To visit another person’s house is always to be reminded of two contradictory truths. On the one hand, domestic arrangements vary endlessly, between families and across cultures. Your kitchen is a gleaming high-tech palace of equipment; mine, a bare nook with a microwave. In Japan, people like to bed down close to the floor; in America, they prefer to climb atop mountainously tall mattresses. Growing up in Holland, land of the brisk shower, I found that most of my peers regarded the idea of a leisurely bath with suspicion and distaste: Why would anyone want to wallow in their own dirty water? In England, meanwhile, home of the carpeted bathroom, mixer taps and bidets are, even today, widely viewed as undesirable foreign oddities. The design of our homes exemplifies the social and cultural differences between us.
On the other hand, there are obvious similarities, across time and place, in how humans display their domestic goods. That proud driver revving her new Tesla down the road is engaging in much the same kind of status-affirming peacockery as Samuel Pepys, in December 1668, showing off his new coach and horses on the streets of London. Consciously and unconsciously, how we furnish our lives is a statement about who we are: most of our possessions are as symbolic as they are functional.
The universal impulse to customize everyday space can be seen even in cave dwellings, prison cells, and office cubicles. It’s always been especially visible among wealthier social groups and in societies with a developed market for consumer goods: the more choice and the more disposable income, the greater the potential for differentiation. And throughout history no object of personal use has attracted more emotional and financial investment than the home itself. Yet most of us live in dwellings designed by other people. All of which raises a perennial question: How far do we shape our domestic environment, and how far does it shape us?
When the Elizabethan clergyman William Harrison sat down in 1576 to write his brief Description of England, he included a chapter on houses. Until very recently, he mused, most of his compatriots had lived in “homely cottages” and “coarse cabins.” But within living memory, things had changed dramatically. The old men of his village in Essex had told him of “three things…marvellously altered in England” within their own lifetimes. The first was “the multitude of chimneys lately erected”: in their youth, most houses had made do with a single open hearth that vented through a hole in the roof. The second transformation was in sleeping arrangements:
For, said they, our fathers, yea and we ourselves also, have lain full oft upon straw pallets, on rough mats covered only with a sheet, under coverlets made of dagswain or hopharlots (I use their own terms), and a good round log under their heads instead of a bolster or pillow. If it were so that our fathers or the good man of the house had within seven years after his marriage purchased a mattress or flock bed, and thereto a stack of chaff to rest his head upon, he thought himself to be as well lodged as the lord of the town, that peradventure lay seldom in a bed of down or whole feathers, so well were they content, and with such base kind of furniture…. Pillows (said they) were thought meet only for women in childbed. As for servants, if they had any sheet above them, it was well, for seldom had they any under their bodies to keep them from the pricking straws that ran oft through the canvas of the pallet and razed their hardened hides.
Finally, there had been a great increase in domestic furnishings. Instead of wooden platters and spoons, even quite ordinary households now possessed great quantities of pewter, as well as, typically, “three or four feather beds, so many coverlids and carpets of tapestry, a silver salt, a bowl for wine (if not a whole nest), and a dozen of spoons to furnish up the suit.” “In times past,” noted Harrison, such luxury had been the preserve of the nobility, gentry, and rich merchants only, but nowadays “it is descended yet lower, even unto the inferior artificers and many farmers.”
This was no exaggeration. In a pioneering essay of 1953, the historian W.G. Hoskins drew on plenty of other corroborative evidence to propose that the period between 1570 and 1640 had seen a revolution in English housing. During this “Great Rebuilding,” he argued, the interiors of houses across the country were transformed and their furnishings greatly increased. The medieval single-floored plan, dominated by a large hall with a central, open fire, smoking up to a simple gap in the roof, was heavily modified. The hearth was moved to a side wall, under an enclosed chimney.1 The installation of a ceiling and internal staircase created an upper story; further partitions produced new rooms, with increasingly specialized uses. Windows were glazed for the first time, and fireplaces multiplied. The houses of farmers and artisans, and even of some laborers, came to be larger, warmer, lighter, and more luxuriously equipped.
Scholars no longer take seriously Hoskins’s hypothesis that these changes were driven by a new demand for personal privacy among the mass of the population (still less his suggestion that the period’s striking population increase was directly attributable to the invention of the upstairs bedroom). But a wealth of subsequent research over the past six decades has confirmed his general trajectory of architectural and material development.
