Living in the material world

I’ve been thinking a lot about the material world in the last few months, in an odd combination of places. On a brief visit to Amsterdam, then at the current Merovingian exhibition at the Musée de Cluny in Paris, and finally at Snozone Milton Keynes. (I should add that these thoughts came while watching others ski, not attempting to ski myself). And the theme I keep coming back to is my own troubled relationship to materiality and also that of the cultures I live in and study.


[Skiers at the Snozone]

What first sparked these thoughts was watching one of the curators at the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam demonstrate printing from an etching plate. It’s a form of printing that’s fascinating partly because of its materiality: the different effects you can make depending on how you scratch a line onto a metal plate, the limited number of copies you can make from each plate, the mucky business of getting ink onto a plate and then wiping most of it off again. And Rembrandt’s paintings as well are vivid demonstrations of the materiality of pictures, the sheer hard work of getting pigments and oils mixed up and onto a piece of canvas to create the illusion of reality.

I started wondering why I as a historian don’t make more of material culture in my own work. But I realised one of my reasons visiting a different museum on the same day: the Dutch Resistance Museum. Towards the end of the displays is the story of the “hunger winter” of 1944-1945, when thousands died of starvation. Thinking about the material experience of a particular time and place, can often be profoundly depressing. Particularly for the early Middle Ages, any broad consideration of the material world can’t easily get away from misery: cold, hunger, mud, the materiality of bodily disease and premature death.

But I also realised that there was a more personal aspect to my attitudes: much of my life, especially my early life, has been about an escape from the material towards the intellectual. (I’m conscious of the Cartesian dualism here, but it was what I experienced). Partly this was due to being brought up in an evangelical Christian tradition that was suspicious of material desires. But it was also connected to the unsatisfactory nature of the material world around me as a child.

I certainly don’t want to claim that I was materially deprived: I never went hungry or lacked clothes. But my choice of entertainments and places to go to was certainly limited and even in Sussex it wasn’t fun living in a house without central heating. All this was combined with my own unsatisfactory physical presence: overweight, short-sighted, clumsy. I took refuge in books and my imagination, a world that was fundamentally immaterial, in which I could wander as a free, pure spirit.

It’s perhaps not a surprise that when I eventually ended up as a historian, it was to study moral texts written by intellectuals, even if they were ones concerned with the very material worlds of Frankish noblemen. My instinctive sympathies are with the men (and occasional woman) saying that there is more to life than the purely material. I don’t focus on Carolingian material culture because at some level it discomforts me.

But what of early medieval people themselves? How easy did they find it to turn away from the material? A visit to the Merovingian exhibition at the Cluny Museum was a reminder that there was more to their material world than mud and hunger. How easy would it have been for the elites to give up some of the splendour on show there?


[Jewellery from sixth-century sarcophagus in St-Denis,  possibly belonging to Queen Aregund, on display at Cluny Museum]

I’ve recently been working again on Paulinus of Aquileia’s Liber exhortationis, a late eighth-century mirror for a layman that’s obsessed with the dangers of the material world. Looking at it again, what’s noticeable is that Paulinus doesn’t expect the recipient of his moral tract (probably Eric of Friuli) to give up the symbols of worldly life: rich food and drink, gold, fancy garments, horses etc: Eric just mustn’t delight in them.

I think that helps us get at one of the interesting aspects of early medieval material culture: the extent to which “renouncing the world” didn’t actually change your culture that much. What would Aregund (or whoever was in the sarcophagus whose treasures are on display in the exhibition) have had to give up if she’d entered the religious life, rather than died as a queen?

One obvious change would have been a loss of bodily comfort. At least in theory, in a convent she’d have eaten a less luxurious diet, eaten plainer food and worn less costly (and probably less comfortable clothes). Aregund would also have had to undergo the rigors of her sleep being interrupted by regular services. She might also have lost access to some secular entertainments, although Charlemagne’s complaint about nuns writing “songs” (winileodos) suggests that not all secular pleasures were as strictly barred as he might have liked.

But a noblewoman who became a nun wouldn’t have lost access to much of the fanciest of Merovingian material culture. Churches and monasteries were full of golden objects, elaborate architecture and rich fabrics, as well as the glory of early medieval manuscripts. The only change is that such material was no longer owned personally, but corporately.

