Recycling and the Ontology of the Object in Late Medieval Europe

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 10:30 AM
Maryland Suite A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Daniel L. Smail, Harvard University
In recent years, numerous approaches have converged on the core concept that now guides the study of persons and things, namely, that social life depends on material things and is entangled with them. One of the products of this approach is a “flat ontology” that treats persons and things as ontologically indistinct. This paper contributes to this literature through a study of aspects of the human-object relationship that are revealed in a representative sample of a hundred household inventories from later medieval Marseille. Inventories have been studied by late medieval and early modern European historians for numerous reasons. Among other things, inventories reveal patterns of use and consumption as well as the layout and gendering of household objects. As I shall discuss in this paper, inventories are also very good sources for understanding material ontology: the contemporary understanding of the being or “thingness” of objects. The practice of recycling provides especially useful insights into material ontology, given that the being of an object becomes especially clear as we contemplate the act of taking it apart. Nearly everything in the medieval European household, as it happens, was subject to recycling. Most inventories include at least some objects nearing this important transition. In addition, numerous items, especially clothes, incorporate components recycled from older items. The omnipresence of recycling, and the composite objects that result from the practice, suggests that people of this era understood “thingness” in a way that is very different from our own material ontology. By deploying a metaphorical system that draws an equivalence between persons and things, the anthropology of consumption has failed to grasp the radical alterity of the late medieval ontology of the object.
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