In A Day at Home in Early Modern England, Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson explore what it was like to live in early modern houses during the decades of the Great Rebuilding. Like Harrison, their focus is on what historians today like to call “the middling sort”: those artisans, professionals, merchants, and yeoman farmers just below the ranks of the gentry. How, they ask, did such men and women shape their physical surroundings to reflect their sense of social, religious, and political identity; conversely, how did the changing form of their houses affect their mind-set and daily behavior?
Hamling is primarily a historian of domestic furnishings, Richardson a scholar of sixteeth- and seventeenth-century texts. Their interdisciplinary partnership makes for a genuinely innovative and illuminating book. In order to address its ambitious task, it draws on an impressive range of sources. As well as material objects, didactic and fictional texts, and legal and personal documents, the authors have assiduously tracked down many fragments of interior decoration in the surviving buildings of the period (whose often bathetic repurposing as twenty-first-century coffee shops, pubs, sofa showrooms, and pizzerias is illustrated in several of the book’s plentiful color pictures).
They don’t always make things easy for the lay reader. If you can’t recall what a bressumer is, or are unfamiliar with pipkins, gallipots, posnets, and firkins, expect no help from them. Nor are Hamling and Richardson entirely averse to academic jargon. They’re concerned with “the connections between ecological psychology and phenomenology,” regard shopping as “an inherently identity-forming activity,” and prefer to speak of “haptic experiences” instead of the sense of touch. But the clever structure and engaging enthusiasm of the book nonetheless give it an immediately accessible shape and an unflaggingly enjoyable pace. The chapters take us chronologically through a typical day in the life of the early modern middling household, from daybreak to bedtime, conveying the different hourly rhythms of life for men and women, servants and masters, shoppers and retailers.
The authors’ overriding aspiration is to reconstruct the “lived experience” of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century household life. Like many historians today, they are only secondarily concerned with establishing objective facts. To them, what past houses and their furnishings looked like, how such things were produced, or what they cost are all less important than teasing out the subjective thoughts and sensory feelings that these material possessions could evoke in individuals. To this end, they switch continually between large-scale overviews of household design and tiny, vivid microhistories that bring to life what it might have felt like, say, to awake in a curtained bedstead, or for a shopkeeper to do his accounts in his study, or for his wife to spend her morning simultaneously overseeing her servants’ activities, the daily preparation of dinner, the weekly laundry, and the longer-term provisioning of the household.
A Day at Home is thus primarily a history of material objects as sites of emotion. But its focus on the piecemeal minutiae of daily existence also provides some deeply political insights. For in this society, as in every other, it was precisely through the quotidian repetition of domestic routines that patriarchy, gender roles, social hierarchies, religious identities, and political order were most fundamentally created and perpetuated—hour by hour, day by day. Nor was there any meaningful separation between domestic life and what we now tend to think of as the “public sphere.” In sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, it was not the individual but the household family that formed the most basic unit of economic, social, and political life. Both in theory and practice, what happened in the home was meant to be a model of what happened in the world.
Medieval English houses had been so dominated by a single hall in which people slept, cooked, ate, and worked that the very words “house” and “hall” were still used interchangeably well into the seventeenth century. Even in middling homes, a traditional hall would have at its far end the “high table,” lit by the best windows, where the master of the household presided over common meals, with chairs or benches for the other diners according to their status; and the service areas at its other end—more or less the same kind of configuration that still survives in the communal dining halls of Oxford and Cambridge colleges.
Hamling and Richardson chart the gradual rise of separate kitchens and dining rooms, the proliferation of ceilings, upper stories, and bedchambers, and the arrival of the parlor as a new, more intimate space for entertainment and relaxation. (Leisure time was itself a mark of status: common parlor pastimes like cards, backgammon, and dice were legally forbidden to servants, laborers, and lowly artisans.) Yet they also stress the limits of the shift toward spatial specialization. In many humbler middling houses, like the one Shakespeare grew up in, the hall remained “the only or main room.” Even in larger dwellings, most cooking still took place there, and despite the multiplication of chambers, people continued to sleep all over the place. It was not uncommon for an average property with six or seven rooms to contain the same number of beds.
