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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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100 Hours up close with things

IMG_2271For the first time in ages, we actually found ourselves at the same event a few very hot days ago, so we thought we’d put together our thoughts about it. In a grand room overlooking the quad at UCL, a bizarre collection of objects was ranged along a series of low cupboards – at the end of the line, a slice of meteorite, a Nupe stool shaped like a spider, some Edison Dictaphone Tubes (now silent), a set of miniature plaster models of sea creatures. We were there to discuss the findings to date of the 100 Hours Project – 10 researchers, 10 UCL objects, 5 meetings, 100 hours is the tag – a lively, experimental bringing together of subjects from different disciplinary perspectives within the Humanities with a disparate collection of objects from the UCL museums collections.

Catherine chaired a morning panel whose participants reflected on the shifting perspectives afforded by a protracted engagement with things. James Paz, an early medievalist, talked about how too much looking had begun to ‘uncreate’ his Egyptian oracular bust, breaking down its anthropomorphic features. Florian Roithmayr, a sculptor, suggested that not knowing his plaster models extended his curiosity and postponed knowledge, and discussed how things might teach what they do not know by a process of facilitation based on form. Emily Orr, a design historian, raised Nabokov’s concerns around an involuntary ‘sinking into history’ as opposed to skimming over matter. She found a maker’s perspective on her stool, from the bottom up, the carving communicating the movement of the carver’s hand. Finally, Kate Smith, one of the project’s historian organisers, discussed the way objects cultivate forms of intimacy (which might include knowledge) and suggested how those forms might be explored through gesture – those we make now in response to things, in a museum situation, and the ones they might have initiated in their first users. Her ‘object’, parts of a whistle which might, or might not, be able to be reassembled into an instrument for testing the pitch of hearing, picked up on questions across the day about completeness – what is an object, the part or the whole, and how do the categories into which we slot things develop?

I was fascinated by the tensions in this and other sessions between the historians’ urge to contextualise, to give their objects a history and know them through it, and the possible release from what James referred to as ‘information overload’ proffered by objects that had no histories. Tying down models for other kinds of knowing, probing those productive gaps between people and things that Florian mentioned, seems like a way forward. And the different ways in which the contributors turned their interactions with objects into narrative form has kept me thinking ever since – how do different disciplines articulate their dealings with things, and how might they develop their practices in the light of the kind of sustained attention – the long looking – advocated by 100 Hours? Just what is the relationship between objects and narrative…?

For me (Tara) the 100 Hours Forum raised important questions about definitions and terminology, both in terms of the subject and process of enquiry. Firstly, what do we mean by the term ‘object’? As Catherine mentioned, in questions we discussed the tyranny of ‘wholeness’; are we really talking about fragments rather than complete things? In considering what might indicate the extent or boundary of an object there is also the matter of framing, packaging, protecting and presenting things that becomes part of its biography. Several of the featured items from the UCL collections were in fact collections of things, mounted and displayed in an album, glass case or protective box. Should this material intervention, aggregation or accretion now be considered integral to the thing? How do we get to grips with the unbounded nature of the material? If we are studying “intersections not objects” how might close and repeated encounters with an object attend to this interest? Is a thing a thing or a meaning? Can we distinguish between them? Should we refer to material things not as objects but as specimens or assemblages? Or, as suggested by one respondent, should we call them ‘shares’ to capture the intimate quality of shared things and experiences?

In terms of the process of enquiry, the range of approaches adopted by the 10 researchers raised questions about what it is we expect or wish to find out through close encounters with objects and thus what it is we are doing as researchers when we engage with things. Much of the interpretation was refreshingly freeform, without a systematic strategy apart from the recommended close, repeated looking and without the need to produce a particular ‘finding’ other than to reflect on this process. This raises questions about the status of the object as evidence and its relationship with other sources of information. Several researchers stated their conscious rejection of recourse to text in an attempt to reverse or redefine their disciplinary training and tendencies. This desire to keep the object centre-stage produced some fascinating creative journeys; I was particularly struck by the presentation on the Nupe stool. The absence of any associated documentation to contextualise the particular object meant that its researcher, Emily Orr, followed the form of the stool, allowing its surface and shape to resonate and prompt associations and “conversations” with other designed objects. But in privileging the object (and the terms ‘seduction’, ‘fetishism’ and ‘idolatry’ did come up in discussion) are we losing sight of our original research questions and strategies, and if so, does it matter?

