Reviewed by Catherine Richardson (University of Kent)
Published on H-Albion (September, 2016)
Commissioned by Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth
Antony Buxton’s book is a timely one. It is focused on domestic life in early modern England--a subject of immense social and political importance which occasioned much contemporary comment as the foundation of patriarchal authority, but which has been little written about by historians of the period. Buxton points to the various ways in which the subject has been treated in the past--primarily as “the seat of elite social culture, as an architectural expression, as the key unit in biological and social reproduction, and as the locus of economic production and consumption” (p. 5), but his interest is in something rather different. Although useful, this earlier work has, he argues, rather missed the point. Domestic life is a “total and multifaceted ... context” (p. 5), and any “larger historical narrative is thus significantly founded on the mundane events of everyday life, and everyday life itself influenced by external events and circumstances” (p. 1). This book, then, represents a very welcome attempt to get to grips with the significance of ordinary everyday practice. Domestic Culture gives us an insight into identity formation on its most fundamental level in a period in which historians tell us that ideas of subjectivity shifted from “medieval” to “modern,” a “public sphere” emerged, and a “consumer revolution” altered established patterns of daily life.
This book is in some ways an ambitious and audacious one, and much of its novelty comes from its methodology. As the historiography of the period has so little to offer in the way of method for such a study, Buxton turns his attention to anthropological approaches, borrowing from disciplines much more attuned to the multiple and complex meanings of daily life, and more innately convinced of the significance of the domestic in relation to the communal and the political. A substantial introduction goes into depth about how “the totality of domestic life might best be theorised, interpreted and analysed” (p. 1), proposing to employ “anthropological perspectives to create historical ethnographies” (p. 7). In doing so, Buxton treats the usefulness of concepts such as the agency of objects, affordances, and Actor Network Theory for his object of inquiry. He concludes that the following methodological sequence best gets to grips with domestic culture: “identifying the relationships between objects and actions, determining the agency of objects and people and the social relationships expressed through actions, and the attendant conceptual values in turn reinvested in objects and actions” (p. 18). This introduction alone makes the book worth reading, as it sets out an approach which has the potential to unlock significant relationships between early modern individuals and their domestic contexts.
The primary evidence on which Domestic Culture is based is also addressed at length in the introduction. It treats one location, the town of Thame in Oxfordshire, through a detailed analysis of its seventeenth-century probate inventories--documents which list and value the moveable goods of its inhabitants at their deaths. The focus on an individual community is a great strength of this study. It is argued convincingly throughout that such a local scale is vital to the project of revealing the interrelation of the many elements of domestic life. This is surely right--only by understanding the relationships between “objects and object groups ... the habitual actions which revolved around the objects, and the consequent structured networks of social relationships and conceptual values, [which] in turn invested in the objects and actions” (p. 34) will we get at the “practice” of the Thame household, a word he always uses in quotes to emphasise its debt to Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of the connections between things, actions, and values.
As this mixture of theory and inventories perhaps suggests, Domestic Culture is partly a fairly traditional community study, and partly an imaginative and methodologically precocious engagement with early modern lived experience. In chapter 1, Buxton builds a series of contexts for the household which includes the size of the town (population c. 800 in 1600; 1,500 by 1700), its facilities including a grammar school, its housing stock (noting that urban traders’ and artisan-traders’ houses had more rooms than those of yeomen and husbandmen), and field systems, but he also considers the inhabitants’ “visual perspective,” which “would extend to the horizon, to the extremities of the shallow river valley in which the town is situated” (p. 40).
Chapter 2, “The Early Modern Household in Context,” takes a wider perspective, considering the national position of the household within the community and the way Thame’s houses were situated within the physical and social boundaries of the town. There are some fascinating material particularities here, which show just how important a detailed study of places is to understanding the household. For instance, Buxton notes that “the development of the settlement, particularly around the market place with thin elongated burgage plots, created extended proximity, dictating the association of households and people” (p. 85). As a result of its situation, the front of its properties were in an urban setting, the back in an agricultural, and “social engagement was therefore physically organised along axes which also served as focal points and lines of communication” (p. 86). This information is very suggestive, although it might have been useful to read more explicitly about how such relationships nuanced the processes which went on inside.
The next three chapters, “Foodstuff Provisioning, Processing and Cooking,” “Commensality and Conviviality,” and “Rest and Security” offer the meat of the quantitative analysis of the inventories. They give a wealth of insight into the relationship between the material and social organization of Thame’s households. Hearth furniture shows that cooking was still taking place across the town’s rooms, for instance: “102 hearths (68%) were in halls, 36 (24%) in kitchens and 5 (3%) in chambers” (p. 117); gentlemen and clerics had the highest mean frequencies of canopied bedsteads, at 2.5 and 1.5 respectively (p. 178). Knowing that there were tablecloths listed in 70 percent of the inventoried households (p. 152), for instance, or 2,770 napkins in 139 households (p. 171), gives a sense of the levels of sociability in the town, and the recording of 175 books, in 20 percent of the inventories, indicates the levels of literate culture there. This careful work means there is a lot of detail to process in these chapters and sometimes it is hard to know how to draw out its full significance for social practice. A stronger sense of comparison between Thame’s particular domestic culture and that of other places in the seventeenth century might have helped.
Chapters 6 and 7 are the most satisfying in historical terms, drawing the strands of the argument together in different ways: the former looks at the interrelationship of objects in spaces and rooms within the house and the latter works through qualitative examples of individual properties and their occupants. Here the “practice” of Thame’s domesticity comes to life. In chapter 6 change over time comes across most strongly, although more could perhaps have been done to weave together the many threads of temporal adjustment from previous chapters.
Ultimately then, this book makes a very strong case for the significance of lived experience in individual terms, and perhaps the next step is to draw the kind of connections between these lives and the social, cultural, political, and economic levels of existence at which historians most naturally gaze. It succeeds in many ways in its main aim, of bringing together the various strands of domestic life, although this assemblage is often suggestive rather than conclusive. In keeping with its social science-based approach, much of the work of synthesis is done with tables--for instance, a “schematic representation of the spatial social dynamic within Thame households” (p. 241), or “the ‘practice’ of the Thame household” in tabular form, “including interrelation of processes, activities, actions, objects and signification” (p. 203). These have the value of bringing disparate information visually into conjunction, although they lack the immediacy of lived experience. At its best, in the closing chapters, the abstract theoretical perspectives and the evidence of practice gel well, and it is strongest when it works outwards from the detail rather than inwards from the large concepts. Sometimes, the focus on the inventories feels narrow--wills are occasionally alluded to and objects are illustrated, but little analysis is given of either and this leaves the lists of goods feeling rather isolated. That said, an enormous amount of secondary research is evident, and the focus on goods allows the author to connect scholarship on particular categories of things with a stronger sense of their social practice. These qualifications are the perhaps inevitable result of an ambitious project, which gets us much further with understanding domestic life than the vast majority of the studies of inventory evidence which have gone before it.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-albion.
Catherine Richardson. Review of Buxton, Antony, Domestic Culture in Early Modern England.
H-Albion, H-Net Reviews.
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