Enclosed chimney flues remained a novel and somewhat precarious technology. When, in 1626, the London woodturner Nehemiah Wallington tried to improve his kitchen by installing one, the entire gable end of his house collapsed, and all three chimneys fell in. This was one reason why heated chambers remained a rare luxury. Another was probably the perpetual danger of fire, especially at night. Being able to light the house after dark was a sign of middling status, but unguarded candles were a constant concern. On the evening of July 4, 1629, Wallington’s apprentice Obadiah Seeley disobeyed the house rules and took a candlestick up to his room. Awaking after midnight to find their bed, mattress, and bedclothes in flames, he and his fellow apprentice “did start up and pissed out the fier as well as they could.” On another occasion, in bed with his wife and newborn daughter, Wallington himself woke up to find his hair on fire from a candle that had burned through its wire frame and fallen onto him.
Although masters and servants increasingly slept in different chambers, this was not a society in which privacy was yet a well-developed or valued concept. Instead, Hamling and Richardson see the middling house as reflecting an essentially “outward-looking concern with visibility and recognition in the community.” In newly built townhouses, the best chamber was usually deliberately positioned overlooking the street, with extra-large windows and decorative plasterwork that was meant to be admired from outside as well as within. Often this was also where the master and mistress chose to sleep.
To be near the sights, sounds, and smells of their neighbors provided people with a comforting sense of belonging within their community. One Sunday morning between 3 and 4 AM, Wallington was disturbed to hear a street vendor “cry Mackarell in the street and it did so grive and trouble my heart” that he retreated to another room—but his distress was only because hawking goods on the Lord’s Day was a breach of the Fourth Commandment. It was not until the later eighteenth century that townspeople began to regard street noise as an undesirable nuisance.
The closest thing to a private space in the early modern house was probably the inside of a curtained bed. That was where, at the end of a long day, the master and mistress of the household could finally be intimate with each other. But drapery could conceal only so much. Drawn curtains were no barrier to the eyes of God, warned the poet George Herbert, even if “they are of cloth,/Where never yet came moth.” When two citizens of Kidderminster tried to conduct a secret affair in the winter of 1625, their next-door neighbors were soon alerted by the noise. “He hath her upp agaynst the bed, and made the bed crakel and the Curtins gingle,” Elinor Taylor reported from the other side of the wall. Another, younger couple, without a chamber of their own, crept into a smith’s downstairs shop late one night. The house’s other inhabitants stayed asleep. But walking past the building, an older neighbor “heard a great bustlinge and puffinge and bloweinge.” When the young man “had donne what he could, he asked her how shee liked it, and [she] answeared ‘well ynoughe.’” Within the house and around it, people heard most things, and expected to.
A Day at Home is especially informative about beds, bedchambers, and their furnishings. The newly fashionable canopied bedstead, belonging to the head of household, was usually the grandest item of furniture in any dwelling. Children and servants, by contrast, routinely slept together and in less comfort, though students and apprentices from better-off families sometimes took their own beds with them to university or into service. In middling wills, bedsteads and bedding were the objects most commonly given as particular bequests. This was not just because of their value and status connotations, but also their emotional charge: after all, the bed was the locus of birth, of marriage, and of death, the final sleep.
Among the devout, it was common to decorate one’s bedchamber with memento mori inscriptions and images: flowers, hourglasses, skulls, and “pikters of Death.” Wallington kept a “little black coffin” with a skeleton on his bedside table. The Puritan Philip Stubbes even composed an appropriate prayer for anyone troubled by bedbugs: “as these flees and gnats do bite and gnaw my skinne, so shall the wormes, eat and consume the frame of my bodie, in the dust of the earth, when the Lord doth please.”
Hamling and Richardson likewise devote fitting amounts of space to the household production and retail of goods, and to the practical and symbolic importance of food. Growing, preparing, processing, preserving, storing, cooking, and serving it took up an immense and increasing amount of time, especially for the female members of the household. This was the period in which the in-house production of food and drink reached its peak, and domestic cooking attained an unprecedented degree of complexity, requiring new recipes, skills, implements, and tableware. In any household of substance, the midday dinner was an important social and symbolic ritual, the main collective experience of the day.
