Wills are very important for researchers and family historians as they were made by people of all statuses and provide information about property, wealth and land ownership. Most importantly they formally record and acknowledge relationships, confirming family relationships and giving an indication of which friends and neighbours were significant in the testator’s life. Another document relating to death and legacy is the inventory. From 1500-1750, many courts required an inventory to be filed when probate or letters of administration had been granted. This was a list of the person’s belongings, usually compiled a few days after the funeral by two to four local men; usually friends, relatives or neighbours. Colleagues were sometimes involved in listing items specific to a particular trade. Items including furniture, clothes, tools, foodstuffs, farm animals, and even leases and window glass are sometimes listed, together with their approximate values in pounds (li), shillings (s) and pence (d). These documents are an invaluable source of information about social history, giving insights into dining and sleeping arrangements, household chores and the rise of consumerism, as well as changes in fashion. Jeanne Jones, in her introduction to the Dugdale Society publications on Stratford inventories, notes the fall from favour of the ‘painted cloth’ and the rise of the close stool and luxury items such as pictures and books.
Whilst we don’t have a surviving inventory of Shakespeare’s goods and chattels, we thought it would be interesting to look at inventories of other local people to get a sense of how his contemporaries lived. It is hard to be certain of the exact wealth of testators as inventories vary greatly in terms of what they include, for example whether they list leases and debts and the extent to which they detail every little item found in the house.
In our Treasures Talk for university, school and special interest groups we have been showing visitors two inventories. The first is that of JohnSadler, a gentleman of Stratford upon who died in 1625. John has roughly similar dates to Shakespeare, being baptised on 15 June 1561 and buried on 1 July 1625. He was a gentleman, like Shakespeare, which meant that he was of independent means and did not need to ply a trade (though to some extent this was a somewhat flexible status symbol and did not necessarily mean a person was very wealthy or belonged to the landed gentry). Here are some of the things listed in John’s house and what they mean:
the painted clothes
painted cloth or canvas painted with floral patterns, mottoes or religious scenes were a cheap substitute for tapestries.
xij turky cushions, [turky = material woven on a loom in imitation of a Turkish carpet]
one paire of holland sheets laced, one [pillowbear = a pillow case]
pair of pillowbeers laced, one paire flaxen
sheets, one pair holland pillow bers &
one other paire of flaxen sheets [holland = fine quality linen from Holland]
Item in the buttery, ij hogsheds, j powthering
tubb, j varges barrell, one safe, 5 brass
candlesticks, j duble salt, 2 low salts, 2
cups, 6 jugs, j bras chaff dishe & other
[buttery = a service room where ale (and sometimes food or general stores) was kept]
[hogshead = a large cask holding 52.5 imperial gallons]
[powthering tubb = powdering tub – a tub for salting or pickling meat]
[verges / varges = verjuice, an acid juice of crab apples or other sour fruit much used in cooking and for dosing animals]
[chaff dishe...chaffern = a small closed brazier containing charcoal or hot ash on which a chafing dish was set]
iij (4) sallet dishes
Salads were popular at this time and could range from quite basic dishes involved cooked vegetables such as spinach, to very elaborate dishes used by the well-off to flaunt their wealth. The latter might include candied flowers as a decorative garnish.
We also show visiting groups items from our museum collection, so that they can see real examples of the belongings listed in the inventory. These include a chafing dish, which was suspended or placed on a tripod over the chaffern, avoiding the direct heat of the fire. Its name comes from the French “chauffer”, “to heat”. This gentler method of heating was useful for delicate sauces or for ladies producing confectionary work. Alison Sim (in The Tudor Housewife) describes how a lady would have to spend 3 hours over a chafing dish if she wanted to make her own spiced comfits instead of just buying them for a shilling a pound.
One of the other original items we show students and special interest groups is a pipkin. One of our early printed books gives a recipe that calls for the use of a pipkin. This is Sir Hugh Plat’s wonderfully titled book of 1602, Delightes for the ladies.
To candie Nutmegs or Ginger, with an hard rocke candie. Take one pound of fine Sugar, and eight Spoonefulls of Rosewater, and the waight of 6. Pence of Gum Arabique, that is cleere, boyle them together to such a height, as that dropping som therof out of a spoone, the sirup doe rope and run into the smallness of an haire, then put it into an earthen pipkin, wherein place your nutmegs, ginger or such like, then stop it close with a saucer, and lute it well with clay, that no ayre (air) may enter, then keepe it in a hote place three weekes, and it will candie hard. You must breake your pot with an hammer, for otherwise you cannot get out your candie. You may also candy Orenges, or Lemmons in like sort if you please.
We ask students to try and work out the meaning of some the items listed in the inventory and then explain the context behind these. “Two chayres” is fairly straightforward, but do you know what “lathers” and “uteng fatts” are?
The other inventory we’ve been showing to visitors is that of a local clerk, John Marshall. John Marshall of Bishopton died in 1608 and his extensive inventory survives thanks to a transcription by local antiquarian James Saunders (whose impressive hand-illustrated volumes you may have come across at Heritage Open Days or in our blogs about Mary Hornby and David Garrick). John owned 271 books! As a curate, these were mainly religious works, but also include books on witches, health and grammar. It’s good to be able to show that a large library would have been well within Shakespeare’s means, even though his library hasn’t survived.
Whilst we can’t know what Shakespeare had in his
house, our collection of inventories give an excellent insight into life at the
time and the homes of his contemporaries and neighbours. Inventories show us how little residents had
and how much these items were treasured. If you’d like to know more about
Shakespeare’s homes, listen to this episode of our podcast.
Visit our Reading Room to look at the wonderful Dugdale volumes and find out more about Stratford inventories, full of intriguing items such as “stockfish”, “cresclothes”, “dabnettes” and “neckingers”!
Useful books (available to consult in our Reading Room):