Meditating on Materiality – a 3-part book review (Part 2)

This is a review article (posted in three parts) which has been accepted for publication in 2014 by Edinburgh University Press in Cultural History

Renata Ago, Gusto for Things: A History of Objects in Seventeenth-Century Rome (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013) (Translated from the Italian by Bradford Bouley and Corey Tazzara with Paula Findlen).

Paula Findlen (ed.), Early Modern Things: Objects and their Histories, 1500–1800 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013).

Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson (eds), Everyday Objects: Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture and its Meanings (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010).

Early Modern ThingsThe material culture discussed in Paula Findlen’s edited collection Early Modern Things is far more global in origin and analysis than in Ago’s Gusto for Things, encompassing ginseng and rhubarb, birds and clockwork, timber and grain, still-life paintings, clothing and coins. Indeed, the volume’s conceptual organization and coverage are intended to navigate the global interconnectedness of material culture. This shapes the contributions, which offer valuable insights into the early modern global economy. Alan Mikhail, for instance, reveals the huge scale of organization performed by the Ottoman Empire in transporting timber from Anatolia to the Suez to build ships to carry grain from Egypt to Hijaz. Erika Monahan demonstrates the complexity of the early modern economy by charting the circulation of rhubarb from China to Russia to Europe. It is testimony to Findlen’s excellent skills as an editor that a remarkably extensive range of scholarship (six sections, eighteen contributors) on material culture is pulled into a cohesive whole. As Findlen remarks in her excellent opening chapter, the volume is ‘not a methodological manifesto … but a historical sampler of what we can learn by writing the history of objects as well as histories from objects’ (p. 6). Nonetheless, there is much here to prompt the reader to reflect on the practice of material culture history, including Findlen’s historiographical summary and chapters that show the limits of words and text when investigating material culture. In an especially fascinating chapter, for example, Pamela Smith shows that re-enacting material techniques illuminates the creation of objects and the manner in which craft was learned experientially, in ways that technical manuals and guides cannot.

A number of important themes emerge. Perhaps most familiar is that material culture offers insights into how people think about their world. Thus, Riello discusses the shortcomings of inventories and concludes, helpfully, that though they may not be an accurate account of what an individual owned, they are valuable records of the way people thought about domestic space and the things within it. Therefore, they should be treated as representations specific to time and place. The insights gained by such historicity are seen in Julie Hochstrasser’s analysis of the new genre of still-life painting, which emerged in the seventeenth-century Netherlands at the same time as consumer society was developing. She examines how the objects painted were selected and presented to illustrate how highly Dutch society valued global goods, and she suggests that this genre had a new, explicitly self-conscious approach to materiality. Indeed, the artists often inserted themselves into their still lifes in reflections on objects, which goes some way to illuminate how elements of the artists’ subjectivity were moving towards a conception of ‘time as money’.

This volume also forcefully emphasizes that objects are never unitary or unified. Carla Nappi, for example, traces the multiple ways the ginseng root was categorized across time and place; in doing so she uncovers a shift from identifying ginseng through narration-based resemblances to identifying it through new ‘scientific’ observation practices (p. 41). Similarly, Monahan traces the change in the use of rhubarb across Asia to Europe, from a medicinal root to a sour-stalked food ingredient, and shows how such a transition was influenced by wider economic factors like new methods of production and the availability of New World sugar, which made the rhubarb stalk palatable. Things were also adapted by and for various social groups and different genders. Anne McCants confirms that in eighteenth-century Amsterdam, possession of ceramic vessels for colonial hot beverages extended to the citizen working poor. Though part of a wider material phenomenon, their vessels were inferior to those acquired by the wealthier because they were cheaper. Lack of funds meant they retained the vessels when cracked or broken and, moreover, were unable to purchase tea and coffee in small quantities. If this was partly consumer-driven demand, Amanda Vickery’s chapter on furniture reveals how English manufacturers created and marketed gendered furniture from the 1760s. Pieces differed in scale: solid for men, dainty for women, although these factors were perhaps more evident in advertising than usage.

The role of objects as agents also appears throughout. One of the most startling examples is Marcy Norton’s insightful examination of Amerindian and European modes of interaction with birds, primarily birds of prey and parrots. She shows that different practices had an impact on ideas about the animals’ subjectivities, and that human interaction with birds was malleable when different cultural practices came into contact. There is evidence that early moderns perceived clothing to have ‘moral agency’ (p. 52). Chandra Mukerji argues that a sixteenth-century account of Ottoman people’s clothing should not be dismissed as a European ‘othering’ since it principally offered a way to characterize social groups in the empire. A study of a Japanese Shogunate’s collection of swords, guns and tea utensils also demonstrates how things were themselves actors in social networks in early modern Japanese society.

Continued in part 3

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