I recently received the happy news that my article, ‘Material Worlds: The Shared Cultures of Southern Italy and its Mediterranean Neighbours in the Tenth to Twelfth Centuries’, will be published in the peer-reviewed journal Al-Masaq. Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean, published by Routledge. It will appear in the third issue of volume 23 later this year.
I wrote the article based on a paper I gave at the Society for the Medieval Mediterranean conference in Exeter in July 2009. It compares the dress and textile cultures of southern Italy, Fatimid Egypt (through the Genizah document archives) and the heartlands of Greek Byzantium. Several points of similarity and affinity existed between the vestimentary systems of the ‘consuming classes’ of the Mediterranean in the central Middle Ages but there were also notes of difference that are illustrated in some of the comparisons I make. I argue for a more social anthropological approach to be taken with descriptions of dress and textiles and suggest that the Mediterranean does work as an heuristic device for such an exercise. We lose sight of comparisons when we only work within our disciplinary traditions, in this case, ‘western Latin’, ‘Byzantine’ and ‘Islamic’.
Of real benefit not just to numismatists but to medievalists who deal with material culture, economy, politics and more, are the three catalogues of Byzantine and medieval coins (including those of Ostrogoths, Vandals and Lombards, plus later coins from Thessalonica, Trebizond and Nicaea) by Warwick W. Wroth (see my delicious links on the right hand side). They are all now well out of copyright and you can at least read them via the Internet Archive which leads you to Google Books. They are allegedly available for download but I cannot seem to achieve this. I wonder if there is some residual rights problem as facsimiles of these volumes have also recently been published? However, you can at least consult them here. The quality of the reproduction is at least as good as the originals and so perfectly suitable for research purposes:
I am currently writing up a paper based on two pieces of research which compares material culture from southern Italy with that of its central and eastern Mediterranean neighbours (e.g. Sicily, Greece, Egypt, North Africa). It is based on a conference paper I gave last July, at the Society for the Medieval Mediterranean conference at the University of Exeter, on the shared cultures of dress and textiles in the eleventh to tweflth century, and on a research paper I most recently gave on earrings in the Mediterranean, mainly dating to the seventh to eighth centuries, to the Islamic Art and Archaeology seminar at SOAS. Both papers problematised the idea of using the Mediterranean as an heuristic device (a framework for investigation) for studying material culture and both attempted to use basic anthropological techniques to question whether the elements of description and style we identify as being similar would have been recognised by those who made and wore these items. Do our typologies and philological designations do justice to the variety of experience and taste that objects held for their contemporaries?
Of particular inspiration has been the work of anthropologist Michael Herzfeld and the conceptual masterpiece, The Corrupting Sea by Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell. Whether or not you agree with the latter’s approaches to Mediterranean history, there is no doubting its importance in making scholars question their own disciplinary boundaries. From a medieval southern Italian viewpoint, it has been quite liberating to centralise the region in this geo-historical space, rather than fight against its peripheral situation in the wider historiographies of medieval Europe, Byzantium and even the early Islamic world.
I am thinking of calling it ‘Material Girls in their Material Worlds: The Shared Cultures of Southern Italy and its Mediterranean Neighbours’. You’ll just have to read the paper when it is out, for more.
I read Alex Burghart’s review with great interest. As demonstrated in the article, the questions such exceptional finds raise are as important for the understanding of the past (whether ‘history’ or ‘archaeology’) as any answers that might be yet be put forward. Rather than the rather tired debate about whether such things inform history, or whether history informs them, I found the last sentence of most interest:
Not much certainty is likely to come of this, but when faced with this collection of strange, undiminished beauty, certainty is hardly the point.
What makes this find so intriguing, to me, above all the detail and analysis, whether of the inscription or the workmanship or the materials, is the effect it has already had upon a the popular consciousness of the early Middle Ages. If any of you followed the story on twitter, or indeed take a look at some of the comments left on its flickr pages, you would see what I mean (even overlooking the odd and downright bizarre).
I wish I had had the chance to go up to Birmingham and hear what others were saying, what they were expecting and what indeed it made them think about. The hoard will now be studied by (hopefully) a large cohort of scholars of all persuasions and will enter into lectures and seminar discussions, even if it might start on the legendary ‘booty of Penda’ question. This is only to be encouraged, even before any consensus might be reached about why and how.
