The material culture of English medieval rural households

A talk by Dr Ben Jervis, Cardiff University, on 15th February 2020

Ben has been studying living standards and material culture in English rural households in the period 1300–1600

  • What goods did ordinary medieval households own?
  • What factors influenced medieval consumption?

In later periods wills are a good source of information, but they are not recorded this early so other sources are needed:

  • Escheators’ records (c.1350–1450)
  • Coroners’ records (c.1500–1600)
  • Archaeological excavations
  • PAS data

The first two are lists of items confiscated from outlawed or executed felons. They include bedding, personal furniture, clothing, cooking and dining equipment.

Archaeological excavations of rural settlements typically uncover:

  • Cooking equipment
  • Tableware
  • Furniture
  • Clothing and jewelry
  • Tools and craft materials
  • Stock
  • Animals and crops
  • Religious items
  • Personal possessions

Analysis of all of these can reveal patterns of usage across time and geography. Ben described the distribution of a number of items:

  • Quern stones as evidence of grain processing
  • Cooking equipment, including evidence for complex cooking and handwashing items.
  • Pewter – rare in finds but features in lists
  • Drinking is an important part of medieval culture, but vessels are rarely recorded.
  • Tables are listed as trestles or boards. Tablecloths are considered more important.
  • Beds are probably not seized hence a lack in the records. Bedding, however, was second only to cookware as an investment by medieval households.
  • Storage and security. Chests are the most common item of furniture listed and are especially listed in Kent and Norfolk.
  • Clothing and dress accessories become more common in later coroners records, especially coats and gowns. Changes in fashion can be followed. Belt fittings are common archaeological finds.
  • Devotional objects are also rare, apart from some archaeological evidence for prayer beads.

Summary

  • Archaeological and historical evidence combined reveal complexity and material richness of medieval households
  • Combined approach essential to understanding the material conditions of medieval life
  • Project has highlighted the diversity of possessions – and begun to tease out some of the systems of value which motivated consumption behaviour

Ben is currently working on project book which will hopefully be out next year

Exploring the archaeology, history and architecture of Berkshire