And it’s that aspect, I think that brings us to the heart of early medieval material culture. Aregund may have had physical enjoyment from wearing a bright silk tunic rather than one of coarse black material, but I find it difficult to believe that objects like her belt fittings would actually have been pleasurable to wear. They’d be heavy and you couldn’t easily admire them while you were actually wearing them (unlike a brooch). What they provided instead was status: that you could afford such ornaments while others couldn’t. In the same way, a sword hilt fitted with gold, silver and precious stones isn’t any more useful in battle than a plain steel one. What matters is where it places you in the hierarchy.


[Tunic of Queen Balthild, on display at Cluny Museum]

Thinking of that makes me see the famous tunic of Queen Balthild (also on display at the Paris exhibition) in a new light. How much loss of material comfort was there in swapping her royal robes and jewels for a linen tunic with silk embroidery? And how much asceticism did it take to wear a garment which continued to show her superior position in the social hierarchy?

If Merovingian material culture is substantially about the maintenance of social status, I was very conscious of a different culture of materiality at Xscape Milton Keynes (where the Snozone is based). This is a shopping and entertainment complex strongly focused on popular culture: sports activities, a cinema, a casino and a considerable number of chain restaurants, from McDonalds and Subway up to fancier brands like the Revolution vodka bar.

What I saw there was modern material culture at its most insistently alluring: loud and gaudy and mouth-watering. In a day at the centre, any commoner could clothe themselves more comfortably (and possibly even more brightly) than Queen Aregund could ever manage, as well as eating better quality and more varied food and taking part in entertainments that she could barely dream of. (Did I mention that they also have indoor skydiving at the complex)?

But though such material treats may seem far more accessible than Merovingian gold necklaces, Xscape isn’t a cheap place to go. You can easily spend 300 pounds on a basic snowboard and even cinema tickets or a meal out would quickly eat through a minimum wage. In theory, this lavish material culture is far more accessible to those at the bottom of society than before (there are no sumptuary laws today), but I’m not sure whether this is really the case.

Modern materialism strikes me as far more seductive and harder to ignore or give up than that of the early Middle Ages (or even when I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s). There is just so much more stuff available to be desired. And that raises a problem for anyone who wants people to look beyond the material, whether this is religious believers or those encouraging a purely secular good life. It’s one thing to tell the rich not to care about their possessions and to encourage their charity/helping of others. But what about those who aren’t rich (at least in terms of their own society)?

The eleventh century tale of Unibos (One-Ox) described a peasant who by luck gains a potful of gold: the possibility of such wealth hovers at the limits of the impossible. But the goods on offer at Xscape aren’t the things that you could only afford if you won the lottery. They’re tantalisingly just out of reach for those at the bottom of UK society, just in reach (with a struggle or a credit card) for the just-about-managing. Even ignoring the use of material goods as status markers, how realistic is it to tell people who can almost attain such things not to want them? How easy is it for poorer people not to want them? Material culture for the lower classes may no longer normally be a space for the kind of misery visible in the premodern world (or even in wartime Holland). But does the very accessibility of stuff today bring its own peculiar torments? It’s for those reasons that I’m not sure that I’d really enjoy studying modern material culture anymore than I do the medieval material world.



One thought on “Living in the material world

  1. I enjoyed reading your perspectives on materialism. They generated some thoughts of my own.

    Corporate ownership of material wealth in Medieval times in your discussion, presents similarly today with the trappings (objects) of State, which are rolled out for the most formal of events, or for political occasions. They are used to flatter and to give (in today’s management parlance) a ‘fuzzy massage’ to those who are being received, or honoured for a variety of agendas, by those who have the power vested in them to act accordingly. Such high visibility of material and corporate power must always have been so.

    Today’s material trappings offset by the unequal and contained low levels of wage, a creation of a serf economy, may look different to the past. I grant you, like -for -like comparison is difficult. However, the outcome of comparative measurements, for wealth, power and comforts across those very different-looking shopping baskets of the periods, may not in the final analysis be that different for an increasing chunk of our current societies.


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