Often our understanding of history is conditioned by the big things: important people, nation-making or -breaking events, and records of what people thought or felt was important at the time. Some historians (Sir Geoffrey Elton, for example) have been convinced that it was only through these "important" things that we can understand the past. In the last few decades there has however been a growing insurrection from the other end--the field of material culture has grown out of its antiquarian and connoisseurship roots to become a driving force (for some) as another vector for investigation of the past. Although the Annales School pioneered focussing on economic, social, and cultural factors, what James Deetz, among others, has found "In Small Things Forgotten" (a title of his perceptive study of American material culture) has begun to propagate into the wider academic world. These two volumes are hatched from the leading proponent of such an approach in Europe for the medieval and early modern period, the Institut fuer Realienkunde in Krems, Lower Austria (http://www.imareal.oeaw.ac.at/). The first, a volume of essays from a 1994 conference on "The Multiplicity of Things", and the latter, from a 1998 round-table on similar themes, do indeed propose "new ways to analyze medieval material culture," although one must admit that at times, the message is alternately clear or obscured.
First, a few remarks on each volume separately. Die Vielfalt der Dinge (vol. 3 of the series), with fourteen essays, roughly half in German, half in English, tries to give a sense of the wider conference, although as a reader it appears that the conference was marked by a profound tension between the English- and German-speaking attendees. Apparently, the anglophones (notably archaeologists from the UK) more than not were trying to push theoretical and abstract approaches while the Deutschesprecher wished to concentrate on actual remains (recovered physical remains or depictions of lost objects) from actual places and place them in actual contexts. There was clearly some collegial consensus reached that they were both headed for the same academic space, albeit from different conceptual starting places (see Ulrich Klein's Resumee at the end of the volume). A slimmer volume, History of Medieval Life and the Sciences (vol. 4) takes on a slightly less ambitious task, although a little less satisfying. Its 12 essays, all but three in English, tackle more specific topics--from Lithuanian archaeozoology and Yorkshire plant and invertebrate remains in archaeological contexts to 12th century scholastic science and the archaeology of smelting in northwestern Switzerland. But as you can see from this sample, the connections between the specific topics are often tenuous at best, and in this vol. 3 is more satisfying in that there one at least gets a couple articles that seem to interact with each other; articles in vol. 4 often seem more orphaned (as is Walter Endrei's pictographic analysis of alchemical symbol evolution in vol. 4). In many cases the contributors either did not make any, or simply admitted that there were no necessary or specific connections and simply wrote of what they thought about interdisciplinary material culture studies from the perspective of their own field of study. Despite this sometimes fragmented feeling to both volumes, they are nonetheless valuable.
The contributions in both volumes are varied in their intent, scope, content, and ultimate success, but although there seem to be remnants of distracting variety in the quality of the contributions, the topics they address will set an important precedent for medieval material culture studies. By no means exhaustive, the following list suggests the scope of fields represented in the two volumes: archaeobotany, archaeozoology, and archaeometallurgy; town formation, public health, cartography, and paleo-demography; fluid mechanics, ballistics, (al)chemistry, and natural philosophy; devotional imagery, domestic scenes, and social networks; paleo-pathology and osteology as well as maternity and infant mortality statistics; pisciculture as well as domestic, natural, and economic agriculture; taxation, guilds, craft production, and economic stratification; not to mention theoretical approaches stemming from various schools including the Annales, Marxist, (neo-)Positivist, hard sciences, linguistics, and especially archaeology.
What these lists should suggest to the reader is that the vision of the Institut fuer Realienkunde is expansive, and in that vastness lies a trap. I fully agree with their idea that we ought to be all-inclusive in the tools we can bring to bear on medieval questions, but no one is master of all trades and in trying to be so inclusive we run the risk of being under (or mis-) informed in areas outside our own specialties (although it should be said that I find no glaring cross-disciplinary errors in either of these volumes when contributors apparently reached beyond their own fields). Perhaps we should not have specialties, but for the moment, at least my limited vision sees us trapped within such epistemologies, both intellectually and bureaucratically. Consequently, as one reads these contributions, you often wonder just what threads really connect the various papers, and which really don't (see, e.g., Ken Kalling's "Interdisciplinarity: a Gate for Wishful Thinking?" in vol. 4)... even thought the exercise of realizing that, given more space, one might truly make the connections between, say, hospital burial grounds in Estonia and hunting parks in Austria. Often the connections in the published volumes are pair-wise or in trinities: three excellent contributions in vol. 3 address concepts of public and private (David Austin, Fred Kaspar, and Peter Jezler) and two consider whether the material record can really inform us of medieval norms (Sven Schuette and Katharina Simon-Muscheid); three papers in vol. 4 look at specific archaeological fields (zoology, botany, and invertebrates). Perhaps the very size of vol. 4 at roughly a third the size of vol. 3 is indicative that the Institut felt that in 1994 it over-reached its feasible grasp and by 1998 tried to focus in a bit more carefully. But even here, the breadth is impressive, and consequently daunting. Ultimately, what the Krems group wants to do is laudable, but as volumes of collected essays these volumes need to either be focussed on one specific topic--be that a place, a time, or a class of material culture--or else remain broad but at a theoretical level. When theory, breadth, and concrete details of a time and place are heaped into one volume, it becomes too sparse.
