HISTART 394-003

Unpacking medieval boxes

M W 1:00pm - 2:30pm
3 Credit Lecture

Inconspicuous at first glance, boxes of different sizes and materials make up a large part of medieval material culture. They open up a range of diverse topics historically and theoretically, which we will explore in this seminar. Keeping treasured objects and materials safe, their aims were to conceal from view and to collect, often at the same time presenting a splendid exterior that dazzled with its craft and entertained with pictorial narratives. Reliquary caskets, book boxes and pyxes belonged to the altars and treasuries of medieval churches and introduce ritual functions, while rugged parish chests and alms-boxes present a more pragmatic, everyday side. Pictorial themes associated with more secular pastimes such as hunting, games, literary subjects and those of courtly love also proliferate, particularly throughout late medieval times. Secular examples lead us to topics of gender, the material culture of beauty, and city governments. Practical, multifunctional, and above all mobile, boxes were often reused and recycled: Church treasuries in the medieval west contain countless examples of boxes from Byzantium, Norman Sicily (the so-called Siculo-Arabic style), and Islamic cultures. We will therefore engage with the biography of these objects and their historical context, discussing concepts and practices of exchange and appropriation, recycling and reframing.

The seminar draws on objects in collections in and around Ann Arbor to study them up close. Unlocked themes: Formal aspects (affordances of multi-sided objects, inside and outside as categories of material culture); pictorial narration; materials (metalwork, enamel, ivory, leather, wood); the cultural history of the secret (Assmann); the poetics of the box (Bachelard); the medieval concept of treasure (in textual and material culture, riddles and graphic cyphers); legal aspects (ownership); the history of safe-keeping and preserving (book chests); symbolism (the lock); reframing and recycling.

Textbooks/Other Materials: All readings will be available on CANVAS

Intended Audience: Undergraduates - all welcome

Class Format: Two 80-minute seminar meetings per week.

Estimated Cost of Materials: $0-50

HISTART Distribution Requirements: Europe and the US, Medieval