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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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A Day at Home in Early Modern England: exclusive taster!

We’re delighted to announce that our co-authored book, A Day at Home in Early Modern England: material culture and domestic life 1500-1700 will be published by Yale University Press on 3 October.

On the front cover is a drawing from the Trevelyon Miscellany of 1608 in the Folger Shakespeare Library.

This domestic scene is used by Trevelyon to illustrate ‘the malice of a woman’. A scolding wife stands over her subservient husband who is winding yarn while, in the background, a shocked neighbour walks in to discover such disorderly housekeeping. The image represents our book’s concern with gendered work within the household, and the social significance and scrutiny of domestic matters at the middling level.

The remarkable openness of the domestic to the community is made plain in the many court depositions we examine in the book. An ecclesiastical court case of c.1619 from Bishampton, a village near Worcester, did not end up in the book but it offers a fascinating window onto early modern domestic life (quite literally) and serves as a little taster of A Day at Home.

The case, Smith v Fareley, concerns two women and is prompted by a pew dispute – fascinating on its own terms – but as background to this dispute we learn about a slander.¹ Where this insult takes place provides a good deal of information about the visibility (and aural porosity) of domestic life.

The depositions first describe an incident whereby on a Sunday around Whitsun 1619 during evening prayer one Ann Fareley took it upon herself to sit in a seat ‘in which Jane Smith… had sat for many years’. Smith’s seat ‘was her right by her house’ and, as one deponent placed it ‘the uppermost seat except one, in the row in which the women sit’. This position close to the front of the church suggests that Jane Smith was a housewife of some status in the community of Bishopton, occupying the seat by right of her house, which before her was attached ‘to the occupier of the house in which she lives’. Ann’s lower status reflects that of her husband, who is not a settled householder, but lives with his father.² At the time of the tussle over the seat, Jane was pregnant. According to Dorothy Hay, a 40 year old farmer’s wife who occupied a pew near to Jane Smith’s, when Jane tried to enter her seat Ann wouldn’t let her, ‘putting her foot up on the opposite bench’. After the service Jane showed some neighbours the inward side of her thigh ‘which appeared to be of a black or blwysh color’ caused apparently by ‘the violent and forcible thrusting of Ann forth of her pewe’.

Further depositions suggest this incident was part of a longer campaign of abuse. Several deponents described how a few months earlier, on the Tuesday before Palm Sunday, Ann Fareley had insulted Jane Smith in her home. According to Jane’s 19 year old servant, Joanna, ‘her master and dame being at supper, The defendant then standing at the plaintiffes window overhearing there[their] speeches in very violent and malicious manner said unto the plaintiff Come up yow Lyeing whore, yow mangy whore sayeing that is one of thy old Lyes often tymes calling her the plaintiff whore wi[th] ill addicions which wordes were spoken at the wyndow of the plaintiffes dwelling howse in Bishampton in the hearing of this deponent[,] Edward Stevens and John Gawe’. Edward Stevens was also in the Smith’s service and in his deposition agreed that Ann was ‘then standing on the owtside [of] the wyndow’.


Woodcut included in ballad, ‘A good throw for three Maiden-heads’, London, 1629.

John Gawe[actually Gaywood],  a farmer, described what he saw of this incident as, on his way home, he ‘passed close by the plaintiffes husbandes howse … And as he was passing by he sawe Anne Fareley the defendant in the plaintiffes yeard nere to the wyndow of his [Smith’s] dwelling howse At which tyme this deponent heard the said defendant call Jane Smith divers and sundry tymes whore very maliciously And this deponent reproving her for so calling her in her owne yeard she grewe very impacient with this deponent’.

