Review of A Day at Home in Early Modern England: Material and Domestic Life, 1500-1700, by Catherine Richardson and Tara Hamling
Yale University Press, 2017
What of the ‘middling sort,’ the comfortably off burghers, in the early modern period? More particularly, what of that non-elite amalgam of approximate social equals who neither toiled in the fields for a pittance nor lived a life of unearned leisure on the backs of those who did, maintaining a modestly congenial lifestyle by, say, overseeing a small workforce or trading in various forms of merchandise? What were their lives like on a daily basis in sixteenth and seventeenth century England? This, broadly speaking, is the line of enquiry which Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson set out to pursue in the book under review.
Not that this is one of those populist exercises in the literary time travel genre in which the authors act as affably informative tour guides, leading the reader step by step through some entertainingly staged historical environment. In fact, Hamling and Richardson’s book makes few concessions to the casual reader. Instead, theirs is a rigorous examination of the “social significance of the household as a site for constructing and shaping early modern experience” and the part played by “material culture….in the construction of status and identity.” Having said that, as the title suggests, their findings are presented in an accessibly structured manner which does much to save the book from being a creakily erudite display of lofty theorising. Via a chronological succession of chapters, we follow the idea of the “household,” that “fundamental economic unit of early modern England,” from sunrise to sunset. Along the way, the authors cite as fundamental to their understanding of domestic life during this period the question of “how nuclear and broader family groups shared household space on a daily basis” in the context of “the Great Rebuilding” as identified by historian W. G. Hoskins: the period beginning around the mid-fifteenth century when the mediaeval house was subject to reconstructions and modifications which coincided with the advent of the early modern period. This is particularly relevant in terms of the family abode’s transition from a largely communal open space to one increasingly composed of more discreet and demarcated household areas. Throughout the book the authors draw on individual case studies as a means of illustrating how documented real-life individuals fared throughout the day, balancing this approach with an eye to the wider applicability of the evidence uncovered to general social trends.
To mark the daybreak of this virtual journey, the authors pitch straight into the curious and sometimes startling world of our seventeenth century ancestors’ bedroom antics. An early example is the case of Goodman Horden from Kent whose wife had been accused of infidelity with a man called Champe, a charge “she confessed Laughing thereat” before going on to explain that she and the Champe couple regularly spent the night together in the same bed. The adultery itself in this curious arrangement took place when the dutiful Mrs Champe got up in the morning to bake bread for the household. Elsewhere, Margaret Brewen of Henley-in-Arden deposed to having stayed at the house of her neighbours, the Chambers, in order to help them grind malt. There she observed the household servants naked in bed together, as the Brewens had apparently been obliged to share a room with their licentious employees. Apart from anything else, such tales of Decameron-like bawdiness suggest, as the authors point out, that during this period “household production cuts across the experience of sleeping and waking, demanding that tasks are started early, and shared rooms and beds are clearly the norm.”
Nevertheless, also during the time of the “Great Rebuilding,” there was a trend of partitioning off the upper portion of the mediaeval hall so that people could begin to sleep upstairs in differentiated spaces. The variations in layout and size of the buildings in which such changes started to take place highlight the amorphous nature of the term “the middling sort,” which could apply equally to small tradesmen and wealthy merchants alike. However, apart from those busily engaged in bed-hopping at sunrise, most members of the middling sort— well-off or otherwise—were united by the impulse to start the day with various forms of pious observance. There is a great deal of contemporary literature dealing with the kind of prayer and meditation expected of our Elizabethan and Jacobean ancestors, much of which is devoted to gratitude for having made it through the night. Given the abundance of imprecations such as “So soone as ye see the daie breake and light to apeere, praie and meditate being translated from darkness to light, from perishing into safeguard, from death to life, from hell to heaven” and “if thou hearest Cocke-crow…call to mind that Cocke-crowing sound of the last Trumpet,” it is hardly surprising that the diaphanous veil between the here-and-now and the last journey into the undiscovered country was an apparent obsession of the early modern mind. After waking and duly contemplating another morning in the land of the living, getting dressed and preparing for the day were also associated with devotional acts, often mnemonically supported by inscriptions on bedroom walls or furniture decorated with biblical imagery. Then, with the household up and dressed, it was time for family prayers, followed by breakfast, after which: “…let every one of thy Household…depart; the children to Schoole, the servants to their worke, every one to his office, the Master and Mistresse of the Family to their callings, or to some honest exercises for recreation as they thinke fit.”
