- The Strait Gate: Thresholds and Power in Western History by Daniel Jütte
Only recently have social and cultural historians begun to show serious interest in some of more mundane and ubiquitous features of the built environment. Yet structures, such as balconies, as Cowan has demonstrated, were more than just architectural ornaments; they played a central role in the practices constituting everyday life and, as in the case of the doors and gateways that are the subject of this book, represent an immensely fruitful site for interdisciplinary investigation.1
The “spatial turn” across the social sciences generated an accentuated awareness of the importance of boundaries between different kinds of space—public and private, sacred and profane, rural and urban, domestic and foreign—and their function in political and social life and cultural practices. Moreover, the new focus on “emotion” has heightened awareness of the complex feelings invoked by place. These themes run through Jütte’s book, which addresses the “question of how the door achieved the crucial role it has played in Western culture toward the constitution of the categories of internal and external” (17). In his richly detailed study, Jütte proceeds to analyze the technological and material development of doors and doorways, together with architraves, hinges, knockers, locks, and keys. Ranging from humble domestic portals to magnificent church doors, princely entrances, and imposing city gates, he paints a vivid picture of their stories and their roles in cultural history and everyday life.
Focusing primarily on early modern Europe, with occasional forays deeper into the past and other cultures (notably Japan), Jütte borrows from anthropology and early modern political, religious, social, and cultural history to examine doors not only as physical gateways but also as sites of power, inclusion, and exclusion and as signifiers of separation and hierarchy that created distinctions with deep moral and ideological dimensions.
The doors of the past, like the portals of the contemporary web, were sites of passage and liminality, embodying people’s hopes and anxieties. They represented gateways to other worlds, both material and metaphysical, rich in symbolic meanings—hence their popularity with artists, who often used them as allegorical devices. Historically, doors hosted special events, such as the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg where Martin Luther was supposed to have posted his Ninety-Five Theses. However, as Jütte skilfully shows, even such exceptional events were embedded in the complex network of social and cultural practices constituting everyday life. Not surprisingly, the door is best understood as a “social and cultural convention” embedded in a “wider context of cultural and everyday history” (10). [End Page 223]
The Strait Gate constitutes an important contribution to cultural history, illuminating our understanding of the early modern world. Its well-chosen illustrations provide apt support for the text.
1. Alexander Cowan, “Seeing is Believing: Urban Gossip and the Balcony in Early Modern Venice,” Gender and History, XXIII (2011), 721–738.