Descriptions of material culture can be found in a range of documents, including narratives, personal diaries, account books, moral literature, legal sources, and private contracts. For DALME, and in particular for the corpus Household Inventories of Medieval Europe, we have chosen to prioritize a single type of legal document: the household inventory.
This decision was informed by the fact that the inventory is a type of record that exists in a very similar form in Europe, the Ottoman Empire, and the Americas across a period of centuries. By the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, probate or post-mortem inventories had become a legal requirement in many European regions, as well as in the Ottoman Empire and the Americas. For this reason, many millions of these documents have survived for the period 1500-1800 and the genre has become the principal resource for scholarship on the history of material culture and daily life. By contrast, in the period between 1250 and 1500, inventories were typically not required by law and are therefore not as common. Archival work done by archaeologists, historians, and art historians from the 1960s onward has nonetheless identified sizable repositories in certain regions and towns, and many more have come to light since then. This work suggests that the total number of extant inventories from late medieval Europe may be in the tens of thousands. If made accessible, these would constitute a solid platform for any analyses seeking to make comparisons across time and space and an invaluable source of information for historians. Inventories are especially valuable because they 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, and 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 elements of the built environment. In addition, post-mortem inventories record the possessions belonging only to the decedent, and for this reason, they do not systematically identify objects belonging to their spouse or other members of the extended household. Furthermore, changes and 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, one of the object phrases in our collection, found in the 1391 Marseille inventory of the merchant Johan Casse, identifies the item in this way:
unam choppam cum mantello de panno Florencie de livido claro sive turquea
We can translate this as a houppelande and cloak of Florentine cloth of bright-slate blue or turquoise. As suggested by the use of the word or, the inventory’s compiler had no special expertise in dyes and was uncertain about how to define the color of this garment.
We discuss many of these interpretive issues in an essay published on the site. But although concerns such as these are important and require our attention, they do not in any way detract from the enormous contribution that these sources can make to our understanding of the past. Instead, they highlight the need to be aware that inventories, like every historical source, must be interpreted and analyzed with care and sensitivity.