Our core hypothesis is that the integrated study of the movement of people and objects can shed new light on the communications routes and points of contact between communities, and we wish to test whether and how the use of different categories of primary source shape the eventual picture of networks of exchange. We shall also be testing our preliminary theory that movement between different contexts has a profound effect on the perception of individuals and objects, that is, that their social meanings and values change with location and (in the case of objects) ownership. Although not a primary focus, we shall also be testing whether our findings change if we apply gender as a category of analysis. It is possible that the potential of women’s property as a means of exchange and support for men’s movement has been largely overlooked by historians.
By articulating the link between objects, documents and traders, our project crosses the very traditional boundary between history and archaeology, particularly in an Italian context. It also seeks to challenge the intense regionalism of southern Italian history, which is rarely undertaken on a comparative scale across the whole peninsula.
Strand one: The movements and exchanges of merchants
This strand examines the movement of people, specifically those who engaged in medieval short- and long-distance commercial activities, as a means of understanding routes of communication and exchange. Reflecting the cross-cultural aims of the project as a whole, the sample groups are from the city of Amalfi, renowned for its commercial success from the 9th to 12th centuries, and mobile Jewish merchants documented in Latin sources and in the extensively-mined contents of the Cairo Genizah. Although the Amalfitans are only one, comparatively small group of merchant-landowners, their success in establishing trade links across the Mediterranean in the 10th century, and then reconfiguring their activities to concentrate on trade within Italy after the 11th, makes them the ideal subject of study in a project of this type. Furthermore, the history of Amalfi has never received a satisfactory treatment which places the city in its wider context. The essence of the history of Amalfi as a mercantile republic lies in the story of the movements and exchanges (largely commercial but as patrons too) of the merchants themselves, rather than just in the story of the geographical area of Amalfi itself. Intersecting with the Amalfitan case study will be an examination of the links between the Jewish communities of the eastern and central Mediterranean. Studied by Shelomo Goitein and, more recently, by Moshe Gil, the Jewish mercantile community as active on routes between Egypt, Sicily and Southern Italy.
This much we know already. Less well-studied are interactions between the Jewish merchants and their families and the non-Jewish majorities with whom they lived, and the implications this might have for our understanding of cultural and material transmissions in the central middle ages. I have suggested elsewhere that reading Jewish sources may offer an insight into the acculturation of Jews into southern Italian society (Skinner 2005, ‘Gender, memory and Jewish identity’) and have recently added to my argument with an exploration of the crucial period of political uncertainty occasioned by the Norman conquest of the South (Skinner forthcoming, in M. Frassetto (ed.), Medieval Attitudes). But more detailed work needs to be done at a basic, prosopographical level to tease out individual relationships.
Strand two: The movements and exchanges of material culture in southern Italy
In what ways can the cultural similarities and differences of past societies be understood? Southern Italy was what might today be termed a ‘multicultural’ region, with Lombards, Greeks, Jews, Arabs, Slavs and others living and working in close proximity to each other and a large strand of research into ‘medieval identities’ has tended to focus on what made these groups distinct from each other usually through the study of legal and other documentary sources. My research concentrates on the evidence provided by moveable goods to ascertain how the different societies of early medieval southern Italy identified themselves and interacted with each other by taking a comparative approach across the peninsula, and through time (c.600-c.1200). I am particularly interested in evidence for the movement and exchange of objects: where did people’s possessions come from? Who made them and where? How did they obtain them? And, how did they pass their belongings on to others? In addition, the study of southern Italian material culture will, I believe, shed new light on current preconceptions about the divisions between Lombard and Byzantine southern Italy, and also the impact of the Normans later in the 11th and 12th centuries. Did politics ever impact on the material worlds of southern Italy?
I study objects from recent archaeological investigations as well as those that are traditionally considered objects for study in art history held in museum collections but I read them as pieces of social, cultural and political historical evidence. I also use charters – legal documents preserved in church and monastic archives which provide information about more localised and personal exchanges that occurred at the points of marriage, death, or given as gifts.