Material culture in the early modern world

Course Material 2024/25
Melchior Lorck Sorbet Seller

This course engages with the vigorous historiographical debates on consumption from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment in a global perspective. Key questions are to what extent this period witnessed a “consumer revolution” and birth of “Western materialism”, or whether early modern Europe was just one of several global centres in which the production and consumption of goods proliferated during this period. Lectures focus not just on Europe, but the Ottoman Empire, Asia and North America. How can historians find out about the meanings a greater number of things held for people in different milieus and how contemporaries approached question of value? Did an engagement with things and appearances constitute identities, so that personhood must therefore be thought of as emerging in relation to objects and exchange, rather than as pre-existing entity? In what ways did the importance of domestic interiors and cuisine change? Should we regard slaves and concubines as part of a contemporary material culture, where you could own people?   

Students will gain a fresh and stimulating grounding of the central themes in early modern history as well as of methodological and theoretical frameworks of recent historical writing, which understands the importance of looking at early modern Europe as part of a globalising world. The course allows students to become familiar with the language and approaches of art history and anthropology as well as with changes within economic and cultural history. Key issues interlink particularly closely with HAP teaching on images, artefacts, cultural history, trans-national history, and gender history. In addition to lectures and seminars there are handling sessions and museum visits in Cambridge, guided by experts in the field. These visits provide a rare opportunity to closely look at objects to reflect on what evidence they provide for historians.

Page credits & information

Image: A sorbet seller balancing a tray with bowls and pitchers on top of his turban and holding a glass bowl in his right hand; a wooden stand in his left hand. From a series of 127 woodcuts by Melchior Lorck.

Section notice

This material is intended for current students but will be interesting to prospective students. It is indicative only.