Stuff and Nonsense? Theory and Medieval Material Culture

Posted on February 12, 2020


This part of my series of posts on conference presentations, that I have filmed. This is another one from the TAG conference:

Session Info

Ten years ago, the Society for Medieval Archaeology sought to tackle the difficult relationship between Medieval archaeology and archaeological theory with a series of sessions at TAG in York and Southampton. This session will reflect upon the impact of this initiative, to question whether we are any closer to developing theoretically informed, innovative and challenging approaches to the archaeology of the Medieval World. In this time some of the most revolutionary work has been undertaken in the field of material culture studies, from the study of brooches (Martin 2013) to the analysis of pottery and Hanseatic identities (Gaimster 2014; Naum 2013; 2014). Despite this, with notable exceptions (Jervis and Kyle 2012; Cumberpatch and Blinkhorn 2014) Medieval material culture studies have been poorly represented at TAG. This session seeks to reflect upon how far we have come and explore the directions that future work might take, to move Medieval material culture studies from a discipline largely concerned with description and characterisation to one which helps us to understand what it was to be Medieval. Contributions are welcome which address the material culture of any region or time period within the Medieval period (broadly conceived), and contributions which explore material culture in an international perspective are particularly welcome. Themes may include, but need not be limited to:

• The application of new theoretical or ontological approaches to material culture.

• The relationship between archaeological objects and text.

• The contribution that material culture analysis can make to broader questions in Medieval studies.

• The contribution that Medieval material culture studies can make to archaeological theory more generally.

Organisers: Alice Forward (Cardiff University) and Ben Jervis (Cardiff University)

Creating Communities and a Sense of Place in Medieval South Wales? Four ram aquamaniles from South Glamorgan

During the past 35 year a group of ram aquamaniles has been discovered on four manorial sites in South Glamorgan, Wales. These objects are generally found in association with manorial and ecclesiastical settlements and are zoomorphic in form with rams, lions, and horse and riders being the most commonly found figures. The date for these objects, 13th century, is relatively narrow in comparison to other Medieval ceramic forms. Whilst not unusual vessels, they are not always part of a region’s ceramic repertoire. This paper will look at the context for each of the four south Glamorgan rams, taking into consideration the local ceramic tradition and the details of their discovery. Understanding how these objects entered their respective households will be explored using ideas concerning the process of gifting. The aquamaniles will be used to explore potential relationships that may have existed between the four manorial estates. In particular, the social and political relationships that would have been developed through the 12th and 13th centuries follow the Norman Conquest.

Alice Forward (Cardiff University)

Close to Home or Far Away? Exploring identity in early Medieval Suffolk

What do changes in the material expression of identity tell us about social dynamics in 5th to 9th century Eastern England? Do wider geographic patterns show influences shifting from east to west, or is societal change a localized process? This research uses comparative analysis of over 4,000 metal artefacts from Suffolk to understand these patterns against the background of a rapidly changing political world. The rise of kingdoms, the increasing importance of overseas connections and migrations to and from Europe, and local versus national economics will all have played a part in influencing local identity. Is this influence equal in all centuries of the early Medieval period or are there different dynamics in play at each stage?

Justine Biddle (University of Central Lancashire)

Love Sex Magic in Medieval Europe: The archaeological evidence

Love magic was used for a variety of purposes connected to love, sex and reproduction in the Middle Ages. It was most often used to arouse love or sexual desire, or to impede it by causing hatred or impotence. It was occasionally used to predict the identity of future spouses and help or impede conception of a child. Medieval magic has been studied by historians for some time, but is a new field of enquiry for archaeologists. Considering that the Malleus Maleficarum, the 15th-century treatise on witchcraft, states that love magic was the most common form of witchcraft, where is the archaeological evidence for it? In this paper I consider this question by reflecting on a type of material culture that has been largely ignored by archaeologists – Medieval profane badges. These lead-alloy badges depict a variety of sexual themes and have been found across Northern Europe, but are especially prevalent in the Low Countries. Although studied by art historians and folklorists, the purpose of these badges is still unknown. Are they just rude badges intended to amuse? Or were they apotropaic/magical? I argue that an archaeological approach that considers their contextual as well as iconographical meaning may provide further understanding.

Gemma Watson (University of Reading)

Late Medieval Books and their Fittings: A material culture study

There have been various approaches applied to study and understand the nature of the late Medieval book, including historical, palaeographical and codicological methods, and yet, traditionally, little attention has been given to the book as a form of material culture, especially by archaeologists. This paper will briefly discuss the different approaches that have been applied in recent years to the study of the book, before giving a detailed consideration of how the archaeological investigation into late Medieval book fittings excavated from English monastic sites offers an innovative approach to the wider study of the late Medieval book. To move beyond simply defining the various types of late Medieval book fittings, an interdisciplinary approach can be applied to further understand the nature of this type of material culture, including the books on which fittings were used, the influences of different monastic orders, their geographical distribution and the significance of their deposition. It is the purpose of this paper to demonstrate how the archaeological investigation of book fittings provides not only the opportunity to study book fittings typologically but also to place such material culture into its wider social and cultural contexts within late Medieval society.

Charlotte Howsam

Textual Worlds, Material Worlds

Archaeologists have long grappled with the relationship between text and material culture; should material culture be read as text? Or are Medieval texts a form of material culture? Drawing on research from archaeology, history and literature studies, this paper explores the implications of objects and texts for each other. What are the consequences of textualisation for things – by being written about do new types of things emerge? And how does the process of textualisation lead to the emergence of distinctive object worlds? The paper draws on examples from across the Medieval period, with a particular focus on wills and inventories, to explore the role of texts in the emergence of Medieval object worlds.

Ben Jervis (Cardiff University) and Sarah Semple (Durham University)

Becoming Urban? Actors and social identity in a Medieval Scandinavian town (c. 1100–1300 AD)

During the last decades there has been a significant change in Scandinavian urban archaeology in terms of direction and perspective. The research has turned towards a wider regional and international time-space perspective and issues regarding everyday life, the individual, identity and gender are increasingly discussed. In my PhD project I study how a Swedish Medieval small town (Nykoping) developed to become a living urban community with different functions, activities, inhabitants and visitors, and how this changes over time (c. 1100– 1500 AD). Qualitative analyses are conducted on a highly resolved source material from two large scale excavations in Nykoping, applying social practice theory and studies on social identity. In this paper I will discuss how different types of material culture (artefacts, botanical remains and structures) can be used to understand different aspects of social identity (in this paper in regards to age, gender and class) on a group of traditionally voiceless actors – the ordinary people. The examples may also serve as a basis of discussion for the concept of becoming urban, how ordinary people used the opportunity of a new setting to negotiate the ‘urban way of life’.

Annika Nordstrom (Uppsala University)

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