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Response to Review of A Day at Home in Early Modern England: Material Culture and Domestic Life, 1500-1700

We want first and foremost to thank Sarah Fox for this meticulous and considered review of our book; we were delighted to read such a detailed response to the mood, evidence and arguments of each chapter of A Day at Home in Early Modern England. Her review gives a strong sense of the temporal narrative that holds and structures our evidence, and shows how this provides a clear, engaging and accessible account of material culture and domestic life in early modern England.

Fox describes the ‘sheer scale’ of this undertaking and suggests that each chapter contains sufficient scope and scholarship to be expanded into a monograph. Indeed, in the early stages of this project we discussed the possibility of a series of books. Such an approach would, however, have undermined our purpose to understand the cyclical character of early modern life and the daily comings and goings that embedded household within community in this period. We felt that the holistic approach we took in A Day at Home was essential to understanding the quality of lived experience. Of course, there is still much work to do across the book’s range of interests, and we aimed above all to stimulate new work and discussion in these areas. We share, for example, Fox’s observation that Sasha Handley’s book on sleep in early modern England serves to complement our analysis of the qualities of the chamber at night (chapter 6).

We would certainly agree with Fox that the originality of our book lies in part in its chronological and social focus, providing a new and distinctive concentration on non-elite households, the period prior to the so-called ‘consumer revolution’ and the social meanings and impact of the great re-building. It moves the historiography on in these key areas, as well as extending scholarship on lived religion in Protestant England, writing practices, household work and early modern material culture more generally of course.

Yet it is in developing a new method to deal with the fragmentary and mixed nature of evidence for the experience of domestic material culture at this social level  – the ‘interdisciplinary record linkage’ Fox mentions – that we see as the book’s most original contribution. Fox rightly points to the difficulties with definitions and methodology for such a diverse set of subjects. While we describe our focus as the upper middling, we are careful not to impose uniformity of belief or behaviour on individuals within this group, which is complicated by a range of factors including education, profession and piety as well as geographically by region and across rural/urban contexts and house types. We have aimed to highlight connections and recurring themes derived from observations across our evidence (such as the synergies between godly texts and inscriptions on walls), while at the same time noting differences, as with the comparison in chapter two between service areas in Southampton and Stratford-upon-Avon, or the very different concerns recorded in the household accounts of yeoman Robert Loder in rural Oxfordshire and Exeter merchant John Haynes.

At the very heart of our work on the book, we were responding to what we saw as a significant gap in thinking about ‘hard to reach’ groups in this period: much rich and wonderful methodological thought has been given to recovering women’s writing, for example, but there has been very little equivalent work on reconstructing material environments. It seemed essential to us to develop a method for piecing back together the evidence for the material context of daily life – this is evidently not a straightforward process and it will always produce a partial picture, but we need to be explicit about how material and textual sources might be related to one another if we want to understand everyday experience for those below the level of the elite.

Putting extant objects and spaces, and a range of other textual evidence, against a solid quantitative and qualitative analysis of a backbone of testamentary material (wills and inventories) and court materials for two dioceses gave us access to mentalities while resisting blanket characterisations of middling identity. Indeed, our argument is, as Fox observes, that domestic material culture responded to and expressed mutability in status and outlook within middling groups. While it is true that our book has great breadth, we would therefore see the detail and complexity of our various case studies as offering significant depth and variation. In uniting these disparate material, literary and documentary fragments there is plenty of space within the collage for further pieces, and we look forward to seeing how new interventions add further layers to this project of recovering the choices, practices, and mentalities of a key social group. We hope A Day at Home will lead to many more creative conversations on these issues.