A brief conversation with medieval domestic objects

A pair of thirteenth-century shoes. Access granted by Museum of London.
A pair of thirteenth-century shoes. Access granted by the Museum of London.

I don’t quite remember the first time I thought about my ‘career’; neither do I remember a pivotal moment when I realised what I wanted to ‘be’. The only thing I remember is that I always had a huge desire to talk. Yet I do recall one peculiar moment at school, when we built our own ‘medieval feud maquette’. I loved building that feud. I loved building the cardboard castle and the incredible water mill, flowing with blue jelly. I also remember the first time I ventured into my mom’s wardrobe, in the late 1990s, where I captured a golden rope watch and a blue silk Indian scarf she’d owned since the late 1980s. I loved finding those objects. I loved wearing them (still do!) and loved the idea that they were my heirlooms.

There it is: I’ve always felt fascinated by objects. Actually, I’ve always liked talking to/about objects. I appreciate things that can tell stories, things that have a past. Somehow I inexplicably managed to design my career around stories from the past, mingling narratives from my past and from this curious geography that is medieval England – what a strange combination.

So my career as a medievalist, a historian with a literary background, has brought me to one of my favourite places in the world: London. My PhD research focuses on materialities, that is, physical things, things from a specific past: precisely the thirteenth century. I guess that my desire for stories ‘from the past’ remained with me and slowly, organically shaped my career path, taking the ultimate form of my thesis. And although in my work I read texts and look at things inside the texts, what I really wanted was to talk to things, you know, in person, and see what they could possibly tell me in return.

With that in mind I organised private research visits to museum collections and was lucky enough to encounter a number of medieval shoes at the Museum of London and one incredible casket in the V&A.

These objects are not ordinary; not for me, not for the museums. But if we look closely, I mean real close, we immediately recognise the signs of usage, the so-called ‘wear and tear’. But at some point in their lives these things were ordinary, not because they were meaningless but because they were crucial instruments of a daily life. When I first saw the late thirteenth-century shoes (see top of page) I was shocked, seriously: it was the first time in my life I actually felt intimate with the medieval past. And what better way to experience intimacy than getting really close, allowing oneself to be moved and perceived at a touching distance?

The more I held them, looking attentively to the worn-out heels and the holes on the sides, the more I became intimate with that object. Going through each texturised detail reminded me of my incursions into my mom’s closet, only now I was deliberately going though someone else’s closet. But the purpose is the same: to look for narratives of someone else’s past. Who am I to dig through someone else’s most private belongings? An ethical question. Funny enough museums give us some authority on that. But for me, those shoes made me feel connected, like tangible bridges that overcome time to link me to their previous owner(s), albeit their mysterious identity.

Gabi examining a fourteenth-century casket. Access granted by the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Gabriela examining a fourteenth-century casket. Access granted by the Victoria & Albert Museum.

The fourteenth-century Castilian casket from the V&A tells me a similar story but with a different accent, mostly because it is not from the British middle ages. However the mystery behind its medieval owners equals the narrative of the shoes, and the impression of going through someone else’s stuff repeats in my mind. This casket, a little wood box wrapped around a golden brass, would have been used to keep personal belongings, especially those small precious ones, like a handbag (or a safe). Yet the highlighted wear and tear hint at the energetic life the casket had before becoming the static monument behind the museum glass windows. The number of carved scenes on the brass tells us a lot about its owners’ taste for stories (as well!): these are scenes from romance, from ancient myths. Maybe these carvings reflect a gendered facet revealing a woman’s ownership who could have filled it with jewels and letters. As I open the box I’m instantly reminded of my younger teenage self, borrowing my mom’s rope watch.

Both shoes and casket are objects with a hidden side, an inside that can be filled with stories. The shoes hosted feet that wandered around, bringing with them insights from other geographies, whereas the casket kept secrets from a private life: documents, letters, jewels, all very intimate. Like my mom’s objects, these medieval things were passed on from one generation to another, accumulating life.

Shoes are the very things that help us move around, like tickets to different spaces, and even in the middle ages they were crucial, where the lack of them could reflect the state of being disinherited or dispossessed. So how do we bring back to life objects that are so vital to our understanding of who we are and how we live? How do we shed some light into a shadowed and mysterious casket such as the medieval one I encountered? How do we release the stories locked inside and tattooed in the wear and tear that mark these objects?

These questions can be the start of a conversation. And language, in whatever shape it comes, has the power to bring back meanings, old and new.

Gabriela Cavalheiro is a fourth year PhD in the Department of English at King’s College London. Her research examines domestic materialities from Medieval Britain. Follow her on Instagram @gabicavalheiro or head to http://www.gatodalice.com

2 thoughts on “A brief conversation with medieval domestic objects

  1. transcribingmemory December 9, 2015 / 4:08 am

    It’s funny that I find a small connection to this. I found my grandmother’s journals – only 80 years old – but it’s the importance of the stories.


  2. Fran February 8, 2016 / 11:38 am

    Reblogged this on CLAMS @ KCL blog and commented:

    Fourth year English Department/ CLAMS PhD student Gabriela Cavalheiro reflects on the personal stories that run alongside her scholarly research.


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