- Everyday Objects: Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture and Its Meaning ed. by Tara Hamling, Catherine Richardson
What sense can we make of a hat, one offered as a betrothal gift and then sought in return in court when marriage plans had ended? No doubt for the active and interested mind, with a bend toward material anthropology and archaeology, such hats are everywhere in human life. Or as I extrapolate from editor Catherine Richardson’s telling essay “A Very Fit Hat,” our lives, narratives, times, crafts, and classes belong in some measure to our things. In a certain way, this work has rewritten the title of twentieth-century philosopher Gabriel Marcel’s Being and Having as “Having Is Being.”
For the social historian interested in giving objects their place in our understanding of everyday life in the past, elevating them beyond sweeping generalizations of materialism, technology, production, or yet recently popular histories of consumptions, this book is just the ticket. Not surprisingly, the volume’s twenty-three well-written essays were done by a horizon of British and North American research experts, curators, and scholars from archaeology, history, art history, theater, visual arts, museums, and research centers (who were assembled at a 2007 conference to give their papers). Focused within the geographic limits of Italy and England, this book constitutes a kind of survey (or a selective analytic inventory) of everyday objects in medieval and early modern Europe. The book’s six principal divisions are “Evidence and Interpretation,” “Skills and Manufacture,” “Objects and Space,” ”Sound and Sensory Experience,” “Material Religion,” and “Emotions and Attitudes towards Objects.” In addition, a second and novel table of contents, of objects and types of objects, divides the book into “Clothing,” “Shoes,” “Tableware,” “Musical Instruments,” “Books,” [End Page 228] “Portraits,” “Domestic Goods,” “Ritual Objects,” “Buildings and Fixtures.” The book also sports fifty quality illustrations and eight color plates,
The objects treated in this book are given life and express themselves in many ways. Some are valuable and unique; others are common and ordinary. They are found in different conditions—venerated and discarded, and used and repaired, as so nicely pointed out by Sara Pennel’s “For a crack or flaw despise’d.” Their place and importance in social life belongs in some cases, such as the drinking mug, to the efficient plane of the moving hand and arm and the tilted head and poised body. In the case of other objects, like that of shoes, clothing, or a teetering wheelbarrow, the object is truly grasped only in relation to the act of walking and its appearance to the person on foot and in motion. Objects, like pins, can define the clothes we wear, the customs we sport, and the interior pricking of the folded fabric we wear, as Jenny Tiramani points out in “Pins and Aglets.”
As the restoration and function of certain objects challenge our understanding of the past, the emerging abundance of other objects makes it ever more difficult (as a combination of essays suggests) to enumerate “the ordinary pots” that held and conveyed life in early modern Europe. There was a rustle of garments and those “portraits that began to take over public and private walls”—those “faces that take up spaces.” Of course, as more than one essay notes, visual culture is not sufficient to describe the place of beer, the waves and uses of many different-shaped and different-sized fans, the clanging bells that call attention, the ting-a-ling of Communion bells, or the ambivalent medieval bagpipes that accompanied both riotous and solemn occasions.
As essays in parts 5 and 6 remind us, everyday objects resonated inwardly and outwardly. They celebrated communities (guilds) in the present and evoked the dead at the family table. Books, as few other objects, declared associations and meanings, forming networks of readers and announcing by name alone their owners’ most private selves. Of course, their simple display constituted a prima facie claim to status and prestige. Texts, ornate and image filled, cradled...