Identities Through Things: A Comment

Erin K. Lichtenstein

The early modern era was a period of tremendous growth: of nation-states and empires; of geographic knowledge and scientific discovery; of the production and distribution of new categories and kinds of objects. Each of these changes, in its own way, created in turn new possibilities and opportunities for social identities. But even as some categories of identity shifted and blurred, others became ever more strongly delimited: a defense mechanism against these turbulent times. Of course, it is a fallacy to speak of these identity categories as acting independently; they were created and maintained by actors from both within and without. And as the chapters in this volume so astutely demonstrate, early modern things were both actants (to use the term cited by Renata Ago) and tools in this ongoing quest for identity.

The importance of objects in shaping identity was not new to the early modern period and in fact stretched back through much of human history. Ancient rulers used myriad material tools to symbolize their might from the pyramids of Egypt and Mesoamerica to the costly purple dyes of Roman and Chinese emperors. European nobles in the Middle Ages highlighted their rank through objects that indicated the leisure time that only they could spare, such as the hunting hawks Marcy Norton discusses. And women were so long associated with their spinning implements that a medieval compilation of women’s wisdom was titled The Distaff Gospels, and the term ‘distaff side’ came to denote maternal lineage.1

The dawn of the early modern age, with its diversifying economies, expanding bureaucracies, and increasing mobility (both social and geographical), brought with it a new range of possible identities at precisely the same moment that a new range of objects became available to mold and reinforce them. If the phenomenon of identities through things in itself was not new, the early modern period witnessed a vast expansion of its scope.

At the most basic level, the spread of new things across space and societies served to collapse long-seated differences. Objects that had once been luxuries, available only to the most elite, became accessible to more levels of society than ever before. Improvements in the production and transportation of some goods, like the coffee and tea that Anne McCants discusses, increased supply and drove costs down. In addition, artisans and merchants discovered new ways to recreate or replicate formerly expensive goods. McCants shows how Delftware pottery and cheap imports (Figure 13.1) increasingly took the place of the costly porcelain vessels of previous generations and were purchased and used by every level of society. Likewise, silk, once the exotic fabric of kings, was now cultivated within Europe, was produced in vast quantities in cities like Venice and Lyon, and was often blended with cheaper materials like wool and cotton. The net result was that silk became more affordable for every level of society; even the poorest laborer could adorn herself with silk ribbons on special occasions.2 Of course, some of the new luxury items that flooded the early modern marketplace remained too expensive for average families, but even then, Julie Hochstrasser explains, they could purchase a still life and hang a representation of such prosperity in their humble abodes.

In every case, the spread of such consumer goods symbolized the collapse of medieval Europe’s three estates: those who prayed, those who fought, and those who worked. In this new early modern society, workers were not defined solely by their labor (though that remained essential), but also by a new middling social identity. Instead of working continually in the service of others, this group participated in the ‘industrious revolution,’ coordinating labor efforts to maximize both productivity and consumption.3 They had the time to socialize over caffeinated beverages, the money to purchase non-essential goods, and the desire to project their new place in the world through things. It was no longer only the elite who could afford a bit of luxury.

Meanwhile, wealthy Europeans had to look for new ways to materially distinguish themselves, such as drinking chocolate, ordering custom wallhangings or shoes from the artisans Corey Tazzara studies, or purchasing the rhubarb-based laxatives that Erika Monahan discusses instead of more common substitutes. True luxury products remained an essential part of the early modern economy as elites strove to find ways to demonstrate their superior taste and refinement. If consumption potentially decreased social distance, it also ensured that such differences never truly disappeared.

There were other ways in which things helped to reduce difference. Take, for example, the interactions between European explorers and native Mesoamericans that Norton details. On the eve of their encounter, these two cultures had vastly different relationships to the birds that were ubiquitous in both. After decades of interaction, these differences slowly evaporated, and parrot adoption became a point of shared identity between the two societies. Many early modern Europeans never completely abandoned their views of Native Americans as ‘the Other’ and indeed debated their very humanity,4 but material objects could still function as cultural liaisons, bridging the divide between disparate societies.

