The editors invite proposals for a special issue of the peer reviewed journal Das Mittelalter: “Small Things of Greater Importance: Exploring the Sensory Relationship of Medieval People and Objects”
While the study of material culture is longstanding, the dynamic sensorial relationship of objects and people is a still emerging field. Research inspired by the material turn has acknowledged that especially small things, no bigger than one’s hand, have a particular agency: they played special roles in people’s lives. A miniature scale enhances objects’ potency: it forges and activates personal connections between items and their owners or users. Small objects, such as prayer nuts, spindle whorls or coins, differ from larger scale items, such as shrines, altars, or chests, because they offer an alternate experience. Small items are usually portable and often have an intimate relationship with the human body. For that reason, sensorial and emotional experiences were triggered by and connected to small artefacts.
An interdisciplinary dialogue addressing questions of how medieval people from different worlds engaged with small objects helps us to understand the entangled sensorial relationship of people and things. This does not have to be constrained by positive emotional experience but can capture the full spectrum of human feelings. This issue seeks new pathways to explore the social lives of small things; why they were curated, contemplated on, and often adored by medieval people through the sensorial lens of taste, sight, touch, smell, and sound. To this end we expressly welcome proposals by scholars from a variety of disciplines working on the European and Global Middle Ages.
It is our belief that studies of ‘small things of greater importance’ offer colleagues working in the disciplines from medieval art history, literature, philosophy and theology to archaeology, geography and medicine an opportunity to deepen discussions about how small things served as vehicles of sensory experiences:
Artefacts worn around the neck and held in one’s hand, like a late medieval intricately carved prayer nut with miniature scenes from the life of Christ that were meant to stimulate private devotion, could be activated through touch, movement, and view as well as through its materiality. The sensorial and material experiences enticed by objects also contributed to their emotional and memorial qualities.
Archaeologists have revealed how seemingly mundane items also mediated special relationships with the body. For example, spindle whorls, are understood to be embodied with knowledge of weaving but also with memories of exchange and gift-giving. Smaller personal items may reveal previously unknown things about identity including gender and age.
Literary historians have shown that in (vernacular) literature, miniature objects play important symbolic roles, as is exemplified by the oranges in the Persian story Yusuf u Zulaykha by Jami. The fruit described as colourful and flavourful but noted too is their stinging qualities. Things like these, whether in texts or as props in plays are often imbued with strong emotional feelings, and despite their small scale are crucial to storytelling.
Although not always writers’ primary concern, historical texts feature small scale objects, for example in connection to pilgrimage, miracles, and gift-giving. Book 1 of the Sachsenspiegel details household items (paraphernalia) inherited by women which were passed from mother to daughter. This gives insights into familial bonds and the important emphasis placed on smaller portable items in women’s lives. This is visible in wills where personal items also surface.
The senses, in particular sight, play an important role in writings of theologians and exegetes. It is through the eyes and ears that people can be spiritually instructed, as well as morally tempted. We can easily imagine the impact of large religious objects such as mosque lamps or church stained glass on spirituality, but how did small objects such as the nails used in the crucifixion of Christ play a role in the ideas of theologians and exegetes?
Medievalists interested in emotion may want to explore how the smaller images that wrap the pages of many manuscripts or form parts of larger textiles such as the coronation robe of Roger II of Sicily could reveal conceptions of self in the mind of the creators or moral musing such as the implied sexual assault scene hidden in the margins of the Bayeux Tapestry. Their expressivness captures unspoken medieval emotional experiences.
Spices such as cloves and saffron or dyes like indigo were small things that travelled long distances from Indonesia and India. Spices of course, had an immense sensorial impact; the smallest of things may have made the biggest of differences. They could be of interest to food or medical scholars.