Daniel Smail will speak at the Seminar in Cultural History on Wednesday, January 30, 2013. His talk is entitled “An Anthropology of Goods in Mediterranean Europe, 1330-1450.”

The history of material culture, following the pioneering work of early modern historians such as Neil McKendrick, Daniel Roche, and Craig Muldrew, has often been configured as a history of more stuff. There is much to be said for an approach that emphasizes the rippling consequences of the marked acceleration in habits of consumption that took place in late medieval and early modern Europe. To take this optic, however, is to foreclose on the possibility of exploring the biographies of particular objects and the ways in which consumer goods worked themselves into a total social network embracing persons and things alike. In this talk, Smail will present the preliminary results of his current research involving approximately one hundred household inventories from the city of Marseille between 1330 and 1450. These inventories have yielded a database of some 5,000 objects, many of them organized by room. These objects can be treated as word-things that complement the dirt-things uncovered by conventional archaeological techniques. Smail will highlight patterns of capital and emotional investment in material objects. In addition to their capacity to reflect prestige, goods also served as stores of wealth. Indeed, the two functions were inextricably intertwined. This dual function helps explain the prominent role of goods in processes of debt recovery. In addition, Smail will explore some of the remarkable gaps or silences in the record, including the (relative) absence of such things as coins, devotional objects, toys, and mirrors.

Daniel Smail is Professor of History at Harvard University. During the 2011-2012 academic year, he was a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Smail received his B.A. in History and Philosophy from the University of Wisconsin and Ph.D. in History from the University of Michigan. He has published extensively on a wide variety of topics, including medieval material culture, history and anthropology of law, and neurohistory, or the impact of culture on the brain. His recent publications include “Violence and Predation in Late Medieval Mediterranean Europe” (Comparative Studies in Society and History 54, 2012) and On Deep History and the Brain (University of California Press, 2008), which was a finalist for the 2008 Los Angeles Times Book Award. Smail is currently pursuing a book-length study, tentatively titled Goods and Debts in Medieval Mediterranean Europe.