ANZAMEMS Reading Group: Session 2 ‘Household Accounts as Primary Sources’ Summary

The second session of the ANZAMEMS Postgrad/ECR Reading Group took place on Tuesday March 21, and was dedicated to the topic of “Household Accounts as Primary Sources.” Reading group co-convener Emily Chambers (PhD candidate, University of Nottingham) led a lively discussion based around an article by Charlie Taverner and Susan Flavin: ‘Food and Power in Sixteenth-Century Ireland: Studying Household Accounts from Dublin Castle‘, The Historical Journal 66.1 (2022), 1-26.

A contribution to the “history of feeding Dublin Castle,” this article focuses on the exceptionally detailed household accounts of William Fitzwilliam, Lord Deputy of Ireland. The article demonstrates how Fitzwilliam presided (albeit begrudgingly) over a vast and prominent household at Dublin Castle from 1572-5 and 1588-94, seeking to strike a delicate balance between the “conspicuous consumption” and courtly hospitality befitting his political station, and maintaining economical expenditure amid a period of financial weakness for the English state. Taking this viceroy’s household as an apt test case, Taverner and Flavin show how historians can make use of household accounts to shed light on consumption practices and food trends in early modern Europe, including—in Fitzwilliam’s example—a marked preference for beef in imitation of the English, and the continuing influence of humoral theory in determining which foodstuffs were purchased and consumed.

Our conversation kicked off by questioning an implicit assumption on the part of the article authors: that is, that the quantities and types of food recorded in Fitzwilliam’s household accounts (or indeed any household accounts from this period) can be interpreted straightforwardly as evidence of consumption on the part of the household’s bodies. We were somewhat shocked, for example, at the sheer amount of beef and mutton each member of the household was calculated to have consumed each day (some 1.4 kilograms), and wondered if some information regarding the passage from purchasing or receiving such goods, through to actual consumption, might escape these kinds of accounting records. However, one of our members pointed out that early modern people’s diets were indeed extraordinarily meat-heavy and not necessarily padded out with what our meals are today in the way of starches and the like. Several attendees pointed to The Supersizers Go…Elizabethan (2008), an episode of the BBC programme presented by Sue Perkins and Giles Coren in which the hosts dress, eat, and live as sixteenth-century folk—and consume a staggering amount of meat. Our attendees recall being shocked by just how much animal protein Perkins and Coren consumed as part of their voyage to the Elizabethan table, informed by recipe books and other historical sources. Some members then shared the favourite early modern recipes they had come across in their own research, and even tried themselves (one being a delicious-sounding primrose dessert!).

Another talking point for our group discussion was the slightly disjunctive framing of the article, which worked to present Dublin Castle’s “exceptionally” detailed and tidy household accounts—and the food trends or preferences demonstrated within them—as exemplary of wider European food trends. Taverner and Flood write, for example, that “More than an Irish story, this article offers evidence of Europe-wide changes” (p.1), and argue that “Scratching the surface of these accounts reveals a nuanced and meaningful story about food, social status, and power in early modern Europe” (p.3). We agreed that the article authors’ impulse to break the household account out of its established use toward micro-histories of individual families, or as a source of anecdotal evidence to illustrate the stuff of diets or the early modern culture of hospitality, potentially led them to make too sweeping of a claim in the other direction. We agreed that there was a lack of evidence in the article’s exegesis to substantiate the argument that Dublin Castle could be considered representative of sixteenth-century courtly households more broadly.

Nevertheless, our members did think there may be a compelling case for courtly households like Fitzwilliam’s resembling each other closely in their consumption practices (and so, in that, transcending culture and geography), since all were held to similar standards of hospitality and grandeur. One next possible avenue for building on the authors’ insights, we thought, as well as for better evidencing the argument for Dublin Castle as an exemplary European household from a food history perspective, would be to compare its accounts more rigorously within the British context to those of a similarly large and important viceroy’s household—for example, to Ludlow Castle, the seat of the Earl of Bridgewater, Lord President of Wales. Interestingly, a closer read of the article shows that some of this comparative data is included in Table 1, “Consumption of major meats in the households of Irish lords deputy” (p. 12), but it is not adequately mined or highlighted in the actual body of the piece apart from to make a broad point about bovine predominance. Still, we appreciated the authors’ acknowledgement that household accounts are best married with other disciplinary approaches in order to identify broader patterns in consumption (p.1, p. 26).

Our attendees noted at the very beginning of the session that this article is strikingly male-dominated in its focus on Fitzwilliam’s patriarchally structured political household. This came as somewhat of a surprise to several of our members, whose primary contact with household accounts has attested to the heavy involvement of women in the overseeing of household accounts and administration. In the case of Dublin Castle, moreover, we were curious about the whereabouts of Fitzwilliam’s wife Anne Sidney (Aunt by marriage to Sir Philip Sidney and Mary Sidney) and their children during his unwilling séjour in Ireland. These actors were a bit like phantoms in the text, and suggested that “impersonal” records like household accounts—records which typically rely for their sign-off on male hands—do not tell the full human story of the early modern household. The same is true for how exactly household workers like servants were remunerated for their labour, apart from the payment they received in the form of food and accommodation. These are the figures and complex transactional material relationships which—we agreed—escape even the most meticulous household account-keeping.

In an interesting digression, members also distinguished between noblewomen’s overseeing of household accounts (i.e. how much was spent and on what), and the actual procurement of those goods in the marketplace. This latter task would almost certainly have been delegated to the household’s workers, as the marketplace—with its mixed classes and bartering culture—was viewed as a potentially besmirching public locale for elite women to be seen in. This got us on to a charming anecdote from Susannah Lyon-Whaley regarding the Duchesses of Richmond and Buckingham, who one day in 1670 allegedly decided to dress up as peasants so that they might attend a country fair in Sussex. Having overdone their disguises somewhat, they drew the attention of the crowds, who recognized them and chased them fanatically away. The perils of early modern shopping!

The next session of the ANZAMEMS Postgrad/ECR Reading Group will take place on Tuesday 11 April (10:00am Perth, 12:00pm Melbourne, 2:00pm NZ). The theme is “Representations of Crisis and Catastrophe.”

Please contact the convenors with any queries: Emma Rayner (ANU),, and Emily Chambers (University of Nottingham),

Emma Rayner, 29/03/2023