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

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).

The way that objects shape daily practices and routines is also high on the agenda of Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson’s Everyday Objects, which additionally explores how material culture made manifest intangibles like devotion, emotions and the senses. The focus on the late medieval and early modern period in England and Italy means that the Reformation is central to the collection, which successfully includes the spiritual in its account of the everyday. It also stands out as a deliberately ‘multi-disciplinary analysis’ (p. 1), composed of twenty-four contributions from specialists in art history, English, music, archaeology and curation, as well as history. Such disciplinary diversity leads to a conscious exploration of methodologies and approaches. Not everyone here is convinced of material culture’s ability to answer historical questions. Perhaps this is why the editors advocate an integration of approaches, though they recognize the disciplinary barriers. David Gaimster’s chapter, for example, describes the value of archaeology for material culture historians. Yet they can make use of the data on excavated artefacts only if it is made more accessible to them.

Everyday ObjectsOne of the difficulties with the study of past material culture is how to ‘see’ an object which may well no longer exist. Everyday Objects tackles this head on. Riello and Stephen Kelly meditate, respectively, on how far shoes illuminate walking practices in the past and on whether it is possible to use surviving ‘things’ to capture their agency in social and cultural relations. While their discussions prompt scholars to interrogate what they bring to seeing objects, Sara Pennell argues that it is crucial to investigate how people used and consumed these objects. She points out that although museums and consumption histories focus on novel, beautiful eighteenth-century ceramics, many people acquired them for reasons of utility rather than emulation or fashion. Mark Chambers and Louise Sylvester try to resolve such problems by establishing a lexicography of medieval clothing and cloth that may enable clothing scholars to adopt a standard vocabulary.

A further risk of investigating material culture where the bulk of data is textual or visual is a failure to consider the physicality of objects in form and use. This volume, however, engages with construction and practice through surviving objects. One of the results of this is to uncover how the use of things governed their meaning. Jenny Tiramani reveals that sixteenth-century people’s gestures and actions were probably influenced by dress construction, which relied on straight pins and ties to fasten and control clothing. Where one part of clothing was attached to another by straight pins, the wearer was likely to restrict movement in that area to avoid pricking. Another example of how clothing could be imbued with notions of morality and identity is found in Natasha Korda’s discussion of a form of starched headgear for women that was made in London by refugee craftswomen from the Low Countries. Such meaning was highly specific to these conditions but could also be transformed over the life of the object. Maria Hayward’s examination of an early seventeenth-century boy’s doublet not only reconstructs the production and consumption of textiles by the middling sort but hints at the item’s transformation from financial to superstitious value through its eventual concealment under attic floorboards.

This is developed further by chapters which reveal how location determined the function of things. Elizabethan and Jacobean portraits in the home displayed their owners’ allegiance, historical knowledge and virtue, as well as acting as decoration. However, as Tarnya Cooper observes, later generations saw the same portraits as old-fashioned and worthless, moving them into smaller and more distant rooms before recycling them into other forms. Robert Tittler’s study of the civil portraiture of laypeople also shows that the portraits’ meaning depended on their location. Those displayed in public rooms were intended to impress as images of governing authority, while those in inner rooms were restricted to members of the institutions and reminded the ruling elites of their responsibilities as civic governors. Location could also defuse potentially explosive situations. Hamling illustrates how domestic furniture and objects in post-Reformation England were inscribed with religious imagery. Yet this domestic situation meant the images were not proscribed by the state. Thus, they represented patriarchal authority and status while simultaneously diminishing the spiritual power of the images in this Protestant world.

Everyday Objects bravely assesses the less tangible aspects of material culture. Chapters attempt to reconstruct the material culture of sound and music, spanning Italian fans and handbells, English musical practice in the post-Reformation English parish church and late medieval English bagpipes. They suggest that sounds and musical practice could forge a sense of community but also reinforced the social hierarchy. This dual nature of material culture can be seen in the volume’s contributions on religious objects. R. N. Swanson’s work on a pre-Reformation devotional parchment and Richard Williams’s on a post-Reformation personalized devotional aid reveal the intimacy of religious material culture: intended to both promote devotion and fix the individual into the Christian community. Similarly, the 1530s inventories of a Lincolnshire religious guild include relics housed in the guild building, which were a focus for the devotional gaze, while other objects and spaces sought to stimulate guild fraternity. It seems that late medieval monastic mazers (drinking vessels), in their role as gifts and commemorative objects, bound together the Benedictine monks.

Another novel feature of the volume’s endeavour to materialize the intangible is that it asks whether everyday objects acted as repositories of emotions. Not all the contributors think so. Lena Orlin’s chapter on wills pessimistically concludes that objects were bequeathed for their use value and not their emotional meaning. Such an approach is perhaps too keen to see objects as capable of only one function and meaning, which contrasts with the rest of the volume and with Ago’s findings that objects could have emotional meaning invested in them yet still be brought back into use for their exchange value. The other contributors are more positive on this point. Thus, Richardson shows that headgear might materialize affection and intention in courtship, while Ryan Perry points out that medieval books materialized the immaterial, defined here as piety, as well as familial and cultural values related to identity.

Collectively, then, these books illustrate that the study of material culture in the past provides new insights into the late medieval and early modern world. Writing the history of objects, and history from objects, is less an option, more a necessity. What remains an issue to be resolved, however, is how to use a material culture approach as one facet of a wider historical investigation. It is, for example, possible to be a historian who uses gender as one of several forms of analysis without identifying oneself as a ‘gender historian’. Is the same possible with material culture, or should it be confined to those who define themselves as material culture historians? Is, say, a cultural historian able to use objects alongside other evidence to illuminate his or her subject rather than placing things at its centre? It is a worthwhile goal to use material culture as a ‘new tool’ but one that perhaps remains a little distant for many historians. As with the call for multidisciplinarity in general, it is easier to advocate for it than to offer advice on how to do it. Hopefully, this goal is more likely to be achieved if material culture is included within mainstream undergraduate history programmes and if excellent volumes such as History and Material Culture: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources (edited by Karen Harvey) continue to be published. To facilitate this, an expansive understanding of the study of things as ‘materiality’ sense would seem the least exclusive way forward.


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