This was another sphere for the godly to demonstrate their righteousness. Some families went in for psalm singing and Bible reading around the table, whereas the Suffolk clergyman John Carter took the silent, humblebragging approach, displaying his piety through an ostentatious disdain for the fashionable luxury goods of his age:
He never used Plate in his house, but Vessels of Wood, and Earth…[and] used constantly at his Table a little wooden Salt [cellar], which with age was growne to be of a duskish black, which was much taken notice of by all comers.
On all these topics, the book brims with useful information and insights. On other subjects, it is regrettably silent. We learn next to nothing about how people clothed, washed, and relieved themselves, even though in this period sewers were nonexistent and large quantities of human excrement were collected for use as crop manure. Gardens and orchards remain largely offstage; pets and domestic animals are completely invisible, despite their ubiquity in both rural and urban life.
It also focuses disproportionately on the ideals and practices of the very religious, who furnished their houses with pious inscriptions and punctuated their hours with uplifting prayers. For such people, the rhythm of the day was always as much spiritual as practical. Yet after a while, one longs to be introduced to some of their more frivolous neighbors, such as the seventeenth-century Oblomovs who “spend all the morning in lying a bed and dressing themselves,” as the preacher William Gouge chided in 1622. It is perhaps telling that Hamling and Richardson wholly ignore the rich evidence of Samuel Pepys’s diary, though in many respects he fits their profile of a typical middling householder: the upwardly mobile son of a tailor and grandson of a butcher, brought up with strongly Puritan influences, acutely aware of his rising status and its manifestation through worldly possessions. But Pepys rarely prayed: usually only on Sunday evenings, to set a good example to his servants, and sometimes not even then, if he was too tipsy or if it was “cold, and tomorrow washing-day.”
Throughout this learned and beautifully produced book, the geographic focus remains resolutely local. We learn in minute detail about differences between Southampton and Stratford-upon-Avon, but nothing about how English houses compared to those in the Low Countries, Germany, France, or farther afield. In some respects, their decor must have been similar. In Italian Renaissance homes, bedsteads were just as prominent, and specialized kitchens and dining rooms equally rare. Their interiors witnessed the same phenomenal multiplication of material goods over the course of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.2 Moreover, the growing wealth of furnishings in English houses was increasingly manufactured abroad. Such was the new demand for stoneware that around ten million such items were imported into England in the first few decades of the seventeenth century alone. After 1600, the pottery and porcelain used in middling houses likewise came mainly from France, Germany, Italy, and even Ming China.
Yet it also seems undeniable that by contrast with the homes of equivalently devout and wealthy households elsewhere in Europe at this time, most English interiors would have looked pretty plain. Hamling and Richardson make a strong case for the importance of decorative wall paintings, painted cloths, woodcarvings, and plasterwork. All the same, there were strikingly few pictures in English homes, even allowing for the Protestant suspicion of religious imagery. In early-seventeenth-century Delft, a typical householder would have owned about ten canvases; in Amsterdam, the average was around twenty-five. One Leiden cloth dyer by 1643 had amassed a collection of sixty-four paintings. Middling Italian homes were equally stuffed with images.
In England, the lack of skilled artists and the absence of a commercial art market made this kind of interior inconceivable. In other words, it was not just individual wealth, social aspiration, and degrees of piety that determined what English homes looked like, but also more deeply rooted economic and cultural constraints. It’s remarkable how strikingly the character of domestic decor could differ between neighboring societies, even four hundred years ago. The interiors of our houses, it seems, have always revealed as much about our national values as they do about our personal tastes.
Channeling and discharging smoke through a self-contained flue was such an innovation, even in grand buildings, that the poet John Leland, who had traveled extensively on the continent as well as in England, was amazed to see it when he visited Bolton Castle in Yorkshire in the 1540s: “One thinge I muche notyd in the haulle of Bolton, how chimeneys were conveyed by tunnells made on the syds of the wauls…and by this meanes, and by no lovers [i.e., louvres, holes in the roof], is the smoke of the harthe in the hawle wonder strangly convayed [away].” The Itinerary of John Leland, edited by Lucy Toulmin Smith, five volumes (London, 1907–1910), volume 5, p. 139. ↩
As is beautifully surveyed in Abigail Brundin, Deborah Howard, and Mary Laven, The Sacred Home in Renaissance Italy (Oxford University Press, 2018). ↩