Household Goods and Good Households in Late Medieval London: Consumption and Domesticity after the Plague 
by Katherine L. French.
Pennsylvania, 314 pp., £52, October 2021, 978 0 8122 5305 4
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Half​ of London was dead, and it was time to spend. Between the plague of 1348 and a second wave in 1361, wages rose steeply, and workers couldn’t wait to enjoy the good things in life. ‘There is scarcely a villein today who is satisfied with his lot,’ a sermon writer complained. Oxherds and ploughmen were eating well. Artisans were going about dressed as gentlemen, ‘poor women’ were wearing ‘the dress of ladies’ and ‘poor clerks … clothes like those of the king’.

This spending caused rapid inflation. Prices were out of control: two pennies for a gallon of beer. The London authorities tried to fix a ‘reasonable price’ for meat – seven pence for a capon baked in pastry, sixpence for the best kind of goose. But price and value were now distant relations. No one knew what things should cost, and market manipulation was rife. William Cokke, carrying some corn in his hand for show, walked round Newgate market talking loudly about the outrageous price of wheat, which he claimed could not be got for less than 21 pence a bushel; the real price was 18 pence and he was sent to the pillory.

At Michaelmas in 1363 the House of Commons demanded measures to control trade. Their petition asserted that ‘the prices of various victuals within the realm are greatly increased because various people of various conditions wear various apparel not appropriate to their estate.’ Craftsmen were ordered to wear appropriate clothes. Their wives should wear cheap shoes. No more silk or silver cloth. No more embroidery or enamelling. No more gold brooches, silver clasps, chains or bracelets. No more precious stones, belts or knives. No more baubles. England’s first sumptuary law is often cited as evidence that the Black Death collapsed traditional hierarchies and spooked the elites. The chancellor noted that such an ordinance was ‘new and never before witnessed’.

But only two years later the Commons changed its mind. Merchants had been ‘severely aggrieved’ by the restriction of their customer base and MPs decided that monopolies and cartels, rather than plebeian consumption, were to blame for price rises. They asked the king to ensure that ‘all people, of whatever estate or condition they may be, may freely determine their consumption of victuals and apparel for themselves, their wives, children and servants in the manner that seems best to them for their own profit.’

The joyful consumerism continued for decades. Londoners spent their money on things like mazers – drinking cups fashioned from the burls of maple trees and embellished with gold or silver. One man, William Hawed, bequeathed a cup nicknamed ‘Long Nose’ to his parish, to be used to remember him on the anniversary of his death. Fine tapestry wall hangings were unaffordable to all but the richest, but from the early 15th century Flemish artisans found a ready market in London for painted linen cloths, which gave much the same effect. They could even be found in the parlours of fishmongers. In his 2001 Ford Lectures, Chris Dyer suggested that workers in late medieval England ‘enjoyed a standard of living that was not to be attained again until the late 19th century’.

So was the plague the end of something, or the beginning? Was it the devastating calamity that ended two centuries of population growth and economic expansion in England, or the foundation of a new ‘golden age’ in the long 15th century (c.1380-1520) for workers, who leveraged their labour power into higher wages, a better quality of life and a mountain of consumer goods? Katherine French provides a new angle on these questions by considering domestic life and material culture in London, as revealed by the abundant evidence in wills. Late medieval Londoners, she argues, had to ‘learn to live with more’. The increase of consumerism among the artisanal and mercantile classes – who spent money on the decorative and the devotional, the functional and the frivolous – reshaped bourgeois domesticity.

Not all post-plague consumption was extravagant. Townspeople were also acquiring more and better versions of household goods. More brass pots for cooking, more ewers, more knives and spoons. It became usual to give each member of the household their own trencher – wooden ones for the humbler sorts, pewter plates for those who could afford them – so that they could take their own portion rather than eating from a shared dish. Cushions, once a luxury, were now ubiquitous, as were increasingly elaborate bedclothes, bolsters, coverlets and pillows. Wooden furniture – carved, or at least painted – came to be durable and attractive enough to be worth passing down to your heirs. Wealthy citizens became discerning collectors. The hall of Robert Stodley, a merchant who died in 1536, contained cupboards, tables, a desk, a bench, a counting table and a chair ‘of English oak [with] a woman’s face on the back’. The lower orders collected possessions too. John Elmesley can’t have earned much as a servant to a wax chandler, but he took in his godson, Robert Sharp, and in his will provided him with all the things a little boy needed: a small featherbed with two pairs of fitted sheets; a dining set marked with the initials ‘R.S.’; a gilt cup and cover, decorated with roses and fleurs-de-lis; a child-size trestle table and joined stool; a primer ‘for to serve god with’. The most useful item Elmesley bequeathed to Robert was ‘a little coffer to put his small things [in]’.

