Introducing the virtual early modern parlour

Principal Investigator, Professor Catherine Richardson, introduces Middling Culture’s newest digital project – a virtual room from the 1620s.

Fireplace and replica wall paintings in the Reigate House Extension ‘parlour’ at the © Weald and Downland Living Museum.

Quite a few years ago now, at the start of a book on Domestic Life and Domestic Tragedy in Early Modern England, I tried to imagine what it was like to be present in an early modern room, situating oneself in space through the sights and sounds coming from the rest of the house. It was an exercise in a kind of creative writing, piecing together the evidence of court depositions – what people said they heard and saw. This is how part of it went:


Imagine, for a moment, what it might be like to be sitting in the hall of an early modern house. Say it is timber-framed, three storeys high, the upper floors jettied out over the street in front. What are you sitting on? Is it an old ‘turned’ chair with arms and a back ‘by the fyer sid’, or one of several stools around the table, or a bench along the wall? Are you sitting on the hard oak or, if you reach down to touch the seat, do you feel a cushion? Perhaps it is one ‘of crymson velvett, and ymbrodered with borders of greane sylke round about, saving it lackethe a lytle at one ende’. Can you be so precise because you know it very well indeed, both by sight and touch?

What is this room like? How large is it? Perhaps it has a long refectory table with stools around it. There is a court cupboard ‘under the wyndowe’, ‘an olde carpett and a lynnen cuberd cloth upon yt’, ‘a bason, ii flower potte, a cupp of tynn and ii stone pottes’ on top, and there are ‘paynted clothes over the benche’. How many doors are visible? There may well be a little buttery ‘opening to the hall’, the small cupboard off this room in which the brass and pewter is stored. There might be a ‘little place betwene the hall and the shop’ with a ‘little cupbord’ in it, one of those curious spaces which spring up in timber-framed houses when new sections are built on. There might be an entry behind the room, opening on to the back side of the house where the kitchen is. Towards the back of the house the room is darker, and here perhaps is the door to the parlour. It is open and you can see the ‘fether bedd wythe stedle standinge in the parlor furnysshed as a bedd ought to be’,  with its curtains and its tester and valance, with its bolsters and sheets and blankets and coverlets, all ‘appropriate’ to the status of this house in a way which you can judge intuitively. Then, fading from your vision in the hall, the ‘dark room behind the parlour’ which has no windows. At the other end of the hall is the window on to the street, and this casts light on the colours of the painted cloths, on the ‘olde rownde lokinge glase’, and on the ‘payre of greate andyrons’ in the chimney.

How aware are you of the rest of the house as you sit in the hall? Can you smell cooking from the back side? Can you smell onions and garlic, either in the room with you or upstairs in the chambers; perhaps the four ‘bacon hogges that are hanging in the roof’? Is it autumn? Can you smell apples in the loft above, or the oily scent of wool? Can you smell the raw materials and the processes of production going on in the shop; can you hear shears, or hammers? These routine noises must fade away in your consciousness to almost nothing, to a reassuring background which means ‘household’ to you.

How aware are you of the presence of the rest of the household? The walls are thin and there are holes, cracks, spaces in them, some there by design and others the result of wear. They complicate the division between the hall and the rooms around it. As you listen, you hear ‘one coufe [cough] in the howse’. Do you recognise the cough? If it is a stranger, you begin to listen much more carefully, to concentrate and make out sounds above your head. If there are ‘no persones in the … hall hearing’ but you ‘alone’, the disparity between the exchanges upstairs and your seclusion downstairs will make the hall seem larger and stiller. Those you hear ‘in a chamber over the hall’ are choosing their words very carefully. They are discussing issues which connect the house to the body and the soul as they ‘speake and move’ the testator ‘to be good unto his wif’…

Whether you go upstairs, or outside, and how you go, will depend upon who you are. How have you been imagining yourself?


I enjoyed writing it, based on tiny snippets from the documents that I analysed quantitatively in other places in the book, and found it a useful way into an argument about the relationship between theory, practice and theatrical representation. It was an interesting intellectual exercise, to reconstruct the records of perception and use them to explore not only the sensory qualities of lived experience, but also the social norms they revealed.

That was a long time ago, and it’s interesting to see that I was quite comfortable with experience being purely textual in form – no images, no physical objects in sight! But both scholarly practice and digital capability have moved on since then. So this blog is a first announcement that our virtual early modern room is coming!

A virtual room was always going to be a part of the impact work for this project, thanks largely to having the fabulous Graeme Earl on the team – more from him in a future blog. We wanted to present our findings in innovative ways, to engage people with those questions of how those in the middle of society, neither very rich nor in poverty, made material and cultural use of their space. We built on the Ways of Seeing network on which the team had also worked together, in which we explored questions of perception in relation to new technology and heritage outcomes.

Replica painted hanging in the hall of Bayleaf Farmhouse (c. 1540) at the Weald and Downland Living Museum. Explored through the Ways of Seeing project.

The other thing that’s happened is that, as a project, we haven’t been able to get into the archives as often or for as long as we’d intended in this phase of the work. And that’s changed the way we’ve developed our digital resources. Rather than seeing them as the vehicle via which we disseminated findings after the end of the project, we’ve started to work with them more creatively as research tools. That has meant thinking with and through them about the big questions the project explores – for instance about the experience and place of reading and writing for the middling sort – and using them to problematise our evidence, rather than to present a seamless and straightforward narrative. We’ve also thought about them together, as a group – how this room relates to Middling Culture’s Status Calculator, for instance.

Staircase and section of C17 wall painting in the ‘parlour’ from the Reigate House Extension at the Weald and Downland Living Museum. Photograph by Tara Hamling

As a result, the project’s digital outputs have become considerably more significant. We are working with our project partners – the “real-world” room (pictured above) on which our virtual room is based is at the Weald and Downland Museum – and items from various collections such as The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, The Portable Antiquities Scheme, The National Trust and a number of local authority archives. We’ve also been working with creative writers, actors, digital artists and database developers, all of whom you will hear more from in this series of blogs leading up to the launch of the room.

It has been a strikingly different experience, for me at least, in the course of which I’ve had to think in new ways about how we work with evidence, probability, typicality and patterns of cultural behaviour. More on all of that too, but for now here is a short list of the issues we wanted to explore through spending time in the room:

  1. Reading and writing in a specific location
  2. The different ways in which reading and writing were used
  3. Howa person’s identity is built up over time
  4. How cultural experience is formed and remembered
This desk box from SBT’s collections is one of many objects to feature in our virtual room. SBT 1994-22, oak; sloped lid with butterfly hinges and scrolled book rest; body with scratch mouldings to front and sides. English, about 1600 © The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Finally, I’d like to come back at the end and think through just how different this way of presenting evidence is to the example with which I started. Our next challenge will be to come back to the linear narrative form and see how we can explore what we’ve learned in that way – in other words we have to write the findings up! I’d like to think more about the relationship between writing and experience, and how we bring material environments into written forms. The practices – both early modern and modern – that have cohered around the room offer different models for us to consider, and I hope to reflect more on them once we’ve spent a little longer inside….

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