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13.10.22, Feller and Rodríguez, eds., Objets sous contrainte

13.10.22, Feller and Rodríguez, eds., Objets sous contrainte

This thick volume, containing eighteen articles, an introduction and a conclusion, is the product of three colloquia sponsored jointly by the Laboratoire de médiévistique occidentale de Paris and the Centro de Ciencias Humanas y sociales- Concejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas de Mardrid between 2004 and 2009. As the introduction by Laurent Feller explains, it is in some sense a sequel to the volume edited by Chris Wickham and Laurent Feller, Le marché de la terre au Moyen Âge, published in 2005 (Series: Collection de l'école française de Rome 350). That volume--although focused on the extent and nature of the land market in medieval Europe--raised questions about the conditions under which goods of any kind circulated, when and why they did not, and how their status changed as they moved from hand to hand. Arjun Appadurai's widely read collection, The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective of 1988, is listed in the book's bibliography and the issues confronted in that collection implicitly inform this one as well. The focus here, however, is not on the commodified object, but on all the ways goods are transferred outside of or alongside of the market.

Most of the articles treat the Spanish peninsula or France, although there are interesting excursions into England and Germanic regions as well. The chronological range is immense. One group of articles focuses on the central Middle Ages, with emphasis on the ninth through the twelfth centuries, principally in Spanish regions, while the studies of the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries are heavily concentrated in France. Given these temporal and geographic differences, it is no wonder that the nature of the evidence differs as does the choice of subjects investigated. The scholars working in Spain during the central Middle Ages were largely dependent on narrative sources or ecclesiastical records and many focused on transfers of goods (whether by gift, tribute, plunder, pillage or commerce) between Muslin Spain or the Mediterranean, whence came most of the luxuries, and the Christian regions of northern Spain. Scholars working later, especially in France, had good judicial, administrative and fiscal records that allowed inquiries into, for example, the way a wide variety of goods, many of them quite ordinary, were used to secure or repay monetary debts or about the market value of goods acquired via non-market mechanisms. Evidence from both regions and periods, however, reveals much about how a good's significance qua object--rather than as carrier of material value as measured by price--produced constraints on its circulation or governed the routes through which it circulated.

The individual articles display methodological ingenuity and careful use of sources; the authors are skilled scholars, specialists in their fields, and able to provide precious insight not just into how goods circulated in the worlds they study but how the sources can be mined to reveal the meanings goods bore or acquired as they shifted location. Although space does not allow a summary of each article, their empirical and interpretative richness is suggested by the themes of each of the volume's four sections. The first, labeled "Circulation des objets et statut des choses," examines how the status of a good changed as it circulated--how, for example, a jewel valued for its rarity, sparkle, and price acquired non-commensurate values once incorporated into a sacred object or, to cite one more example, how a doublet's capacity to mark status was obscured or disturbed when it entered the market for second-hand clothes. A second section, "Évaluations monétaires, conversion des choses et prix," looks more closely at the relationship between coin (money) and wealth, for example whether coins in and of themselves were a mark of commerce or whether price itself was indicative of market exchange. The third section, "Pillages, razzias, vols et recels: formes de l'échange non commercial," investigates the relationship between the market value or marketability of an object and its value or use as plunder, the likelihood that it will be stolen, its cultural value qua object, or the methods by which it could be reclaimed if stolen or pillaged. The final section, "Contrôler les objets, contrôler les hommes: l'échange contrarié," studies how, by controlling goods, rulers or other authorities controlled people, thus making it clear that in a quite literal sense goods were (are) an extension of the individual.

In a general sense, the questions informing this volume have long been under investigation by historians of medieval and early modern Europe, and they have even longer generated a rich anthropological literature, but that does not diminish the value of these studies. Taken individually the articles deepen our understanding of how the particularities of time and place determined the extent to which any good circulated, which goods did not, what terms governed the transfer of any object, or the multiplicity of the meanings objects could bear, acquire and confer. Taken collectively, the articles teach at least three important lessons. First, we need to recognize that any method of transferring an object--pillage, plunder, gifting, theft, or sale--is always determined in part by the entire array of methods available and frequently derives its usefulness precisely from the availability of other methods. Plunder, for example, is not necessarily the opposite of purchase in that the "value" of the plundered object may well derive from the fact that it can readily be turned into coin. Or, to give another example, a gift may "work" as gift precisely because it was once plunder, as when the warhorse taken from an enemy is ceremoniously presented to an ally. Second, we need to recognize, however, that some objects are desired, obtained, hidden, etc., precisely because their value cannot be measured in any other terms but that which motivated the particular transfer. The cultural register occupied, for example, by a reliquary, may exclude any other measures of value--whether as price, prestige good, or heirloom. It is thus always necessary to look not just at the routes through which a good circulated but also at the adjacent routes, the closed exits, and the open gates. Third, no object, whether stolen, bought, pillaged or bequeathed, can be assumed to have retained its meaning as loot, purchase or gift. If some did--and it is always worth investigating which did and which did not--their immobility needs to be explained. Historians of premodern Europe, where markets were only one feature of the economic terrain, need to keep these cautions firmly in mind.