19.12.18 Bourgeois et al (eds.), La culture matérielle

Main Article Content

Valerie L. Garver

The Medieval Review 19.12.18

Bourgeois, Luc, Danièle Alexandre-Bidon, Laurent Feller, Perrine Mane, Catherine Verna, and Mickaël Wilmart, eds. La culture matérielle: un objet en question -- Anthropologie, archéologie et histoire. Publications du Centre de Recherches Archéologiques et Historiques Médiévales. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols , 2018. pp. 258. ISBN: 978-2-84133-890-0 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Valerie Garver
Northern Illinois University

This publication grew from an international colloquium in Caen where scholars gathered to consider the notion of material culture from mainly historiographical and methodological perspectives. Most of the essays focus on the European Middle Ages, analyzing the ways historians, archeologists, anthropologists, and museum curators have thought about and used material culture. The collection will appeal to anyone interested in learning about the history of European material culture studies and to those engaged in the study of objects, regardless of discipline. The authors collectively explore a wide range of scholarship, various disciplinary approaches, as well as textual and material sources, but often from different vantages making it possible for readers to consider how nationality, specialization, and focus shape perception of material culture studies. Emerging from these essays on how to understand, define, and employ material culture are a number of themes. They include the substantial and lasting influence of Marxism on archeology and the study of material culture in a European context; the significant increase in the types, numbers, and quality of material remains and archeological sites that scholars have considered since the 1990s; the central roles that national and contemporary concerns have played in shaping the particular historiographies outlined in these essays; the increasingly polysemous and flexible meanings of material culture; and the ways that recent studies have moved past a focus on the items themselves to a more sustained consideration of the interaction of object, human, and environment.

In his introduction, Laurent Feller remarks that the origins of French material culture studies lie in economic history. He notes the ways scholars initially focused on the status of objects--that is, their function, materials, and monetary value--and how historiography, particularly from the 1960s to 1980s, shifted to consideration of the cultural and social meanings of material culture. Objects aided in understanding not only the economy but also the nature of work, changes to the landscape, social relations, and cultural beliefs. The first set of chapters in the book explores the state of material culture studies in relation to archeology and history in individual European countries. In Luc Bourgeois's chapter on material culture and French medieval archeology, he notes that lack of consistency in use of the term "material culture" is problematic because without a clear, singular definition, making comparisons among studies, especially those separated by time and space, becomes difficult. He argues that only after establishing an object's or assemblage's materials, use, and identity can scholars compare the object(s) to other sources in order to understand their context and social, cultural, and economic roles. It is at this stage of an archeological artifact's life that material culture studies can most usefully play a role in its scholarly analysis.

Two chapters in this section examine northern Europe. Anne Nissen compares conceptions of material culture in Scandinavian and French scholarship. Many of the works in question focus on the early medieval era, and her synopses of Scandinavian-language studies help make that work more accessible. Nissen argues that material culture has long been at the heart of archeology, but that the advent of processual and post-processual archeology in the 1980s and 1990s made Scandinavian study of the ancient world different from that of the medieval. Scandinavian scholars of prehistory typically employ material culture to analyze ancient social structure. Their counterparts, who study the medieval and post-medieval worlds, tend to concentrate on what material culture reveals about cultural history, mentalities, technology, and everyday life. Caroline Goodson also explores early medieval material culture but with an emphasis on the state of the field in England. She notes a reluctance among many medievalists there to employ anthropological theory even as they have substantially expanded the range of sites and objects they study. Because of concerted private and public efforts to preserve the country's cultural heritage, archeologists there have shifted from studying mainly prestige sites, especially places mentioned in written texts, to examining more diverse sites in terms of wealth, location, and size. Equally, although the bulk of scholarly attention once rested on rich objects or those with inscriptions, scholars are beginning to grapple more with humble items such as bones and pottery.

Two chapters turn to eastern Europe. Aleksandr Musin considers the state of material culture studies in Russia from the twentieth to the twenty-first centuries and argues that modern Russian scholars essentially still equate material culture with archeology. He argues that archeologists should consider the matérialisation of historical culture rather than create a history of material culture. Musin's essay provides valuable insight to those of us who study the medieval West by highlighting a number of relevant texts published only in Russian. Similarly, Jan Klápště covers many works in Czech related to Hussite-era archeological discoveries and analysis in his essay. Excavations have turned up a rich record of fifteenth-century Bohemia. Klápště explores this material culture as he considers the strong Marxist influence on Czech archeology, concluding that distinctions between material culture and spiritual culture have been too sharp and that scholars could profit by adopting a highly interdisciplinary approach to material remains. Some of the material items he discusses, for example, convey a sense of how objects helped perpetuate certain memories of events, places, and people, and provide insight into the spiritual expressions of communities and individuals.

Southern Europe receives attention as well. Sauro Gelichi tackles the concept of material culture mainly by addressing Italian archeological scholarship on the Middle Ages. Among the characteristics of this field is its development from a focus on classical art objects to one that considers how whole sites can provide insight into the economic and social history of the ancient world. Identifying 1968 and the increasingly democratic nature of Italian universities in the late 1960s and 1970s as catalysts, he argues that the postprocessual trend of the 1980s and 1990s has led to consideration of more numerous and more diverse forms of material culture with a focus on methodology as the means of approach. Eduoardo Manzano Mereno explains trends in the archeological study of al-Andalus through a sustained consideration of hydraulic archeology which has sought to explain the development of irrigation systems in eastern Iberia. He rejects the traditional diffusionist explanation that posits that it was Arab or Berber settlement that brought about this change, in part because written sources do not support it. He instead argues that the Arab conquest brought about transformations that had less to do with the contributions of a single ethnic group than with complex social processes.