For the Mistress, the day’s activities may have begun with shopping for food in the local marketplace or in the supervision of servants to bring home supplies. The bustle of activity and daily tribulations that impinged upon a typical town’s inhabitants are often captured in those flashpoint incidents between individuals which formed the subject of court cases. In 1586 one Agnes Bolster of Romford, a tailor’s wife, was stood talking “upon certaine matters” to Margery Oliver whilst they dried clothes together at the back of their respective houses when another neighbour, Elizabeth Stevens, shouted from her own property that Margery was a “whore, errant whore and bridewell bird.” Given the daily proximity in which neighbours such as these carried out tasks it is perhaps not surprising that gossip flourished and personalities clashed. The authors cite several further instances of legal actions over invading property boundaries on short cuts, depositing “saucy rhymes” about enemies in their backyards, as well as disputes arising from encounters at the parish mill and bakehouse which bring to mind the kind of comedic raillery found in The Merry Wives of Windsor.
However, leaving aside any conflict which might occur outside the home, by mid-morning many women and their servants would have been in the kitchen preparing food for the household. The provision of kitchens as a specialised area demarcated from the rest of the house long preceded the Great Rebuilding. By the Elizabethan period they had ceased to be situated in a separate building, having been brought inside with the introduction of more efficient chimneys. Even so the term “kitchen” did not always mean a place for cooking, as some of these spaces were used for brewing, baking and salting rather than exclusively for food preparation, with the actual cooking often taking place in the main hall area. Depending on the size of the household there might also be additional spaces such as a buttery, a store house and various service rooms. For an idea of how all this appeared in practice, the authors single out many of the fifteenth century (and older) houses to be found in Stratford-upon-Avon, including the Shakespeare Birthplace on Henley Street. As for the food that was dished up, meat seems to have been the staple constituent of most middle-class meals, although ensuring the right conditions in which to roast and boil it was an art in itself.
Once the food was ready, the most significant meal of the day was served at noon in a “ritualised display of patriarchy and hospitality” which took place in the main hall, “a central mechanism through which to inculcate and display manners, morality and faith.” Gradually, however, by the end of the 1700s meals might be taken in less prestigious spaces such as a parlour or dining chamber, with the main dining time shifting gradually towards the afternoon and then evening, a modification associated with the wider availability of artificial lighting. Tableware was itself a significant monetary investment, with different prized pieces passed down from generation to generation. Shakespeare bequeathed all his plate to his granddaughter, Elizabeth Hall, except for a “broad silver and gilt bole” which went to his daughter, Judith. In contrast to such indications of pride in the acquisition and retention of domestic status symbols, the son of John Carter, a Suffolk vicar who died in 1635, told of how his father “never used plate in his house, but vessels of wood and earth: pewter and brass were the highest metals for his utensils. All the days of his housekeeping he used … a little wooden salt which with age was grown to be a duskish black.”
During the era in which dinner was served at noon, the afternoon saw everyone return to their labours. For the middling sort, the workplace was usually a shop, often an extension of the family’s domestic space so that, for example, tailors or lantern makers could display their services and wares via a hinged table which extended from a main window into the street. The opportunity to increase trade profit by diversification seems to have been taken up with alacrity in several notable instances. One study from records held in Worcester shows how a stationer combined his shop with a skinner’s workshop, and a chandler offered sidelines in honey, soap, mustard and pottery. As for the transactions involved in trading in these and a vast range of other goods, the economic exchange was often recorded in a manner which gave an anecdotal flavour of the circumstances under which it took place —date, location, those present, purpose of sale or purchase— so that these proceedings “were not simply numeric transactions but social exchanges between individuals” so as to “fix locations and implant the events that take place there in the memory of spaces.” On the other side of the counter, the consumer in this era had a wider choice of merchants’ and tradesmen’s establishments to visit, even in smaller communities, than in previous centuries. With this came the gradual demarcation of shopping areas where customers were faced with an ever-increasing selection of commodities. A range of readymade domestic objects, which might hitherto have been crudely fashioned locally, were now available in greater quantities: everything from fire shovels, candle sticks and warming pans to carpets, featherbeds and looking glasses.
