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22.05.22 French, Household Goods and Good Households in Late Medieval London

22.05.22 French, Household Goods and Good Households in Late Medieval London

Katherine French has written an immensely evocative and rewarding study of the relationship between people and things in London between 1300 and 1540. In the most general sense, Household Goods and Good Households in Late Medieval London participates in a body of historical scholarship concerned with changing habits of consumption and standards of living. The approach was inspired by the global development schemes that emerged after World War II, as international organizations committed themselves to what, at the time, seemed to be the honorable goal of raising living standards worldwide. Historians contributed by embarking on the task of describing Europe’s own transformation from what was thought to be a world of scarcity to a world of plenty. Starting in the 1960s, with the work of figures such as the British scholar Joan Thirsk and her intellectual descendants, along with their counterparts on the Continent, historians of early modern Europe first began to describe a takeoff in habits of consumption. Over the decades, new angles on the general premise have been contributed by historians of gender, shopping, and other fields.

A besetting problem of all such claims of takeoff, of course, is that they attract sniper fire from historians who work on earlier periods and who resent the position of being relegated to an uninteresting prehistory. Historians of the later Middle Ages and Renaissance, in particular, were understandably tempted to backdate the takeoff by a few centuries. Even so, they couldn’t help being mindful that historians of the Commercial Revolution of the twelfth century were hovering reproachfully over their shoulders, and these in turn were ghosted by those working in the long shadow of Henri Pirenne, who had situated the takeoff even earlier. Ancient historians, bemused by the cascading series of post-Roman claims, have innocently asked “and you imagine that Rome was NOT a consumer society?”

Appropriately mindful of the perils of all talk of takeoff, French has framed this book as something other than a study of rising consumption per se. Starting in the second half of the fourteenth century, merchants and artisans in London had access to more and more stuff, including larger and better-furnished houses and better food. At the outset, French argues, the growing volume of material culture came about because the Black Death, like a neutron bomb, reduced the population dramatically but left the goods behind. More importantly, wages rose after the Black Death and therefore wage-earners had greater access to disposable wealth. In these conditions, as men and women accumulated more wealth, they began to relate to their goods in new ways. Among other things, they became increasingly inclined to see goods as repositories of monetary, emotional, and symbolic value, themes to which French returns systematically and persuasively across the chapters. The book’s emphasis lies primarily in describing the cognitive and somatic shifts that occurred in response to the changing material environment. As she puts it, Londoners had to learn to live with more stuff (218), and it’s the learning process that interests her.

In pursuit of this ambitious research agenda, French has analyzed an extensive body of sources, including a corpus of over 3,000 last wills and testaments from post-plague London, half of which listed movable goods, along with 123 post-plague household inventories arising from legal procedures related to succession and debt. An appendix helpfully lays out the underlying methodology. This dual-source approach is valuable. Although inventories arguably give us a better sense of the total volume of household possessions, wills identify possessions assigned as bequests and therefore give us access to items that were particularly favored for one reason or another. Analysis of the changing nature and direction of bequests in the two centuries after the Black Death provides us with tangible insights into the changing relationship between persons and things. French’s selection prioritizes records left by merchants and artisans who, although a minority of the population, can be described as the city’s economic drivers. A small but important subset consists of records left by women, mostly but not exclusively widows. As French points out, men typically used wills to preserve their estates for the benefit of surviving wives and families, and therefore had less of a need to enumerate specific things. Widows, in contrast, often presided over the final dissolution of a household and its contents, and for this reason their wills provide more details about individual goods (9).