This case reveals a great deal, then, about housing conditions within this village setting. The Smiths must have occupied one of the more substantial yeomen houses within this village according to their customary seat in church and because they were of a status to employ two servants (at least). Yet access to this property was evidently quite open; John Gaywood passed close by his neighbour’s house on his route home from work and could see into his yard where Ann Fareley was standing outside a window. That window obviously gave onto the Smith’s hall or parlour where they were having supper and the ‘speeches’ between Smith and his wife as overheard by Ann seemingly prompted her malicious words. That window was presumably fully open, if glazed, but was more likely unglazed with shutters. Pendean farmhouse from Midhurst re-erected at the Weald & Downland museum is an example of a farmhouse built on a modern house plan with integrated chimneystack c.1600 but with unglazed windows.

Pendean Farmhouse from Midhurst, Sussex, built 1609 now re-erected at the Weald Downland Museum to reflect its original form, including unglazed windows.

Why Ann was standing there within the yard of Smith’s house is not explained. It is possible she was involved in day work for the Smiths; this might explain why she had a particular grievance against Jane as her mistress. But perhaps no explanation for Ann’s seemingly intrusive presence is needed since such scrutiny of the domestic affairs of others was expected, indeed encouraged, during this period.³ The rich painted wall decoration of halls and parlours – a common feature of interiors in the first half of the 17th century – could, therefore, have been intended to impress passers by as much as social peers.

How the Smiths’ dining space was decorated is not known but if it resembled decoration elsewhere then Ann might have been gazing in upon a space adorned with phrases in black letter text such as:

‘to his neighbour doth none ill in body, goods or name / Nor willingly doth move false tales, which might empair the same / That in his heart regardeth not, malicious wicked men / But those that love and feare the Lord, he maketh much of them.’ [From The Whole Booke of Psalmes collected into English Meter, first published 1562]

One of the black letter texts based on a selection of psalms and proverbs in the painted decoration of a first floor room at 1 Church Street, Ledbury.

Such texts from Psalms and Proverbs were common in the painted decoration of the best rooms in middling houses. Despite Ann’s unseemly disruption of their supper, the Smiths could take consolation from their superior social and moral status as householders.

Watch this space for more on domestic wall paintings, coming soon…


¹ Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service, Worcester, Deposition Books, 794.052, vols 6-8 (1612-29).

² On the relationship between social status and church seating see C. Marsh, ‘Order and Place in England, 1580-1640: The View from the Pew’, Journal of British Studies 44.1 (2005), pp.3-26. On the gendered significance of church seating see Amanda Flather, Gender and Space in Early Modern England (Boydell & Brewer, 2007).

³ Lena Cowen Orlin, Locating Privacy in Tudor London (Oxford University Press, 2007);



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Daily Lives and Daily Routines

Looking forward to the European Social Science History Conference that will take place from 4 – 7 April 2018 in Belfast. We’re speaking in a session organized by Gudrun Andersson (Uppsala University) and Jon Stobart (Manchester Metropolitan University): ‘Daily Lives and Daily Routines: Spaces, Practices and Material Cultures, c.1650–1850’.

Our co-presented paper is: ‘Middling domestic routines in seventeenth-century England’

Here’s the abstract:

This paper explores a wide range of evidence for the material construction of domestic routines amongst a particular group in ‘early early modern’ England, the middling sort. As the social group most likely to be living and working within the household, broadly defined, undertaking practices associated with food processing, shop-keeping and craft skills, and professional identities, we explore the particular kind of interpenetration of domestic- and labour-orientated activity that they experienced on a daily basis. We do so within a particular context, that of the so-called ‘Great Rebuilding’ of houses across the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, exploring the routes, movements, practices and behaviours which shaped and were shaped by changing domestic forms. The paper will consider evidence of standing buildings, inventories, account books and diaries in particular, in order to position production and consumption practices within a new house shape, and determine the altered attitude towards both which it might have created in this period.

Good housewife

This later impression of a 16th century print raises several questions about the relationship between domestic space and domestic routine. This archetype of the multi-tasking industrious housewife locates gendered work and education/discipline in the hall as centre of the home. What was the impact of architectural and material changes to this central space, and the development of new spaces, on domestic practices and movements?

