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  • Europe at Home: Family and Material Culture, 1500–1800
  • John E. Crowley
Europe at Home: Family and Material Culture, 1500–1800. By Raffaella Sarti . Translated by Allan Cameron . ( New Haven and London: Yale University Press, hardback 2002, paperback 2004. xi plus 324 pp. hardback $35; paperback $18).

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 [End Page 1193] 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 Sàmi, 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...


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