Home Life in the 17th century posts: Introduction
Where, When and Why
This introductory post is the first in a series that discusses home life during the 17th century, through standing buildings and contemporaneous domestic material culture (some of which archaeological excavations have uncovered, and some of which survive in situ in houses that are still standing), considering a range of written evidence alongside material sources. This series was inspired by a recent visit to an early 17th century private home (‘Upper Hall’), built in the Swadlincote area during the 1620s to house a prosperous farming family.[i]
The unusual level of preservation of Upper Hall, with many surviving historic features (most likely due to the presence of tenants limiting 20th century modernisations), makes this building a particularly interesting topic for investigation. Furthermore, the current owners are clearly sympathetic to the historical significance of the building, and have sourced fixtures, fittings, and furnishings compatible with the period of construction, and with modifications made in the 18th and 19th centuries. Though a comfortable living home today, this attention to detail brings alive the history of the dwelling, capturing aspects of the domestic material world for the well-to-do householder in the Early Modern period.[ii]
The primary aim of writing this series is to disseminate information on this property. Through viewing the interior, much might be learnt about domestic life; the residents not only went to the trouble of taking us around their home and pointing out (and explaining) historic features, but also of showing us the artefacts that they had found in the garden, sharing a wealth of knowledge during our visit. They have very kindly granted for LIPCAP consent to display photographs taken during the visit on our website.
This visit (and the writing of these posts) provided a useful opportunity to revise knowledge of early modern domestic contexts,[iii] which when considered alongside other bodies of evidence – such as burials and mortuary memorials of this period – potentially enables a more rounded consideration of life in the early modern past.[iv]
What and How
As research into the property developed, the wealth of readily available relevant sources soon became apparent: family histories, Hearth Tax returns,[v] and records relating to several chancery cases, suggested the possibility of going beyond basic analyses and historical contextualisation of material evidence. The content of easily accessible written evidence opened up the possibility of attempting a form of detailed interpretation that, though less frequently adopted within British archaeology than by archaeologists in North America and Australia, holds the potential to provide a perspective on the past in a format that might be more meaningful than is usual.
Posts describing the property will adopt an ‘archaeological story-telling’ approach – an unconventional, but well-established, genre that brings the material culture of the past back to life through imaginative rendering of historical contexts.[vi] The resultant ‘tales’ differ from historical fiction in both method and intent, presenting detailed, accurate archaeological and written evidence (usually incorporating primary research) within a fictitious narrative. This process aims to interpret sources in a way that might capture the historical imagination of a wider audience than are usually attracted to academic texts (though an academic audience is not excluded). Though set in the mid 17th century, the stories will at times jump forward to later periods, in order to consider features of historic interest that date to after this time.
This particular endeavour represents only the early stages of research: time and financial constraints, restricted mobility, and limited access to resources, have not permitted examination of previous archaeological reports, which the author hopes to achieve in the future. After further research (and taking into consideration any feedback that readers might provide), this series of posts will most likely be modified, and may be developed within a collection of similar articles addressing a range of historical domestic contexts (hopefully including sites of particular interest encountered through LIPCAP fieldwork). For the time being, these narratives incorporate preliminary evidence, as seen during the visit to the property; information provided by the occupants; data within the Historic Environment Records;[vii] information from reports outlining archaeological investigations carried out within the immediate vicinity of the building;[viii] and that derived from independent investigations into family, local, regional, and wider histories.[ix]
Posts will use the photographs of interior historic features taken during our tour of the house,[x] with interpretations drawing upon what remains of the early fabric of this building, and the material culture used within comparable housing (i.e. dwellings in this area, and elsewhere of similar and lower status). This approach enables the consideration of everyday domestic life and environment during the early phases of occupation within this dwelling, although in a less detailed way than might be achieved by a more detailed archaeological standing building investigation. Although it considers buildings and other material from outside the East Midlands (including artefacts manufactured in Britain but discovered through excavations in former British colonies), the series concentrates upon Derbyshire – in particular, the southern districts of the county. Being rich in early modern buildings, and incorporating LIPCAP study areas, this area is of special interest to the Living in the Past Community Archaeology Project.
For those who might wish to know a little more about housing and household material culture in the 17th century, a supplementary post ‘Living in the Early Modern Past: the 17th Century Home’ considers the typical artisan house, outlining domestic life for the family of the less wealthy ‘yeoman’.[xi] This may be used as a comparison for the more affluent home we are about to visit, highlighting the high status of those who lived within Upper Hall, and the relative splendour of their home environment. This supplement also considers the influence of late medieval halls upon the dwellings of yeomen, and the development of different social categories, in the 17th century. Where descriptions of the interiors, objects, culture, and society within the narrative posts do not go into detail, readers may refer to the supplementary and other posts for further information.
