Saturday 30 January 2010

Using Material Culture to Recreate Early Mordern Kinship Networks and Political Alliences

Cathryn Enis, 'Sources, Controversies, and Rediscovering Affective Significance'

In her research into relationships in Elizabethan gentry in Warwickshire, Cathryn has had to use material culture as evidence, rather than as illustration - an infact, she considers it a vital part of building a rich picture of identities and kinships. It is not just the traditional document that can be read as historical resource.

There are limits to what a document can represent. They may well be a rich resource of information, but they are always open to interpretation and they always leave out much. It may well be that standardised documents, such as wills as Cathryn illustrates, may tell us as much about generalised convention as about particularity and individual relationships.

The relationship which people have with material culture itself might be used to illuminate meanings that lie behind their documented use and giving of it. Objects are not simple things - rather, they are symbols, recognition of which a purely factual reading of documentation cannot always provide. Much as is the case with Shakespeare's bequest to his wife of the 'second best bed'.

Kinship networks are very poorly represented in traditional documentary sources. Business transactions can provide information about contact, but are more difficult to read as evidence of personal affiliation. In the case of John Throckmorton, personal alliences are depicted in the crests built into his stained glass at Coughton Court.

The Sheldon Tapestry Map of Warwickshire is a particularly interesting case. Generally the motivation for their construction has been little studied. The map is, for some reason, turned on its side, and currently is not on display. Access to the other maps is somewhat difficult, as there is some dispute about provenance. Important material evidence is frequently only intermittently available.

15 gentry residences are depicted on the map - the decision to include them cannot be arbitrary. How do all the residences fit together? How were they intended to been seen? As family alliences, as political alliances, as evidence of religious affiliation? They are difficult to read, but sometimes this is a risk that has to be taken if we are to make connections and build up our own tapestries of knowledge.

Warwickshire was a complicated county. A diverse county. A politically and culturally important county. It's 16th century history has often been left behind, due partly to the Free Libraries Fire at Birmingham in which much of the documentation was lost. But it is surely not valid to ignore it because of this. Material culture has value - some would say it has an active agency in establishing political and social power.

Language is a symbol, after all. One of many which we use. We all have items which we have attached value and meaning to. Sometimes these meanings cannot be symbolised in words. Only by connecting the representations can we hope to come to our fullest possible understanding of ourselves.