Once upon a time, history was a really hard subject to enjoy: a dreary rollcall of [macho/loser] kings and [powerful/scheming] queens, endlessly (a) conspiring against other, (b) fighting expensive wars where both sides tended to lose, and/or (c) endlessly frittering extorted tax money on self-glorifying monuments masquerading as high culture.
Then along came a new generation of “social historians”, who despised the superficial cheesiness of relying on historical records left by the victors, and wanted instead to read “history from below“. To do this, they sought out “authentic” (i.e. non-propagandized) documents to try to give a voice to ordinary people through the centuries and so reconstruct histories of the mundane, the plebeian – the salt rather than the spice.
Of course, each of these two kinds of history is no more or less a lie than the other. For all the self-aggrandizement and posturing implicit in ‘Big Man’ history, the truth of any matter will normally find a way of squeezing through the cracks in the text, particularly with the big-brain close readings of the modern linguistic turn to help it on its way. And even supposedly non-propagandistic items such as wills, inventories and account books are subject to understatement in the age-old “sport” of tax evasion. And so attempts to reduce history to a totalising big picture (whether from above or from below) simply don’t work: historians cannot avoid having to “sweat the small stuff“, because the answer all too often lies in simply getting the details right.
It is in the tension between these two extrema that I look at Evelyn Welch’s “Shopping in the Renaissance: Consumer Cultures in Italy 1400-1600” (2005, Yale University Press). When I was researching my own book on Filarete, her “Art and Authority in Renaissance Milan” (1995, also Yale University Press) was permanently by my elbow, always at the ready to prevent me becoming entrapped by the sticky bubble of historical propaganda inflated around the Sforza court by Cicco Simonetta (and all too readily accepted as fact by older historians): so I had high hopes for her “Shopping”.
On the one hand, Welch’s book is a slab of social history par excellence, teasing out numerous otherwise marginal strands of ordinary life in the early Renaissance – street-sellers, auctions, lotteries, indulgences, fairs, shoes, shopping hours, pawnshops, feast days, credit, charlatans, and so forth. Yet on the other, Chapter Nine (“Shopping with Isabella d’Este”) is from the diametric opposite end of the social scale, an account of the elitist shopping habits of someone who would have been aghast to find out she had been born 350 years too soon for haute couture. After 240 textured pages of closely observed text riffing on various social historical shopping themes (richly illustrated with wonderful images of the ordinary), I felt somehow betrayed by the abrupt switch: a (quite literally) materialist snob like Isabella d’Este had no right to be there.
As is typical with horizontal historical studies, if you stick with them long enough you’ll find a prize to return home with: in my (Voynichological) case, pp.151-158 contained splendid descriptions and images of apothecaries’ shops, many including the kind of albarelli I put so much time into researching six years ago. A very pleasant surprise!
The one thing I found irritating about the text itself was the jarring style used for the incipits and desinits in each chapter. Rather than using the elegant yet spare historical prose of the chapter bodies themselves, these chatter with the abstracted, vacuous tokens of contemporary sociology-speak: space, surveillance, visibility, environment, transience, consumption, embedded, relations, networks, production. It is as if these were written by another hand, perhaps one attempting to weave together the threads of a decade’s-worth of individual papers into a tangibly coherent theoretical tapestry. If so, I think it was a failed experiment: social history is an activity based not around synthesizing the kind of vaguely structural frameworks beloved by sociologists, but around reconstructing the texture of ordinary lives. Essentially, the rich tapestry was already fully present, so there was no need to embellish the edges as well. Oh well!