Monthly Archives: October 2013

Next AHRC workshop announced – Museum of London Cheapside Hoard Exhibition

Emerald-Watch-2It’s time to register for the next workshop! Come and join us to continue the discussion about the relationship between different kinds of pre-modern materiality and how we analyse and display them…

Following on from the first two in the series of AHRC Collaborative Skills Development workshops hosted by the Museum of London at The London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre, and University of London Senate House Library, the third workshop will take place at the Museum of London. This workshop will examine the practicalities and challenges of displaying objects in museum exhibits.

An initial session will examine a small group artefacts relating to death and mourning from the early modern period and formulate ways that such themes might be interpreted in a display for a variety of different audiences. After having worked up ideas and possible strategies for delivering textual information and display requirements, an area of the Museum of London’s War, Plague and Fire gallery will be studied to learn how objects and text come together in practical terms as part of a grand narrative of an exhibit. This will be followed by a visit to the Museum’s temporary Cheapside Hoard exhibition. Here, the focus will be on analysing specifically the design of a major exhibit and how visitors engage with very small objects as well as related supporting content, reconstructions and illustrative material.

To register go to:


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Wallington’s Household Hazards

Continuing a series I started some time ago, here is the second instalment of ‘Wallington’s Household Hazards’. This time I consider the impact of chimneys on early modern lifestyle and beliefs…

Domestic hazard no. 2: Chimneys

Most accounts of Tudor and Stuart architecture (including my own) repeat the same quotation from William Harrison’s Description of England (1577) in which he notes some of the major changes in the manner of domestic building that had taken place within the space of a generation. He identifies “the multitude of chimneys lately erected” as one of several things “marvellously altered” according to some old men of his village, who remembered “in their young days there were not above two or three, if so many, in most uplandish towns of the realm (the religious houses and manor places of their lords always excepted, and peradventure some great personages), but each one made his fire against a reredos in the hall, where he dined and dressed his meat.”

Harrison’s account has fostered a trend within subsequent scholarship to hail the development of chimneys as a decisive progressive step towards a more modern, clean and comfortable way of life. It is generally accepted that a move away from the previously open hearth in the centre of the hall towards enclosed flues allowed the division and separation of internal space to create distinct areas with specialised functions, which in turn fostered a sense of individuality and privacy which we associate with a more advanced and sophisticated way of being.

Yet it is the case that attempts to incorporate this new innovation within existing buildings were not always immediately successful. Many early chimneys were experimental and structurally unsound, constructed from highly inappropriate materials such as timber and wattle and daub. The inevitable chimney fires resulting from this period of experimentation and makeshift building represented one of the main household hazards of early modern England.

Transitional technology: a smokehood above the open fire in the re-erected ‘Merchant’s House’ from Bromsgrove at Avoncroft Museum.

Transitional technology: a smokehood above the open fire in the re-erected ‘Merchant’s House’ from Bromsgrove at Avoncroft Museum.

The experience of living with these first-generation chimneys may well have been less satisfying than is often assumed. Here again, Nehemiah Wallington provides a glimpse into the realities of everyday life in the early modern household in documenting an incident involving an unruly domestic hearth. After the birth of his daughter, Sarah, in December 1627, Wallington described in his notebook:

“and three weekes after this: the weather being very coulde wee keepte a fire continually in the chamber but the fire burnt downe under the harth and burnt the beame whereone the chemnie stood: that the coles of the fire fell downe in the next nabours hows: and had they not spoken in time: and it had gone a little furder wee had not onely lost our estate but our lives also but God hath keept us / his name be praised for ever and ever.”[1]

A very similar situation was recorded by Ralph Josselin, vicar of Earls Colne in Essex. After the birth of his son in the early hours of 30 December 1643, Josselin recorded in his diary, “wee were scared with our Chamber chimney Hearth firing but espying it in time it was prevented from any great hurt. This was a great mercy”.

The profound sense of relief and reprieve expressed in these accounts by Wallington and Josselin perhaps reflects the heightened anxieties of new fathers trying to nurture their new-born infants through the harsh midwinter cold [and lack of insulation was another early modern household hazard]. But Wallington’s account especially is inflected by the providential language of the reports in ballads and pamphlets of the calamitous fires that destroyed large parts of towns and cities. This literature lamented the destruction caused by town conflagrations while accepting that they were a necessary instrument of God’s will.  No doubt religious faith offered some comfort to individuals like Wallington and Josselin who could reassure themselves that whatever occurred, good or bad, was part of the divine plan.

Woodcut from ‘A brief sonnet declaring the lamentation of Beckles, a Market Town in Suffolk’, which describes the fire of 1586.

Woodcut from ‘A brief sonnet declaring the lamentation of Beckles, a Market Town in Suffolk’, which describes the fire of 1586.

