The House in Context – a European perspective

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Recently back from a conference on ‘Das Haus im Kontext – in europaischer Perspektive’ at the Schloss Beuggen in Rheinfelden, organised by Joachim Eibach and Inken Schmidt-Voges on the very edge of the Rhine just outside Basel – a still point between an elbow bend in the river and a hydro-electric plant, largely inhabited by kingfishers and beavers. Within the thirteenth-century Schloss, representatives of several different European countries discussed their respective traditions of analysing and writing about the early modern house. We set out to answer the broad question ‘what is the household’, in our respective scholarly traditions, and how might we study it?

Philip Hahn from Tubingen opened the discussion up by suggesting we test the idea of the ‘open house’ across languages and cultures, and offered three types of ‘house’ prominent in German scholarship: the house as concept of order, as building and site of material culture, and as social space. Dionigi Albera from Aix-en-Provence identified three influential strands of research on Italy: household economies, ‘home’ as the study of such issues as intimacy and gender, and the kinship approach. I was arguing that research on the English house has not had much to say about the connections between its ‘material’ and ‘human’ aspects – that we have a very broad humanities-wide interest in domestic issues: in economic, social and demographic history, literature, art history, archaeology and architectural history, but that their findings are rarely brought together. Several approaches came up time and again, with some countries erring more on the side of demography, lifecycle study and property transfer and others concentrating on the extent to which the household organised life, work and transgression. Almost every paper mentioned the work of the Cambridge Group as being more or less helpful to their national traditions, and there were common experiences about the significance and the incompatibility of domestic theories and practices.

Other interesting issues which surfaced several times in later sessions were how historiographies deal with permanence and impermanence –the double meaning of ‘house’ for the elite and their relation to property, as opposed to the fraught nature of these questions for European Jews, for instance – and the possibility of tracing a history of neighbours and neighbourhood, and how that might be shaped by a sensory understanding – how did smell, or warmth, influence perception of the house from the inside and outside? In Hamburg, neighbourhood relations were important because of mutual visibility and audibility, but only children’s birthdays were celebrated with neighbours, not their parents’. In Sweden, they were looking at the work that women did between households and how it was organised, and in Switzerland at the way women’s professional activities grew out from but remained tied to the house. In Swedish Pomerania, inner city mobility was so high that 40% inhabitants moved at least once in 4 years:  living in one house from birth to death was not a common way of life. Those were some of the highlights for me.

It was a really focussed conference, and exciting to translate our shared convictions about how central domestic life is for understanding this period. And what a great setting – a conference on Das Haus watched over by a pair of storks perched on a high nest on top of the tower, planning their own spring household…

small storks

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