A house really (allegoric)

Seventeenth-century brass skillet with feet to stand over a hearth, Bunratty Castle Medieval Collection 323a

Seventeenth-century brass skillet with feet to stand over a hearth, Bunratty Castle Medieval Collection 323a

It’s not even slightly medieval, but it is in something I am reading for review and teaching purposes, an instruction copy of a book I felt would have been nice for the material culture class I gave a while back had it not then been two weeks forthcoming. Those nice people at Routledge sent me a copy under stern injunctions to recommend it for purchase so that at least 12 students buy it. This isn’t how Cambridge works: I can probably ensure that two or three libraries buy it, and no more, but I’m hoping that that and a review will suffice to avoid me having to pay the fairly small amount they want if I keep it otherwise.

ANYWAY. That will come soon but for now I just wanted to mention this, in a brief reflection by Sara Pennell, who would appear to be very clever, on a late seventeenth century English skillet, not unlike the one at the top, that bears on its handle the inscription, “Ye wages of sin is death”, owned by the Bath Preservation Trust as part of the Hugh Roberts Collection. Dr Pennell explains this as part of a general invocation of moral and domestic order made by the use of good cookware and general proper housewifery; that is, getting the whole wife thing right is part of the whole moral order of the household and so this sort of admonition is proper to it, she argues. Well, maybe, but the important thing is the footnote she gives, out of pure amusement as far as I can see (and hurrah for that!), which quotes a letter of G. K. Chesterton to Frances Blogg, who would become his wife. You can see this in every line, it’s the sort of indulgent verbal peacocking only an infatuated man of letters and wit could manage and I can completely imagine how in love he must have been. It’s online so you can see for yourself. But it’s got in it this bit which allows Dr Pennell to justify its use:

I have sometimes thought it would be very fine to take an ordinary house, a very poor, commonplace house in West Kensington, say, and make it symbolic. Not artistic – Heaven, O Heaven forbid. My blood boils when I think of the affronts put by knock-kneed pictorial epicures on the strong, honest, ugly, patient shapes of necessary things: the brave old bones of life. There are aesthetic pattering prigs who can look on a saucepan without one tear of joy or sadness: mongrel decadents that can see no dignity in the honourable scars of a kettle. So they concentrate all their house decoration on coloured windows that nobody looks out of, and vases of lilies that everybody wishes out of the way. No: my idea (which is much cheaper) is to make a house really allegoric really explain its own essential meaning. Mystical or ancient sayings should be inscribed on every object, the more prosaic the object the better; and the more coarsely and rudely the inscription was traced the better. ‘Hast thou sent the Rain upon the Earth?’ should be inscribed on the Umbrella-Stand: perhaps on the Umbrella. ‘Even the Hairs of your Head are all numbered’ would give a tremendous significance to one’s hairbrushes: the words about ‘living water’ would reveal the music and sanctity of the sink: while ‘Our God is a consuming Fire’ might be written over the kitchen-grate, to assist the mystic musings of the cook.

If you didn’t already love G. K. Chesterton, there’s a reason to start. (Postscript: ooh! and here’s another one especially for the medievalists!)


Sara Pennell, “Mundane materiality, or, should small things still be forgotten? Material culture, micro-history and the problem of scale” in Karen Harvey (ed.), History and Material Culture: a student’s guide to approaching alternative sources, Routledge Guides to Using Historical Sources (London 2009), pp. 173-191, ref. at p. 190 n. 35.

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4 responses to “A house really (allegoric)

  1. Oh, this sounds as if it is a fascinating resource. I’m compiling book orders for my library and will see if I can squeeze it in. Several of my colleagues who also touch on topics of material history should appreciate having this to hand!

  2. Well, a full review will follow in a couple of posts if you want something to convince them with. But basically, yes, it is very good, and there’s almost no chaff to the wheat.

  3. Chesterton’s rhetoric is wonderful, but you shouldn’t look too closely at his view of the Middle Ages. G. G. Coulton (who wrote ‘Medieval Panorama’, one of the first books on medieval history I ever owned), did various takedowns of Chesterton’s romanticized medieval Merrie England. (In turn that led Hilaire Belloc to berate Coulton poetically as a ‘remote and ineffectual don’.

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