History seminars at the IHR

Early Modern Material Cultures

Convenors: Marta Ajmar (V&A/RCA), Spike Sweeting (V&A) 

Venue: Senate House , South block, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU.
Rooms are listed below Please allow at least five minutes to get to the seminar rooms

Time: Wednesday 5.15 pm

Summer Term 2016
DateSeminar details
4 May The Semiotics of the Body in Medieval Japanese Narratives

Raj Pandey (Goldsmiths)

This paper suggests that the spirit/ soul/mind/body debates that have been central to Western thought, and that have shaped the core presumptions that have gone into the making of the body as a category, are inadequate for understanding the conception and experience of embodied being in the non-western world. It argues that the mind/body and nature/culture debates have little valence in classical and medieval Japanese texts where both material and mental/emotional processes are seen as central to the constitution of a meaningful body/self. The eleventh century romance narrative The Tale of Genji, for example, suggests an altogether different mode through which the body is imagined and experienced, not as something constituted through flesh, blood, and bones, but rather as an entity that is metonymically linked to robes that are repositories of both the physical and affective attributes of those who wear them.

Venue: Room SH246, 2nd floor, South block, Senate House

11 May Bloody Matters in Early Modern Drama and Culture: The Blood that is Shed, The Blood That is Said, The Blood That is Read

Stephen Curtis

In it I will examine the various ways in which blood is used, read and interpreted in early modern tragedy paying particular attention to the material and corporeal aspects of its dramatic power. I will consider the religious and sacrificial origins of spectacular bloodshed, the practicalities of staging such sanguinary spectacle and conclude by exploring shifts in the cultural significance of blood in the light of scientific and medical developments in the early seventeenth century. I will argue that blood demands to be read and that understanding its materiality is key to this process of bloody hermeneutics.

Venue: Bloomsbury Room G35, Ground floor, South block, Senate House

18 May Divers other trifles: the material culture of the sugar banquet in early modern England

Louise Stewart

In sixteenth and seventeenth-century England, sweet banquets consisting of preserved fruits, confections such as comfits and lozenges, and sculptures in sugar paste or marzipan were a significant element of aristocratic and gentry sociability.  Indeed, an elite person in early modern England would expect to be entertained with a sweet banquet at every wedding, christening and funeral as well as at other significant social occasions hosted by their peers.  What meanings did the banquet hold that led it to be so closely associated with these important life events?
This paper invites the audience to tour the spaces in which foods for the banquet were prepared and consumed; the banqueting house, the sweetmeat closet, and the child-bed chamber.  Inventories of these spaces, surviving material culture and contemporary descriptions of banqueting provide new insights as to why the sugar banquet was so pervasive in early modern England.  It provided opportunities for participants to demonstrate their refined manners, excellent education, good connections, virtue and inherent nobility.  As a cultural practice which was associated with femininity, did the sugar banquet also provide opportunities for female empowerment and creative expression?

Venue: Pollard Room N301, 3rd floor, IHR, North block, Senate House

25 May In Pewter two dozen great and small: From quantification to affective qualities in material culture

Antony Buxton

Much analysis of material culture relies on the evidence of individual affective responses to artefacts, as well as the assumed contemporary perception of the properties of the object itself. This paper will discuss the potential of quantitative evidence to reveal qualitative conclusions.  In a study based on the evidence of early modern probate inventories – in conjunction with contemporary texts and images – the capacity of the relational database to tease out nuanced variations in practice indicated by household furnishings makes possible a practice-based reading of the interrelationship between people and objects, and its indication of a changing social dynamic.

Venue: Pollard Room N301, 3rd floor, IHR, North block, Senate House

1 June Urinating in early modern England: gender, space and iconoclasm

Tim Reinke Williams (Northampton)

This paper, part of a broader project on masculinity and the body, explores when and where men urinated in early modern England. Existing scholarship has argued that leaky bodies were configured by early modern people as effeminate and weak, a thesis which this paper will question by arguing that for men, and sometimes women, urinating was a form of empowerment and might be a political action which enabled the desecration of particular objects. By considering places, circumstances and objects, as well as the positive uses to which urine was put, the paper will extend and modify existing understandings of gendered bodies in early modern England.

Venue: Gordon Room G34, Ground floor, South block, Senate House

8 June TBC

Teresa Canepa

Venue: Bloomsbury Room G35, Ground floor, South block, Senate House

15 June How things shape the mind

Lambros Malafouris (Oxford)

How do things shape the mind? The extraordinary plasticity of human mind and its reciprocal openness to creative evolution by way of learning and material engagement is one of the distinctive features of our species. We have a plas­tic mind, which is always socially embedded and inextricably intertwined with a plastic culture. I propose that the different forms of plasticity (neural and extra-neural, biological and cultural) operate synergistically in a temporally and spatially distributed manner. We create new things, embodied practices, and institutions which in turn make up our minds and ourselves. So what exactly do we mean when we say that things make us just as much as we make things? What are the implications for understanding the developmental and evolutionary processes by which human cognitive abilities grow, transform, and change in different cultural and historical contexts? Those questions raise a great challenge for all the disciplines involved in the study of human becoming, and especially for archaeology and anthropology. This paper will attempt a comparative exploration into the deep history and ontology of mind-stuff. Using various archaeological and anthropological examples I will explore how a theory of material engagement can help us to understand better the impact of material culture on the making and evolution of human intelligence. Doing so I want to highlight what is typically cast in the shadow and to re-instantiate the vitality of matter and priority of material engagement.

Venue: Room SH246, 2nd floor, South block, Senate House