Then came the end of the working day, a time of lengthening shadows and crepuscular light which, for the middling sort, meant a period of leisure in which the home once more became a familial nest rather than a place of work. For those whose house-room could accommodate it, the rise of the parlour as a separate inner sanctum away from the main hall afforded a new kind of domestic seclusion. As Thomas Wilson wrote in 1620, the hall was a place to offer love “open unto all men,” whereas “we do allow our nearest acquaintance only to have access into our parlour.” Over time, the parlour became a space in which to display the owner’s wealth and status, with many inventories recording the expensive possessions with which they were filled, including, as might be expected, chairs, tables and musical instruments, but also costly feather beds, indicating that it was only towards the end of the seventeenth century that the parlour changed from being “a room for sleeping in, to one for sitting, eating and dining.” As for what the middle classes did with their time during their leisure hours, none other than King James I waded in with his Book of Sports, which listed the sports and recreations in which the “common people” were allowed to take part on Sundays and holy days as opposed to the activities which could be indulged in by their betters. “Archery, dancing, leaping and vaulting” were acceptable diversions, whereas bowling was prohibited “at all times in the meaner sort of people.” In between the elite and the non-bowling commoners, a middle-class gent such as Thomas Cocks could record in his diary his nightly exploits at the gaming table along with his consumption of the viands which saw him through his marathon gambling sessions: everything from cherries, strawberries, and damsons to fish, oysters, and cheese.
Mental nourishment was also on offer during this pre-bedtime period of the day, with prayers and reading both popular pastimes. The printed word in the form of lofty meditations or popular literature was much in evidence, although in some cases the book as a physical object was not held in quite the esteem that one might expect. Thomas Nashe, for one, offered advice on the possible further uses of the book as waste paper for kindling tobacco when no longer needed, while his rival Gabriel Harvey suggested using its pages for “basting paper on the outside of Geese and roasting Beefe.” Those not content to settle down with a good book might disrupt their neighbours’ quiet night with an assortment of misdemeanours. On 17 July 1563 one William Tesmonde was caught in flagrante delicto in a garden with the maid of a nearby house by a John Rochester, who reported to the Norwich quarter sessions his own outraged outburst: “god blud you vyle vylane are you devvowreng of a maid in her mayster his gardeine and yf I wer by the I would've thruste my daggarde in thee.” As well as a period for contemplation, the close of day was equally a time of licence once the daily tasks had been completed. And so to bed, with the average time of turning in specified by Hamling and Richardson as around nine or ten pm. As already noted, bedtime was a period of the day associated with devotional thoughts and practices, given that “going to sleep in the early modern world was dangerous…Death often came in the night, whether from disease, household accident, fire, violence or simply from cold.” Aside from acts of God, the middling sort with their worldly possessions in tow had to ensure that their properties were secure whilst they slept. As contemporary poet Tomas Tusser put it:
Such keys lay up safe, ere ye take ye to rest, Of dairy, of buttery, of cupboard and chest. Fear candle in hayloft, in barn, and in shed Fear flea-smock and mendbreech, for burning their bed. As door without lock, is a bait for a knave, A lock without key, is a fool that will have. Wash dishes, lay leavens, save fire and away, Lock doors and to bed, a good huswife will say.
All of this suggests that bourgeois homeowners would, if they heeded Tusser’s advice, have taken part in what must have been a lengthy nightly ritual to ensure that all was as it should be before taking their rest.