Even as things served as global ambassadors, they also never lost their local connections. Both ginseng and rhubarb, traveling across continents to reach early modern Europe, retained geographic descriptors that, if not always accurate, at least hinted at their exotic origins. This multiplicity inherent in objects in motion meant that things could act on identities in complex and

Identities through things 447 manifold ways. Mark Peterson shows how New Englanders, by using the Massachusetts Pine Tree Shilling, could express loyalty to their colony while at the same time participating in the growing Atlantic economy. Similarly, Alan Mikhail demonstrates that various workers in the Ottoman Empire, each performing his own task in his own community, nevertheless became part of a larger empirical chain through his interactions with wood and grain. The global nature of early modern things ensured that no single interaction could be removed from its larger context, but the cultural specificity of material relationships also meant that the same object could play different roles in different societies.

This is especially clear in the case of material gender identities. Perhaps, more than any other identity discussed above, gender is grounded in the ‘thing-ness’ of the body. At least on a conceptual level, one’s gender directly corresponds to one’s biological sex. But if these categories of male and female are relatively constant, their ascribed attributes, which we call gender, vary widely across time, space, and even subsections of the same societies.’ Like the renshen discussed by Carla Nappi, sex is constantly identified and interpreted, categorized, and mobilized so that the resulting categories of‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ subsume even more variation than that of‘ginseng.’

One salient example is the range of gendered identities represented by tea-making implements. In early modern Europe, caffeinated beverages and their accoutrements quickly became associated with feminine sociability. The inventories studied by McCants confirm that even at a relatively early date, widows were far more likely to own teapots than were widowers. In contrast, of the three objects Morgan Pitelka discusses from the Tokugawa storehouse, two are objects of war — a quintessential^ male pursuit in nearly every pre-modern culture — and the third is a beautiful tea bowl. Pitelka tells us that for Japanese men, the tea ceremony was as essential an aspect of masculine sociability as was war. While in Europe, tea elicited connotations of refined domesticity; in Japan, these objects, imported from China in concept or in fact, symbolized national strength and cultural equivalency in the face of a strong foe across the sea. Men gathered over tea to exchange political information and exchanged tea objects to cement political relationships, leyasu’s prized tea bowl (Figure 15.1) was named ‘Araki’ after its famous former owner and among other objects helped to legitimate the new Shogun. While his family might be new to the shogunate, these objects said, leyasu was nevertheless firmly grounded in the authority of the past. Picture two cups of tea, half a world apart: both poured into porcelain crafted in China and carried across the sea; both holding deep associations of the customs that surrounded them. But one symbolized feminine domesticity while the other legitimated a masculine political regime. Things could divide as easily as they could unite.

Within the same culture, too, objects could delineate gender roles and associations. Clothing, work tools, and objects of sociability could all symbolize or even stand in place of their typical user’s gender. The ‘his’ and ‘hers’ furniture discussed by Amanda Vickery is a particularly interesting example of this phenomenon. By the late eighteenth century, gendered associations attached themselves not only to literal and public manifestations of men’s and women’s lives but also to objects thought to represent femininity and masculinity on a more abstract and personal level. Vickery presents us with several contrasting characteristics that British furniture makers used in their products and advertising for men versus women: structure versus detail, dark wood versus light, and consequence versus delicacy. The essential function of a desk might be the same for a man or a woman, but its appearance and description were carefully crafted to ‘suit’ the gender of the intended user. More than ever before, objects came to symbolize not only external but also perceived internal characteristics of women and men. These gendered things also entered the growing private spaces of the home. Friends and neighbors might not typically encounter a husband’s solid dressing table and his wife’s dainty toiletta (Figures 17.2 and 17.3), but their presence still served as a personal reminder of the attributes each spouse was supposed to embody. Gender was no longer solely at play when facing the world, but also when facing oneself.

Gender difference manifests not only in these stark contrasts between men and women but also in the subtler variations among a range of possible femininities and masculinities within a single society. Nicolas de Nicolay’s Navigations, analyzed by Chandra Mukerji in this volume, highlights the variety of masculine identities that coexisted within the multicultural Ottoman Empire. Mukerji argues that Nicolay’s depictions of various ‘types’ emphasize the role of clothing not only in defining social roles but also in disciplining the morals of the body. In each case, moreover, costume is gendered masculine in particular — and various - ways. The Great Turk’s Lackeys (Figure 6.1) grew fearsome facial hair that not only assimilated them into greater Ottoman culture but also highlighted the essential masculinity of their profession. Manhood was also the literal focus of the Calenders’ garb, which placed discreet but public emphasis on pierced genitalia. Meanwhile, Nicolay’s description of the Janissary (Figure 6.2), with his riches won through prowess in politics and bravery in battle, strongly contrasts with the water carrier whose very lack of goods indicated his devotion to service and poverty. And yet both warfare and religious service were common paths to masculine identity in pre-modern societies. Though the men devoted themselves to distinctly disparate activities, Nicolay believed that both costumes properly contained and conveyed the masculine morality of their wearers.