In chapter 1, French surveys the profile of material culture in London before the Black Death, setting up a baseline comparison against which to measure the changes to come. In the first half of the fourteenth century, London was densely settled but its households were sparsely furnished. Chapter 2, “Valuing Household Goods,” the first of the post-plague chapters, begins by describing some of the key features of how people began to relate to things in new ways after 1348. References to individual possessions in wills and inventories increased in number and specificity, and people became more aware of the manner in which goods, especially but not exclusively plate, could serve as stores of value. In addition, more sentiment crept into the relationship, as people valued the memories and rituals associated with things such as mazers, coconut-shell goblets, and beds. The ensuing chapters continue to proceed thematically rather than chronologically. Chapter 3, based primarily on inventories, turns to interior decoration and changes in space afforded by the post-plague house. The chapter introduces the moral theme of the “good household,” since disposable wealth, which manifested itself in the form of furnishings and wall-hangings, led to accusations that merchants and artisans were adopting aristocratic prerogatives and thus upending the natural order of things. Although merchants and artisans did borrow aspects of aristocratic material culture, French argues, they consciously adapted those elements to a new semiotic system that was very much their own. A fascinating section in this vein (80-83) describes how wall hangings, many of which conveyed religious themes, gradually supplanted weapons as decorations of choice in the hall.

Chapter 4 turns to housekeeping, emphasizing how the growing volume of material culture needed to be maintained and ordered. French emphasizes how the maintenance of the house came to be tightly associated with women. A particular vivid graph (115) demonstrates how household goods in bequests became gendered to a significant degree after the mid-fifteenth century. A similar theme of gender predominates in chapter 5, devoted to foodways, as women were increasingly linked to cooking, at least in non-aristocratic households. A careful survey of changes in cooking equipment indicates how these Londoners came to enjoy a better diet, although at the cost of creating more circumscribed gender roles. Spits, used for roasting meat or poultry, stand out among the other trends; the percentage of inventories that included spits more than doubled between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries (136). Chapter 6, about care, begins with a survey of the devices used to provide care to members of the household, featuring protective objects such as paternosters, images of the Lamb of God, and cramp rings that protected wearers from cramps and epilepsy. The chapter then turns to devices that protected women during childbirth, including precious stones and birthing girdles, which in turns connects to the more general theme of childhood, yet another domain where wills and inventories provide evidence for a growth of material culture. In the seventh and final chapter, French charts the growth of a material culture associated with domestic devotion. The rising percentage of inventories with religious items, from about 5 percent in 1300-1350 to nearly 70 percent in 1540, persuasively illustrates the themes of the chapter (195). Many of these items were imported from the Continent, illustrating how new trade patterns arose in response to changing demand.

Threaded through all the chapters are a suite of themes related to women, gender, morality, devotional practices, and social hierarchy, all of which merge and amplify one another at points where French moves from discussion of the material to discussion of its implications. These themes play a vital role in forwarding the arguments of the book as a whole, pushing them beyond the simple argument that Londoners were enjoying more things, larger houses, and better foodstuffs. To take an example, as the growing volume of material culture interacted with trends in piety, proper housekeeping was increasingly rendered as a kind of devotional practice. Similarly, the tendency to gender household things did not appear right away; instead, the triggering event was a mid-fifteenth-century economic recession, which brought about shifts in the labor market and reduced women’s economic autonomy. In all cases, French introduces a welcome degree of complexity into the trends that she describes.

As an outsider to later medieval English history, I wanted a better understanding of the economic factors by means of which a devastating loss of population, followed by two centuries of demographic stagnation, could have placed more disposable cash in the pockets of merchants and artisans. “With their newfound wealth, workers spent a smaller percentage of their income on food and were able to spend more on clothing, bigger houses, household furnishings, and entertainment” (3). I can appreciate that merchants and artisans profited from the situation by virtue of their position in the supply chains that fed the desires of those with more disposable income, but I would like to know more about the details. Among other things, weren’t the balance sheets of merchants and artisans affected by the pressure to pay higher wages? This, in turn, raises questions coming from a comparative perspective. The Black Death resulted in labor shortages and wage pressures all across Europe, but this common experience did not lead in some uncomplicated way to greater purchasing power among wage-earners and therefore greater wealth for merchants and artisans. As the comparison suggests, the Black Death alone is an insufficient explanation for the trends in consumption revealed by French’s sources; other factors, including London’s position in international markets, also need to be taken into consideration.

One of the many strengths of Household Goods and Good Households in Late Medieval London lies in the manner in which French has brought together the textual evidence with the archaeological and museological record. The work as a whole provides a marvelous introduction to material culture in London before and after the Black Death, and a new framework for writing a history of the complex interactions between people and their material environment.