The Documentary Archaeology of Late Medieval Europe

Textual things – that is to say, objects that are described in texts, the counterparts to tangible things – can be found in a range of documents, including narratives, personal diaries, account books, moral literature, and many kinds of legal sources. For DALME, we have chosen to prioritize, at least initially,  a single type of legal document: the household inventory.

By the 16th and 17th centuries, probate or post-mortem inventories had become a legal requirement in many regions of Europe and the Americas, and for this reason many millions of inventories have survived for the period 1500-1800. In the period from 1250 to 1500, by contrast, inventories were typically not required by law and are therefore not quite as common. Archival work done by archaeologists, historians, and art historians from the 1960s onward has identified sizable repositories in certain regions and towns, and their work suggests that the total number of extant inventories from late medieval Europe is at least in the high thousands or low tens of thousands.

We have three reasons for focusing on inventories. First, the inventory is a type of record that exists in a very similar form in both Europe and the Americas across a period of centuries. For this reason, the genre constitutes a stable platform for any analyses seeking to make comparisons across time and space, and has become the principal resource for scholarship on the history of daily life for this reason. Second, inventories represent a large proportion of a household’s contents, not just a few favored high-value items, such as those listed in last wills or testaments and dowry contracts. Third, they derive from a significant spectrum of social ranks, ranging from princes, bishops, and great merchants to artisans and peasants.

Inventories do have shortcomings. Owing to the nature of the law’s reporting requirements, they are not especially good at recording the elements of the built environment of a given house. In addition, post-mortem inventories record the possessions belonging only to the decedent, and for this reason, inventories do not systematically identify objects belonging to the decedent’s spouse or other members of the extended household. Changes or variations in the reporting requirements mean that inventories are not wholly commensurable across time and space. Finally, the items and material substrates identified in the records are only as accurate as the expertise of the redactors. By way of example, object no. 9608 in our database, from a 1391 Marseille inventory, is described as such:

unam choppam cum mantello de panno Florencie de livido claro sive turquea

That is “a houppelande-with-cloak of Florentine cloth of bright-slate blue or turquoise.” The word “or” indicates that the redactor had no special expertise in dyes and was uncertain about how to define the color of this garment.

These methodological critiques have been known and discussed by practitioners of historical archaeology since at least the 1970s. Given how important it is for users of the collection to be aware of the potential pitfalls, we have prepared an essay that lays out some of these methodological and interpretive issues. But these concerns in no way undermine the potential contributions of documentary archaeology, since it goes without saying that every historical document needs to be read and interpreted with care. The tangible remains of the past, for that matter, are themselves fragmentary and must be interpreted with equal care.

Among scholars of later medieval Europe, inventories have long been used for philological and antiquarian research. More recently, they have become valued resources for the practice of historical archaeology, art history, book history, and other fields. A scattering of inventories have been published from cities or regions in France, Italy, Spain, the Low Countries, and England. The DALME collection not only incorporates the published inventories but also adds to the existing corpus by collecting previously untranscribed inventories from several different archives.