15.10.16, Hansen, Ashby, and Baug, eds., Everyday Products in the Middle Ages

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Katherine French

The Medieval Review 15.10.16

Hansen, Gitte, Steven P. Ashby, and Irene Baug, eds. Everyday Products in the Middle Ages: Crafts, Consumption, and the Individual in Northern Europe c. AD 800-1600. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2015. pp. iii, 374. ISBN: 978-1-7829-7805-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Katherine French
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

Collections of essays can be unwieldy and unfocused, but such, I am happy to report, is not the case with Everyday Products in the Middle Ages. This volume grew out of an archaeological exploratory workshop held in Bergen, Norway in 2011, and focuses on the regions around the North and Baltic Seas. In particular, the editors and contributors are interested in the actors associated with crafts and industries that processed the materials that made up what the editors are calling "affordable crafts." Affordable crafts included household utensils and personal accessories that were available and affordable for much of the general populace, rather than exclusive to military, merchant, or ecclesiastical elites. This focus allows them to compare the organization of labor, status of artisans, and access to resources. With this collection, the contributors are responding to an archaeological literature that looks at materials from the perspective of economics, rise of towns, state-building, and relies on the quantitative analysis of large datasets. The editors argue they are interested in "more in-depth qualitative studies where in popularly accepted models are challenged and revised" (2). While some articles are more successful than others in keeping to this task, the archaeological analysis takes scholars to topics that are otherwise ignored by textual sources.

The twenty-one articles, which include the introduction, are arranged roughly chronologically and by material. Drawing on his work on Viking-era combs, Steven Ashby helps set the agenda for the volume by interrogating the historiography of the "itinerant artisan." Scholars have applied this model to many Viking-era and medieval crafts and Ashby argues that it hampers interpreting finds and data that do not fit the assumptions embedded in the concept of itinerant artisan. Next Gitte Hansen's article on craftspeople in twelfth-century Norway argues that combmakers, shoemakers, and metalworkers were itinerant, and worked in a variety of media, making them jacks-of-all-trades, who were not embedded in the communities that bought their goods. In contrast, Unn Pedersen's article argues that combmakers in Viking-age Kaupang were integrated into the town, highly skilled, and had sufficient connections to give them access high quality raw materials. Continuing with comb makers is Jette Linaa's analysis of an excavated eleventh-century combmaker's workshop in Viborg Sønderø. Focusing on patterns of waste disposal from both the shop and the domestic site, Linaa shows that the combmaker had to work by an active latrine and was not using the raw materials in the most efficient or frugal way. Both observations suggest the combmaker had little control over resources or the conditions under which he or she worked, leading to the conclusion that the combmaker was bonded. In the sixth article, Heidi Luik compares bone and antler refuse in Viljandi, Estonia, a small town in the Hanseatic League, which had a castle of the Teutonic Order. Finds from the town are mostly combs or combmaking residue, while the finds from the castle were generally parts for crossbows. While cutting and shaping practices are similar, Luik argues there is not enough evidence to claim one bone and antler-working community that served two markets; more likely the artisans in the castle worked in a variety of media to keep weapons functioning, making them specialists in weaponry, not bone.

Chapter 7, by Carolyn Coulter's is interested in the relationship between artisans working with jet in amber in the early British and the community the purchased their wares. Waste and refuse patterns suggest that jet and amber workers were part time, but not itinerant. Moreover, evidence suggests that these workers worked alongside gold and silversmiths, which allowed amber and jet artisans to imitate these more expensive items in their more affordable material.

Chapters 8, 9, and 10 all focus on leatherworking. Quita Mould presents the long chronological evidence for homemade shoes, made all of one piece of leather. Mould with Esther Cameron then consider how leather styles changed with the arrival of the Normans to England, and Janne Harjula looks at the organization of leatherworkers in Turku, Finland from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, arguing that that tanning was not a separate trade in Turku, while in other areas, such as London it was.

Chapters 11 and 12 both address cloth. Riina Rammo looks for evidence of fashion in medieval Tartu, from the scraps of striped cloth excavated from waterlogged sites. Much of this cloth was imported, probably from Flanders. Its presence in Tartu indicates an interest in cosmopolitan culture among those of means. Marianne Vedeler finds similarly widespread trade in silk, using the Central Asian silk from the Oseberg mound, a Viking-age burial. While not denying its very elite status, Vedeler argues that the trade networks necessary to bring the silk to Scandinavia illuminates the networks that spread ideas about status and aesthetics across cultures.

The next three chapters look at various aspects of soapstone quarrying, In the Viking era, soapstone vessels replaced pottery ones, making soapstone an important commodity. Torbjørn Schou studies soapstone vessel production and trade along Norwegian Agder coast, where "stone smiths" were powerful actors, with rights to the few soapstone quarries. Irene Baug considers the production and distribution of quern stones and bake stones from the Viking era to Middle Ages. In the early part of the period, she believes the quarries were in the hands of powerful lords, who by the middle ages had donated them to ecclesiastical estates. What remains unclear is how tied to the land or lords were the stone workers themselves. Meinrad Pohl then takes up the role of ecclesiastical estates in quarrying, but looking at the quarries of Laach Abbey in south-western Germany. This Benedictine Abbey both used the stone quarried on its land, and apparently sold them, as querns are ubiquitous in the archaeological record.

Chapters 16, 17, and 18 all study metal. Bernt Rundberget tries to understand how the iron producers in medieval Hedmark, Sweden, which needed not only ore, but charcoal, was organized. He argues it was a small scale craft that was probably seasonal, allowing for the production and amassing of charcoal and the seasoning of the ore before processing. Iron workers might have stood out from the rest of an agricultural community, but they were members of an agricultural community. Hans Andersson argues that successful iron production in Swedish towns required civic organization, which gave smiths status and was important for the ultimate growth of the Swedish state. Roger Jørgensen summarizes the work and myths surrounding blacksmiths.

In chapter 19, Georg Haggrén reconstructs the trade networks of Bohemian glass, finding evidence for a much wider trade both geographically and socially than previously thought. Glass from Bohemia appears throughout Scandinavia, showing that it was not just an elite item, but present at the tables of many urban dwellers as well. In Chapter 20 Volker Demuth argues that the spread of imported pottery from the Hanseatic hinterland into Bergen, Norway reflects changing food ways and the rise of particular drinking cultures. The last chapter, by Natascha Mehler tries to find the mariners responsible for moving these everyday objects around the North and Baltic seas. While the archaeological remains of shipbuilding and outfitting make it hard to recover the lives of the producers, the range of finds supports contentions that upwards of half of Hanseatic town inhabitants were involved in some aspect of maritime trade.

This collection of twenty-one essays covers nearly 800 years of history and shows that artisans had different relationships to their resources and the communities that purchased their goods. Even those working in the same craft differed in how they or, someone else, organized their labor and their local status. While the Vikings and the Hanseatic League did introduce common goods and technologies from afar, which bound Northern Europe together in shared consumer interests, local power structures and the organization of labor as related to affordable crafts remained quite diverse, effectively challenging the ubiquity of the model of itinerant artisan.

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