Material Culture ‘from Below’

Mark Hailwood

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.


Gloves: they fit the conference theme

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.[1] And how about the insights into working class material culture to be gleaned from Lark Rise to Candleford?

Day at HomeCan 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.


Depositions can evoke the early modern built environment

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’.

[1] Carolyn Steedman, ‘What a rag rug means’, in her Dust (MUP, 2001).


29 thoughts on “Material Culture ‘from Below’

    • I don’t know much about pauper inventories, but Craig Muldrew uses a sample of almost 1,000 labourers inventories from the period 1550-1800, so there is greater potential in inventories here than historians perhaps used to think. Craig’s point is that although labourers etc are underrepresented in inventories, they are there, and if you take a big enough sample then you can get at popular material culture that way.

      • Yes, I think Craig’s inventories are probably biased towards the wealthiest labourers, but that still offers a good sample of ‘working housesholds’. Pauper inventories, on the other hand, were taken by parishes to liquidate the pauper’s assets before they were granted pensions, so are biased towards the very poorest.

      • It would be quite possible to aggregate probate inventories of the poorest, I think, including those with less than the bona notabilia (£5) required under the 1529 legislation. (The goods of felons were forfeit and inventoried, but less accessible). The question which I guess arises with the indigent is: what possessions did they have with which they formed an affective relationship or which had a symbolic value for them, which seems to be the focus of many of the studies of material culture?

  1. There are a few further methodological insights in the recent textile history special issue on early modern domestic interiors (47:1), particularly Maria Hayward, talking about how we can ‘see’ interiors through other sources more or less problematically. Her focus isn’t as low down the scale of affluence as we might wish. I’m also just getting into Angela Nicholl’s almshouses book and she works with the material culture of the buildings that do survive at some points in there. Marsh’s PnP does ballad woodcuts and while that article isn’t directly about material ballads, it has a great section on the physicality of woodcuts and their production. Indeed once more ballad studies stuff seems ahead of the curve here, despite how ephemeral hard copies are.

    I’m personally content with materials from below at a second remove, mediated via another source. The (assumed) walking staves, ‘begging bowls’ or travelling clothes/shoes/etc of vagrants never survive unless they are found as unintended archaeological remnants of another project (still waiting on that), but attention to any material references in legal sources proves very rewarding nevertheless.

    • Thanks for the references Dave, and yes I’m with you on the ‘second remove’ point – we have to take what we can. That said, from what some of the comments by others below suggest there are likely more actual material remains than we might think, which we could bring together with our textual sources.

  2. Thanks for the mention! It may be worth looking for probate inventories too – though they do tend to be dominated by the better off, I did find some manual occupations (the loose definition I was using for working class) and it helped to get some idea of the kind of material world in which people lived. I also found a surprising amount of incidental detail in court records, ballads, images and so on, but as you note, survival is often better for the later period (and the Old Bailey Online is, as ever, a godsend). I discussed the methodological difficulties quite a lot in my thesis, happy to send that over if you’re interested in thinking about this further.

    Also, I’m working at Exeter (albeit remotely now) – it would be great to catch up with you and Laura sometime when I’m down there!

    • Thanks Ruth – see my response to Brodie above on inventories, and I would indeed be interested in seeing the methodological discussion in your thesis. And yes, let’s meet up in Exeter – email me!

  3. I definitely agree with the comment that historians need to work with archaeologists more on this – they have the most relevant ‘stuff’. The obvious starting point are households deposits, which survive from the 17th century. Museum of London Archaeology have several hundred of these. Social historians should start using them.

    Early American studies would be another source worth looking at – it has combined history, archaeology and museum collections for several decades.

    Finally, I would mention John Styles’ Dress of the People and Joseph Harley’s work on pauper inventories.

  4. 1 Phenomenology – wider experience than just the household and personal possessions but still in a material sense.
    2 Difference between material culture and cultural materialism (Williams) – ironically, perhaps.
    3 Some material culture studies almost seem to suggest that the things interpellate the person.

  5. Historians have been using church court depositions and probate inventories for some time to understand the material culture of early modern ‘ordinary’ people. In addition to what is listed by other comments above, there is great work by Diana O’Hara and Loreen Giese, for example, on the material culture of courtship; and then there’s Amanda Flather on the spatial use of early modern homes. Angela and I did a lot of work on beds (though still only in paper and blog form as we never quite get to submitting to a journal….).

    • Yes, all good stuff, particularly about the use of tekens. The earlier vernacular architecture people were also interested in single-cell and double-cell housing – going back to Brunskill and Cordingley and Peter Eden and so on, although it wasn’t placed within a context of ‘material culture’. You refer rightly to the affective relationship between people and things and still one of the best ways forward on this matter is legacies through the will – and wills by poor people did exist (wills and inventories were even made by people with less than bona notabilia).

