Monthly Archives: February 2019

Wallington’s ‘Anatomy’

From previous posts it’s clear I’m a great fan of Nehemiah Wallington, the puritan wood-turner in London who recorded his inner thoughts and everyday experience in extensive notebooks, made accessible through David Booy’s edited selection. I’m also fascinated by early modern memento mori culture (which is hardly surprising given my PhD was supervised by Nigel Llewellyn, author of The Art of Death).

Memento mori texts, art and objects reminded people of the transience of life and the inevitability of death, as a form of spiritual exercise. As Llewellyn established, this culture was ubiquitous across media and so it occupies a central place in our recent book, A Day at Home in Early Modern England, particularly in chapter 6 focusing on the experience of the chamber at night.

There we discuss Wallington’s investment in memento mori materials. In the year of his marriage, 1621, he notes:

‘I purposed to begin a new life, and I renewed my promises with my God but failed in keepeing of them exceedingly for which I was so perplexed in mind that now I was desirous to die and yet some tims in feare of death[.] So then I was given to bye Books consarning death[:] on[e] booke Learne to Die and death advantage and funarall sarmons, and many such lik book[.]’[1]

As well as being engaged with the body of writing on the nature and practice of the good Christian death, Wallington also invested in memento mori objects. He continues:

‘And I tooke a grat delight to by pickters of Death, but above all I was at grate charge in bying Anotime of Death and a little black coffin to put it in, and upon it written Meemento Mory[.] And this I had to stand upon a ginstoul by my bedsid every night and some meals to stand upon or by my Table. All this was to put me in mind and feet me for death. After this an honest man knowing of it did tell me it was superstition, shewing me it was a sine[.] And then I was not in quiet till I had made it away[.][2]

In our book, we suggest that this ‘anatomy’ of death (a skeleton) with its little black coffin bought by Wallington and placed on his bedside table (jointstool) every night might have resembled the celebrated Torre Abbey jewel in the V&A – while noting that this pendant is far too fine and elite to reflect Wallington’s purchase. As always, discoveries post-publication emerge and a chance hit on the Wellcome collection website suggested a much closer match for Wallington’s ‘superstitious’ object:


Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

It is a carved figure of a corpse in a wooden coffin, identified as Italian and 16th century in date. Such sculptures were likely circulating throughout Europe and underline how memento mori culture was shared across regions and the religious divide. The Italian connection and Latin inscription might, however, indicate why Wallington’s friend (the ‘honest man’) saw this object as superstitious, encouraging him to get rid of it.

Wallington mentioned he placed his ‘meals’ (food, snacks) next to this anatomy, presumably for the interval between his first and second sleep.[3] The graphic detail of worms eating the belly of the corpse must have made this association between foodstuffs all the more profound.Wellcome 3 (2)

Midnight snack anyone?


[1] David Booy (ed), Notebooks of Nehemiah Wallington, 1618-1654: A Selection (Ashgate, 2007), p.270.

[2] Booy (ed), Notebooks, p.271.

[3] On ‘segmented sleep’ see Sasha Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England, Yale University Press, 2016.


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We’re delighted to announce our next big project…

The Cultural Lives of the Middling Sort: writing and material culture, 1560-1660

What was Shakespeare looking at when he wrote? What kind of room was he in? How was it decorated and furnished? What was he sitting on, resting on? Where did these materials come from, who bought them and how much did they cost? What could he hear inside and outside the house? What food could he smell cooking elsewhere in the building? What could he look forward to doing once he finished his work? What other types of text might he have written that don’t survive? How similar was he to his neighbours in these practices?


David Mitchell as Shakespeare in the BBC series, Upstart Crow.  The room looks a little dull but they may be right about the chicken…!

We tend to treat writing as an intellectual rather than a located practice. But our environments condition our behaviour and thinking and, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, writing took place in domestic and civic spaces that also reflected other forms of cultural engagement, taste and habits. Few of these spaces retain their original form or appearance, so we need to reconstruct them in order to explore their impact.


First-floor room in an extension of c.1620 to urban house from Reigate, now re-erected at the Weald & Downloand Living Museum. We’re going to fill it with things – digitally!

The project is not especially concerned with Shakespeare – he is one of several examples of ‘middling writers’ we are interested in. We will examine the wider cultural lives and material investment of a range of people, including preachers, jobbing authors, urban administrators, poets and biographers, who were relatively well off and had status in their local communities, but were not members of the court or county elite. Surprisingly little research has engaged with the full cultural experience of this middling level of society – how their writing related to their wider aesthetic choices, purchases and patterns of living, relations that would have created a particular form of social identity.


Detail of sixteenth-century wall painting from Church Street, Ledbury

Understanding the nature of this cultural identity – how their literary, artistic and material production and consumption related to one another – lets us examine fully the creative environment in which the writers grew up and participated. But our project also allows us to reach beyond these well-known figures, to explore the impact of those environments on their wives, mothers, sisters, apprentices and servants – individuals for whom a classical grammar school education was not a possibility, but who nevertheless experienced its impact in the domestic and urban environments in which they lived and worked – for example as books in the household, sayings or images painted on the walls.


Portrait of Joene Goldstone, a prominent citizen’s wife of Gloucester, 1570s, oil on panel, Gloucestershire Museums.

This is a three-year project, funded by the AHRC, working together with Graeme Earl at King’s College London and with our partner organisations, The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and The Weald & Downland Living Museum. There’s more information on the project website here.

The project launches in April 2019…. We are currently advertising for two Postdoctoral Research Associates: details of the first, based at Kent is available here. The second position, based at Birmingham, will be advertised shortly.

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