12.06.20, Hamling and Richardson, eds., Everyday Objects

Main Article Content

Valerie L. Garver

The Medieval Review 12.06.20

Hamling, Tara and Catherine Richardson. Everyday Objects: Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture and Its Meanings. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2010. Pp. xxvii, 342. ISBN: 978-0-7546-6637-0.

Reviewed by:
Valerie L. Garver
Northern Illinois University

This book of twenty-three essays is the result of a conference held at the University of Birmingham's Shakespeare Institute in 2007. The editors contend that theirs is the first book to make material culture the main subject (not a secondary one) for the premodern West. The contributors focus on objects used in the everyday lives of medieval and early modern people, with the majority of those items belonging to those in the "middling groups" (13). These non-elites who owned the subjects of study generally "lack[ed] a significant presence in the written, documentary record" (14). Some of these everyday objects are in fact expensive versions of ordinary items that commemorated or were acquired for special occasions. Given the book's title, one might expect broad coverage, but the studies concern only late medieval and early modern England and Italy, with just a few essays also discussing other areas. The editors note that this focus resulted from the interests of the scholars initially attracted to the project. The book will therefore be of great interest to anyone working at the cusp of the Middle Ages and the early modern era, but it also has much to draw the attention of other medievalists, particularly in terms of methodology. The editors provide two tables of contents, one typological according to the objects under examination and the other thematic. The selected themes include "Evidence and Interpretation," "Skills and Manufacture," "Objects and Spaces," "Sounds and Sensory Experience," "Material Religion," and "Emotion/Attitudes Towards Objects."

As is the case with so many collections, Everyday Objects finds both strength and weakness in the diversity of its essays. The quality and tone of the essays is a bit uneven, and at times it can seem as though the essays do not all relate to one another. Uniting these diverse offerings, however, is consistent discussion of how material culture shaped identity and everyday life. Sometimes, as in Catherine Richardson's contribution for example, the material culture in question consists of extraordinary examples of everyday items, in this case hats, but most of the offerings indeed examine "everyday objects." The contributors nearly uniformly address the methodological constraints and challenges of working with material culture. The introduction is therefore successful in uniting the essays in methodological terms. This focus on the nuts and bolts of examining and writing about the material culture of the fourteenth to eighteenth centuries is the collection's greatest asset. Another strength of this collection is the range of contexts in which the contributors analyze material culture, from the point of discovery to conservation, such as Dinah Eastop's and Maria Hayward's considerations of garments found hidden in buildings, to museum display, such as Stephen Kelly's piece on medieval shoes, to items that no longer exist, such as the mazers (turned wooden drinking vessels) that Sheila Sweetinburgh found listed in a late medieval inventory in Canterbury. For these reasons, this book should attract the attention of scholars interested in material culture in any period or place. The collection would also work well for a graduate seminar on material culture, although the high price of the volume may work against classroom use. In sum, the book contributes to material culture studies as well as to our understanding of late medieval and early modern England and Italy. Space does not permit a full accounting of the essays, but below are brief highlights of each piece.

The first part of the collection is comprised of pieces focused on issues of evidence and interpretation. In "'For a crack or flaw despis'd': Thinking about Ceramic Durability and the 'Everyday' in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England," Sara Pennell argues that issues of novelty, design, and status alone cannot explain the consumption of everyday goods in England in the long eighteenth century. Her examination of ceramics underlines the ways in which durability or the lack thereof shaped owners' interactions with their ceramics and indeed their decisions to acquire ceramics at all. Giorgio Riello's "The Material Culture of Walking: Spaces of Methodologies in the Long Eighteenth Century" provides an overview of his research on shoes and walking during the long eighteenth century in England. Riello notes that he was able to hone his methodologies and arguments concerning this form of material culture by relying on the work of scholars in other disciplines. In sum, he argues that interdisciplinarity allows one to provide a rich context for objects. By discussing his encounter with a pair of medieval shoes at the Museum of London in his essay "In the Sight of an Old Pair of Shoes," Stephen Kelly explores the difficulties historians face in examining material objects because they usually seek the absent (the culture, owner, or social functions of an item) in mute objects. In so doing, he calls into question whether scholars can reconstruct the performances surrounding items from the past. Mark Chambers and Louise Sylvester in their essay on the lexicological aspects of the Lexis of Cloth and Clothing in Britain Project address the thorny problem of terminology for medieval clothing and dress. The difficulties of the variety of terms employed for textiles in different languages, source types, eras, and disciplines apply to many other types of material culture, and their outline for gathering and cross-listing such information seems promising for other objects.

