A Day at Home in Early Modern England Author Q&A – by Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson

Early Modern EnglandA Day at Home in Early Modern England is co-authored by art historian Tara Hamling and literary scholar and cultural historian Catherine Richardson. The book examines in detail behaviours and material interactions across a ‘virtual’ day in the middling house over the period c.1500-c.1700, from early morning to the middle of the night. In so doing it captures the mood of temporal, seasonal and spiritual changes – engaging with contemporaries’ sense of a day as a figure of life’s course.  Chapters detail the relationship between personal, communal and social experience in and around the domestic household and explore the wide range of material things that allowed people to live (providing shelter and necessaries) but also gave meaning to their lives in a period of transformative religious and social change. The domestic decoration, furnishings, semi-durables and consumables that people commissioned, bought, made and sold were not only economic necessities but tools in the negotiation of identity and status relative to others. 

Here the authors reflect on the nature and value of their collaboration and why the multi-layered, multi-disciplinary approach this book exemplifies is necessary to do justice to the rich complexity of domestic life.

TARA: ‘I remember that we first discussed this book idea, sat in a coffee shop in Stratford upon Avon. We were finishing up our co-edited book on Everyday Objects, and my first monograph was finally in press. You asked about next projects and wondered what I thought about working on a book on the domestic household together. What prompted you to propose a co-authored book?’

CATHERINE: ‘I’d already written quite a bit about the household, but the more I worked on it the more I realised that studying domestic life was more than a textual issue – I felt very comfortable working on the documentary evidence for what was in these houses and people’s attitudes towards their goods; I was also happy to talk about the various types of narrative, poetic and theatrical representations of what early modern men and women did at home. But I was beginning to see how all these issues were shaped by the form and decoration of the house, so I wanted to know more – what did it look like and feel like to be inside in early modern England, for instance? – and I also knew I didn’t have those skills – I wouldn’t even have known where to start with that kind of material evidence, but I knew someone who did!’

CATHERINE: ‘So why did you say yes?’

TARA: ‘That was a liminal time for me – my first monograph was still in press so that project felt unresolved. I knew I wanted to continue working on the household, but move beyond country houses/rural models and extend my interest in religious identity to put more emphasis on social status and lived religion. BUT I had no idea how to begin what seemed like an epic task – to get to grips with the scale and range of inventory evidence for wider patterns of housing. As an art historian I’m most comfortable with qualitative approaches and the challenge in moving towards the quantitative terrified me. Your suggestion to collaborate just seemed obvious, natural, essential.’

TARA: ‘Early on in the conceptual stages of the book we talked about structure and debated the idea of a virtual tour – and then when we hit on the idea of a virtual day, everything fell into place. It is hard now to see how we could have organised the material in any other way. But were there times when you felt that the pattern of a day was too restrictive for what we were trying to do?’

CATHERINE: ‘No, I think understanding that structure has given me the greatest insight into lived experience in the past – it was restrictive, that’s just the point. And restriction can be either, or perhaps both, comforting and constraining. That doesn’t mean that people stuck to the structure of course, but that a perception of structure, for some groups in particular, shaped their responses to both following it and not following it. The modern analogy that keeps coming to my mind is speed cameras – you know the speed limit, you know where they are, you negotiate your life around those points, coloured by your attitude towards risk and how desperately late you are. Not sure it’s the best comparison, it might just work for me, but it gives me that sense of tension between ideal and actual behaviours!’

TARA: ‘I know my first attempts in analysing and interpreting court depositions were rather naive, and looking back I recognise your patience while I got up to speed with source material you knew inside out. Did you have a similar learning adventure with architectural fixtures and interior decoration?’

CATHERINE: ‘Absolutely! I have found it really hard to move between images of these spaces and that sense of experience that we’ve managed to get from being in them. I’ve also struggled with how the buildings have been altered over time, especially at the social level we’re looking at – these are real spaces which have by and large been constantly inhabited since, and that means they’ve changed with people’s changing domestic needs. Getting to grips with those changes has made me understand how different the functions of the household were in the early modern period though. I still don’t think I’ll ever make an architectural or art historian, but I have become so much more aware of how this type of evidence impacts on the written records with which I more naturally work, and how false a picture of any space or set of social practices we get if we only look at texts.’

TARA: ‘I often think of that evening where we stayed overnight at Bayleaf Farmhouse, presented in its c.1540s form at the Weald & Downland Museum, and the very different sensory engagement and insight into our subject that provided. Do you remember any particular moments over the past several years where the project came into sharper focus or, indeed, expanded?’

