People and Objects in Late Medieval Dijon: Re-thinking the ‘Consumer Revolution’

Dr Katherine Wilson is Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Chester. Her research seeks to understand the relationship between social and cultural change, and shifting patterns in the use of material culture in the later Middle Ages. Here she writes about her current Faculty-funded research:

In July of 2016 I will be making a research trip to the city of Dijon, France funded by a faculty of arts early career award from the University of Chester. Today, Burgundy and Dijon are often cited for their fame regarding excellent wine and mustard. But in the later Middle Ages (c.1300-1500), Dijon was important as one of the administrative capitals of the dukes of Burgundy and their state, the Burgundian Netherlands. Created over the period 1384-1477, the Burgundian Netherlands became the most powerful state in Northern Europe, a political, economic and cultural leader that English and French rulers sought to emulate. A good career and living could be made out of working for the Burgundian administrative machine: perks included tax breaks, fiscal bonuses and gifts. Many individuals connected with the Burgundian household were based in Dijon during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It is these people and their objects that my project will investigate.

The reason I wish to look at people and the objects they owned lies in that historians have identified and argued for a potential ‘consumer revolution’ in the Later Middle Ages. The period 1300-1500 was marked by spectacular growth in the manufacture and circulation of objects. Yet there are two problems still to be fully addressed by historians. The first, how far urban centers underpinned the drive for new objects, remains largely unexplored. The second problem lies in establishing exactly who purchased objects and why. Dijon provides a significant opportunity to re-evaluate the place of urban centres in the ‘consumer revolution’ as the town has unparalleled information on the biographies of medieval consumers and the urban residences where they performed and used their objects.

The archives of Dijon hold over 400 inventories for the period 1389-1550, documenting lists of objects and house layouts, several thousand notary documents relating to land, marriage and commercial transactions for 1310-1475 as well as tax records on households for 1409-1467. By beginning with the documents themselves, I will investigate the theatre for the use of object (urban residences and cityscape), actors and the historical circumstances within which they ‘consumed’ objects (individuals and their families) and urban elites who comprised the audiences for these objects (witnesses of inventories). I am interested in establishing whether the purchasing trends and patterns of the European ‘consumer revolution’ were driven by the desire of individuals to act and perform in urban theatres and by the uncertainties of their everyday lives and careers.

My interest in this area has developed from my doctoral and post-doctoral work undertaken at the Universities of Glasgow, Ghent, St Andrews and York, as well as at Chester. My doctoral work used household inventories and ducal accounts of expenditure to examine the manufacturing processes, manufacturers and uses of tapestry in the Burgundian dominions during the period 1300-1500. Much of my doctoral work took place in the archives of Dijon, which explains why I return again and again! This then led me to become interested in a wider range of material culture and the shifting patterns in its use across Europe. In particular, I enjoy building a picture of the biographies of individuals in this period and using this evidence to explain why people owned particular objects and to think about how their careers and backgrounds may have driven them to purchase and use objects in the way that they did. My work, and the sources I use form an important part of my teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. The project has resulted in a number of publications and blogs, a selection of which you can find out more about here.

Books and Articles:

  1. A. Wilson and B. Lambert (eds.), Europe’s Rich Fabric. The Consumption, Commercialisation and Production of Luxury Textiles in Italy, the Low Countries and Neighbouring Territories (Fourteenth-Sixteenth Centuries) (Ashgate Early Modern Series, 2016).
  2. A. Wilson, ‘The household inventory as urban ‘theatre’ in late medieval Burgundy’, Social History 40: 3, August (2015), pp. 335-359. Open Access.

Blogs:

Social History, K. A. Wilson, ‘The household inventory as urban ‘theatre’ in late medieval Burgundy’

 

 

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