But what about those individuals without a strong belief in predestination, or for that matter without sufficient trust in the orthodox practices of the Christian faith? There is evidence that some individuals tried to take matters into their own hands to protect themselves from the dangers of household hearths using supernatural means. Recent research on vernacular buildings has called attention to the practice in the early modern period of marking buildings with apparently ‘ritual’ symbols. These markings are generally interpreted in relation to belief in witchcraft, but as they often cluster on and around fireplaces (especially chimney lintels) it is possible that they were intended to offer physical as well as spiritual protection. Various examples documented by Timothy Easton include common groups of religious symbols on lintels representing Christ and the Virgin Mary; it is thought that these markings may have been an attempt to invoke their divine protection or, after the Reformation, a residual element of traditional superstition to avert bad luck.[2]


Drawings of ritual marks from T. Easton’s article (note 2, below).

The widespread fashion during this period for decorating interiors and especially chimney overmantels with biblical scenes, as described in my book and elsewhere on this blog, may also represent an attempt to mitigate fears and associations surrounding the risks posed by the domestic hearth. As a reminder of scripture and key doctrinal messages these scenes placed above the fireplace served to edify and offered comfort to occupants of the room, diverting their attention from the untrustworthy presence of the chimneybreast and the threat posed by the capricious cinders that smouldered inside…

This post summarises part of a paper I delivered at the ‘Sin and Salvation’ conference in June 2013. The paper has since been revised as a chapter and is published in Johnathan Willis (ed) Sin and Salvation in Reformation England (Routledge, 2015). 


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Comfort Zones

unity2Two things have happened recently which set me thinking about comfort zones, now and in the past. First, I gave a talk for Unity Arts as part of their HLF-funded project ‘A Restoration Wyfe – A Saucy London Life’. The talk was called ‘The interior life of the Restoration wife’, and it was about the changing relationship between interiors and women’s lives between the 16th and the 18th Centuries. I started off with the china scene from William Wycherley’s 1675 play The Country Wife, with its blistering run of double entendres:

Mrs Squeamish: Oh Lord I’ll have some china too, good Mr. Horner, don’t think to give other people china, and me none, come in with me too.

Horner: Upon my honour I have none left now.

Mrs Squeamish: Nay, nay I have known you deny your china before now, but you shan’t put me off so, come —

Horner: This Lady had the last there.

Lady Fidget: Yes indeed Madam, to my certain knowledge he has no more left.

(you can watch it here, about half way through the clip:

Then we cut back to Thomas Bentley’s 1582 The Monument of Matrons, in which he outlines a routine of early morning prayer in the chamber: ‘Putting on your neerest garment [your clean smock], praie thus:…O cover thou my nakednesse and shame with the fine linnen robe of his righteousnesse and vertue…Yea, make thou my linnen cloaths as white as snowe, and shining like the light’ (pp. 369-71). The point of the talk was to explore how we might get from one chamber to another: how representations of the room changed from a space of pious meditation to one that could be represented as a scene for debauchery, even if it was happening just off stage.

So the barest bones of the talk were the way sixteenth-century halls were ceiled over to provide chambers up above, and the effects this had on the specificity of space – the division of activities between rooms, the creation of rooms that were intended for sleeping and not much else, and the significance of ‘going upstairs’ at night time. And we looked at the development of closets and dressing rooms in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – the movement to entertaining in small spaces for more intimate sociabilities – comfortable and comforting rooms filled with women’s personally significant objects. The changing way women decorated chambers revealed a great deal about their ‘interior lives’. We also discussed who was allowed in; the permeability of rooms and houses. Watching early modern comfort zones shift in location and boundaries gave me back something of that shock of the new that you lose when you forget what happens before and after the period you work on.

unity5And the other thing that’s happened is that I’m now the DoRPE in the School of English at Kent or, marginally more attractively, the Director of Research and Public Engagement, which has led me to thinking about how we start conversations about the past with people outside our departments. The way Unity Arts ran this event was fascinating. The talk came after a series of songs from the period sung by costumed singers and a reading from Pepys’ Diary, all at the Geffrye Museum of the Home, where the audience could wander around period rooms before and afterwards. And the whole event was set against the full-sized recreation of a Restoration bed they’d produced, and in the context of the research they’d done on portraits and Restoration wedding documents in the local archive. This was an event with previous form – a culmination of other kinds of exploration – and that really came across. It gave them a range of different ways of getting at a central problem – what was the life of a Restoration wife like? – and what it offered its audience wasn’t a holistic package (a kind of living history where you are supposed to forget you’re in Hoxton in 2013) so much as a variety that kept changing your point of view. Have a look at this video of a previous piece of work, shown again at the Geffrye, for instance – it’s all about view point:

And speaking in this setting was naturally engaging, both for me and, I hope, for the audience. It couldn’t possibly be a passive event. Talking about place as part of an experience, rather than doing it cold in a lecture theatre, and seeing research as animated – as a performance of words – made a space for understanding domestic experience that was very different to what I’m used to. It made a lecture into a moment at which things might be coaxed into coming together. And it made demands on us all to imagine, and to think of the constraints on imagining too. That’s when things start to happen – when, in talking it through in an inspiring space with an audience who keep asking interesting questions, you start to see the evidence you work with differently. Way outside my academic comfort zone it felt to me as though this was a different kind of ‘located’ engagement. It would be interesting to know what others think…



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