone, this glossary comments on the disputed meanings and provenance of goods as well.

Illustrated with 28 plates, this volume has much to offer the student of social and economic history, material culture, domestic interiors, and architecture. Coleman's editorial methods are careful and consistent, and her footnotes comprehensive. Scholars committed to including the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in discussions of material culture, consumerism, and commercialization will welcome this volume.

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