Last week, as part of the University of Sheffield's contribution to national humanities extravaganza Being Human Festival 2015 (#BeingHuman15), I managed to combine my interests in early modern drinking and song...
Back in November, under the auspices of our fifth research strand, the V&A and the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands jointly hosted an Anglo-Dutch Workshop and Reception around the topic of Material Cultures of Intoxication: Trade, Taste, and Exchange between the Early Modern English and the Dutch.
The inspiration for the workshop emerged from work I am doing for my Intoxicants Project monograph, provisionally entitled ‘The Alcoholic State’, some key aspects of which were recently published in Cultures of Intoxication, our Past and Present Special Supplement. My research for that project seeks to bring together literatures by social, cultural, and economic historians, material culture specialists, decorative arts curators and scholars, historians of design, and also work by post-medieval archaeologists. Each of these constituencies work in very different ways, as much in terms of their archives and methodological approaches as in their ideas of what the histories they write should look like and who their audiences are. Consequently, these scholars all too rarely have the opportunity to meet and converse around shared interests, not least when those interests cross national as well as disciplinary borders (it was remarkable, for example, that the scholars and curators from Amsterdam in fact met for the first time at our London workshop!).
That international boundaries must be crossed when thinking about the material culture of intoxication is, however, crucial. For both England and the Netherlands, intoxicants themselves were mostly imported from elsewhere in Europe or from the Americas. And, even though every European region could provide some sort of locally produced wares for the storage or consumption of intoxicants, by the seventeenth century even the most ordinary alehouse could offer styles and materials of objects and patterns of consumption that were international in style and often manufacture.
The opportunity to create a forum for discussion came thanks to an approach made to the V&A’s Research Department by the Dutch Embassy, who were keen to promote exchange between the V&A and Dutch cultural institutions. Given the long history of cultural, social, political, artistic, and indeed convivial exchange between the two countries, the idea of a workshop around material cultures of intoxication, which would at once bring to the fore issues of design, manufacture, trade, and cultures of consumption, proved irresistible.
It was particularly important that the workshop should bring together all of the disciplinary backgrounds I had been encountering in my research. I was keen to hear what practitioners from each of these disciplines might regard as the central issues of such a topic. I was delighted to be able to secure a whole roomful of people that were supremely qualified to discuss topics of Anglo-Dutch exchange from a plethora of different angles:
- Material Culture and Decorative Arts scholarship was represented by the keepers of two of the world’s most important collections of glass and earthenware: Reino Liefkes (glass and ceramics) at the V&A; and Femke Diercks (Ceramics) and Nicole Brüderle (Glass) from the Rijksmuseum.
- They were joined by leading archaeologist Professor Jerzy Gawronski, head of the City Archeology service in Amsterdam, and Dr Claire Finn, who has just submitted her PhD in Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology on Anglo-Dutch material culture and identity.
- Finally, historians, whose interests range across social, cultural, and economic topics relating either to intoxication, material culture, or to Anglo-Dutch exchange, each brought special expertise to the discussion. In addition to members of the Intoxicants and Early Modernity team (Professor Phil Withington, Dr Angela McShane, Kathy Rogers, Tim Wales, and Dr James Brown), we were delighted to welcome commentators Professor Maarten Prak (Utrecht) and Professor Lisa Jardine (UCL); and discussants Dr Danielle van den Heuvel (Kent), Professor David Ormrod (Kent), and Dr Craig Muldrew (Cambridge).
Two of the papers dealt with archaeological time capsules. My own contribution explored the recent archaeological discovery of a tavern cellar sealed by the Great Fire of London in 1666. I sought to investigate how far it might be possible to explore materiality and meaning through a typical History of Design object-centred approach. After considering the archaeological context of the cellar and the remarkably cosmopolitan assemblage as a whole, I took a single item (a shard of ‘Venice Glass’) and traced its appearance as thing and metaphor in texts and images, as well as in trade records and domestic inventories. As this brief investigation made clear, if material culture was to be part of a broader investigation of how alcohol consumption was embedded into state mechanisms through drinking rituals, a more global approach to the things and their materiality would be needed.