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After Iconophobia

I may have been silent on this forum for a while but I have been blogging with my Reformation/visual arts hat on:

After Iconophobia: an online symposium

… hosted by the wonderful ‘many headed monster’ blog. Please visit and comment!

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Books that don’t fit into the standard categories: a celebration

One of the most gratifying comments in response to the publication of Shakespeare and the Stuff of Life (Bloomsbury, 2016) is that it doesn’t “quite fit into the standard categories” (San Diego book review). A collaboration between researchers in the History department of the University of Birmingham and The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, this edited book aims to showcase some of the early modern artefacts from the Trust’s extensive museum collection with interpretation inspired by recent research in material culture studies.


The book develops from almost a decade of knowledge exchange activities, including a blogging project ‘Shakespeare’s World in 100 Objects, which treats a single object from SBT’s collection in each blog. The challenge for us in translating and channeling this team research and public engagement into a print publication was the issue of how to create a coherent narrative thread through which to examine in a sustained form a disparate group of material objects; items traditionally separated and classified by media in museum displays and publications (that is, by categories such as rare books, ceramics, metalwares, manuscripts, textiles, paintings, furniture, engraving etc).

 Dimensions (H, W, D) 220mm x 420mm x 285mm.

An Anglo-German oak box, possibly for storing medicines. STRST : SBT 2001-5.


A gentleman’s nightcap. STRST : SBT 1994-70.

Our solution was inspired by recent work on the relationship between material culture and the life cycle in early modern England. We had in mind, in particular, Nigel Llewellyn’s academic yet accessible book The Art of Death, published in 1991 to accompany an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum and groundbreaking in its analysis of a wide-ranging but interconnected visual culture of death and remembrance. Since then, a good deal of scholarship has focused on the significance of crafted items in marking, negotiating and extending rites of passage in the life cycle such as birth, childhood, courtship, marriage and death.

The life cycle in early modern England was understood as a series of phases, based on the ancient concept of the Ages of Man. Shakespeare engages directly with this tradition in Jaques’ ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech from As You Like It. We therefore arranged our objects in groups to reflect these seven phases of life. This gave us the rationale through which to approach and interpret our selected objects; it proved remarkably easy to assign a phase of life to each of our objects, creating a sort of domino effect whereby interpretation of each object opened into the next, adding layers of meaning in the context of that particular phase of life, and moving the narrative on to the next. This is not, however, to suggest that understanding of these objects should be restricted to these themes and contexts; objects transcend fixed meaning and invite all kinds of personal reflection. As historians, however, we aim to make the mute and enigmatic material remains from the past explicable according to the social and cultural contexts that informed the circumstances of their making and use. The narrative of the life cycle seemed the most historically grounded and coherent interpretative apparatus through which to elucidate the significance of these items for Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

An example of the rich visual tradition on the ‘Ages of Man’ theme. A version of ‘The Staircase of the Ages’ by Cornelis Saftleven (1607-1681). University of Birmingham.

Reception to the book has been generally very positive, yet intriguingly quizzical. In straddling categories such as ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘Decorative Art’ or ‘Craft’ it has evidently proved difficult to label or characterise. There is a sense of mild bemusement around the immortal Bard’s connection with “cushion covers, bodices and oak cupboards” as well as with its public engagement agenda (described as one of the ‘cuter mementoes’ published to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in an overview in the Evening Standard).

 A Sheldon tapestry cover for a long cushion created in England around 1600. It illustrates three scenes from the life of Joseph, with the central scene depicting the attempted seduction of Joseph by Potiphar’s wife. Wrapped half-naked in a sheet in front of a richly dressed bed adorned with curtains, presumably made of silk, and a runner of golden tassels, the adulteress grabs hold of Joseph’s cloak with one hand as he tries to escape, and with the other beckons him to join her on the bed. For Shakespeare’s society, adultery was considered one of the greatest threats to marriage and social order. The Potiphar’s wife cushion cover presents a means by which people were reminded of and warned against sin and vice. Dimensions: Tapestry 57cm x 99cm, Frame: 64cm x 106cm

Tapestry cushion panel. SBT 1993-31/299.