Though what follows represents only preliminary work (as it has not yet been possible for the author to obtain copies of previous publications), it lays out the initial stages of multi-disciplinary historical research that holds potential to go beyond descriptions of domestic material culture and environment, and the practicalities of home life, in the early modern period. Feedback from readers on the ‘story-telling’ method (or other issues) will be welcome, so that the process might be refined, although it may not be possible to respond individually to comments.
The next section of this post will provide an outline of the series, should readers have an interest in any particular aspect of the topic.
An Expedition into the Past: The Upper Hall Series
Following on from this post, ‘Living in the Early Modern Past: the 17th Century Home’, considers housing for those categorised at the time as ‘yeoman’ – the social group to which the person who built Upper Hall attested as belonging.[xii] During and after the 17th century, the ‘middling sort’ essentially developed from this group:[xiii] artisans, trades-people, and small holders, with means beyond those of the poor husbandmen, but not as high status (nor often as wealthy) as the landed gentry.[xiv] This expanding group both benefited financially and enhanced their own comfort (and increasingly social position), through recent and continuing growth in trade and commerce – concomitant consumerism, providing a broader range of household material culture, with more opportunities to emulate that of wealthier and higher status homes.
This post acts as a counterpoint to those describing the Hall, and illustrates and discusses domestic material culture found in less substantial homes, through to more high status households.
The third post examines family and social relationships within and beyond the village, considering inheritance, including (through numerous chancery court records) disputes over land ownership, and perhaps possession of the Hall. Although the latter concerns ostensibly tedious and complex legal disputes, by studying this material alongside archaeological evidence and other historical sources, we may ultimately learn much about everyday life and death in the past. Such information holds the potential to elucidate the mutability of family ties and social bonds at this time: family and community cooperation and conflict emerge from this body of evidence. It is therefore a useful source with regard to attitudes towards group identities and individuality, the acquisition and transference of ‘goods’ (and perhaps the growing power of consumerism), and processes by which social status is constructed and transformed during this transitional period.
The fourth Upper Hall post begins the archaeological story-telling posts, using documentary sources to contextualise the material evidence encountered at Upper Hall. We follow the petty constable Samuel Beighton as he approaches the manor house in 1662 in order to carry out checks for the first Hearth Tax.[xv] His journey provides opportunities not only to consider the appearance of house, but also the social and cultural environment of the day.
In this first story, Samuel travels from the nearby church and along the main road of the village, encountering traffic en route to market. When he arrives at the property Samuel knocks at the front door and looks at the outside of the building, reflecting upon the status of the resident family – the Benskins, and comparing this grand house to neighbouring buildings.
In this second archaeological narrative, we follow Samuel around the ground floor and cellars of Upper Hall, during his visit to determine whether the Master of the house, John Benskin, has been honest in his tax return. This provides constable Beighton with an opportunity to see how those with good fortune live: he sees servants about their daily tasks, and gazes upon the decor and fine things that fill the manor house, as he is shown each room. But with dusk approaching, Samuel must leave to return another day…
As Christmas draws near, and time must be applied to other LIPCAP tasks (including a second 1930s House Xmas Open Day – see what happened last year here), there will be a break in Upper Hall series. If sufficient interest has been shown in the above posts, and if other commitments permit, the series will continue in the New Year with:
Onwards and Upwards: exploring a 17th Century Home in South Derbyshire
Out back: exploring a 17th Century Home in South Derbyshire
The third story (‘Onwards and Upwards’) will follow Samuel Beighton when he returns to Upper Hall in order to investigate the bedrooms of the first floor, and attic rooms, in order to search out hearths that Master Benskin might be trying to conceal so to avoid paying the twice-yearly tax on these features.
The final archaeological story (‘Out back’) examines the back of the house and outbuildings, in search of further hearths. As in the other stories, we travel forward in time to explore later buildings, such as the washhouse and privy.
We hope that you enjoy these posts – please let us know if you do, or if you have any thoughts on how they might be improved.
In the mean time, sign up for the blog email list, to receive notifications of new articles – including extracts from a Victorian book on folklore in Derbyshire, which shall this time look at Christmas customs, beliefs, and rituals.
[i] In order to retain the privacy of the modern occupants, the full address is withheld. Should this information be sought for genuine research purposes, please contact the project (using the website form), so that the author might pass on enquiries to the residents (who are, however, under no obligation to release this information).
