Memory and Material Culture in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe — a review

The Remembering the Reformation team held a stimulating day-long workshop entitled ‘Memory and Material Culture in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe’ on November 16, 2018. Hosted jointly by Trinity College and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, the workshop coincided with the third strand of the project, led by the PI, Alex Walsham, which considers the role of objects and artefacts as sites and touchstones of memory. As one speaker reminded us, to study material culture is to explore the ‘histories of possibilities’ that assist in both remembering and forgetting.

The morning involved two sessions of three short presentations on objects selected from the Fitzwilliam’s collections. In the afternoon, speakers and participants had the rare opportunity to encounter the objects that had ignited that morning’s explorations and discussions, as well as additional items, in two unique handling sessions at the Fitzwilliam Museum. In this window of time thirty-two precious artefacts emerged from storage, some for the first time in decades, to delight and intrigue some twenty besotted art historians, material culture specialists, and Reformation scholars. All had a chance to touch, caress, and turn the objects about in their hands while pondering their original context and use. After a general rotation visiting each item, attendees were assigned to teams of two or three to concentrate on one group of objects: small devotional objects, reliquaries and pilgrimage artefacts, household objects, drinking and eating objects, book-shaped handwarmers, mourning rings and personal mementos, items with a shared 'Remember Me' phrase, large earthenware items, and temporal objects. The teams reported on these findings in a concluding roundtable in Trinity before Professor Andrew Morrall, from Bard Graduate Center, New York, delivered a lively lecture open to the general public. Entitled ‘From “Pope as Devil” to “the Library of Vulcan”: Religion, Objects, and Early Modern Cultures of Memory’, this explored how objects retain but also shed their original historical meaning in a non-linear process, in which different generations revisit and reactivate emblems and objects to adapt collective memory for present-day needs.

Maiolica Virgin and Child
Virgin and Child Maiolica (EC.2-1938), c. 1350–1450


Andrew Morrall, Eamon Duffy, Alex Walsham, Brian Cummings
Remembering the Reformation’s project co-investigators enjoy watching Eamon Duffy and Andrew Morrall investigating!


Agnus Dei Roundel
Agnus Dei Roundel (M.65-1904), 1566?


Handling session
Participants during a handling session


Handling session 2
Participants during a handling session

The idea of the workshop was to ponder whether and how bodily interaction with objects deepens our understanding and alters our perception of early modern memory practices. How is being in the presence of an object different to merely seeing a picture of it? Were these physical objects effective as memory carriers? Why do some objects survive while others do not? How does substance, form, and shape encode rituals and doctrines while suppressing other memories? What immediately confronted us, as we moved from discussing the items at a distance to holding them up close was the question of function: how did this thing work? What was it designed to recall? It made all the difference seeing the ‘Remember Lot’s Wife’ dish discussed by Alex Walsham in the morning session. What we did not appreciate until we saw the item was how the figure of Lot’s Wife protrudes on the lip of the dish in its three-dimensional form, increasing her prominence and visibility, the iconography heightening the spiritual warning about female disobedience and the moral back-sliding of women. The experience of touching Helen’s Smith’s book-shaped handwarmers also generated fresh insights that could not be attained by simply viewing a digital image. The very form of stoneware crafted into the shape of a book forces the hands holding it into a gesture of prayer and piety. Likewise, handling an earthenware mug with a piece broken from its rim highlights why such pottery served as a compelling metaphor for the fragility of existence and the threat of mortality. As Eamon Duffy stressed in his discussion of medieval and post-Reformation chalices, their physical contours and shape reflected and reinforced competing forms of theological and ritual memory at the expense of the other. The knob on the medieval chalice performed a tactile mnemonic function, reminding the priest that he could not open his fingers after handling consecrated bread, while the deep, bell-shaped bowl of the post-Reformation chalice embodies the Protestant commitment to distributing the communion in both kinds to all believers. The dynamics of form and shape and the power of theological self-fashioning also emerged from close inspection of a German pendant girdle-book containing twelve scenes from the life of Christ etched on both sides of the silver pages. Its tiny size required a magnifier for viewing, and even then eye-strain was setting in! This was a portable item suitable for daily devotional use that could easily be secreted in a pocket or fold of clothing. But its minuscule dimensions also suggest that it was created to foster effort and concentration, and to cultivate contemplative habits and modes of action.

Chocolate break!
Chocolate break before the final discussion

Many themes emerged throughout the day, but I will highlight only two. One was the paradoxical power of the familiar. Creating an object as a specific mnemonic tool means that it requires frequent use. But this brings with it the potential for boredom and for the material device to become ordinary and so lose its power as a vehicle of memory retrieval. A second recurring theme was whether an object can ever become neutral or emptied of its original meaning. The attempt to evacuate or alter meaning can happen both intentionally, as in an act of iconoclastic violence or destruction (and even in an object’s preservation by means of recycling or transformation), or unintentionally, as when it is misunderstood or unrecognized for what it is. Material objects have a way of eluding and defying the meanings assigned to them by human subjects.

We would like to thank Trinity College for providing an excellent venue for the workshop and lecture, and for providing much needed refreshment throughout the day. We are also deeply grateful to the Fitzwilliam’s Keeper of Applied Arts, Dr Vicky Avery, and her staff, for their superhuman skills in retrieving so many objects from various departments and for so enthusiastically facilitating our exploration of the nexus between material culture and memory. We are also indebted to Tom Taylor, for making the practical arrangements in the midst of his many commitments.