Its multifarious nature and applicability to unexpected fields is borne out by its appearance on certain Amazon Bestsellers lists, spanning ‘Poetry & Drama > Shakespeare, William’ but also – less predictably – ‘Media & Communication Industries > Press & Journalism’ and ‘Literary Theory & Movements’.

Oak cupboard. SBT L513.

Embroidered bodice. STRST : SBT 1993-35.

It seems to me that working collaboratively and across traditional disciplines will necessarily produce publications and other outputs that resist standard categories. Part of their role is to unsettle modes of thinking in silos, especially in relation to subjects long considered ‘high’ or ‘low’ culture and therefore mutually exclusive. I therefore take this comment as a ringing endorsement of our interdisciplinary approach and its published product.


Images Courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Information about objects in the SBT’s collections, with downloadable images, is available online via the SBT’s new integrated catalogue:

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Shakespearean Forensics

IMG_2561 (2)A quick update on cutting-edge material practices in libraries and archives. Just looking through my photos from New Orleans, taken at the Shakespeare Association of America Annual Conference last month, and I came across this one of Wendell Pierce who played Bunk Moreland in The Wire talking about the political power of drama in the wake of the hurricane – captured here doing a bit of Macbeth I think. I’d like to point out at the start that making the (dubious) connection between his (inspiring) talk and a session on Shakespearean Forensics wasn’t my idea, one of the speakers in the session did it first (honest!), but it did get me thinking again about the material moves which that session made between technology, close work, and early modern cultures of reading and writing.

The premise of the session was that all the approaches it introduced required, relied upon, the analysis of early modern objects, but that none of the would have been possible without advances in technology. There was analysis, for instance, of the supply of the raw materials for writing, of scarcity and corruptibility and the ways in which these features of source material shaped communication. We heard that ‘libraries are full of animals’, about attempts to reconstruct or reassemble them from their skins, and about the massive reduction in the varieties of sheep which took place between 1700-1800 – connections between economics, agriculture and the textual record.

There were also human traces. We heard about ways in which the waste products of conservation were being analysed at the Folger – how their ‘dust bunnies’ could be used to see how many people over the centuries had interacted with the books (and, apparently, how many readers had had acne). We learned about the way bacteria from different parts of the body can be distinguished from one another, allowing us to know whether books have been kissed or caressed. Forensic archaeological techniques applied to bodies themselves revealed, for instance, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan in the mouth of a German nun, indicating that she had been a painter of manuscripts.

This kind of work broadened my sense of what it means to interact with texts far beyond annotation, and its focus on the physical interactions which individuals had with pages, letters and images as artists, writers or readers suggested interesting questions about moments of use and how we might analyse them. In some ways it was a controversial session – a question afterwards suggested that it flew in the face of the kind of political engagement which Pierce advocated for drama at least, its different kind of work running counter the liveness of text as spoken, social interaction. Understanding the histories of those interactions, and thinking through the scale on which we might need to understand them, seemed important too though – the questions for Pierce after his talk included one about his own infamous scene of analysis of a shooting in season 1 of The Wire, an episode which involved lots of minute looking and figuring out that eventually produces the bullet, but a notoriously limited dialogue!


If you want to know more about this work, these were the session participants: Joshua Calhoun, University of Wisconsin; Christina Warinner, University of Oklahoma; Matthew Collins, University of York; Michael Witmore, Folger Shakespeare Library; Peter Stallybrass, University of Pennsylvania.


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‘Writing Buildings 2016’: call for papers

Catherine is co-organising this conference with CREAte, the research centre for architecture and the humanities at the University of Kent:DSC_0142

In collaboration with the Architectural Review, ‘Writing Buildings’ will bring together quite different traditions of writing about historic buildings. The special character of this conference is that speakers will be drawn from both academic and non-academic fields, and from a range of disciplines that touch on architectural experience and history. In this way we aim to offer a new experience for writers on architecture, interior design and urban space.

