I went to a conference, and all I got was this lousy blog post.
That’s right, this is one of those blog posts thought up whilst staring pensively out of a train window on a journey home from three days at a wonderfully stimulating and sociable conference – in this instance, on ‘Gender, Power and Materiality in Early Modern Europe’, at the University of Plymouth. Back in April. Of 2016. Still, better late than never.
I signed up for said conference, despite my lack of familiarity with the field of early modern material culture studies, to try out a paper on the spatial division of labour in rural England, 1500-1700, based on material coming out of the Women’s Work Project. The paper went well enough, and over the course of the conference as a whole I learnt a huge amount about the material culture of the period, and about the sophisticated methodologies used by the reflective practitioners of material cultural history. It whet my appetite for the study of material culture. But it also left me hungry for more of a particular type of material culture history – one focused on the common people of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In what will come as no surprise to readers of this blog, I wanted more material culture ‘from below’.
The conference offered a rich diet of papers focused on the gentry and aristocracy of early modern Europe, but was light on the material things that populated the worlds of their social inferiors. Not for the first time as a social historian I found myself experiencing ‘modernist envy’, as my mind turned to examples of research into the material culture of the working class in the industrial age – Ruth Mather on working class homes in the period 1780-1830; Julie-Marie Strange’s focus on ‘father’s chair’ as a way into the domestic relationships of the Victorian working class; Carolyn Steedman’s wonderful essay on the meanings of a rag rug. And how about the insights into working class material culture to be gleaned from Lark Rise to Candleford?
Can we say there is an equivalent body of scholarship for the sixteenth and seventeenth (and eighteenth?) centuries? Certainly there is some fantastic scholarship that extends its purview to the material culture of non-elites, often through a focus on aspects of the everyday: Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson flagged up this agenda in a 2010 collection of essays on everyday objects, and their forthcoming book on the material culture of domestic life will advance it further. There is also Sara Pennell’s work on the kitchen; Sasha Handley on the material culture of sleep; and the Intoxicants project – and especially Angela McShane’s – research into the material culture of intoxicants. All direct our focus beyond the goods and chattels of the great and the good. As is so often the case with early modern social history, what comes into view when we do this is very often the solidly middling sort. The early modern equivalent of the working class – a group which modern scholars seem better able to reach – often remains just beyond ours.
I hope that readers will bombard the comments section with references to work on the material culture of smallholders, labourers and the like that I am overlooking here (I’ll offer Craig Muldrew’s recent work on labourers to get the list started…) and that I am just missing this vibrant field rather than it being missing. Or perhaps we might conclude that the finger can be pointed at the usual suspect: the historical record, with its well-known tendency to privilege the powerful. The ‘stuff’ of the poor and the labouring classes is less likely to survive down the centuries than the expensive possessions of the elite. You cannot study it if it doesn’t survive, right?
I don’t know much about archaeology, but Sara Pennell, who does, assured me that there are a lot more material survivals from the households of the common people of early modern England than we might think. But even so, those interested in history from below have always had to find ways to make shift with what historical records we can, and it seems to me that after reading about 15,000 witness depositions from sixteenth and seventeenth century criminal and church courts there is at least a rich written record of what we might call popular material culture. Obviously this has limitations as far as some material culture methodologies go – you cannot physically interrogate the material properties of things that are not in front of you – but there is still considerable potential to recover and explore the material worlds described by these records.
Homes, clothes and possessions are routinely detailed in the course of witness statements that recount pieces of stolen mutton hidden up chimneys, what a suspected thief was wearing, or what a cherished, stolen vessel was made of and how it was marked. Take the deposition of Margaret Pyke of Marlborough, Wiltshire, who in the 1564 was ‘standing in a little court to the house of Thomas Gascoigne’ and did ‘look through a Flemish wall, being partly broken, into the kitchen… where and when she this deponent did plainly see Robert Hall committing adultery with the said Agnes Gascoigne’. Courts, kitchens, broken walls – possibly an early example of one built in brick in the Flemish bond style? – all begin to add depth to our imaginings of the material world in which our ancestors lived, and myriad other examples could be marshalled to develop a clearer picture of everyday built environments.
And take the ‘hollande hancherchefe edged with red silk’ that Roger Townsend gave to Margaret Wiltshire in that same year, with the intent that ‘she should put the mark out of the same and for no other purpose’ (i.e. this was not intended as a matrimonial token). How did Margaret feel about simply being asked to mend a handkerchief that she might, at first sight of it, have thought was about to proffered as a marriage proposal? How had Roger come across this fine hanky, and why did it mean so much to him that he wanted a mark upon it to be removed? These records cannot answer these questions, but there are certainly stories about material culture for us to tell here.
One such is about the practice of marking goods with initials and names. In 1678 George Taylor of Bradford on Tone, Somerset, reported to the magistrates that he had had a pewter flagon stolen from him, which was ‘marked with the letters C M’ which had been ‘lent to him by one Christopher Mountstevens’. In 1699 Benjamin Itum of Somerton, a husbandman, went to Wells and ‘brought with him the head of a cane in silver, and there was written around the said head or handle these words: Gyles Vinicott, Bridgwater 98’. He asked one George Wellow to melt out the name for him, but Wellow grew suspicious that he was not the owner of the cane head and reported him to the magistrates. Was the growing tendency in the seventeenth century to initial goods – and to inscribe dates on them, something Sophie Cope is working on – a crime prevention measure, or did it reflect a changing relationship between people and their things? A more meaningful one? I’m not able to provide an answer to this question, but depositional material may be able to. More than that, I think it offers enormous potential for the study of early modern material culture ‘from below’.
 Carolyn Steedman, ‘What a rag rug means’, in her Dust (MUP, 2001).