Friday 28 March 2014

Rifling through our Great-Grandmother’s Drawers: What Domestic History Reveals About our Modern Selves.

What did medieval Londoners use to treat colicky babies? Why were they punished for wearing twenty-foot long shoes? What did they wear in bed? A recent trend in popular history provides the answers to such domestic questions in lurid and often grisly detail. If publishing and TV viewing figures are anything to go by, twenty-first century readers love these anecdotes about the daily lives of their ancestors, and witnessing re-enactments of past life. Yet there is more to this increasing fascination with the bedpan: for readers, many these books will parallel a personal journey. The meta-modern interest in domestic history might be a reassuring tool in an increasingly uncertain world.

The pendulum of history swings between battlefields and butterdishes. Following the late twentieth century’s focus on microhistory, which produced such fascinating studies as Carlo Ginzburg’s “The Cheese and the Worms” and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s “Montaillou,” many historians have followed the tradition of focusing in on the minutae of life in a particular place or time. Traditionally the narrative of the lives of great men, as evidenced by the essay written by Virginia Woolf’s 1922 eponymous hero, Jacob, history has been wrested away from the council chamber into the bedchamber. Modern readers are fascinated by the intimate, private nature of human existence over time: the remedies for coughs and colds, the charms recited in childbirth or the many uses for nettle leaves. This is unsurprising, as such small details simultaneously remind us of our difference and similarity with our ancestors.

Recent studies of the domestic sphere have been vividly entertaining and bring the past to life in a way that makes it immediate and accessible. Amanda Vickery’s romp through Georgian bedrooms is aptly titled “Behind Closed Doors” and Lucy Worsley’s intimate history of the home bears the name “If Walls Could Talk.” These books place the reader in a voyeuristic role, as modern ghosts, able to time-travel through their pages and witness the private acts of eating and washing, childbirth and sex. It creates a sense of reassuring omnipotence along with the thrill of spying on our ancestors. And perhaps that is where the attraction lies; in laying bare the laundry of the dead, we are reminded of our origins and direct linear connection with them. That’s how they did their washing; this is how we do ours. Such books give credence and importance to the contents of the rubbish tip and personal habits. In turn, this reflects on the disposable, routine details of our own modern living. Witnessing this continuity validates the often-tedious daily routines of our own lives. Living is an art form: we are part of the continuous process. Our works of art are the meals we cook, the homes we decorate, the persona we sculpt in social media. We can’t all be historically important, but in the future, someone in a museum might be looking at our old washing machine!

Domestic history creates a paradox of otherness and similarity for the reader. Ian Mortimer’s “Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval History,” recently a popular TV series, consciously creates a divide between the people of past and present, reminding us that we are moving back in time to a place where things are done differently. Written and presented as something of a survival guide, it creates a dialectic of opposition: the medieval world is a place where the modern reader is under threat and requires the historian’s advice to escape intact. Thus Mortimer is the conduit and protector of his reader against disease, disorder and alien customs. This differs slightly from the approach of historians like Toni Mount, who bring the past into the present world, throwing open the doors of the bedchamber for a modern audience to participate in, creating an illusion of a temporary simultaneity of eras. As a re-enactor, Mount’s long-standing skills in practical history: cooking in medieval pots and wearing clothes cut to their cloth, lends her new book “Everyday Life in Medieval London” a wealth of fascinating practical detail. The increasing popularity of individuals and companies who dedicate their weekends to recreating the past is further testimony to the increasing desire to overlay our modern lives with those of our ancestors.

Perhaps most powerful, is the personal involvement of the reader or audience. The recent accessibility of online records has facilitated the beginning of millions of journeys of rediscovery. Using sites like, it is possible to trace back your family tree through the generations and, with a few online clicks, discover the names, locations and professions of your great-great grandparents. Not so long ago, this process would have involved lengthy journeys to record offices, perhaps scattered around the world, and the decoding of yellowing pieces of paper. This could require considerable historical and medical understanding or even require palaeographic skills. Now, we are seeking to make sense of what we learn by understanding the world in which our relatives lived. It is the next best thing to having a conversation with them.

Objects have power. Those items that are passed down through the generations; your grandfather’s pipe or your great-grandmother’s watch create a direct connection, cupped in the hands of their direct descendants. They provide a tangible link between us and those whose bloodline we share, more intimate and powerful than the grave. Holding them is a substitute for holding the hand of our ancestor. It is little wonder then, that we are also fascinated by items that are their parallel in time: a museum tea-cup made in the same year as our mother’s brooch or a display of recreated life in the Victorian era. Standing on the other side of the rope, we can imagine ourselves walking into the scene and interacting with our long-dead family. Perhaps sitting beside them on that sofa or playing a duet on that piano. The popular history books and TV programmes that explore these domestic environments provide us with universal talismen, symbols that connect the modern Everyman with past narratives. Perhaps they are the twenty-first century’s secular substitutes for Freud’s “oceanic feeling” of limitless and belonging.

What is the gap in the modern mentality that domestic history fills? In a world that seems increasingly disposable and random, prey to horrific acts of terrorism, this sense of continuity acts like an anchor, providing reassurance that we are part of a chain. It creates a solidarity with our relatives, who lived through wars, famines and other disasters. A knowledge of their lives allows us to reassure ourselves that their sacrifices and struggles were worth it, because we are the outcome. Our own struggles, therefore, retreat into historical perspective. This doesn’t make domestic history an egotistical history. It makes it an important tool for modern individuals to make sense of their own identity and resolve some of the dilemmas of the post-post-modern, or meta-modern world. Domestic history is armour.

Books such as those by Worsley and Vickery, Mortimer and Mount, are fascinating and delightful reads. They allow us to dip in and out of the past and appeal to our senses with revolting anecdotes and the touching details of individual stories of objects, buildings, locations and specific people. They are history for the sake of history, pure enjoyment to read. Yet they are also part of a significant new phenomenon, in that they act as conduits to our personal pasts. They are the accessible doors to individual and collective identity. We may not all have ancestors who graced the hallowed halls of palaces or government; our forebears may have lived quietly, humbly, in modest professions, and such books help us to see the significance of these lives and, by extension, our own. Why are we all so fascinated by domestic history these days? Because we are all living it, today.