We’re inviting papers from those in Architecture, English, History, Sociology, Film and Drama, Landscape Studies and other academic schools with a specialist interest in writing about buildings and urban spaces or experiences across different time periods. The common theme of the papers will be the uses of a variety of voices in creating architecture culture.

Writing Buildings will offer two days of alternative ways of writing architectural history which will encourage experimentation in criticism through breaking disciplinary barriers. The programme will include papers from both academic disciplines and non-academic professions which engage with the built environment, for example, journalism, interior design and construction, as our keynote speakers demonstrate:

Iain Sinclair / Writer

Matthew Beaumont, UCL / Psychogeographer

Jonathan Meades / Writer and Film Maker

Alexandra Harris, University of Liverpool / Cultural Historian

Barbara Penner, Bartlett, UCL / Material Anthropologist

Jonathan Reed / Interior Designer

Ben Campkin, Bartlett, UCL / Urban Geographer

Ian Dungavell / former director, the Victorian Society

The conference will host at least one project-based writing event outside the conference hall. This is currently planned to be held in collaboration with Turner Contemporary as part of their innovative Waste Land project.

For updated news about the conference, including information about events, talks and activities, please see the Writing Buildings


Both previous CREAte conferences have resulted in edited books by leading international academic publishers and we anticipate that this will happen again this time. In addition, the widely read and respected international journal The Architectural Review will promote the conference and intends to publish papers from it.

Conference directors:

Dr Timothy Brittain-Catlin, Kent School of Architecture, University of Kent
Dr Catherine Richardson, School of English, University of Kent
Tom Wilkinson, History Editor, The Architectural Review.

Abstract submission:

Abstracts should be 250 words long.
Abstract submission deadline: 30 September 2015
Notification of acceptance of papers: by 31 January 2015
Conference dates 14th-16th July 2016

Please submit your abstract to with the subject ‘Writing Buildings: abstract’.

If you have any questions, please contact: Timothy Brittain-Catlin ( or Catherine Richardson (

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by | September 15, 2015 · 7:28 pm

Old Robert’s Girdle: The Incan Connection

In an essay published in a volume edited by Alec Ryrie and Jessica Martin, Private and Domestic Devotion in Early Modern Britain (2012), I considered an account of a remarkable object known as ‘Old Robert’s Girdle’. It is described in William Hinde’s biography of the puritan householder John Bruen (1560–1625).* Hinde tells us that, despite being illiterate, a servant called ‘Old Robert’ was mighty in his knowledge of scripture. The key to this knowledge was a ‘strange Girdle’, which Robert apparently fashioned ‘for the help of his memory’. The girdle is described in some detail; made from leather it was long and large so that ‘for compass it would go twice about him’. The belt was then divided into partitions, like a carpenter’s rule, to represent every book of the Bible in order. Every chapter of each book was distinguished by a long ‘point’ (similar to a shoelace), with knots by fives or tens to identify the number of the chapter. Additional points served to divide the chapters into their particular parts, or verses. This device enabled Robert to recall any saying or sentence from the Bible and so he became ‘a godly Instructor’ to the household.

Hinde’s account of Robert’s girdle is an unusually detailed description of the appearance and function of an early modern crafted object and how it was used in particular circumstances and locations. Having been created to serve as a mnemonic device to aid Robert and the household in their command of scripture and sermons, the object’s biography also continued after Robert’s death: his Master, Bruen, thought the girdle worthy to be set up in his study as ‘a monument of Gods mercy’ and to represent ‘old Roberts both piety and industry’. Unfortunately, there is no indication what happened to the girdle after Bruen died – it is presumed lost, and so we are left with this fascinating, yet tantalizing, description.

