The Magnificence of the Mundane

I confess!

It is true. My favorite historical information to read are works containing details of how the bourgeois, or middle-class, people in England lived rather than the royalty.

The lives of the nobility and gentry always seem too fantastical to be relatable to me, and they were only about 5% of the population. I read about the upper-crust to understand the power and the politics that drove history rather than how history was lived.

Conversely, reading about the life of peasants and serfs and the lowest working class depresses the living daylights out of me. They were the majority, but their suffering and the crushing  poverty they lived in is more heartbreaking than history-making. However, descriptions of the everyday lives of the middle-class, the merchants and craftsman and artisans and yeomen and others, fascinate me.

They were not in hopeless situations, and had access to several kinds of goods and services that the gentry enjoyed.  Frankly, it is more pleasant to read about the middle class. Fewer people got their heads chopped off for treason or starved to death, for one thing.

One book about this topic that I really enjoyed was The Tudor Housewife by Alison Sim. The book was chock full of tidbits about the lives of real people from the historical records. As an anthropologist, I love learning personal things about the different modes of human existence. As novelist L.P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” I have to agree with that sentiment, since the lives of people in the past seem as exotic to me as any remote villagers in a far-flung locale.  Thus, it gives me a curious happiness (known only to anthropologists, either by scholarship or by inclination) to learn that in 1567 a widow named Grace Bab promised to give her daughter “twenty nobles in money, a bed, two brazen crocks [which I assume have nothing to do with brazen hussies], two pans, half a dozen pewter vessels and clothes” (Sim,p.8) upon the occasion of the daughter’s marriage.  The people of the Tudor times were obsessed with status and flaunted every bit of wealth they could, so you wore and displayed everything as best you could afford. What, then, did the things given for the wedding mean to Grace? Did her daughter feel blessed or cheated? What did their neighbors say about the gifts? Was the grooms family pleased or did they talk badly about Grace’s lack of wealth and generosity behind her back? How much was the giving of gifts motivated by affection for her child, versus her desire for her neighbors and in-laws to see her as a semi-well-off person? These are things I love to speculate about.

Then there are the excerpts of letters in Sim’s book. I loved these glimpses into people’s lives! One of my favorite episodes is a letter written by a man named John Johnson after he discovered one of his apprentices had complained about the life of privation he suffered in Johnson’s household, and the reply of Johnson’s wife Sabine (pgs. 63-64).

John: “Your young gentleman, Master Pratt, hath complained by his letter to his mother that he lacketh both meat and drink, as well as his breakfasts, as also at meals not sufficient. All your menservants have been of counsel with him, for they be of no less opinion, declaring that your bread is not good enough for dogs, and drink so evil that they cannot drink it but are fain when they go into the town to drink their dinners. If ye known they complain with cause, I pray you see it amended: if they complain without cause, let them seek new masters and boarding.”

Sabine: “As for Master Pratt’s complaint, I can find nobody in fault but himself, and he doth deny that he did write any such things but lack of meat and drink, If three meals a day and four in the summer be not sufficient, I would his mother had him, that she might feed him every hour.”

Their exchange just tickles me. I think it is the fact that Sabine’s bread was maligned as not fit for a dog (a phrase used by my grandmother in Appalachia, BTW), coupled with the fact Sabine was so feisty in her defense.  The past may be a foreign country, but these letters made me feel like I knew the inhabitants thereof.

If there are any other history buffs out there who enjoy this kind of intimate look at the nitty-gritty of life in the past, I recommend you read any of Sim’s books, but especially The Tudor Housewife.

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