In a rather different vein, Jerzy Gawronksi offered a rich and fascinating case study of an eighteenth-century shipwreck, a Dutch trading vessel that foundered off the Southern coast of England in 1749. Taking advantage of a ‘perfect analytical moment’ (in Lisa Jardine’s phrase), Jerzy framed his discussion in terms of superimposed spatiotemporal domains. He first examined the ship as a wooden world of its own, and then used each of the intoxicant-related commodities it contained as windows onto ever-wider networks and spaces (from docks and harbours to urban hinterlands to international commercial systems). For this listener, most remarkable was the tremendously detailed documentation available from eighteenth-century Dutch lading records, which meant that objects found on the ship could be linked not just to Amsterdam as a city but to the very shops from which they had been purchased (Jerzy will be giving a fuller version of this paper at the V&A/IHR Early Modern Material Cultures Seminar in April).
Two more papers offered fascinating surveys that sought to track comparisons and contrasts in the material cultures of the Dutch and the English over the early modern period. Femke Diercks explored questions of manufacture and taste, as revealed through the extensive surviving material archive, held in collections all over the world. She highlighted the frequent commercial tensions that emerged over the production and trade of material goods, not least the aesthetic and artistic differences between the two states that such tensions revealed (this offered context for Phil Withington’s eternal question of ‘why were the English so rubbish at making things’, which usually sparks heated debate!).
Finally, Claire Finn presented a wide-ranging archaeological paper that considered not only the wider chronology of Dutch and English manufacture of goods, but also approached the question of design and identity head-on. She used archaeological finds to support a long-held assumption that while for most of the early modern period England was forced to import good vessel design, mostly from the Netherlands, by the end of the seventeenth century England had taken over from the Netherlands as a leader in glass design. Moreover, Claire was able to provide evidence of a direct inversion of the material picture suggested by the 1666 London tavern discussed in my own paper, by showing how Dutch tavern digs reveal a large proportion of English-made wares by the end of the century.
In addition to the formal papers, the workshop’s setting in the V&A provided us with ample opportunities to get to grips with intoxicant-related objects from the museum’s extensive collections. Reino Leifkes took the group on a tour of the magnificent Glass Gallery, where he was able to indicate the various styles and very different manufacturing cultures of the two countries over the early modern period. Reino explained the industrial and economic contexts of glass manufacture and, through an explanation of techniques, was able to explain for the uninitiated historians how far such objects might be seen as ordinary or exceptionally precious. After his tour, Reino led a handling session focussing on just four English seventeenth-century ‘lead’ or ‘flint’ glasses. This was equally revelatory in demonstrating how an apparently straightforward designation of ‘a lead glass’ could, in the same historical moment, disguise such very different weights, forms, and classes of objects.
Several general discussions were stimulated by the papers, questions, tour, and handling session, not least in relation to how far the methodologies and approaches demonstrated during the day might contribute to ‘useful’ histories; itself an area of contention, since curators, archaeologists, and historians necessarily have very different ideas about what a useful history might be and to whom it might be useful. David Ormrod, drawing on his own experience as an economic historian and curator, asked how objects might best be studied, and recommended social anthropological approaches as being systematic and having intellectual weight. I proposed that incorporating material culture into any field of knowledge required unusual openness to a wide range of multi-disciplinary approaches, allowing for objects, materials, or archives to dictate the best way to proceed. An especially productive proposal, that sought to combine the different constituencies gathered in the room, came from commentator Maarten Prak, who argued that a multi-disciplinary and Anglo-Dutch focus on histories of glass manufacture – reflecting a recent shift in material culture studies away from consumption – could provide the ideal vehicle through which cross-disciplinary combinations, such as those gathered in the room, could contribute to exciting new histories.
The workshop concluded with some present-day Anglo-Dutch conviviality at the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, where participants were joined by a large number of welcome guests with an interest in the day’s topics. Here, Maarten and Lisa Jardine summarised the workshop and some of the main contentions that had emerged from it for the assembled throng.
The express aim of the workshop was to open interdisciplinary discussion and to reveal methodological approaches and differences, especially with a view to the relevant research strand of the Project. In this it unquestionably succeeded, although much more remained to be discussed. It is hoped that we might be able to reconvene and further our discussions on the other side of the North Sea in the not too distant future. In the meantime, be sure to follow the hashtag #materialdrinking on Twitter for related themes, and feel free to contribute!
— Angela McShane (@angela_mcshane) March 12, 2015