It is strange to think that the act of “going up to bed” was itself a relatively new departure for our seventeenth century ancestors, the staircase having become “a distinct space to be appreciated in its own right” which was, in effect, “a transitional space that separated yet bridged the concerns of the day and the night.” Once upstairs, utility items such as warming pans were “a potent symbol of love and loyalty associated with the bonds of marriage.” Then, while the average early modern comfortably-off family were enjoying their safely locked up and cosy surroundings, they could take some time to review a variety of inscriptions on their walls. A particularly cheerful example is quoted by Hamling and Richardson:
In lyfe there is no sure state For fleashe as flower doth fade away This carcas made of slyme and clay Muste taste of deathe thear ys no way While we have tyme then let us pray To god for grace bothe nighte and daye
Sweet dreams, everyone. And then up again in the morning bright and early for more prayers, infidelity, slander and shopping.--Mark Jones
Review of Pretty Gentlemen: Macaroni Men and the Eighteenth-Century Fashion World by Peter McNeil
Yale University Press, 2018
Sophia: I introduced myself as an Italian nobleman, just arrived: Il Marchese di Macaroni (The Male-Coquette, Act 1 Scene 1, David Garrick, 1757)
Macaroni: a sort of droll or fool hence the application of the word to a fop -- Dr Johnson.
By almost any standard, this is a remarkable book. It takes what at first sight appears a fairly specialised subject — eighteenth century fashion — narrows it to the period 1760-1790, and then reduces it even further to the male fashions of those contemporaneously termed ‘macaroni.’ The two quotes above are the earliest published uses of the word. From the slightly obscure starting point of the clothes worn by a few wealthy people, predominantly in London, the author constructs a brilliant study which encompasses all parts of late eighteenth century English life, and which explores and explains the representational meanings of male macaroni fashion within the period. Rather than a narrow academic exercise, the result is a composite picture of the influences and reasons which drove men to dress as they did, and, perhaps most interesting of all, how their fashion sense reflected not just their own perceived positions in society, but also the way that others positioned them when they presented themselves for public view.
The term ‘macaroni’ seems first to have been used to describe aristocratic young men who returned from their travels abroad in the mid-century and who then dressed in the best Italian and French fashions. Some adopted a mannered form of speech, and showed a preference for continental food over traditional English fare, especially Italian pasta, hence the term. Hostilities between France and England escalated in 1752 and lasted until the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763. During this time travel between the two countries was severely restricted, so that when the war ended there was a great enthusiasm not only for the re-establishment of the ‘Grand Tour’ for young aristocrats and the sons of the new wealthy middle class, but also for the fashions which had been unavailable for many years.
The story of the macaroni men is a microcosm of social, economic, and political drivers that are still relevant today. For generations young men have rebelled against the conventions of their elders; indeed, it has become almost a rite of passage. Within living memory there have been several groupings whose members have identified themselves through clothes, music, and (whenever economically possible) lifestyle. Since the early fifties this country has witnessed the rise and fall of several modish style movements, all of which aimed to break with the past, establish new and more relevant modes of dress and behaviour, and outrage non-members. Teddy Boys, Mods, Rockers, Skinheads, Hippies, Punks, New Romantics, Goths, and probably many more other groups than I could name all share an idealised identity, albeit in different ways. All of them can trace that identity back to the macaroni.
Peter McNeil outlines their origins carefully, and by doing so reveals a complex story which is about much more than simple changes in fashion. The macaroni men could be regarded by their contemporaries as figures of both admiration and ridicule. They could be easily recognised by their dress and their manners, but as McNeil demonstrates, their fashion sense derived from fundamental social changes that were occurring at the time. Some men (and women) were beginning to challenge the established mores of behaviour and dress. Departing from a code of Cromwellian austerity which encouraged modesty in all representations of dress and behaviour and still persisted well into the eighteenth century, a fashion sense emerged which began to exaggerate accepted norms. These exaggerations involved wigs, embroidered waistcoats and suits, swords and their attachments, shoes with coloured heels, buttons, buckles, and, finally, a rejection of overtly male behaviour in favour of a more ambivalent gender identity which was clearly provocative at the time. With its display of Continental fashion, French mannerisms and the dissolute habits of gambling and drinking, the macaroni lifestyle was itself a challenge to conventional society. Far from simply being what we would now call a fashion statement, ‘macaroni’ represented a new way of presenting oneself to the world, one which was deliberately provocative and which sought to confront accepted and established social norms of behaviour and dress.
