Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Early Modern Material Culture

This week, we discuss the ways in which early modern historians might make use of material culture. To prepare for our discussion, which will focus on the methodological aspects of using early modern objects for historical research, I'd like to ask you:

1) to read the two core readings;

2) to select an early modern object from a museum collection (some examples below, but there are many, many more!), and be prepared to discuss how this object could be used in research (i.e.: what questions could you ask of the object? What might the answers tell you, and how would those answers differ from textual sources?)

3) identify a further reading (article, book chapter) to accompany your early modern object. This can be from amongst the further readings listed below, but could also be from elsewhere. Please be prepared to explain either how this reading will help you to answer your questions about the object or about object-history methodology, or how your use of your chosen object will challenge some aspect of that reading. In other words: EITHER use a published text to help you understand your selected object OR use your selected object to help us understand a published text better.


Seminar questions

  • Why are objects especially (un)suitable for the study of early modern history?
  • What are the strength and weaknesses of a material culture-led approach to the past?
  • Is material culture valuable if we wish to challenge the dominance of the nation state in the writing of history?


Essential Reading:

Laven, Mary, 'From His Holiness to the King of China', in Z. Biedermann, A. Gerritsen, & G. Riello (eds), Global Gifts: The Material Culture of Diplomacy in Early Modern Eurasia, Studies in Comparative World History (Cambridge, 2017), 217-234

Trentmann, Frank, ‘Materiality in the Future of History: Things, Practices, and Politics’, Journal of British Studies, 48 (2009), pp. 283-307.


Weblinks to major repositories of early modern material culture


Further Reading:

Ago, Renata, Gusto for Things: A history of objects in seventeenth-century Rome, trans. Bradford Bouley and Corey Tazzara with Paula Findlen (Chicago, 2013).

Ajmar-Wollheim, Marta, Dennis, Flora, and Matchell, Ann (eds), Approaching the Italian Renaissance Interior: Sources, Methodologies, Debates, special issue of Renaissance Studies, 20 (2007).

Appadurai, Arjun (ed.), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in cultural perspective (Cambridge, 1986).

Bennett, Jane, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, 2010)

Berg, Maxine and Eger, Elizabeth (eds), Luxury in the Eighteenth Century: Debates, Desires and Delectable Goods (Basingstoke, 2003).

Brundin, Abigail, Howard, Deborah and Laven, Mary, The Sacred Home in Renaissance Italy (New York, 2018).

Burghartz, Susanna, Burkart, Lucas, Göttler, Christine, and Rublack, Ulinka (eds.), Identities in Early Modern Culture, 1450-1750: Objects, Affects, Effects (Amsterdam, 2021)

Caleresu, Melissa, Avery, Victoria and Laven, Mary, eds, Treasured Possessions From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment (London, 2015)

Clunas, Craig, Superfluous Things: Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China, rev. edn (Honolulu, 2004)

Craciun, Adriana, and Schaffer, Simon (eds), The Material Cultures of Enlightenment Arts and Sciences (London 2016)

Earle, Rebecca, The body of the conquistador: food, race, and the colonial experience in Spanish America, 1492-1700 (Cambridge, 2012).

Earle, Rebecca, Potato (New York, 2019).

Edwards, Elizabeth, Gosden, Chris, and Phillips, Ruth B. (eds), Sensible Objects: Colonialism, museums and material culture (Oxford, 2006).

Findlen, Paula (ed.), Early Modern Things: Objects and their histories, 1500-1800 (2nd edition: Abingdon, 2021).

Gerritsen, Anne, and Riello, Giorgio (eds), Writing Material Culture History (London, 2015)

Gerritsen, Anne and Riello, Giorgio (eds.), The global lives of things: material culture in the first global age (Abingdon, 2015).

Hamling, Tara, ‘Visual and Material Sources’, in Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources, ed. by Laura Sangha & Jonathan Willis (Routledge: London: 2016), pp. 129-151.

Hamling, Tara, & Richardson, Catherine (eds.), Everyday objects: Medieval and early modern material culture and its meanings (Farnham, 2010).

Handley, Sasha, ‘Objects, Emotions, and an Early Modern Bed-sheet’, History Workshop Journal, 85 (2018), pp. 169-194.

Hannan, Leonie, and Sarah Longair, History Through Material Culture (Manchester, 2017)

Hanß, Stefan, and Veronesi, Umberto, ‘“The Lute of Wisdom”: Alchemy, the Body, and Medicine in the Material Renaissance’, Nuncius, 38 (2023), pp. 1-31.

Hanß, Stefan, ‘Feathers and the Making of Luxury Experiences at the Sixteenth-Century Spanish Court’, Renaissance Studies, 37 (2023), pp. 399-438.

Hanß, Stefan, ‘Material Encounters: Knotting Cultures in Early Modern Peru and Spain’, Historical Journal, 62 (2019), pp. 583-615

Harvey, Karen (ed.), History and Material Culture: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources (London: Routledge, 2009).

Ini, Marina, ‘Materiality, Quarantine and Contagion in the Early Modern Mediterranean’, Social History of Medicine, 34 (2021), pp. 1161-1184.

Jardine, Lisa, Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance (London, 2006).

Johanesen, Sarah, ‘Marketing English Catholicism Through Gifted Relics (c.1559-1640)’, in Kristin M. S. Bezio and Scott Oldenburg (eds.), Religion and the Early Modern British Marketplace (New York & London, 2022), pp. 100-120.

Kingery, David W. (ed.), Learning from Things: Method and Theory of Material Culture Studies (Washington D.C., 1996)

Latour, Bruno, Reassembling the social: an introduction to actor-network-theory (Oxford, 2005)

Malafouris, Lambros, How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement (Cambridge, Mass., 2013)

Marín-Aguilera, Beatriz and Hanß, Stefan (eds.), Visual and Material Culture, 1300 -1700. In-Between Textiles, 1400-1800: Weaving Subjectivities and Encounters (Amsterdam, 2023)

Miller, Peter N., History and Its Objects. Antiquarianism and Material Culture Since 1500 (Ithaca, 2017) e.g. chapter 3: ‘Things as Historical Evidence in the Late Renaissance and Early Enlightenment’, 55-75

Motture, Peta, and O’Malley, Michelle (eds), Re-Thinking Renaissance Objects: Design, Function and Meaning (Oxford, 2011).

Olson, Roberta J.M., Reilly, Patricia L. and Shepherd, Rupert (eds), The Biography of the Object in Late Medieval and Renaissance Italy (Oxford, 2006).

Oosterhoff, Richard J., Marcaida, José Ramón, and Marr, Alexander (eds) Ingenuity in the Making: Matter and Technique in Early Modern Europe, special issue of Technology and Culture, 64 (2023)

Richardson, Catherine, Tara Hamling, and David R. M. Gaimster (eds), The Routledge Handbook of Material Culture in Early Modern Europe (London, 2017)

Riello, Giorgio, Zoltán Biedermann, and Anne Gerritsen (eds), Global Gifts: the Material Culture of Diplomacy in Early Modern Eurasia (Cambridge, 2017)

Rublack, Ulinka, ‘Matter in the Material Renaissance’, Past & Present, 219 (2013), pp. 41-85.

Smith, Pamela H., The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution (Chicago, 2004).

Welch, Evelyn, Shopping in the Renaissance (New Haven and London, 2005).

‘Editorial’, Journal of Material Culture, 1 (1996), 5-14.