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22.10.02 Naum et al. (eds.), Material Exchanges in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

22.10.02 Naum et al. (eds.), Material Exchanges in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

Why would monks at a monastery in Norway have acquired a miniature stoneware jug, items that are normally interpreted as children’s toys by scholars? Why would a seventeenth-century Danish custom official have hidden away his precious Iberian majolica and porcelain dishes, rather than display them? Why did an early modern Swedish physician and university professor think that fossils contained therapeutic and medicinal qualities? These are just some of the intriguing questions that Material Exchanges in Medieval and Early Modern Europe sets out to answer. Organised around eight case-study chapters, this volume explores the movement of “things,” and the itineraries they followed, across medieval and early modern Europe. The aims of the book are modest, but nonetheless important. Building on work that has emphasised the interconnected and materially mobile nature of the pre-modern world, this volume moves beyond the history of consumption to reveal Europe as a highly connected continent that shaped a range of shared practices, ideologies, identities, customs, and emotions. The volume achieves this by focusing on regions that have received less scholarly attention, most notably Scandinavia and parts of eastern Europe like the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the port towns of the Adriatic. As well as demonstrating the transformative effects of “things” in motion, the book also considers the significant role that archaeology plays in tracing these material histories. Crucially, the archaeological record helps reveal the roots and routes of a variety of “things” across time and space and demonstrates how objects on the move gained new meanings and values, transforming the environments and relationships in which they were situated.

The first section of the book is focused on ceramics. The fragmentary remains of ceramics are ubiquitous in medieval and early modern archaeological excavations, and they not only provide information on decorative and technological processes but also help reconstruct patterns of circulation, exchange, social differentiation, and functionality. Less ubiquitous are studies focused on the geographical regions explored in the first half of the volume: Scandinavia, the Basque region, and Asturias on the Iberian Peninsula. Volker Demuth’s chapter explores how local contexts can reveal new types of “object biographies,” revealing the varied stories that objects can tell. For example, Demuth traces the biography of a miniature stoneware jug excavated at Utstein Monastery in Norway, arguing that in this context the jug may have been used to store medicines or even oil for the last rites. Although the jug is similar to others found in Germany, which were most likely used to fill oil lamps, the biography that Demuth recreates for the Utstein jug is completely different, demonstrating the utility of focusing on local contexts for specific objects. In contrast, Sergio Escribano-Ruiz’s contribution examines how the materiality of the Basque Country was increasingly defined by its global, rather than local, nature. Drawing similar conclusions to other scholars who have analysed the social functions of medieval and early modern ceramics, Escribano-Ruiz argues that the consumption of pottery from around the world in the early modern Basque Country was a strategy of empowerment used by the local oligarchy to exert control and materialise social distinctions and hierarchies.

Jette Linaa, in her chapter on Danish uses of majolica and porcelain, recovers a more complex history of ceramic use. Rather than seeing the consumption of imported ceramics as a simple projection of power and authority by local elites, she argues that access to porcelain and majolica in Danish towns like Elsinore was anything but straightforward. Through an analysis of probate inventories and archaeological survivals from Elsinore, Linaa demonstrates that access to these materials fluctuated across the early modern period and correlated with nationality and occupation, with Dutch immigrant families and individuals with links to maritime trade being more likely to have porcelain and majolica in their households. These groups would have had readier access to these materials via their links with Amsterdam and other ports in the Netherlands. In a Danish context, then, porcelain and majolica ceramics were not part of everyday patterns of consumption, as they were in other parts of Europe, but objects to be cherished because of their emotional resonances for immigrant communities.

The final chapter on ceramics analyses 3066 shards of pottery from Asturias that can be dated to between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Thanks to his long chronological focus, Miguel Busto Zapico is able to trace changes in pottery use across time, analysing shifting tastes and fashions and fluctuating patterns of connectivity with the rest of Europe and the wider world. Busto Zapico relates his varied stories of pottery use to broader patterns of geopolitical and economic change. For example, in sixteenth-century Asturias there was a significant growth in imported pottery, particularly from Seville. In 1503, Seville had become the centre for the administration of all trade from the Americas, connecting the city not only to the coasts of the Americas but also the Atlantic coasts of northern countries including Asturias. Moving in tandem with these global developments, Asturias witnessed the emergence of new social groups with political and economic power who had the desire to project this power through the consumption of luxury products like imported pottery. Conversely, in the seventeenth century Busto Zapico pinpoints a decline in Spanish pottery and an increase in imports from England and the Netherlands, a trend that he ties to agricultural crisis and economic stagnation in the Mediterranean.