The next section of essays focuses upon the manufacture of material culture. Jenny Tiramani's essay on the pins and aglets from 1583 to 1592 found in London's Rose Theatre provides information on the ways in which these small metal objects were essential to fastening dress in the time of Shakespeare. Also related to early modern English theater is "Froes, Rebatoes and Other Outlandish Comodityes': Weaving Alien Women's Work into the Fabric of Early Modern Culture," in which Natalie Korda examines how the items made by alien female Dutch craftswomen known as froes and how ideas concerning the industry and promiscuity of these workers entered into theater at a time of immigration. She demonstrates that the use of these items contributed to the hybrid nature of theater, bringing together the foreign and the native. Maria Hayward employs the remains of a five- or six-year-old boy's doublet from the 1620s or 1630s to determine the status of the owner and his family as well as to learn more about clothing of that era. This extraordinary survival of a child's item of dress may relate to the age of the child who once wore it; it is sized for a boy who has just been breeched and its association with this milestone may have meant it was an object imbued with enough meaning to be hidden in the house. Although placed in the next thematic section of the book, Dinah Eastop discusses the preservation of such hidden garments concealed in the structures of early modern English buildings in her "The Conservation of Garments Concealed within Buildings as Material Culture in Action." Eastop argues that the conservation of material culture brings about new production, use, and distribution when conservators and museums make choices about what aspects of a piece to preserve over others, how to present the object, and how to document it.

The next group of essays considers material culture and space. Stephen Wharton compares two mid-sixteenth-century texts relating to pottery: Cipriano Piccolpasso's illustrated manuscript Three Books of the Art of the Potter and the inventory of the pottery shop of Franceso di Luca, a jar maker in Siena. Wharton aptly shows that these dissimilar documents both provide rich evidence about everyday ceramics, although he underlines that one's perception that something was an everyday object depended greatly on one's "sphere of consumption." In "Archaeology in an Age of Print? Everyday Objects in an Age of Transition," David Gaimster discusses how archeological finds have both illuminated the transition between the medieval and early modern in England and Virginia and also provided information about the everyday lives of ordinary people that contributes to and contextualizes scholarly findings garnered from the written word. He argues persuasively that archeologists must do more to make their findings accessible to scholars in other fields in order to facilitate such multidisciplinary work. Tarnya Cooper's "The Enchantment of the Familiar Face: Portraits as Domestic Objects in Elizabethan and Jacobean England" explores the many possible meanings portraits could have for viewers in early modern English domestic spaces. Provoking spiritual contemplation, an appreciate for history, or a sense of wonder in an urban middling elite, these painted objects could instruct, act as a reminder of family, and promote an English identity. In "Faces and Spaces: Displaying the Civic Portrait in Early Modern England," Robert Tittler also examines early modern English portraiture but in the context of urban civic institutions such as schools, locations of governing bodies, university colleges, charitable institutions, and London livery companies. Noting that such portraits often served the individual interests of the sitter, Tittler argues that the central purpose of such pieces was nonetheless didactic, to inculcate civic virtues in the elites associated with these institutions.