We have to give a voice to our texts to get answers, and so do we to our objects. I hope that discussion on the hoard doesn’t get stuck on this issue, nor, I hope does its study become too fragmented between specialist scholars who will all find their own areas of interest in it but not readily come together or share. These finds could be used to create a museum in their own right, in the landscape in which it was found, and with the myriad other finds, texts and images from here. Perhaps if they were all put together, we might feel more certain about its role in the past, and its role today. /ends
Since then, I have discussed the hoard with other people and kept half an eye on the hoard’s website, still trying to digest it all. What went into that work on the millefiori stud? How long would it have taken? And so on. Of particular interest is Emeritus Professor Nicholas Brook’s first impressions which raise the important issue of such objects having been heirlooms in their own time. I look forward to hearing more from Dr Kevin Leahy in his lecture to be given at the British Museum on 26 November (Tickets £5 and £3 concessions). His outwardly facing agenda for the hoard and its interpretation, in other words, working to put as much ‘raw’ information out to tender as it were, is something to be commended as I have alluded to above. I know of at least one undergraduate student who has already chosen this as his dissertation subject. British Archaeology Magazine’s recent coverage (issue 109 November/December 2009) of the hoard and its discovery is to be similarly commended. Its pure and simple descriptive analysis just states things as they are and doesn’t seek to make comment in order to appropriate some position on it or another or to make pointlessly bold statements about the how the hoard will irrevocably change our understanding of the ‘Dark Ages’… (of course it will only do so through a completely new mode of collaboration, debate, assimilation and dissemination of information).
I now come to a point where I feel that I want to understand better the relationship of one object to another in the haul, more than say, workmanship, techniques, dating, kingdoms and associated historic events. Something about this feels deeply personal. Can’t quite put my finger on it. In the meantime I can only look forward to its imminent arrive in London.
As another academic year turns, so do I. This time, to emerge from the provinces and from behind my charters and museum objects, and join in London’s medieval scene. This evening’s first seminar of the European History 1150-1500 series was a discussion led by David Carpenter and Miri Rubin entitled What Makes a Medieval Topic Important? A very keenly attended seminar, we all squeezed in anticipation into the modest Low Countries Room at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, in Bloomsbury.
Prof. Miri Rubin began with the most deft and breathless exposé of intellectual movements that have had great impacts on medieval history writing. From the Annales School establishment of social and economic histories of the longue durée to the Marxian approaches of late Prof. Rodney Hilton and the history of peasantry, to radical gender historians of North America, historians of ethnicity, identity and the mandala of fields and sub-fields which have resulted from these, we were reminded that it was this question, what is important? that has been asked over and over by historians who have wanted to change our thinking of the past, and by extension, of us today. All of this was gold-threaded with the idea that historians in the last century began to want to know more about European ‘peoples’ than its institutions. In other words, those affected by big decisions, rather than the decision makers. In in a current climate of political activity on ‘Europe’ and ‘Europeans’ (and the prospect of a President Blair–Il presidente del popolo, presumably) this point was made even more apposite.
I thought about using Past Thinking as the place for exhibition and book reviews on museumy subjects that interest me, but instead I would like to contribute to content creation on Creative Spaces (National Museums Online Learning Project) particularly when the reviews related to items in the nine museum collections it hosts.
Please note: For some reason my paragraphing is not preserved and so the Byzantium review might be a little hard-going. If you happen to read it and would prefer to read it in a more sensible format, please leave a comment here, or on Creative Spaces.
Creative Spaces does. No poking, no sheep throwing, no nonsense.
The two posts below and the several comments are enough to set out the different views of Creative Spaces, or the National Museums Online Learning Project. I am not going to respond to the various criticisms leveled at the project as they do a good job of speaking for themselves. This is about my experience so far, over the last two weeks or so of actually using the site. Many of the buggy features have already been pointed out by Tom and by and large I agree with those (strange URLs and registering procedure, the lack of a big fat button to JOIN and the lack of an advanced search are probably my immediate problems).
A group of postgraduates from the Faculty of Law, Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Southampton (which includes the School of Humanities) has established a network for research into the Construction of Identity as it relates to our various disciplines. I have been involved in the early stages of this group and we have set up a community weblog on the academically based ‘elgg.net‘ site. As a group we aim to compare our various experiences of understanding how identities are constructed and what problems we have in common when trying examine issues of identity in our fields of study. The community weblog will be on trial during the month of June and then formally launched to the world. The second most immediate aim is to compile a cross-disciplinary bibliography of titles we have used in our various fields and make this available via our community weblog. There has already been significant interest in this network from academics and postgraduates from within and outside the faculty. Please add a comment below if you are interested in find out more.
The 54th Settimana di studio (study week conference), hosted by the Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo (CISAM) was themed ‘Oil and Wine in the High Middle Ages‘ and took place in the beautiful medieval town of Spoleto, Umbria (20-26 April 2006). I was fortunate to have won one of the borsa di studio awarded to ‘foreign’ students. The majority of the Settimana took place in the Palazzo Ancaiani where CISAM are based. The conference itself was highly varied with papers ranging from the theraputic use of oil and wine (Jacquart), to oil and and wine in Byzantine liturgy (Parenti).