EAUH – 11th International Conference on Urban History
Praag, 29 augustus – 1 september 2012
Call for papers ‘Major Session’
‘Economies of quality’ and the ‘material renaissance’. Comparative perspectives on material culture changes in late medieval and sixteenth-century Europe.
Katherine Wilson (University of York) & & Bruno Blondé (University of Antwerp)
For obvious reasons, research on the rise of contemporary consumer society has been high on the agenda for several decades. One of the most important insights arising from historical consumer research was that crucial transformations to ‘material modernity’ pre-date the industrial revolution and contemporary affluent societies. Although most studies address the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Berg 2007), Richard Goldthwaite in the 1990s strongly advocated exploring material innovations in Renaissance Italy (Goldthwaite 1993). However, the illustrious Italian historiography that developed since, has focused too exclusively on production for the – often aristocratic – elite and has boldly assumed that the material renaissance was a unique Italian phenomenon (Blondé 2007). Compared with this literature, there has been a deplorable lack of interest in the material culture of the urbanised societies in Northwestern Europe before the seventeenth century. Recently Jan de Vries contrasted the seventeenth-century economy in Holland (in his view the cradle of the ‘new luxuries’) with that in Flanders and Brabant, which he argued was focused more on ‘old luxuries’ (De Vries 2008). Although this book is bound to weigh heavily on future research, the knowledge presently available – for example about the rise of a ‘confection’ art market in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries – clearly challenges some basic assumptions underlying this historical model in which the potential of the late medieval urban economy for material culture innovation is ‘minimised’ by fitting it into an ‘old luxury’ consumer pattern (Dewilde 2007; Martens and Peeters 2002, 2006). Though it would be entirely false to judge the late medieval ‘consumer changes’ as a pre-configuration of ‘modern consumer behaviour’ let alone a ‘consumer revolution’, the material changes of the late middle ages and the sixteenth century were nevertheless tremendously important in social, cultural and economic respects.
In this major session scholars from disciplines as diverse as art history, history and archaeology are invited to investigate in closer detail the significant shifts in consumer practices and in the luxury industries that took place in the late middle ages and the ‘long sixteenth century’. By looking beyond Italy and its elites, the session organisers intend to describe and understand how divergent and similar consumer changes manifested themselves among the entire European urban society.