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Household Goods and Good Households in Late Medieval London: Consumption and Domesticity After the Plague

Author(s):French, Katherine L.
Reviewer(s):McCants, Anne E.C.

Published by EH.Net (January 2023).

Katherine L. French. Household Goods and Good Households in Late Medieval London: Consumption and Domesticity After the Plague. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021. xvii + 314 pp. $65 (hardcover), ISBN 978-0812253054.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Anne E.C. McCants, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


The Black Death (1348-51) is a key touchstone in economic history scholarship, marking the transition from the boom period of the High Middle Ages to the long retrenchment in population, urbanization, and market activity that followed. Perhaps even more importantly, it marks the shift from an economy in which most unskilled labor lived a bare-bones existence to one with rising wages for the common man (and likely woman too) and increased standards of living by many metrics, if not health itself, in the face of ongoing visitations of bubonic plague. Not surprisingly, the Black Death is also a watershed for social and cultural historians, who have produced no shortage of theories linking the psychological and social toll of the demographic disaster to the development of new understandings of business, piety, society and the state – in short, the origins of the Renaissance or modernity itself. Katherine L. French’s new book nicely brings these two strands together with a focus on the changes wrought in the material possessions of the households of London’s skilled artisans and merchants.

Most studies that seek to assess the impact of the Black Death on whatever their specific topic of inquiry might be typically begin with the event itself. Very few successfully navigate the source lacunae which mark the middle decades of the fourteenth century. Admirably then, French’s study does look at households both before and after the event, as well as during the troubled decades of intense plague visitations themselves. Her sources begin in the mid-thirteenth century and extend as late as the seventeenth. This opening up of such a long run of archival materials for historical consideration is a significant achievement in and of itself. Her work relies on wills drawn up in the ecclesiastical courts, especially the Commissary Court and the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, which have the earliest and longest series starting in the 1370s and 1380s. To this, she adds documentation from London’s Court of Husting which dealt mainly with landed property and runs from 1258 into the seventeenth century. From all of these she only used wills identified for citizens, merchants, artisans, or members of their households living within the city walls to keep her population sample relatively stable. As she demonstrates, the Prerogative Court tended to record wealthier households as they often held property in more than one diocese, whereas the Commissary Court was restricted to property in London itself.

French also utilizes a number of household inventories, some of which had been drawn up for probate and others on account of debt.  Inventories are very rarely used for medieval studies because they are extremely difficult sources to work with and quite limited in their coverage. She found 123 post-plague inventories covering 128 houses, and in a few precious cases, she can even link an inventory with a later will, allowing her to assess not only material objects while in use, but in their second life as bequests. Finally, to these archival treasures she adds deep research into the work of archeologists who have documented changing building patterns in London, and elsewhere for comparison, the spatial layout of homes, and the arrangement of people’s possessions within their domestic and business spaces, where they were so often comingled.

What does she unearth with this hard-won trove of source materials? Prior to the plague, both merchants and artisans, despite being “frequently accused of social emulation or worse,” shared “a common way of inhabiting domestic space and conceptualizations of ideal behavior that their domestic space and furnishings [both] created and enabled” (20). Even though the pre-plague records are thin, it is nonetheless safe to say that even better-off Londoners “lived in cramped and minimally furnished rooms. Most of what they had was not worth much and was not worth passing on” (37). For comfort and sociability they most often turned to cushions, coverlets, and mazers and other drinking vessels.

After the plague she finds strong evidence of both more space and greater assets available to those who survived, with a concomitant expansion in material culture. She says that they “neither simply imitate[ed] their betters nor completely invent[ed] new ways of living, but were rather expanding, adapting, and modifying habits that predated the plague in ways that distinguished them from the gentry and aristocracy” (75). In particular, their homes displayed more wall hangings and painted cloths, more textiles overall, and a notable disappearance of weapons from halls. “Piety and continental sophistication gradually replaced militaristic notions of citizenship” she asserts (83). Likewise, she documents an increase in the number of dwellings, even small ones, that had their own kitchen or fireplace. Wealth distinctions were increasingly revealed by the number of rooms rather than the type of heat sources available to the occupants as they had been in the pre-plague evidence.

These newly expanded material lives necessitated new forms of housekeeping to manage both the increasing size of dwellings themselves and the amount of stuff they contained (99). Her evidence reveals that laundry, along with other cleaning tasks as denoted through their material objects, increasingly occupied the work associated with householding. Textiles require much more routine care than wooden or metal objects, and so female labor demand in the household rose in importance after the plague too. Indeed, she observes, “What had been a high-status male job in the elite houses of rural England [that is, domestic service] had become a low-status female one in London” (117). Along with the gendering of domestic work, the evidence of what kind of bequests were left to what kinds of people also suggests that Londoners learned, even if only slowly after the Black Death, “to gender many of their new household possessions” as well (219).

Household Goods and Good Households is an impressive achievement. Its documentation of the material lives of London citizens, from wealthy merchants to middling craftsmen, across the great divide of the Black Death is revelatory; her argument about cultural change in the face of demographic catastrophe is compelling; and her prose is refreshingly readable. Regardless of whether we use the term “revolution” or not for changes in consumption behavior (as is much debated in the eighteenth-century historiography), French offers the field of consumption history many new reasons to look to the fourteenth century for a more complete picture. She tells her readers in the introduction that her project is “to understand what London’s merchants and artisans learned as they learned to buy, use, and live with more stuff not only right after the plague, but in the generations that followed” (3). Her completed project succeeds admirably in doing just that.


Anne E.C. McCants is the Ann F. Friedlaender Professor of History and Director of the Concourse Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Among her recent publications is “Economic History and the Historians” (Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 2020).

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Subject(s):Health, including Medicine, Disease, and Pandemics
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval