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Europe at Home: The Family and Material Culture, 1500-1800 by Raffaella Sarti

27 January 2008

I always enjoy a good social history book, one that doesn’t necessary focus on political squabblings or the usual things that the standard historical survey books tend to cover. This one was a bit pricey when I bought it, but I think it was decent value for the cost.

Europe at Home: The Family and Material Culture, 1500-1800 by Raffaella Sarti (translated by Allan Cameron)

Raffaela Sarti’s book is translated from the original Italian, so it’s no surprise that the greater part of her research centres on the home life of Italian families throughout the time period her book covers. But Italy certainly doesn’t dominate the text — there is quite a lot of truly valuable and interesting information on the development of family structure and family life from the end of the Renaissance period through the beginning of the industrial age. Sarti touches on all the topics one might expect from a survey book: clothing, food and dietary patterns, the changing position and status of children and women in the European family, the effects of exploration of the New World on European daily life, and any number of other aspects of day-to-day existence in different regions of Europe.

Quite a few of the facts and anecdotes in the text seem almost meant for good dinner-table conversation, such as the intriguingly misogynistic reason why male cooks were vastly preferred over female cooks in most wealthy European families of the period (‘Everyone knows that generally the dirtiest man is cleaner than the cleanest woman’, according to 17th-century author Francesco Tanara of Bologna’s book The City-Dweller’s Organization of a Villa). There are also any number of facts that probably shouldn’t be mentioned at table, however; certain Basque peoples believed that only mature and virile men should be allowed to participate in the process of cheese-making, since they thought that the procession of human reproduction involved a ‘coagulation’ of male seed and female menses in the womb, just as rennet coagulates milk to make cheese. Anecdotes such as these highlight Sarti’s central and rather broad thesis, which emphasises the roles played by production, consumption, and reproduction in the maintenance of European family life. Even if Sarti’s thesis seems to be a little too broad at times, the span of the survey nonetheless allows the reader to take in a wider picture of domestic life, rather than forcing the focus of the book into an overly narrow set of conclusions.

Regrettably, one of my first impressions of my edition of the book was the sheer number of typographical errors included in the pages. I can’t tell whether I’ve become more irritated by them of late or whether I’m simply noticing them more often, but I’ve also become far less forgiving of them — especially in the paperback edition of a translated book. (Thankfully, Sarti has assembled a Web page for the errata.) But I only mention them because they are a minor but noticeable distraction from what is otherwise a very good translation of a fine study in social history.

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