[ii] There are various definitions for the term ‘Early Modern’ within and between the different fields of study concerned with historic buildings and domestic material culture. Archaeological studies in Britain tend to see the Early Modern period as beginning at the start of the post-medieval era (which itself is accorded different points in the late 15th – mid 16th centuries). The termination of the Early Modern era is usually seen as coinciding with the widespread effects of the ‘Industrial Revolution‘, i.e., broadly the late 18th century. Here, the beginning of the post-medieval period, as defined by English Heritage and Historic Environment curators, i.e. AD 1540, will be adopted as a very general starting point for the Early Modern era. However, it must be made clear that this historical period, as with others, has been defined by historians for analytical purposes, and does not necessarily reflect the way that people at the time saw themselves as situated within an era of specific cultural change or continuity.
[iii] During undergraduate studies (long, long ago…) the author was given the opportunity to conduct a standing building investigation of a 17th century cottage in Lincolnshire, which both provided grounding in detailed archaeological building surveys, and sparked an interest in early modern vernacular housing (for more background information, see note iii, ‘Living in the Early Modern Past: the 17th Century Home’)
[v] For more information on the Hearth Tax, see Hearth Tax Online – the website of the Centre for Hearth Tax Studies at the University of Roehampton. For hearth tax records, see the National Archives online catalogue.
[vi] The ‘story-telling’ approach is applied and considered within a range of works (e.g. Gibb, James G. 2000 ‘Imaginary, But by No Means Unimaginable: Storytelling, Science, and Historical Archaeology’, Historical Archaeology 34(2), pp.1-6; Beaudry, Mary C. 2005 ‘Stories That Matter: Material Lives in 19th Century Lowell and Boston, Massachusetts’, Post-Medieval Archaeology, Monograph 3, pp.1-20). This method presents the facts uncovered through the study of historical material remains within a narrative framework intended to convey the social and cultural environment to the modern reader; the author has found such an approach most effective when teaching archaeology in adult education, and to the general public.
[viii] A watching brief consists of the observation by archaeologists of construction work within historically sensitive areas, to see what historical information might be revealed through excavations, and as a precaution against damage to any hitherto unknown buried remains.
Various archaeological reports are freely available on the ‘grey literature’ (unpublished reports) section of the Archaeological Data Service (ADS) website, here. In order to retain the privacy of the current occupants, this information is not cited in detail here, due to its inclusion of the address.
[ix] Sources includes parish records and other material associated with the nearby parish church; brief investigation of local industries, particularly ceramics; contemporaneous taxation reports; family history information obtained from public sources, and extended through independent research, e.g. using parish and ecclesiastical records, and documents such as wills, apprenticeship records, and chancery court records, obtained from the National Archives, and other sources. Several unpublished archaeological reports have been completed on the property: should the opportunity subsequently arise to access these documents, this post may be updated with additional information, or a new update post published.
[x] The images of Upper Hall that illustrate the narrative of this series were taken during an open day in Autumn 2014, preventing use of tripod, scale and technical photographic techniques, and precluding the production of a representative archaeological record (in order to avoid obstructing other visitors and residents, and with limited time). Photographs are displayed on this website with the kind permission of the residents of this property; in attempting to avoid the exhibition of personal belongings, some areas, or sections of rooms, were not photographed. All images of the building and associated artefacts are ©LIPCAP, and may not be reproduced without the express permission of the LIP project and property owners.
[xi] Those categorised, and self-identifying, as ‘yeoman’ belonged to a broad social group that ranged from the tenant farmer of modest means, to the better-off, land-owning, farmer. However, in comparison to terms previously used to denote social status (e.g. see here for the 16th century) those used in the 17th century (such as within wills and inventories) are less easily defined. The changing nature of commerce, economy, and social organisation at this time may have resulted in greater ambiguity surrounding the terms ‘yeoman’ and ‘husbandman’, as opportunities to accumulate capital beyond landownership expanded. For example, potters of the late 17th century might be defined as yeomen, presumably due to their independent social position and accumulation of wealth through trade (e.g. see Lorna Weatherill 1971 The Pottery Trade and North Staffordshire, 1660-1760, p 148). However, in representing landownership (the ‘yeoman’ being of the higher status, as a freeholder), the term yeoman appear to remain significant well into the 19th century.
[xii] See note xi.
[xiii] Freely accessible research on the development of the ‘middling sort’ includes ‘The Search For The ‘Middle Sort’ of People’ In England, 1600–1800‘, by H R French (2000); and
in Google Books, sections of Margaret R. Hunt’s 1996 The Middling Sort: Commerce, Gender, and the Family in England, 1680-1780.
[xiv] Husbandmen were typically small-scale tenant farmers, and farm hands, i.e. of lower status, and less well off, than the yeoman. The ‘gentry’ – ‘gentlemen’ – often owned large areas of land, and / or held professional positions (e.g. lawyers, doctors, and some clergy).
[xv] For information on the petty constable, see E. Trotter (ed.) 1980 Seventeenth Century Life in the Country Parish, p. 83 ff..