This correspondence between external appearance and internal character did not always hold true for Nicolay. The Delli horseman he met (Figure 6.3) had a fearfully savage appearance, but upon closer interrogation, Nicolay discovered that he, like the Janissaries, had earned his costume through military prowess and selfless dedication. On the other hand, the ‘religious Turks’ Nicolay encountered seemed to exemplify the same ideals of poverty and devotion as the water carriers, but in truth were deceitful and greedy con men who dressed as paupers but lived in luxury. As with any social identity, gender

Identities through things 449 ideals could be warped and altered, mobilized, and subverted. Familiar tropes — such as the Delli horseman’s bellicose masculinity and moral fortitude — could become attached to new objects or costumes. Or, conversely, things that were long connected with particular values could be consciously used to capitalize on such associations, as was the case with the so-called ‘religious’ Turks who used their clothing and animal companions to manipulate their victims.

It is not surprising that Nicolay found it easier to assimilate new objects to an existing mindset than to accept new and nefarious uses for familiar items, for his was a culture continually faced with, in Timothy Brook’s words, ‘something new.’ Early modern Europe was flooded with new things, and its citizens became accustomed to assigning them meaning. At the same time, the very abundance of objects left consumers and producers alike wary of fraud and imitation. Artisans and their guilds made every effort to uphold their honorable identities against those who profited from illicit conditions or unsanctioned labor.0 Objects were part and parcel of this guild identity; guild-approved products received a special stamp or mark to denote their status,7 while other tools, such as the how-to guide discussed by Pamela Smith, helped both preserve and promote the ‘mysteries’ of the craft. Thus, Nicolay’s aversion to the misuse of objects by the ‘religious Turks’ makes him very much a man of his time.

Again and again, the chapters in this volume confirm the essential connection between identities and things in the early modern world. In an age of linguistic diversity and limited literacy, the power of things to project meaning often bridged the gap between disparate groups and societies. As we have seen, the same object could hold vastly different connotations in contrasting cultural contexts. But in every case, people made things — both materially and immaterially - and things, in turn, ‘made’ people. From the poorest Dutch widow to the richest Boston silversmith, from the humblest Egyptian camel driver to the mightiest Japanese Shogun, early modern people relied on things to mediate between the life they wanted for themselves and the turbulent and ever-changing world in which they lived.


  • 1 Madeleine Jeay and Katheleen Garay, eds., The Distaff Gospels: A First Modem Edition of Les Evangiles des Quenouilles (Ontario: Broadview Editions, 2006).
  • 2 For Venice, see Luca Molà, The Silk Industry in Renaissance Fenice (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000); for Lyon, the best overview remains Etienne Pariset, Histoire de la fabrique Lyonnaise: étude sur le régime social et économique de l’industrie de la soie à Lyon, depuis le XVle siècle (Lyon: A. Rey, 1901).
  • 3 Jan de Vries, The Industrious Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
  • 4 For example, the famous debate between Sepulveda and de Las Casas. See Lewis Hanke, All Mankind is One: A Study of the Disputation between Bartolomé de Las Casas and Juan Cinés de Sepulveda in 1550 on the Intellectual and Religious Capacity of the American Indians (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1974).
  • 5 See Joan Scott, ‘Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,’ The American Historical Review 91.5 (1986): 1053—1075.
  • 6 Dean Ferguson, ‘The Body, the Corporate Idiom, and the Police of the Unincorporated Worker in Earlv Modern Lyons,’ French Historical Studies 23.4 (2000): 545-575.
  • 7 The textile industry in Leiden kept track of each artisan’s mark in their records, e.g. Regionaal Archief Leiden (RAL) 0501A 44, after f. 650, and also printed them in guild regulations, e.g. RAL 0510 299.
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