The next grouping of essays focuses on music as a means of exploring what material culture can reveal about sound and sensory experience. Flora Dennis considers two objects new to Italy in the sixteenth century in her essay "Resurrecting Forgotten Sound: Fans and Handbells in Early Modern Italy." Both handbells and fans allowed Italians to produce sound in domestic spaces. Whereas the durable handbells that once called servants survive in museums, fans were far more ephemeral. Printed with music or lyrics, the fans helped to promote performances in domestic settings. Dennis suggests a connection between the two items, that is, their need for the human body to animate them, an idea worth further exploration. In "'A pottell of ayle on whyt Sonday': Everyday Objects and the Musical Culture of the Post-Reformation English Parish Church," Jonathan Willis examines music in sixteenth- century English parishes after the Reformation. Using churchwardens' accounts listing the objects and personnel needed for musical performance, he demonstrates that parishes carried on musical activities with pre-Reformation roots, noting that the fate of church music was not one of such steep decline as many scholars have thought. John J. Thompson focuses on a musical instrument that has not survived, the late fourteenth-century bagpipe. In demonstrating the varied and sometimes contradictory meanings of bagpipes in the England of Richard II, Thompson demonstrates that scholars must account for these differing messages when interpreting the presence of bagpipes in sources from this era.

The penultimate section of the collection takes up the subject of religious material culture. In "Two Texts and Image Make an Object: a Devotional Sheet from Pre-Reformation England," R. N. Swanson offers a study of a rare survival--a late medieval English parchment sheet with devotional texts and image. He suggests that such materials circulated in order to facilitate contemplation and piety. In perhaps the best essay in the volume, "Contesting the Everyday: the Cultural Biography of a Subversive Playing Card," Richard L. Williams provides a biography of an Elizabethan playing card cut and folded into the shape of a religious triptych, with a crucifixion scene painted on its back. Through a careful unpacking of the various possible meanings of this card, Williams demonstrates the complexity of the object and its history, noting that such transformed everyday objects could become crucial to indicating confessional identity. Sheila Sweetinburgh's "Remembering the Dead at Dinner-Time" explores the possible uses and meanings of a group of decorated mazers listed in an early fourteenth- century inventory from Christ Church Priory, Canterbury. Because deceased members of that community had probably provided these vessels, each was associated with a particular monk, and therefore when the fourteenth-century monks used these objects, it helped them to recall and commemorate their dead brethren. Also using inventories is Kate Giles' "'A table of alabaster with the story of Doom': the Religious Objects and Spaces of the Guild of Our Blessed Virgin, Boston (Lincs)" which compares the data of two lists dating to 1530/1 and 1533 from St. Mary's Guildhall in Boston (Lincs) to the remaining structure in order to explicate the uses and locations for religious material culture. Recognizing the many difficulties of matching inventoried objects to present spaces, she nevertheless is able to suggest the locations and uses of items with the guildhall, noting that they underline feasting as the central activity in this structure in the early sixteenth century.

The book's final section focuses on the emotions and attitudes that material culture could evoke. In "'A very fit hat': Personal Objects and Early Modern Affection," Catherine Richardson examines the sixteenth-century ecclesiastical court records from Kent that concern two cases of breach of a marriage promise. Richardson notes the crucial role that objects--here, hats--played in marriage negotiations in maintaining the bonds of couples separated by considerable space, and in perceptions of these relationships both by the individuals involved and by others. In her essay "Empty Vessels" on the objects found in early modern English wills, Lena Cowen Orlin argues that testators did not sentimentalize objects; rather they directed emotion toward people. The phrases and descriptions attached to items in these wills more often focused upon their monetary worth and/or clear identification in order to demonstrate the testators' evenhandedness and to ensure that their exact wishes were carried out. In "Objectification, Identity and the Late Medieval Codex," Ryan Perry considers ways in which late medieval English manuscripts served as cultural capital, connecting people and performing various social, religious, and economic functions. "Reconciling Image and Object: Religious Imagery in Protestant Interior Decoration," Tara Hamling's study of certain post-Reformation English wooden domestic objects decorated with biblical scenes, extends understanding of the use of religious imagery following the Reformation, demonstrating that many still sought guidance in religious depictions. By placing Old and New Testament imagery, often of familial scenes, in domestic settings, the imagery's spiritual nature was decreased, thereby reducing the risk of idolatry while nevertheless underlining individual salvation.

Article Details

Author Biography

Valerie L. Garver

Northern Illinois University