London houses changed shape to accommodate the clutter. The 14th-century hall gave way to discrete living spaces serving specific purposes. Wealthy citizens built more chambers for themselves and their servants, separate kitchens and pantries, even counting houses; they put their weapons away in wardrobes, displaying instead funny-faced jugs and fine gilt vessels. The first record of a London parlour comes from 1373. The parlorium, or ‘talking room’, had been a feature of monastic and aristocratic houses, but was now adapted by the chattering classes as a room for secluded leisure. Thomas Mower’s parlour contained a set of bells that were played with a mallet, while that of Matthew Phelips, a former mayor of London, was bedecked with cushions (eight with griffons, seven with lions), painted hangings, benches, a turned chair and an ‘English book of the chronicles of London’.

French shows the ways in which this accumulation of stuff structured gender relations. Bourgeois women had been expected to manage the household long before the plague. A moral poem probably composed in the early 14th century, ‘How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter’, warned women that ‘Mych thyng behoven them/That gode housold schall kepyn,’ and listed their duties: keeping the house under lock and key, staying out of debt, placating their husbands and managing their servants, pitching in to bake bread if necessary, ‘for many handys make lyght werke.’ But the many things that filled houses in the later Middle Ages made for much heavier work: finer foods were cooked by more complex means; an ever expanding array of napkins had to be washed and arranged; there were more clothes to clean, more rooms to sweep.

French shows that it’s hard to justify the older historical view of the 15th century as a ‘golden age’ for women. It’s true that, immediately after the plague, women were able to take advantage of labour shortages – the sumptuary legislation of 1363 had been accompanied by a proviso that women ought to ‘work and labour as freely’ as brewers, bakers and clothworkers – to achieve some degree of economic independence. But this short-term success was also the root of a long-term regression. Urban women who could support themselves with high wages chose to marry late, or not at all; the birth rate remained low through the 15th century. By the 1440s, political instability, agrarian crisis, bullion shortages and a credit crunch prompted a protracted recession known to historians as the Great Slump. In these hard times, working women increasingly came to be seen as a threat to male wages and moral order, and they were pushed back into the home. In 1492, the civic authorities in Coventry decreed that all unmarried women under the age of fifty should go into domestic service rather than live alone. French argues that these legacies of the post-plague economy also intensified the cultural association between women and housework, and demonstrates this by tracking bequests of household goods – basins and ewers, napery, chests, candlesticks and dishware – across the later Middle Ages. In the 1380s, men and women were given these things in almost equal proportions, with men receiving marginally more. But from around 1450, women came to receive 65 per cent of such items. It is very tricky to show cultural change through the flow of objects – and even harder to relate it to underlying changes in the economy – but the figures are striking.

Women had to work out where to keep all this material. They marked bed linen with letters and numbers to correspond to particular beds, grouped napkins into sets of a dozen, bought brass pots engraved with numbers and sorted items into chests (Juliana Fenrother had her name painted on hers). Under London’s customary law, chests were classified as ‘paraphernalia’, the category of household goods wives were permitted to own themselves. They were often fitted with showy locks and braces, signalling to visitors that valuables lay within. Chests were common before the plague, but by the end of the Middle Ages they had become heirlooms for women in particular. They symbolise the vexed position of most housewives, trapped by the stuff that allowed them to live more luxurious lives than their mothers and grandmothers, but which also demanded incessant management.

