Europe at Home: Family and Material Culture, 1500-1800.
The original, Italian version of this outstanding survey of early modern European domestic life and its participants' housing, food, and clothing had an appropriately explicit title: Vita di case: Abitare, mangiare, vestire nell'Europa moderna (1999). The English title mistakenly emphasizes a homogeneous entity ("Europe") in reference to an anachronistically loaded term ("home"), an imprecise concept ("family"), and an anodyne topical identification ("material culture").
Sarti's book scrupulously avoids such normalizing, either topically or geographically. Whatever the topic being discussed, she is careful to frame her conclusions with terms and phrases of tentativeness, such as "deconstruction" (14), "plurality and diversity" (25), "neither altogether crystalline" (35), "somewhat nebulous scene" (41), and "variety and richness of the alternatives" (85). The refrain is "difference": "the main purpose of this book will be to establish the differences between the lifestyles of people living in different regions and different social groups within Europe's cultural borders" (4). Those borders are permeable enough to admit Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Sami, inter alia.
The discussion of domestic life cleverly begins by considering the conditions of homelessness, whether from destitution, such as beggars, or from livelihood, such as charcoal burners. It then surveys the widely various ways in which people formed households and legitimated marriages. Sarti's own research has concentrated on servants in early modern Italian households, so she must have a certain satisfaction in showing that, from antiquity well into the early modern era, familia and its multi-lingual cognates (the term permeated European language groups, whether Celtic, Germanic, Romance, or Slavic) referred to people liable to the authority of a paterfamilias. Historically, "dependency and not a shared roof" (32) put someone in a family; "families" as lineages and reproductive couples were relatively modern qualifications of fundamental relations of dependence.
Fifty-eight subchapters organize the analysis, with helpful titles such as "Did the lack of home mean the lack of a family?" "Trousseaus, bottom drawers and 'complete beds'," "Keeping warm," "Who you are depends on when you eat and what you eat," and "Underwear and hygiene." Short as each discussion must necessarily be, they are satisfyingly thorough with analyses of concepts, inferences from examples, and comparative considerations of regions and groups. Italian examples predominate, but there are many rich treatments of Dutch, English, French, German, and Slavic settings, with a constant insistence on localizing and differentiating people's behavior rather than privileging ethnic syntheses: "apparently uniform areas were teeming with a thousand differences" (43).
Unlike most surveys, which homogenize the monographic research on which they draw, Sarti's approach retains the specificity of others' findings while making carefully qualified generalizations. This approach makes the book ideal as a text for classes: students can refer to the precise substrate of research on which a particular part of the general account depends. They will gain a sense of early modern European social history as an investigation in process rather than a closed set of findings. And they will find plenty to pique their curiosity for further investigation. Variations in dowry arrangements will provide comparisons with the anthropology of marriage. Elaborate English, Italian, and Norwegian examples of inter-generational transfers of property will help students appreciate industrialized societies' historical distinctiveness with heavy discretionary spending on children. Early modern Europeans' general acceptance of what most people in industrialized societies would view as discomforts needing a priority for redress--living under the same roof with animals, carrying household water as human plumbing systems, sleeping on floors while saving to buy fabrics to make beds prime objects of household display, and sleeping, cooking and eating in unspecialized rooms--might suggest that Europeans have a closer kinship to underdeveloped societies than is usually appreciated. Conversely, the increasing proliferation of items for Europeans' household consumption will identify the sheer phenomenon of changes in consumption patterns as a historical problem. Both the changes and the continuities in material culture constantly invite questions about what is natural as opposed to historically contingent. Cleanliness, for example, continued to depend on changing clothes, not washing the body.
The book's richest topic is food: wet-nursing, the inverse relation between the consumption of meat and bread, and the diffusion of food plants from the Americas all bear on Sarti's assessment of standards of living. She also explains the culture of eating. Knives, forks, and spoons had their symbolically freighted history: table knives developed rounded points as courtly civility made it polite to cut meat on a plate rather than chew from a chunk speared with a manly weapon; forks had to shed their diabolical association with Byzantine heterodoxy. Once table knives and forks became customary, a household could respectably have only one of each, so long as their use was the exclusive privilege of the paterfamilias. Neither was especially useful for most meals, which were soupy.
For a mere $18 Yale University Press has provided a model book for use in classes, and thereby fulfilled Sarti's aim "to make the themes that today are challenging historical research accessible to a public beyond professional specialists and especially to students" (xi). (The Press served her less well in copy-editing. After the first, hardbound edition of the English translation in 2002, Sarti helpfully posted an on-line list of errata with over two hundred sixty items [http://www.uniurb.it/scipol/drs_europeathome.htm], but the paperback edition did not incorporate these corrections.) Eighty-six glossy figures, twelve of them in beautiful color, have lengthy, sophisticated captions, which show how visual evidence can enrich readers' understanding of the various topics. The bibliography and endnotes have a richness worthy of a monograph rather than a survey: forty-four pages of notes, many of them with historiographic commentary, refer to a bibliography of approximately nine hundred items. Over half the items are Italian, but the coverage of relevant English and French materials is thorough too; there are only a few dozen items in German, and a handful of Dutch. Sarti has done justice to them all, and benefited the rest of us by masterfully juxtaposing them.
John E. Crowley
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|Author:||Crowley, John E.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2006|
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