Now, lest the reader believe I dislike these volumes, this could not be farther from the truth. In actuality, I find contributions in these volumes thought-provoking and fascinating, but at the same time frustrating only because they are tantalizing but ultimately not enough. Take for example John Moreland's contribution in vol. 3, "Through the Looking Glass of Possibilities." It is a very interesting ramble (in the good sense) through the relation between history and 'reality', and how we are to navigate between, as he puts it, the Scylla of naïve empiricism and the Charibdis of absolute relativism. Although he has sketched the roadmap and given some very brief examples of how we manage to avoid Rankean absolutist, 'how it really was' mindsets, as well as steer clear of postmodern absolute relativism where the content of history submerges below the style of its presentation, it's like a MapQuest map that gives only major roads with all the minor roads, intersections, and even topographic detail omitted "for clarity". And that "clarity" is ultimately, I think, what the 1994 Krems meeting was after--if not it an absolute sense, at least tentatively.
The alert reader will notice that I used various forms of 'absolute' much too much in the preceding paragraph. The usage was intentional, for it allows me to raise another issue with both these volumes, and especially with vol. 3. Numerous essays try to figure out how we should understand the middle ages if we are to understand it more completely than we do now. Obviously the Krems group is fundamentally interested in including material and archaeological evidence to augment our textual knowledge. But what this laudable goal aims at, I think is a more absolute knowledge about a past which is by its very nature--be it textually or archaeologically--fragmentary. Simply and obviously put, we only have a very small portion of what remains from the past. Imagine if you would what future archaeologists would say about your life if they had only what you threw away or lost outside your front door (modern construction methods will make future house/apartment archaeology much less interesting, I imagine). Archaeologists have long recognized this "problem of the remains", and these contributors do too, and recommend a greater emphasis on syntheses of many finds over space and time. Yet one thing that seems rather missing from almost all the contributors is the textual record. It is as if in arguing we need to get to the material remains, they have gotten away from those material remains that happen to be oak gall on treated skins, that is, the manuscripts. Still, it is probably fair to say that most if not all of these authors agreed with Hannes Herditis' assessment that "the real problem begins when 'the plausibility of the accepted picture' is not only covered documentarily, but rather how it must be judged." (4:61) His answer is with the addition of experimental archaeology, a position echoed by Juerg Tauber's in his paper on experimental smelting and Bert Hall on early modern gunpowder and internal ballistics in the same volume)
Yet even when they look at specific places they can see that there are multiple perspectives on the same space: here David Austin's paper on "Private and Public" (vol. 3) explores absolutely fascinating ground, considering how "private" etymologically relates to "privy" and how the guarderobe itself can be used as a sort of anchor to consider how different actors (lord, vassal, commoner) would perceive the spatial relations in and around Barnard Castle in the 12th century; his ultimate point is that there is a great deal of relativism in their understanding of the place, so why (and how) can we come to any absolute understanding of the place. Still, Moreland's injunction (quoting Ian Hodder) that "evidence 'does exist in the real world--it is tangible and is there, like it or not. Whatever our perception or world view, we are constrained by the evidence and brought up against its concreteness'" (3:114) resonates. Ultimately, we cannot adopt a complete postmodern point of view lest we loose connection with the bit of evidence we do have. And to extend the thought, we should realize (as Heiko Steuer makes clear in "Archaeologie und Realitaet mittelalterlichen Alltagslebens" [vol. 3]) that even typical political, biographical, or ecclesiastical histories can just as easily loose touch with evidence of the "real world".
Who, then, will benefit from these collections of essays? I suspect that these will not be cited as the volumes that sparked a gestalt shift in academic epistemology. Most medievalists will find some parts of these collections thought provoking. You might find some interesting fodder for a particular project of your own (as I have in Peter Jezler's essays on Andachtsbilder in vol. 3); you might discover a methodological approach that could be adapted to your project (as with Norman Pound's excellent opening Address, "The Multiplicity of Things" on the variation and evolution of technologies, in the same volume). More likely, these essays will help you to forge new connections between your theoretical basis (or lack thereof) and the material remains/culture of the past--as Jahritz summarized, their "concrete (realienkundliche) research brought [to the participants] a multiplicity of fruitful stimuli." (3:437) Looking at the essays not so much as specific contributions to, say, Italian medieval public health statutes (Duccio Balestracci in vol. 3), but rather in thinking about how these medieval issues relate to sanitation and water closets, regulations and government/governing, classes, genders, private and public behaviors, toponymy, and daily life provide useful reflections on how we ought to be doing medieval history, in toto.
Descriptions of further volumes in the Krems series may be found at: http://verlag.oeaw.ac.at/index.phtml?act=katknr=194.