This leads to the issue of the beguiling quality of things, provoking particular forms of response. It was pointed out that the researchers were able to choose their object and many picked curiosities or wonders – is the impulse therefore to understand, ‘explain’ or simply to enjoy these striking, captivating things? Might the fascinating quality of the chosen items also explain the evident attachment and claim to ownership researchers articulated in giving an account of ‘their’ object and the fondness they had developed towards it? There was quite a bit of discussion around the implications of the familiarity created by the ‘return’ or repeated close viewing of an object which prompted the widespread adoption of the keyword ‘intimacy’. We wondered whether we would feel as comfortable being ‘intimate’ with other kinds of distasteful, subversive things. But cultivating forms of intimacy through the ‘return’ is not necessarily cosy; Kate Smith pointed out that repetition is in fact disruptive because each exposure is informed by new knowledge and experiences. If getting intimate with things is the way forward for historical disciplines, what are the practical constraints and what is the role of mediation (both in terms of research process, e.g. curatorial involvement, and for communicating research)? How can a researcher communicate the intimacy of their encounter to an audience lacking this same access? This was discussed in looking forward to outputs from the project, with other communication channels such as TV or radio mooted as an appropriate alternative to reflect on and share these experiences with things. Whatever the channel, the 100 Hours project is an exemplar of the rich capacity of research agendas that promote exchanges with objects and exchanges about objects and we look forward to the wider dissemination of these ‘shares’.

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Early modern design in the age of mechanical reproduction?

Hastings studioA few days ago I drove across the Romney Marsh to Hastings, to Melissa White’s textile workshop to meet her for the first time, with Danae Tankard from the Weald and Downland Museum. Melissa is creating a new painted cloth for the hall of the Museum’s most loved property, Bayleaf. We are making a film about the whole project, produced by Darren Mapletoft, as one of the outcomes the AHRC Domestic Interiors network – in the course of it we’ve been discussing the impact of decorative textiles and different ways of presenting them in heritage settings.

Part of Melissa’s work involves making bespoke hand painted replica Elizabethan domestic interiors, for private clients and museums (including at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust), and part is more mainstream – she has worked with big furnishings firms such as Zoffany to create modern textile and paper designs inspired by historic interiors.

zoffany verdure

So one of the things I wanted to ask Melissa about was what the difference is between these two processes – where does reproducing an historic interior stop, and designing something modern based around an early modern aesthetic start? Her Zoffany design ‘Verdure’ is based on the painted cloths at Owlpen (and other related ones), but for the commercial pattern she took out the figures, turning it from a narrative sequence about Joseph to a verdant scene of characteristically early modern trees, waterfalls and buildings. The painted cloth that Melissa is producing for the Weald and Downland is based on a wall painting from Althrey Hall in Wrexham that Kathryn Davies discussed at the Network final conference (see more about the conference here). So was she copying this, or designing something based around it?

Melissa talked about the processes she went through. First, she used authentic fabrics and pigments as much as possible. The canvas is sized with rabbit skin glue, the background stripes are of yellow ochre and lamp black and whiting (to make grey), and the rest of the design also includes red ochre, raw umber, and a vermillion substitute for the pomegranate seeds and some of the flowers – the small jewel-like dots of colour which shine out of the canvas and would have been the most expensive paint and therefore a signal of the owner’s wealth.

She began by copying the work of the Elizabethan painters, by imitating the nature of the brushstrokes,  their direction and the way of applying the paint – using every possible piece of evidence that could be gleaned from the original – and replicating slight alterations in the design exactly. This kind of learning by doing meant that Melissa was sensitive to the small changes that the original painters had made as they went along, and the variations that came about in creating a repeating pattern by hand. In other words, she was seeing how the pattern took shape by imitating the practice, rather than the design itself, and after an initial period of replication she could continue in that spirit and make her own changes.

Althrey Hall wallpainting

That led us on to discussing the nature of repetition. She talked about the fact that so many early modern decorative  textiles replicate the nature of woven cloth, in which repeats can be produced mechanically. She sees them as aiming to imitate elite fabrics, particularly in this design the swags and the pomegranates that very expensive imported silks often contain, and we discussed where rural families might have come across such fabrics – perhaps in the vestments and altar cloths of the pre-Reformation parish church might be one place? The close relationship between different decorative works – painted cloths and wall paintings for instance, meant that key deign elements from fabrics could determine the appearance of domestic interiors.

It was fascinating finding out about the practicalities of making, and the insights this gives into the models and processes of sixteenth-century painters working across a range of different media. The workshop was a really inspirational place. The next part of the process will be to see what visual impact the new cloth will have behind the table in Bayleaf, and how it will alter the space. We’ll be filming the installation and the responses of some of the staff and visitors, and trying to analyse the way it works visually in the different lights at different times of day. Knowing how the aesthetic qualities of these cloths worked within the house as a backdrop for particular kinds of activities will help us to understand why people invested in them, and  the role they played in shaping the status of their owner. More soon on the installation, and then a link to the video…

Althrey design reference

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