The reason I’m writing my dissertation on the material culture that appears in Old English poetry is because I’m like most of my fellow Americans: I dig stuff. I like things. I enjoy having, using, making, and breaking doodads, doohickeys, gizmos, gadgets, and gear.
As someone who also enjoys thinking about the middle ages, and specifically the time in English history known as the Anglo-Saxon period, though, I can’t help but believe that these early English peoples probably really dug their stuff, too. I say that for a lot of reasons, but mostly it’s because I keep reading about their descriptions of the various things and objects they used in their daily lives. Beowulf may have torn Grendel’s arm off with his bare hands, but he also showed up in Hrothgar’s hall Heorot (itself a piece of material culture) with a bunch of well-armed Geatish warriors and used Unferth’s big fancy sword Hrunting when hunting down Grendel’s Mother in her submerged lair. It’s too bad that Hrunting fails (whatever that means) and Beowulf has to use a sword forged by giants that just happens to be hanging around the place for just such occasions (Chekhov’s Sword?). Alfred knows that the intellectual state of his kingdom is deteriorating, so he translates (or has translated) the famous Books Necessary for All Men to Know, has copies of these books made, and then sends these physical objects out to people in his kingdom in order to help bring up the level of discourse in Wessex. In fact, he also sends along other goods, including an “Æstel,” with those books. No one really knows what an Æstel is anymore.
Here’s the thing: humans aren’t that different on a basic level from one another, regardless of the time or place in which they live. They still like stuff. They have things and those things play an important role in their lives. Material Culture theory makes it clear that we don’t just own things, we have relationships with them. They interact with us in very real ways, and some even go so far as to say that these inanimate objects have agency in the way they act in our individual and cultural lives.
Of course, the question must then become less about “if” and more about “how” or “to what extent.” Modern people are nearly obsessed with their stuff. Cell phones are probably the single biggest example I could give of this, even for those who aren’t really savvy when it comes to most technologies. Tablets, computers, smart watches, and other sexy tech certainly plays into the same arena of our lives. Before all that, however, we had a powerful culture in the United States that grew up around automobiles. Trains were hugely influential in the ways people thought about the world around them, even if very few people actually owned a train themselves. Owning, breeding, raising, and trading horses was as much a passion for many horse traders as a way to pay the bills.
Even objects that aren’t particularly advanced, like eating and cooking utensils, are incredibly personal and important. In the Friar’s Tale, Chaucer weaves a story about a corrupt summoner who attempts to extort payment out of a widow by inventing false charges against her and, frustrating her to no end, she damns him to hell–and agrees to give up her new pan–if a demon will come and take him. The demon obliges, taking the Summoner, and the pan, down to hell, which serves to make me appreciative of my own cookware.
It’s probably not something that a lot of people thing about a lot, but I do find it fascinating to think about the way our ideas and relationships with the things we make, use, consume, and destroy have changed, or how much they haven’t. It’s just another way to connect us with the people of the otherwise distant past.