As the DALME collection grows, it will include objects listed in many different kinds of sources, including legacies made in household or probate inventories, testaments, dowry items, and lists of objects seized during the course of debt recovery. This essay addresses the methodological challenges associated with using partial or total inventories of all kinds, with a focus on complete household inventories, one of the most important type of source for the study of medieval European material culture.
As is the case with every historical document, household inventories do not reveal the past in some simple and uncomplicated way. The shafts of light that they appear to shed on the material culture of past societies need to be interpreted carefully and in light of the context of their own production. The context was composed of several facets, for the making of any given inventory was strictly governed by legal processes. In addition, the contents of inventories were subtly shaped by cultural or epistemological norms and by the competence of those responsible for redacting or translating a given inventory. Legal norms and customs varied from one region of Europe to the next and across time as well. Equally variable were the ways in which people from different regions valued things or how they “knew” them or chose to “see” them. This essay reviews the arguments that have been proposed in the literature regarding the caution that one must exercise before interpreting any single inventory or collection of inventories.