Since writing about Robert’s Girdle, I came across another group of artefacts which bear a striking resemblance to the description provided by Hinde and which allow us to visualise what this extraordinary object might have looked like. I happened to watch a TV programme dedicated to Incan Khipu…


An Inca Quipu from the Larco Museum in Lima

A khipu – or quipu – is a series of knotted or coloured cotton cords. It consists of a main cord from which pendant cords hang, as well as pendants of pendants (called subsidiaries). The different kinds of knots tied in these pendants, together with other signifiers such as the numbers, positions and colours of the cords all had meaning, representing an immense amount of information. It is known that these knotted-string devices were used for bookkeeping and recording statistical information, most notably by the Inca but also by other peoples of the central Andes from ancient times.

There is considerable debate about the extent to which quipu were used to record narrative information (stories) as well as for administrative (numerical/statistical) purposes; it is possible these devices offered a way of storing and retrieving communal memory. After the Spanish conquest the quipu faded from use, replaced by European writing systems. But in many villages quipu were preserved and continued to function as important items for their local communities, but as revered items used in rituals relating to authority and office-holding rather than for recording information.

The presence of an object that might well have resembled these Incan artefacts as the focal point for communal practices in a noted puritan household takes us some way from the conventional understanding of post-Reformation religious practice as text-based and interiorized. Old Robert’s Girdle operated through physical, haptic interactions with tactile materials and facilitated social exchanges on religious matters. The Incan connection – the similarities with quipu – might help us to reconsider the nature of household religion in Protestant England and acknowledge its continued dependence on material props, that functioned not only as repositories of information and memory, but as special, ritual objects to bind communities together.


*William Hinde, A faithful Remonstrance: or the Holy Life and Happy Death of John Bruen of Bruen-Stapleford, in the County of Chester, Esq., (London, 1641), pp.56-7.

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The Early Modern Sleepover: A day (and night) at home in the Weald and Downland Museum

On a relatively warm summer’s evening a few weeks ago, as the visitors gradually disappeared from the Weald and Downland Museum, we watched the light fading through the massive windows in the hall of Bayleaf Farmhouse over a period of several hours – the best evening of the year. How lighting conditions influence the way we perceive and experience decorated domestic interiors was a key question for our Ways of Seeing the English Domestic Interior Network, 1500-1700. The museum gave us the opportunity to explore this further and directly thanks to a timely representation project. As Catherine has discussed in a previous post, the museum recently commissioned a new painted cloth from Melissa White, based on a mid 16th century wall painting, for installation in Bayleaf’s hall, which is presented as it might have been around 1540. A grant from the University of Kent’s Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities (KIASH) provided support to create a film about the making and viewing of this cloth, including time-lapse photography to capture its changing appearance over the course of a day and night.

bayleafimg_0906     Bayleaf filming

We were able to stay at Bayleaf overnight while the time-lapse filming took place and this provided an extraordinary opportunity to witness the cloth in natural and dimming light as well as by candlelight. This also meant treating the building as a place of accommodation rather than as a museum exhibit. We lit a fire in the hearth in the centre of the hall, read prayers to accompany the lighting of candles from Richard Day’s Booke of Christian Prayers (1578) ‘Great and thick darkness overwhelmeth our harts (O Lord,) until thy light do chase it away…’ and slept in the tester and truckle beds in the solar upstairs, with its unglazed, shuttered windows.

So, did time of day and lighting conditions change the way the new cloth looked? And what did our sleepover experience in a timber-framed hall house ‘in the raw’ (that is, without the accretions of subsequent ‘improvements’ and modern day comforts), contribute to our sense of how these buildings facilitated, accommodated, framed and structured early modern patterns of life?

Here are 8 things we found out that we didn’t know before:

1. The cloth appeared to glow by candlelight. No, really! What had seemed strong, vibrant colours in Melissa’s studio appeared more muted in situ, toning with the natural colours of the plaster and timber environment, with its soot-blackened quality. But in candlelight the colours appeared much richer and bolder with an almost fluorescent quality. This makes us wonder – was this sort of decoration meant to make its greatest impact in the evening? What does this indicate about the relationship between decoration and social practices in a domestic context?

