Saturday 17 August 2013

Consumption and Gender in the Early seventeenth Century Household: the world of Alice Le Strange- Book review

Consumption and Gender in the Early seventeenth Century Household: the world of Alice Le Strange, by Jane Whittle and Elizabeth Griffiths. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. £60. ISBN 978 0 19 923353 3

I first wrote about this project eighteen months ago before the book was published. I put it on my Christmas list but nobody bought it for me. I have now purchased it for myself and am very happy. I recommend this book for anyone studying the period. Alice Le Strange kept accounts from 1610 (her husband Hamon actually started them in 1606) until 1654, so they cover almost all of the first half of the seventeenth century, and everything involved in the running of a gentry household.  

 The Le Stranges were Norfolk gentry and had lived in the area for 300 years before the accounts covered here start. Hamon Le Strange was, in 1603, one of the men who rode to Scotland to inform James of the death of Elizabeth. He got a knighthood out of it, but he was not a courtier preferring to live in Norfolk and run his estate.

The book analyses the accounts in various different ways, and does not include a complete transcription of the account books.

One chapter in the book covers the acquisition of goods, that is how they bought food, clothing, furnishings etc.,  another covers what the authors call everyday consumables, what they ate, what they drank, what they used to light the house, what items were cleaned with and what medicines were used, which medical people were consulted.

The chapter on material culture covers furniture and furnishings, there is for example a complete account for the cost of furnishing a bedroom in 1628 which runs from 28 shillings for the bedstead itself, to 3s 6d for 4 dozen horn curtain rings, and £53 19s for 83 yards of crimson damask.   The same treatment is given to clothes and household textiles. While Alice’s own clothing allowance of £66 13s 4d a year is not in the accounts, the clothing of the children is, and is often detailed. Particularly interesting was the purchase in 1630 of 29 yards of white calico (cotton) for Nicholas’s shirts.

The chapter on the family life cycle covers such things as how many people (family and servants) were in the household, it ranged from 10 to 30, and what the annual expenditure was, again a wide range from £926 to £2723. The accounts make little mention of the Civil War. The Le Strange’s were royalist, and Sir Hamon was involved in the unsuccessful defence of King’s Lynn in 1643, resulting in a comment in the accounts “Made and spent in suit by the unjust and tyrannical oppression of Mr. Toll and others of his faction in Lynn concerning the siege - £1088”

There is a chapter on elite consumption; this is not normal day to day expenditure but the costs incurred by holding office, travelling, and leisure activities. When Sir Hamon was Sherriff of the county  for example, the bill for feeding the assize judges came to £84 19s 7d. Likewise there are payments to the town waits (musicians), the purchase of hawks for hunting a pastime Sir Hamon was fond of, the purchase of books, musical instruments and a pair of compasses and a quadrant.

The chapter on the employment of labour covers not only what was paid to servants and day labourers, but also the Le Strange’s relationship with specialists. The warrener, for example, was not paid by the Le Stranges, he paid them £8 a year for the right to farm the rabbits. There is a useful section which compares what was paid by the Le Stranges with what was the statutory wage at the time.