Simanaitis Says

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HAVING READ TOM Johnson’s “No More Baubles,” London Review of Books, September 22, 2022, I feel a kinship with people living in Late Medieval London. We were/are prone to clutter. 

Tom Johnson is reviewing Katherine L. French’s Household Goods and Good Households in Late Medieval London: Consumption and Domesticity After the Plague. “Between the plague of 1348 and a second wave in 1361,” Johnson says, “wages rose steeply, and workers couldn’t wait to enjoy the good things in life.… So was the plague the end of something, or the beginning? Was it the devastating calamity that ended two centuries of population growth and economic expansion in England, or the foundation of a new ‘golden age’ in the long 15th century (c.1380-1520) for workers, who leveraged their labour power into higher wages, a better quality of life and a mountain of consumer goods?”

Household Goods and Good Households in Late Medieval London: Consumption and Domesticity After the Plague, by Katherine L. French, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021.

Katherine L. French is J. Frederick Hoffman Professor of History at the University of Michigan and a specialist in Medieval England. Johnson notes that she provides a new angle on these questions by considering domestic life and material culture in London as revealed by the abundant evidence in wills. Late Medieval Londoners, she argues, had to ‘learn to live with more.’

My kinda people. Here are tidbits of Late Medieval “joyful consumerism” and, in time, a touch of my own. 

Not Just Extravagance. Johnson observes, “Townspeople were also acquiring more and better versions of household goods. More brass pots for cooking, more ewers, more knives and spoons. It became usual to give each member of the household their own trencher—wooden ones for the humbler sorts, pewter plates for those who could afford them—so that they could take their own portion rather than eating from a shared dish.”

Medieval design trencer with iron cutlery. Image from

Some Etymology. By the way, trencher comes from Middle English trenchour, knife and serving platter, from French trencher, to cut. Trencherman, a word arising at the same time, describes someone with a hearty appetite. 

And while we’re at it, a trench is a long cut in the ground, typically for military defense (and a trench coat is wearing apparel therein). 

A Place for Clutter. And, on another etymologic note, Johnson adds, “London houses changed shape to accumulate the clutter…. The first record of a London parlour comes from 1373. The parlorium, or ‘talking room,’ had been a feature of monastic and aristocratic houses, but was now adapted by the chattering classes as a room for secluded leisure.” 

The word “parlor” is from the French parler, to speak. It’s related to the word “parley” and, come to think of it, “parliament.” 

The English Parliament. Image from Encyclopedia Britannica.

An Evolving Coconut. Katherine French’s detective work with wills reveals interesting tales. Johnson notes, “When Margery Langrich, of the parish of St. Martin Orgar (at the head of London Bridge), died in 1470 she left to her second oldest son, Thomas, a ‘nut’—a coconut shell made into a drinking vessel, covered with silver and gilt decorations—as well as linens for table and bed marked ‘T’ and ‘L,’ a set of six silver spoons marked ‘K,’ and a bed canopy stained with the image of two pelicans.”

“French follows the trail,” Johnson continues: “Thomas, a draper like his father, died fifteen years later, bequeathing to his sister the ‘napery marked with T and L of red silk given me by my mother’ and a covered gilt coconut drinking vessel, ‘which I had of the gift of my mother by her testament.’ ”

Johnson says, “This sort of evidence gives us a rare insight into what Arjun Appadurai calls ‘the social life of things,’ the way that objects conjure different kinds of relation as they move between people. A coconut was plucked from a tree somewhere in the Indian Ocean, taken by Arab merchants and sold to a Venetian fattore in Alexandria, shipped to London, polished down by a turner into an attractive hardwood, bought by a goldsmith, plated in precious metal, sold to a draper’s widow, bequeathed to her son, passed on to his sister and so on, until the husk was worn out and thrown away, the plate melted down and used for something else. Moving between market, workshop and household, it existed as a commodity with a certain price, as an inalienable birthright, and, at some later point, as a piece of rubbish in an old chest.”

I wonder if my clutter will have a similar social life? I assume the vintage foot-powered mine fire horn will have an interesting one. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2022

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