IMG_2462    IMG_2492

2. The glowing appearance of the cloth was particularly striking from outside. It is possible to see therefore how this sort of cloth might have particular impact in an urban setting by night – advertising the quality of the interior to people outside with all this implies about the status and wealth of the owner.

bayleaft glowing

3. The main problem with the open hearth is not smoke, as you might expect, but ash.  The open roof was surprisingly efficient in drawing smoke upwards and away from standing and sitting level but a large quantity of ash rained down onto the high table, still laid with its replica tableware. Good job we didn’t have any Tudor recipes to serve. Ash garnish, anyone?

bayleaf fire

bayleaf chink 2

4. Chinks and knots in the floor are particularly noticeable, indeed strikingly obvious, in the evening. A knot in the wooden floorboard of the first-floor chamber of the 17th century  Pendean Farmhouse, where we tried out some prayers, was hardly noticeable by day (as pictured above) but appeared to glow when the shutters were closed and the room below had the shutters open, drawing attention to the hole. This made it difficult to resist the urge to peek! No wonder court depositions feature so many accounts of peeping through holes to spy on neighbours, but  now we’re aware this may be contingent on lighting conditions too.

5. Sound travels in early modern buildings. We knew this, of course, but there is a real sense of connectedness with people’s movements in other rooms  (Darren’s movements filming down in the hall) as well as with outside (the honking of geese). We tried out reading aloud from prayer books and  devotional manuals. Voices, even when spoken softly, carry readily and clearly from room to room, upwards and downwards. Eavesdropping must  have been quite hard to avoid, especially between upper rooms and the lower ones directly beneath them.

‘ I wil fall on sleep, and take my rest…’

6. The bed furniture was surprisingly comfortable (if too short as we didn’t follow the practice of sleeping propped up). With Catherine in the tester and Tara in the truckle (hmm, seniority evidently came into play with the sleeping arrangements) there was little sense that we were ‘co-sleeping’ – more like sharing a room with twin beds. With such acute awareness of other people elsewhere in the house as well as the sense of connection with outside (see observation 5 above) awareness of another person in the same room seemed less significant, somehow.

Bayleaf beds

7. Shutters to unglazed windows are surprisingly effective at blocking out light (if not sound). The increasing use of glazing and window curtains in the later 16th and 17th centuries must have had a tremendous impact in changing the quality of light at different times of the day.

‘So soone as ye see the day breake, and light appeare in the skie, praie…I wished for daie, and lo, the starres of the twy-light doo appeare; and I see (I thanke thee) the dawning of the daie’ .¹

8. Because the shutters worked so well there was little cognisance of dawn and, after a night of honking geese, we both overslept! This raises the question – how did people wake themselves up in early modern England?

‘Let not my sleepe be unnmeasurable to please excessively the ease of my flesh: but only to suffice the necessity of my nature…’

There is no question that the lived experience of staying overnight at Bayleaf – the sounds, smells, quality of light, the movement of air, the feel of the furniture – has given us a unique and enhanced perspective on how this kind of building behaves under specific conditions. But what added value does this experience offer to inform our research on domestic life in the early modern period? There is a huge methodological challenge here in subjecting this kind of empirical evidence in the present day to critical analysis that could be incorporated within written historical narratives. My colleague, Jonathan Willis, blogger over at the many-headed monster, tells me that he struggles with similar issues in studying early modern music. So, where do we go from here? Back to Bayleaf, perhaps, while also thinking forward to the potential for a study day dedicated to theoretical and practical approaches to experiential and site-specific research in humanities disciplines…

¹ From ‘Christian prayers and meditations’ in Thomas Bentley, Monument of Matrones, 1582, p.367. Other extracts from prayers are from Richard Day, A Booke of Christian Prayers (1578).


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