The final chapter of this first section addresses the ways museums have affected the interpretation of material culture, especially for a general public. Michel Colardelle discusses the fate of French ethnographic museums, especially the Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires in Paris, whose collections became the basis for the Musée des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée in Marseilles. In addition to providing a critique of the ways ethnography affected the choice and interpretation of objects, especially as representative of allegedly stable cultures, Colardelle recognizes how changes in scholarship and society, especially globalization, brought about an identity crisis in many ethnographic museums. He proposes a transdisciplinary approach to material culture which would allow museums to present both material and immaterial culture in more complex ways than an ethnographic frame, thereby allowing visitors to think "freely and autonomously" (122).

The second section of the collection concerns disciplinary views. Catherine Verna and Philippe Dillmann consider the historiography of medieval technology as it relates to material culture, noting the strength of French studies in this field. Many scholars have recently turned to the natural sciences for means to study medieval technology and thereby reinvigorated this area of study in recent years. This approach has especially benefited the study of means of production, and Verna and Dillman provide examples that demonstrate the importance of archeometry to understanding medieval metallurgy. Jean-René Trochet addresses the ways geographers have grappled with material culture over the last century and a half. The emergence of cultural geography in the second half of the twentieth century allowed geographers better means to consider material culture, including, for example, consideration of the movement of objects from locations of production to those of consumption and of the ways material items can alter where people live and the locations where they move. Perrine Mane offers a survey of the work done on medieval agricultural techniques since the 1980s when scholars began to consider relevant archeological remains and artistic depictions of this labor in tandem. While recognizing the problems inherent in using images, which may be idealized, to understand actual practices, she discusses how illustrations, particularly from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, have helped scholars figure out how medieval people employed certain items, when new technologies and practices emerged, and how this form of material culture affected everyday life.

Laurent Feller examines the interplay between economy and material culture in medieval studies, noting ways that archeology has allowed scholars to learn about many aspects of medieval trade and exchange and how objects could contribute to social status. Among other matters, he explains how scholars have employed inventories to learn about surviving material culture and how they have used objects to understand the information of those documents. He also discusses the ways material remains have allowed scholars to identify trade routes and regions more precisely across the whole of the Middle Ages. In this regard, Feller's chapter is among the few in the book to provide a broad chronological view of the Middle Ages. Thierry Bonnot turns to anthropology, a field in which the rise of material culture studies has caused some concern because it seems to involve more subjective analysis than is merited. Bonnot posits that material culture studies is valuable for demonstrating the entanglement of objects in social milieus, revealing much about how humans and material culture interact. He argues for an interdisciplinary approach, drawing from history, anthropology, sociology, and archeology, that recognizes and investigates the place of material culture in systems of production, consumption, exchange, memory, etc.

The collection's third section focuses on the lives of objects, drawing directly from the approach of Igor Kopytoff. [1] Two chapters focus on material culture and domestic life. Danièle Alexandre-Bidon provides a long historical view, examining assemblages of domestic objects, including organic ones such as the remains of plants and animals, from the twelfth to the twentieth centuries to see what they can reveal about social status. In the past, archeologists and art historians often saw such items as lesser, and historians often took little notice of them. Alexandre-Bidon outlines how material culture studies has helped change those views, and offers some compelling insights, particularly about images of everyday objects and the ways in which people could see an abundance of objects or expensive objects both positively and negatively. Christopher Fletcher examines housing and domestic arrangements in relation to gender and material culture in late medieval English towns as means to bring together the study of political culture and everyday economic life. Many women and men worked in public domestic spaces, a situation confirmed by both textual and archeological sources, but it was artisan and merchant masters who usually owned these buildings and participated in the governing English towns. Their timber-framed houses allowed them to perpetuate differences in social status because most men and women lived in one or two rooms, where they could not easily create gendered spaces, and worked in the houses of others, usually the masters who could more easily demarcate domestic spaces. This difference in domestic spatial arrangements constantly reminded the majority of townspeople of their lesser status.

The other two essays in this section demonstrate how one can use legal documents to contextualize the interaction of humans and objects in the spaces they inhabited. Daniel Lord Smail examines the evidence of a number of fourteenth-century registers in the State Archives of Lucca in order to explore a particular set of circumstances and objects. These texts reveal that debt collectors took items from the poor that could be turned into commodities in order to settle debts. Through his consideration of these objects and the processes through which they moved, Smail shows that, while the poor often owned the same kinds of things that wealthier denizens did, they often owned them for different reasons. Following the lead of James C. Scott's work on inhabitants of upland Southeast Asia, Smail argues that this evidence may indicate that the poor invested their money in objects in an effort to protect their wealth from the government. They could not, however, shield themselves from the debt collectors who seized these items, particularly foodstuffs and clothing, in order to enrich those with means. Mikaël Wilmart also examines late medieval archival records for information on material culture, in this case what post-mortem inventories reveal about the movement and storage of objects as well as arrangements of domestic space in southern France. In addition to the occasional seizure and movement of items, these texts record some of the quotidien circulation of objects in and among villages.

Although the origins of these pieces as seminar papers is sometimes evident, they have much to offer to scholars interested in material culture and everyday life. The volume provides abstracts of each article in English and French in an appendix, which will aid readers interested in specific places, sources, and eras in finding the most relevant chapters. It is nicely illustrated with a mix of photos, maps, drawings, and diagrams with some in color.



1. Igor Kopytoff, "The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process," in The Social Life of Things: Commoditization as Process, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 64-91.

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