CATHERINE: ‘That was such an exciting time, when we really started to get to grips with lived experience in the most visceral way – seeing how long domestic processes took, and exploring how they altered in different lights, as well as trying to get a wink of sleep with the geese honking outside! I suppose the other moment that springs to mind was our eye-tracking experiment at Owlpen Manor, Gloucestershire. There again we were exploring these spaces in real time, trying to understand something about the nature of perception – we used special equipment to see how people looked at narrative wall hangings – how their eyes moved around the walls to try to understand the story as it was spatialised within a room.’

CATHERINE: ‘What do you think have been the challenges of incorporating that type of evidence into a scholarly argument?’

TARA: ‘So, I get why historical scholarship has tended to baulk at anything deemed subjective experience. There is a huge methodological challenge in subjecting empirical research in the present day to critical analysis that could be incorporated within written historical narratives. Art-historical method, however, allows for the mediating role of viewer/critic in communicating response (intellectual, emotional, physical) to visual and material encounters. Treated cautiously and with critical awareness of anachronism, the sensations prompted by experiential material interactions in the here and now can offer a different perspective on questions of utility and display, providing information about timescales required in interacting with things, for example, or the external requirements required to make that interaction effective (such as proximity, space, quality of light).’

TARA: ‘If you had to pick one source/case study from the book as your favourite, what would it be and why?’

CATHERINE: ‘I’ve especially enjoyed working with the account books – they’ve given me the opportunity to work in intimate detail with the transactions that seemed important to their writers. Reading and re-reading these sources, analysing them quantitatively and qualitatively, has meant getting to grips with how household provisioning was broken down. It’s raised questions such as how often people bought goods for the household, how far they travelled, who bought those things, how long it took to get them (did they order from a craftsman or buy off the shelf?), how far might you walk of a day to do this type of shopping, and how long might you spend planning, executing and recording these choices – how much headspace did thinking about the household take up in this period? These might sound like rather prosaic, perhaps even nerdy things to get to grips with, but partly I’m nosy – I want to be able to follow early modern shoppers around the town – and partly I want to know what living was like. Nowadays we might shop online because we think it’s quicker, and we’re obsessed with both quality and price in often competing ways. So I think how we structure our lives temporally, and how domestic possessions and decorations fit into those choices, has a lot to say to our contemporary society too, and its notions of time-efficiency and investment in houses.’

CATHERINE: ‘What would be your favourite?’

TARA: ‘I have to agree that the account books are fascinating in the quality of detail; the one kept by Thomas Cocks is a particular favourite given his ‘interesting’ marital situation (no spoilers, but suffice to say his circumstances challenge some of our preconceptions about ideals of household). I guess I should choose a material source, and there have been many exciting discoveries, but for me the most thrilling methodological adventure has been bringing court depositions into dialogue with the evidence of standing buildings. The attention to whereabouts in these witness statements provides a tangible sense of how people perceived both their locatedness in a highly specific environment as well as the connections between various spaces within and without the house, reflecting an intrinsic understanding of the individual’s embeddedness within the community.’

CATHERINE: ‘What would you say to people who argue that only public, political discourse is a fitting subject for history-writing?’

TARA: ‘I think it depends what you want to know. As a social and cultural historian I simply don’t care about the exact date and title of particular acts or treaties. What I want to know is how the processes triggered by these events at state level played out – if and how relatively ordinary people absorbed and negotiated public discourse within their daily lives. Taking a ‘history from below’ approach necessarily requires looking up and out from domestic matters because, as early modern commentators pointed out, the household was the central unit of society and systems of government. This was not only where governance started, but where it was assimilated and re-produced.’

TARA: ‘What advice would you give to other authors contemplating a co-written monograph?’

CATHERINE: ‘Do it straight away, it’s the most exciting intellectual experience you’ll ever have! Pick someone with different and complimentary skills, who is open to debate and who you get on with, obviously, and be prepared to fight over the detail – spend as much time as you possibly can discussing the places where the findings of different kinds of evidence seem to contradict one another, and keep checking your different evidences against one another. It’s in getting these details of place, space, timing and attitude straight that we’ve made the most significant of our findings I think.’

TARA: ‘Ah yes, I remember the vexed issue of parlours! It was frustrating and fun in equal parts trying to reconcile our conflicting sense of things from different kinds of evidence. I agree that one of the most significant findings of the book is methodological; where the layering of sources and approaches came together to capture the mood associated with a particular space at a particular time of day. But some of our conflicted evidence also represents our findings about the fluid nature of the middling sort; because as this social group expanded and diversified, the evidence for their status and identity becomes more variable and we can see them experimenting with ways of expressing it. That’s the point about middling status in this period – it is malleable and insecure – so that material culture serves to make tangible, grasp and assert a sense of identity, at least for a time. I think we’ve shown how central the material household was in all these forms to their identity – their patriarchal and administrative authority.’

Tara Hamling is senior lecturer in history at the University of Birmingham.
Catherine Richardson is professor of early modern studies at the University of Kent.

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