The period which saw the macaroni flourish was also the one in which printed caricatures became popular, and it could be argued that the two were made for one another. An art form which depended upon portraying contemporary society in extreme ways would always find those who dressed or behaved on the edge of social norms a natural target. McNeil supplies countless examples of satirical prints which contain images of the macaroni, but they are surprisingly ambivalent in their attitudes to their subject. Visual satire is a complex expression of social, political, and moral values, easily understood by the contemporary audience at whom it was originally aimed, but which in later times can be analysed to understand more fully those values which might have changed or been lost altogether. McNeil provides many examples of ‘macaroni’ images which are clearly exaggerated but which are also based upon sights which the contemporary print buyer would have easily recognised. From these we can easily detect the extremes of fashionable dress which characterised the macaroni, but there is something else within these images which is rather surprising, a sense that, rather than the caricature being just a representation of disapproval or rebuke, there is an element of affection which adds to the humour. The macaroni might be portrayed as figures of ridicule, but the satire is tempered with good-natured intentions.
McNeil describes several named individual macaroni who were the subject of caricatures, and these were each notable not simply for their style of dress, but also for their fame in a particular field. The range of occupations is in itself indicative of the macaroni style. McNeil names James Fox, a leading politician; Sir Joseph Banks, a botanist with James Cook on the Endeavour; Richard Cosway, the finest miniature painter of the age; and, finally, Dr Dodd, the ‘Macaroni Parson,’ who was famously popular for his sermons delivered to the fashionable in London churches, but who ended his life hanging from Tyburn’s tree, convicted of fraud. The trial and conviction of Dodd was the cause celebre of the period, with many eminent men like Doctor Johnson and James Boswell appealing to the king for clemency. Their efforts failed, despite a public petition with twenty-three thousand signatures. Johnson ghostwrote Dodd’s Convict Address and, when challenged by Mr Seward, a mutual friend of Johnson and Boswell, who wondered why the Address was so much better written than anything else that Dodd had composed, Johnson famously riposted, “To know that one is to be hanged in a fortnight concentrates the mind wonderfully.”
This is a meticulously-researched and well-written account of a largely forgotten group of dandies who genuinely changed perceptions of clothes and fashionable behaviour in this country. Although only relevant for some thirty years, the macaroni laid down the principles followed by subsequent sartorial countercultures. The desire to be clothed in expensive or rare materials and the public display of clothes to make a statement about personal identity are recognisably contemporary obsessions. The Rolex watch, the £500 trainers, and the designer label can all trace their origins back to the macaroni, and this book is a fitting tribute to those who clothed themselves so flamboyantly in the latter part of the eighteenth century.--Paul Flux
Review of Revolution: A History of England, Volume IV, by Peter Ackroyd
Pan Books, 2016
Peter Ackroyd continues his epic multi-volume History of England in this latest instalment, covering the years from William of Orange and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 to the Hanoverian succession and Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815. In between, many of the now familiar pillars of the English state were established and developed.
As usual, in setting out these wide-ranging historical themes Ackroyd deploys a deft and engaging style, taking the reader into the world of court intrigues as well as providing insights into the way life was lived by those of slightly less exalted standing. He thereby offers a holistic view of years that were truly revolutionary for England: politically, of course, but also socially and culturally. As a chronicler of London and biographer of Dickens, Ackroyd has a particularly entertaining and detailed take on sociocultural changes, notably amongst the population of the capital. For example, the importance of the coffee houses in the development and promotion of political and literary thought and ideas is brought to life, with hard-to-ignore parallels to today’s concerns about social-media echo chambers: coffee houses were strictly segregated based on politics, so that Whig and Tory should never meet. This went along with the rise of literary figures such as Swift who analysed and presented contemporary concerns in polemical and satirical form —a means of political expression that has resonated down the years.
Ackroyd combines the flair of the novelist with the rigour of the academic historian to produce an eminently readable and revealing account of years that were seminal in establishing the political and societal structures that came to embody so much of the England that we know today. This period saw the birth and development of a sovereign Parliament and constitutional monarchy, the advent of party-like groupings in Parliament as an integral part of the political process, and the technological advances that facilitated the Industrial Revolution as well as the dawn of a global British Empire. The title of his book could not be more apt.--Steve Cox