Thursday, July 29, 2010

Martha who?

I am not very domestic.  It's not that I'm incapable or opposed or feminist or any of the like; it's that the art of domesticity is lost on an 8 year old boy.  If I ever have the pleasure of being a wife, I will be happily domestic (understanding full well that the art of domesticity may also be lost on an adult boy), but until that point, I see no need to prepare a Martha Stewart inspired meal for an 8 year old boy with the pallet of an 8 year old boy or to scour the surfaces of my home to a shine in which June Cleaver can see her reflection.  I cook and clean as dictated by the needs of my small family and to this date we have survived just fine.  (After all, my son has reached the age of 8, a ripe age for Medieval times, so I must be doing something right.  Though my mom would contend that I need to clean my bathrooms more frequently.  I guess she's more domestic than I.)

Although domesticity strays a little from my investigation into Medieval motherhood, especially since in my mind it emphasizes the role of the wife in relationship to the family as a whole not just a woman's responsibility as a mother,  I encountered some interesting facets of Medieval domesticity that I would like to share with you.
  • The architecture of the early Medieval home (twelfth and thirteenth centuries) was strongly influenced by religious and secular views of the Eucharist, placing the usage of the buttery (a room for storing wine and liquor) and the pantry (a room whose usage is so elevated that its name is changed to a spence to reflect the importance of bread) parallel to that of the grand hall.  The grand hall, aptly named, was arranged in such symmetry that it could be folded along its longest wall and form a perfect mirror image of itself.  The bread and wine held such honor that each room (buttery and spence) had its own overseer, positions of reverence within the domestic structure.  These architectural and social indulgences indicated more than just your wealth; they indicated the order and behavior of your domicile.
    • If you have seen Macbeth or The Tudors or The Lion in Winter, to name a few, you have seen an image of a grand hall similar to those found in Medieval homes.  The hall itself is not the element of the architecture that interests me.  I am intrigued by the emphasis placed on the buttery and the spence.  When shopping for a home today, many people notice the structure of the kitchen, and with that consider storage for all their kitchen items, but I think it is safe to say that most people do not place as much emphasis on pantry spaces as our Medieval counterparts.  And the idea that the bread and the wine were to be stored in separate areas, each with a separate person to oversee its contents, is enthralling.  (A side note, the 'snack bar' located in the basement of each residential college here at Yale is called 'the buttery.')  I understand the sacred association of them, but I do not think Jesus intended for building plans to be drawn around The Last Supper.  (And I wonder if Hogwarts stores these items in separate rooms.  Blasphemous thought, I know.)  Based upon these practices of organization and management of the buttery and spence, I am much more domestic than I think.  My spence is rigidly organized; my spence organizing skills are so honed that I organize my mom's spence every time I get a chance.  Yep, I'm a real Harriet Beecher Stowe.  (I bet you didn't know that Beecher Stowe was America's original Martha Stewart.  She published The American Woman's Home:  Principal's of Domestic Science in 1869.)
  • The Virgin Mary, who was pregnant at the time, traveled to see her cousin Elizabeth, who was also pregnant.  The reunion of these women and the events of their visit establish a precedence of sorts for every family visit since that time.  The Visitation, as it is fondly called, supposedly influences women like Margery Kempe and Birgitta of Sweden (among countless others) to make frequent visits to family, primarily based upon religious duty and devotion, in which fellowship (much like communion) is highly regarded.
    • While I find it a bit of a stretch to accredit Mary with establishing the idea of family gatherings, it does make her more approachable and real.  (I've always found her a little intimidating because of the whole "I gave birth to Christ" thing.)  Her concern for her cousin led her to travel at a time when she probably should have just remained at home, relaxing in the recliner (its BC equivalent anyway).  But family is about sacrifice and Mary demonstrates this during the Visitation.  I'm not sure if I buy it completely, but it at least gives purpose to the hours of therapy that follow a long weekend with the family.  (Hours is a bit of an exaggeration, but you know what I mean.)

Above is an image of The Visitation from Bean Book of Hours, Manuscript 2, Folio 521.

Source:  Kowaleski, M. and Goldberg, P.  Medieval Domesticity.  Cambridge University Press.  New York, 2008.

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