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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Inventory

Object 67 - In addition to wills, the inventory is also an important probate document, providing a comprehensive reckoning of all of the testator’s possessions and their values for selling on.

Happy New Year from everyone at Finding Shakespeare! Our first post of 2013 looks at an inventory from 1602 and comes from Stephanie Appleton, whose doctoral research examines domestic and community life in early modern Stratford-upon-Avon.

In my last blog, looking at a will in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust archive, I explored what the early modern will can tell us about the lives of Shakespeare and his contemporaries: the friends and family members they wanted to remember, and the kinds of goods they owned and how this might provide insight into their daily lives. This week, I look at the next ‘object’ relating to the probate process: the inventory, which was intended to provide a comprehensive reckoning of all of the testator’s possessions and their values for selling on.

Usually compiled by two or three appraisers within a few days or perhaps weeks of the testator’s death, the inventory would allow for debts owed to and by the deceased to be accounted for, collected and paid from the estate as necessary, while also allowing for legacies of specific items of property to be distributed according to the terms of the will. Iachimo’s process of inventorying Imogen’s bedchamber in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (1609) can be seen in relation to this common post-mortem practice:

IACHIMO:                            ... But my design –
To note the chamber. I will write all down.
Such and such pictures, there the window, such
Th’adornment of her bed, the arras …
Ah, but some natural notes about her body
Above ten thousand meaner moveables
Would testify t’enrich mine inventory. (2. 2. 23 – 30)

1602 inventory of the Stratford widow Joyce Hobday, from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust archive collection.
1602 inventory of the Stratford widow Joyce Hobday, from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust archive collection.

The methodical attention to the features and furnishings of the room in Iachimo’s ‘inventory’ has a sinister purpose in supporting his false report of Imogen’s infidelity, but such attention to the detail of domestic space is evident in many surviving probate inventories. Appraisers tended to work through a house room-by-room, noting the contents of each room fully before moving on to the next, and while there are issues and limitations with inventories as a literal record of the appearance of the form and contents of a property they can at least suggest what a given house may have looked like inside: its contents, the number of rooms and even a sense of their position within the house.[1]

Pictured is the 1602 inventory of the Stratford widow Joyce Hobday, the original of which is housed in the archive of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.[2] Joyce’s appraisers evidently followed this structured format while compiling her inventory, listing items found first ‘in the hall’, then ‘in the parlor’ and finally ‘in the Chamber over the shop’. Joyce and her husband William, a glover who predeceased her by only three months, provide an interesting and relatively rare case study, in that both of their inventories have survived. This enables comparison of their goods and property. We can see, for example, that while Joyce appears to have inherited most of the household goods from William when he died (William’s inventory totals £66 5s and Joyce’s £64), the property in which they were living may have been divided up between Joyce and an adult child as part of a legacy, as the ‘buttre’ [buttery] and ‘loft above’ which are found in William’s inventory are not included in Joyce’s. There is no indication in William’s will that he intended his property should be divided in this manner after his death, so this omission may in fact be a reflection of the potential inconsistencies of the inventory-making process.

Detail from the 1602 inventory of Joyce Hobday.
Detail from the 1602 inventory of Joyce Hobday.

The documents also show that Joyce inherited her husband’s business debts and was in the process of collecting them, although apparently with little success, when she, too, died. Her inventory also lists new debts relating to the glover’s trade, perhaps indicating that she had chosen to continue her husband’s business after his death.

These early modern documents – wills and inventories – can provide great insight into the everyday lives of the otherwise unknown people of Shakespeare’s time, and of women in particular. Without these important sources, our understanding of the personal wealth, living standards, family and community ties and even the religious persuasion of these people would remain limited.

[1] For examples of this see N. W. Alcock, People at Home: Living in a Warwickshire Village, 1500 – 1800, Chichester: Phillimore, 1993.

[2] All of Stratford’s inventories can be found in Jeanne Jones, Stratford-upon-Avon Inventories, 1538 – 1699, Stratford-upon-Avon: The Dugdale Society, 2002.