The second section of the book moves the discussion away from ceramics, and towards other less commonly studied materials; metal pilgrim badges, glassware, leather shoes, and fossils. Rachel Facius, in her chapter that analyses pilgrim badges from Jutland, Denmark, explores the metaphysical meanings and properties of these objects. Like the preceding chapters on ceramics, Facius thinks through what the local environment can reveal about the function and cultural meanings of pilgrim badges. For example, she challenges the idea that pilgrim badges are solely a characteristic of urban culture, arguing instead that they should also be considered characteristic of monastic or church culture. As she demonstrates, through a granular analysis of the Jutland pilgrim badges, even badges excavated in rural areas are found close to ecclesiastical institutions, thus suggesting an even closer connection between pilgrimage and the Church in this period. She also explores the depositional contexts of these badges to reveal their perceived metaphysical properties. For example, badges found in fields may have been used to bless or protect crops. These badges often appear deliberately damaged, perhaps in order to release the divine power believed to be contained within them. In essence, Facius convincingly argues, through her analysis of micro-environments, depositional contexts, and materiality, that objects like the Jutland pilgrim badges have agency and are able to alter human experiences and behaviours.

Samantha Garwood’s contribution on the role of Adriatic ports in the Venetian glass trade also focuses on specific micro-environments and depositional sites such as urban dwellings and shipwrecks, as well as on the various actors involved in the trade of glassware, from merchants and sailors to bandits and consumers. She argues that Adriatic intermediary cities, like Istria, Dalmatia, Montenegro, and Albania, were vital to the trade of Venetian glassware to the eastern Mediterranean and beyond. The chapter highlights the varied routes these wares followed, changing fashions in the glass trade, and the local specificities of glass consumption in the wider region. For example, Garwood identifies different fashions for glass in Venetian and Ottoman territories, suggesting that these differences may be in part down to the difficulty of transporting delicate glassware like goblets inland over the caravan roads. While Venetian glassware grew in popularity in urban areas along the coast, this was not true in the central Balkans where access to Venetian glass objects remained limited.

Aleksandra Kulesz’s chapter on clothing cultures in the Polish-Lithuania Commonwealth demonstrates that objects were not the only things to travel vast distances in the medieval and early modern periods. So too did ideas and fashions. Her study focuses on the excavation of leather shoes in seventeenth-century Elbląg, revealing more about the fashion tastes and choices of early modern Polish citizens and the spread and influence of western clothing styles. The artefacts her chapter analyses are locally produced but nonetheless closely mimic western styles. As Kulesz argues, the decision to wear shoes in the western style was determined by a number of factors such as political status, wealth, ethnicity, and religion. While other scholars have suggested that fashion choices often spread from the centre to the periphery and from the elite to the lower rungs of society, Kulesz suggests this was not the case in early modern Poland where there was a large amount of choice. Although the Polish nobility often chose to wear traditional Polish dress, both to impress foreign dignitaries and to demonstrate their aversion to western models of absolute monarchy, those of middling backgrounds, particularly from immigrant backgrounds, preferred the functional clothes that imitated western styles. Like many of the other chapters in the volume, then, Kulesz’s essay emphasises how local conditions, culture, and population makeup could transform the meanings and functions of particular objects.

The final chapter moves the discussion away from human-made materials to naturally occurring ones, examining the affectivity of fossils and the lengths that early modern Europeans went to collect such precious items. Focusing on the collection of the Swedish physician and university professor, Kilian Stobæus, Magdalena Naum recovers the international networks that made such collecting possible. She explores the significance of fossils as a collectible, demonstrating their layers of meaning, from being spiritual and healing objects, to also being objects that materialised social bonds and feelings of gratitude and appreciation. In recognition of the desirability of fossils for his collection, Stobæus focused on acquiring unique and rare specimens in a variety of ways. He established networks of exchange with other scholars and scientists in Scandinavia, Central Europe, and Southern Europe which he nurtured through letter writing and he also acquired new fossils from his students who travelled throughout Europe for their research. Naum’s analysis not only highlights how intra-European connectivity stimulated broader processes of collecting, but also reveals the intricate relationships between objects and people.

The case studies presented in the book deal with a range of important themes that become more apparent when reading the volume in its entirety: the utility of speculative inquiry in archaeological analysis; the tension between international trade and local circumstances and priorities; the affectivity of material culture, from luxury ceramics, to objects imbued with divine power like pilgrim badges and fossils; and, perhaps most crucially, the dynamism of “things” in medieval and early modern Europe and their transformative, yet highly unpredictable, impact on society and culture. While the volume achieves its intended aims, decentring well-trodden regions of scholarship and reminding us of the complexities and nuances of past material cultures, there was, perhaps, a missed opportunity to bring the main themes of the book together more systematically, and in more detail, in the introduction. This would have been particularly helpful for scholars less well versed in archaeological methods and the geographical contexts analysed. Some of the chapters would have also benefitted from a more sustained discussion of the findings and how they fit into the broader scholarship, making it clearer to non-specialist readers why this work is important and how it potentially changes our understanding of medieval and early modern materiality. Despite this, the volume presents a rich picture of medieval and early modern European material culture, revealing the multitude of journeys taken by objects and the transformative nature of their presence in various local contexts. It will appeal to students and scholars working both within the field of archaeology and in other adjacent disciplines such as history and material culture studies.