Medieval Domesticity: Home, Housing and Household
25th Annual Medieval Studies Conference
Saturday March 12-Sunday March 13, 2005
Bourgeois Domesticity in Late-Medieval England

Felicity Riddy, University of York

Domesticity is usually held to be a modern phenomenon. It is sometimes thought to come into being in the mysterious genre paintings produced in seventeenth-century Holland, in which women are shown performing housewifely and motherly roles in plain bourgeois interiors. Here the domestic sphere is associated with cleanliness and moral virtue, in (often) implicit contrast with the moral and physical mire of the street. Another famous version of domesticity arises from the nineteenth-century ‘separate spheres’ model of family and social life. Here the contrast is not between home and street, but between home and work. The two spheres are thought of as a polarity that is reinforced by the gender divide: home is the proper sphere of women and work the proper sphere of men. The ideological separation of home from work marks the change from an older, pre-industrial set of social relations in which work was located within the household. With industrialization, it is argued, work moved out of the home; full-time household management became a career for middle-class women, and the home, now solely a residential space, was idealized as a source of different kinds of virtues from those of the workplace. The simplicity of this model has been challenged in a number of ways, not least by John Tosh, who has argued that the home was an important source of identity for men. Nevertheless, he still thinks in terms of the home-work contrast, and believes that domesticity was essentially a nineteenth-century invention.

The aim of my paper is to argue that domesticity as a bourgeois mode of living can be identified in the pre-modern period. It is central to the values of those late-medieval townspeople who form the 'commonalty', that is, the settled urban householders and their families, whose homes are also their places of work and employment. They lived in the ‘medium-sized’ urban housing which became increasingly comfortable in the course of the fourteenth century. The well-regulated household was not one where trade or manufacture was separated from the rest of living, but one where trade, manufacture, business, preparing food, cooking, eating and sleeping were all understood as separate but interrelated aspects of domestic life and ordered as such. Bourgeois domesticity entails a reconceptualization of everyday space and time. It is perhaps no coincidence that the way of life that sets a value on orderliness and the differentiation of activities should become visible during the period of the time revolution, with the invention of the fixed hour in the fourteenth century.

We can, however, think of the domestic sphere as being discursively as well as spatially and temporally constructed. It is the sphere which simultaneously generates and is constituted by the ideas of privacy, intimacy, and love between family members that are found in prayers and narratives that circulated within the home. I shall argue that this discursive domesticity is not simply opposed to the world outside the home – the street or work – as later domesticities are. It is ideological: not only does it make living intermingled lives in close proximity to others tolerable, but it also underpins bourgeois public values and identities as well.

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