French points out that women’s responsibilities also gave them a sense of ownership, even authority, over the household. This was particularly true of widows, who unlike other women didn’t need permission to make a will. Whereas male testators were usually trying to provide for their families after their death, widows were tasked with dispersing a household’s objects. In her will of 1534, Catherine Bayly bequeathed a ‘standing cup, gilt, engraved, which was bought of Master Ffenyther’, along with ‘my husband’s little chain that he was wont to wear every day’. The wording suggests that the clerk stayed close to what Bayly actually said, showing a respect for her precise wishes. Joan Kent, who had outlived three husbands when she made her will in 1487, gave her son John his father’s silver girdle and a gilt cup that had belonged to his godmother. She warned him to be ‘therewith contented and in anywise not vex or trouble my executors after my decease’, or he wouldn’t get a penny. (Of course, men did the same sort of thing; Matthew Phelips threatened to disinherit his second wife, Beatrice, should she challenge his will, and asked to be buried next to his first wife, Joan.) Kent gave her daughter her ‘best bed of Arras’ and willed that it remain in the family, ‘lawfully begotten from heir to heir as long as any such shall be, for a remembrance to pray for my soul & the souls of their ancestors’. As a medieval legal proverb had it, ‘Le mort saisit le vif’ – the dead grasps the living.

When Margery Langrich, of the parish of St Martin Orgar (at the head of London Bridge), died in 1470 she left to her second oldest son, Thomas, a ‘nut’ – a coconut shell made into a drinking vessel, covered with silver and gilt decorations – as well as linens for table and bed marked ‘T’ and ‘L’, a set of six silver spoons marked ‘K’, and a bed canopy stained with the image of two pelicans. French follows the trail: Thomas, a draper like his father, died fifteen years later, bequeathing to his sister the ‘napery marked with T and L of red silk given me by my mother’ and a covered gilt coconut drinking vessel, ‘which I had of the gift of my mother by her testament’.

This sort of evidence gives us a rare insight into what Arjun Appadurai calls ‘the social life of things’, the way that objects conjure different kinds of relation as they move between people. A coconut was plucked from a tree somewhere in the Indian Ocean, taken by Arab merchants and sold to a Venetian fattore in Alexandria, shipped to London, polished down by a turner into an attractive hardwood, bought by a goldsmith, plated in precious metal, sold to a draper’s widow, bequeathed to her son, passed on to his sister and so on, until the husk was worn out and thrown away, the plate melted down and used for something else. Moving between market, workshop and household, it existed as a commodity with a certain price, as an inalienable birthright, and, at some later point, as a piece of rubbish in an old chest.

As well as wills, French considers the rarer – but more stringently detailed – inventories for debt, made at the point of bankruptcy to record goods that could be sold to pay off creditors. When the bailiffs caught up with Matthew Ernest in 1505, they rifled through his Prussian coffer and found three coarse sheets and four ‘sore worn’ smocks, some candle wax and a copy of the Golden Legend. Another chest contained some broken panes of glass. Such snapshots help to give us a clearer view of the clutter people possessed. They also show that the rise of consumer culture was tied from the outset to new forms of precarity. As Daniel Smail has argued in his studies of the medieval Mediterranean, to have lots of things was to be attached to the value they stored, and vulnerable to the violence of debt collection. This was particularly true in England at the time of the Great Slump. Anne Edward, a baker’s wife, pawned a silk girdle and some coral prayer beads for a loan of a few shillings, but was unable to redeem them. Her creditor charitably remembered her plight in her will, offering the items back on the condition of full repayment. Other creditors were less generous. A widow called Anne Taverner bestowed an expensive gilt goblet that had originally been deposited with her as a pledge. Commodity, collateral, and then gift.

French’s evidence takes us into the emotional world of late medieval London, but her materials – all the sentimental wills and cold-eyed inventories – emphasise the pain of accumulation, the vexed moments at which objects are invested with an excessive love. Archaeological finds from the Thames foreshore remind us that some things were treated more casually. The Museum of London catalogue lists a terracotta mould in the shape of St Catherine, complete with wheel and sword. Housewives were supposed to bake their biscuit breads into the shape of the saint, patron of maidens, nurses and spinsters, for her feast day on 25 November. Perhaps it raised a smile to see St Catherine rendered in marzipan. Why do we want the things that we want? Someone bought it, and someone chucked it away.

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