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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 methedological 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?


Core readings

  • Laven, M., '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
  • Smith, Kate, 'Amidst Things: New Histories of Commodities, Capital, and Consumption', Historical Journal 61 (3/2018), 841–61


Weblinks to major repositories of early modern material culture


Further readings

Doll's House 1676

Detail from the dolls’ house of Petronella Dunois by an anonymous artist (c. 1676). Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum.