What is the link between a medieval guild chest that cannot be unlocked and three rabbits who share three ears between themselves? Katherine A. Wilson, co-editor of Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries 1000-1700, explores what material objects can teach us about a dynamic medieval and early modern world.
Hidden in the vaults of the Grosvenor Museum, Chester is a fourteenth-century tile of historical and material significance. The tile depicts three hares or rabbits interlocked by their ears. It poses a visual riddle for the viewer: only three ears appear on the tile and, thus, each animal shares an ear. The tile was discovered during excavations in the nave of Chester Cathedral in 1996, but the motif of the tile was inspired by designs on silks imported to Northern Europe along the silk roads from China during the medieval period. This tile helps to highlight the major transformations, cultural connections and entanglements in material culture 1000-1700.
First, it introduces the ways in which objects were mass produced, manufactured and used more than ever before. Second, the origin of the tile’s imagery reveals the way in which objects and their motifs could travel across geographic, political, religious, linguistic, class and cultural boundaries. But the tile is also part of a bigger historical narrative of change. During the period 1000-1700 a series of economic transformations occurred that fundamentally overturned existing commercial practices and revolutionized the lives of objects and peoples across Western Europe. Our Arts and Humanities Research Council funded projects, on the ‘Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries 1000-1700’ sought to understand these transformations in material culture by asking scholars to think across and step out of their traditional periods and disciplines to examine how changes took place in relation to the world of things. We focused on mobility, because through their mobility, objects encountered a wide range of individuals and, along with other things, gave rise to the dissemination and transfer of motifs, ideas and knowledge. Mobility can allow a move away from geographic specificity, providing productive ways to pursue the local and the global, and the dynamic networks of interchange, exchange and circulation of people and things. Mobility also encourages us to look at objects not as static known entities, but as ones that tell new stories as they move through space and time.
So what were the new stories our objects had to tell? In our work we wanted to start from the objects themselves, and so the projects purposely chose to focus on a selection of everyday things-specifically, chests, keys, shoes, tiles, pilgrim and devotional tokens-objects that did not necessarily have known historical narratives, but also because many studies of material culture still focus largely on elite or luxury goods. These objects were drawn from the Grosvenor Museum in Chester, which houses an extensive and internationally significant collection of objects from the period 1000-1700, that often reflect the importance of the city and wider region of Chester as an international trading port and cultural urban centre 1000-1700.
Our questions focused on the materiality of the object-its form, colour and feel-in order to help participants of the projects go ‘back to basics’ and reinterpret assumptions about the movement of objects 1000-1700. The usefulness of returning to the consideration of material qualities of things and the way things can push back on us, was underlined when, during our handling session of a sixteenth century goldsmiths trade guild chest in the Grosvenor collection, we became aware that the key would not open the chest. Like the medieval pilgrims to shrines who wanted to see inside, we tried to peep through holes and force the key to open to reveal what was inside. This confrontation with the object reminded us of Bruno Latour’s Berlin key or Bill Brown’s proposition that we begin to ‘confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us’. Here, suddenly the key, something we take granted everyday, becomes a thing that matters and an agent. In addition, looking closely at the lock system of the key revealed that a person would need more than one key to open it, pointing to a social contract in place between the guild members who used it.
This direct engagement with the Grosvenor Museum’s objects and their mobility across boundaries also made us aware of other forms of boundaries. How do we enliven these objects and present their stories to the public or educators? How do we translate our academic knowledge to a form accessible to the museum goer? One of the ways we allowed the objects to tell their stories beyond the boundary of the Museum was by creating object boxes for the primary and secondary curriculum to allow teachers to deliver intensive object handling sessions in their own classroom. Developed by the Grosvenor Museum, academics in History and Education at the University of Chester, teachers and PGCE students, some 600 school students have worked with the objects, many of whom producing a piece of creative work on the objects they had connected with, reflecting on the people and spaces around the object or the voice and journey of the object itself. The pupils work clearly recognised ‘mobility’ as an attribute of these objects. They placed the objects within a mobile medieval and early modern world, conceiving of the objects as constantly dynamic and changing entities. Two public exhibitions at the Grosvenor Museum and Chester Cathedral, let the objects ask questions of participants, while an interactive website with digital reconstructions of key Chester sites, allowed for wider public participation. Our aim is that the examples and case studies presented by the edited volume provide richly productive historical information and a range of methodological tools to address a range of objects 1000-1700, to open up further possibilities for interdisciplinary collaboration across period, geographical and disciplinary boundaries.
You can find out more about the Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries 1000-1700 (MOB) project on their website.
For more information on Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries 1000-1700, edited by Katherine A. Wilson and Leah R. Clark, visit our website.
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