From the late Middle Ages, peculiar inventories have survived within so-called "poems of household goods." At least twelve of these poems have been handed down in German since the 14th century.✱ Similar poems in French already existed in the 13th century.✱ From today's perspective, they may seem quite strange. Resembling actual inventories, their detailed descriptions of household goods on the one hand give us vivid insights into the material furnishings of late medieval and early modern households. On the other hand, they are excellent sources for late medieval discourse on material objects.
The German texts featured in this essay can be divided into two groups.✱ The texts of the first group deal with privations and poverty in matrimony. Rather than providing a list of household items, these texts enumerate what is lacking in the household. In an early poem dated from around 1400, the so-called "Hausgeschirr," the narrator laments poverty within the "order of marriage" and records an inventory of missing household goods.✱ In another poem from the 14th century, ascribed to the "König vom Odenwald," the speaker complains that from the moment when he had set up his own household, he had had to give up joy and love. He has been getting old because of his concern for the honor of the house. In the text that follows, he enumerates missing household goods and food, as well as servants and animals.✱ These poems can be seen as parodies and satirical antitheses to contemporary romantic poetry, since the love to which the poetic persona usually aspires is instead presented as a burden, causing worry and poverty.✱
The poems of the second group are didactic in nature, giving lessons to young people who intend to get married. The inventories in these poems are thus intended to illustrate the large expenses which were necessary for running a household. In doing so, these poems point to the risk of poverty related to marriage and the foundation of a household. A "Spruchgedicht" (spoken poem) by the well-known poet and shoemaker Hans Sachs, printed in Nuremberg in 1545 and 1553, mentions three hundred objects that should be part of every household.✱ This enumeration is framed by a plot: a journeyman tells his master, a craftsman, that he wants to marry. The master warns him against the marriage and describes to him what he would need to set up a household. The main part of the poem lists the necessary items in inventory form, starting in the living room, followed by the kitchen, the storeroom, the cellar, and the bedroom. This arrangement from room to room resembles the real inventories of that time, examples of which may be found in the DALME collections. The next part provides an overview of everything else necessary to run the household: repair tools, laundry equipment, and bathroom furniture. In addition to this, the master also tells his journeyman that he would need cats and dogs, as well as servants, who must be paid. The master then goes on to discuss the wife’s pregnancy and the birth of the children, and concludes by pointing out the costs of raising children and renting a house. Once again, he warns the journeyman of impending poverty, which would ultimately lead to the inability to pay for the servants, the rent and the living expenses of his family. This poem by Hans Sachs is strongly related to earlier works of the Nuremberg poet and barber surgeon Hans Folz. Besides a handwritten spoken poem,✱ four editions of a printed booklet of furniture (Vom Hausrat) have been preserved. In this publication, Folz clearly links the topic with an anti-Semitic incitement when he connects poverty to the topos of the alleged usurious Jewish moneylenders.✱
In particular, household poems seem to have been associated with the time of carnival, as the the second to last verse on the second to last page in the printed version of Hans Sachs’s poem suggests,✱ as well as with the turn of the year, which is indicated by the final verses of a Basel print from 1569. This poem ends with a didactic sentence addressed to young women and men as well as a New Year's greeting.✱ Another text, printed in Strasbourg in 1510 and accompanied by illustrative woodcuts, differs slightly in theme, but also points to the New Year.✱ In a long enumeration, a male speaker tells a female person, presumably his wife, which household items he gives her for the New Year. In sharp contrast to the topos of impending poverty discussed in many of the poems, this text presents the totality of everyday items and luxury goods available during the early 16th century instead.
What makes such enumerations of everyday objects comprehensible was the immense material value of household goods in this time. They constituted economic capital, and could thus serve as pawn, inheritance and donation.✱ However, the items listed in these poems do not reflect the real furnishing of average households in the Middle Ages. Many poems feature instead the contents of an ideal household oriented towards the lifestyle of the urban upper middle classes.✱ Representing social status, household goods constituted not only wealth but also symbolic capital. Much the same is true for the maids and servants which are frequently mentioned. Surely, maids and servants are not presented as part of the household goods here and were not considered property, as, for example, it was the case with enslaved persons in the inventories from Florence. Nevertheless, as with the ownership of enslaved persons, the employment of maids and servants indicated a certain status as the paternal head of one’s own household. This also points to the blurred boundaries between free and unfree work and living conditions throughout the history of labor. ✱
Furthermore, a closer look at the poems reveals a gender bias: the household is portrayed from a specifically male perspective, and most of the poems address young men, especially within the social sphere of artisans and journeymen. Men are the ones who complain about their situation in matrimony, who make gifts to their wives, and who contribute all the household goods before marriage. This suggests in turn that the material stock in their households belonged to them. However, contemporary practice was often quite different. Many of the goods in households were brought in by wives, and often remained in their possession.✱ Particularly in the case of remarriage after the death of a spouse, special attention was paid to the owners of the items in the house. Therefore, goods were inventoried in order to secure them against later inheritance claims by stepchildren. For example, the Cologne chronicler and councilman Hermann Weinsberg describes this practice in his autobiographical notes. At his wedding to Weisgin Ripgin (1512-1557), a widow with two children, such an inventory was recorded, witnessed and notarized.✱
In contrast to such practices, the poems suggest that household goods were acquired and owned by the husband. In this way, the poems greatly exaggerate the responsibility and importance of husbands, thus corresponding to their claims as the heads of households. The household goods, which were in fact the economic capital of both spouses, were claimed in the poems as the symbolic capital of the housefather. In this way, they symbolize patriarchal strength and set the paterfamilias apart from both women and disadvantaged unmarried men, not only in an economic sense, but also socially and politically.✱
Household poems were part of a specifically male discourse on household and matrimony. This discourse was concerned with gender-specific differentiations between male and female, as well as differentiations between various forms of masculinity, which were closely linked to economic and social aspects. Thus, the poems are not only about the position of the male head of the household, but also about the question of which men were allowed to or should occupy this position. Hans Sachs’s poem explicitly addresses this issue, dealing with the social distinction between master artisans and journeymen. Lacking assets of their own, the journeymen were denied the right to marry, to establish a household, and thus to act in a full capacity as socially and politically recognized men. From the opposite perspective, the satirical complaints of the aforementioned poems address the precarious position of the paterfamilias and ultimately reject this role.
The poems outline a model of the male housefather based on the categories of gender and socioeconomic position. The making and receiving of such inventory poems of household goods can thus be interpreted as a form of "doing difference."✱ The housefathers modeled in the poems can be seen as a patriarchal concept of masculinity which circulated within certain communication communities.✱ This concept of masculinity went hand in hand with social power and political participation and could only be claimed by wealthy and married men. In this respect, matrimony and household were politically relevant issues. Not least this relevance made it interesting to write, hear and read poems with long household inventories.