  6. For material culture in Scotland, wills are an uneven source often without inventories, so a work like ‘Production and Consumption in English Households 1600-1750’ would not really be possible. However, Cathryn Spence ‘Women, Credit, and Debt in Early Modern Scotland’ (2016) uses wills and court sources (some not previously studied). This doesn’t focus primarily on material culture but does have much on retail and brewing.
    There are Scottish wills with inventories of the possessions of artisans/craftsmen and servants male and female, but positioning individuals as working class by trade can be difficult, some craftsmen especially glaziers proving to be wealthy, engaged in merchant activity, and married into merchant and goldsmith groups.
    The stocks of Scottish merchants listed in wills include items at ranges of prices, often imported from Flanders and London, and some of this must have been bought less wealthy groups, including Flemish enamelled iron belts and girdles for women, or cheaper hats.

    • Thanks for filling us in on the Scottish case Michael. I think the point about positioning individuals as working class by trade is problematic in England too – often the craftsmen with inventories are relatively wealthy, and as Brodie suggests above the same may even be true of labourers.

  7. This is a really interesting post to read, as an archaeologist who deals with early modern (in our parlance post-medieval) assemblages. It seems as if material culture historians have a fantastic, acute theoretical perspective but limited access to data. Archaeologists have the reverse – we have so much of this stuff it’s hard to know what to do with it, and the sheer scale of the task means informed theoretical considerations of early modern households aren’t often a priority (with notable exceptions). Every county museum will have hundreds of boxes of well-stratified, well-dated household material. The problem at the moment is that many are trying to get rid of it as it’s seen as being of relatively little value – it’s not the stuff that’s well-used by researchers.
    To take my own region, there’s an extraordinary assemblage of some 55,000 pieces of pottery from well-recorded domestic contexts of this period from Worcester’s Deansway excavations, which couldn’t be analysed for the publication because of constraints on time and budget. Thankfully, in that case, Bob Ruffle’s PhD thesis did a wonderful job in looking at pottery and probate inventories and marrying historical and archaeological approaches to ‘walk through’ three households between 1650 and 1750 (it can be found here: ). Other good archaeological approaches can be found in the recent ‘West Country Households’ volume:
    The great thing about archaeology is it is (quite literally) from below. A pauper’s plate survives as well as a palace platter. But it’s fair to say we often struggle to argue the case for this material to receive the reflective consideration that material culture historians bring to the table.
    I would love to see more collaborative approaches for this, if only so that something beneficial comes from the thousands of items we carefully recover, clean, record and archive every year!

    • Thanks for this Rob – this is precisely the sort of comment I was hoping to get! I am aware of the West Country Households volume (on my shelf but as yet unread) but thanks also for the other reference, and for confirming that there is no lack of material remains of the possessions of lower social groups. It seems like there is considerable scope for greater collaboration here – perhaps a conference on early modern/post-medieval ‘Material Culture from Below’ aimed at both historians and archaeologists would be a way forward…

      • I’m sure it would be very useful, yes. The Society for Post-medieval Archaeology ( is the hub for archaeologists discussing early modern material culture – they have done joint conferences and events in the past and I’m sure would be keen to collaborate! Their journal is always well worth a read, too.

    • Thanks for alerting us to this (the link works fine from the UK) – as several comments have made clear there is plenty of relevant material held in museums and being turned up by archaeologists, which could fruitfully be brought together with the written sources that historians are making good use of.

  8. I might as well take this opportunity to flag up the free downloads of my two recent books from my page:

    MicrocyniconL Aspects of Early Modern England (1540-1640) which deals with this material culture stuff (including clothing) from the perspective of inequality and derogation; and
    A Town in its Parish: Loughborough, Origins to c.1640 which includes stuff on material culture and work.

    These works are experimental open-source publishing as a personal revolt against the price of academic books (because I don’t need to publish for a career).

  9. Pingback: ‘Clothes to go handsome in’: what did the seventeenth-century rural poor think about the clothes that they wore? | the many-headed monster

  10. Great post Mark. I think as others have commented it is not that there is a lack of material evidence for history from below, it is that this evidence is broken, piecemeal, dislocated and anonymous; as you say most ‘located’ material reflects middling society upwards. I struggle, for example, with specific examples of cheap print being displayed in homes. Agreed about the potential of depositions to suggest the nature of domestic structures (often surprisingly unstructured, as with your example above) as well as the kind of goods prized by working people, such as the ‘brasse panne’ which became the subject of an ownership dispute in court proceedings discussed in our forthcoming book. Many thanks for the mention and featuring the front cover of this, by the way – out 3 October! 🙂

    On collaborative work between historians and archaeologists, you might want to have a look a the excellent co-authored piece by Angela McShane and Nigel Jeffries in our latest edited book, The Routledge Handbook to Material Culture in Early Modern Europe (2016).

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