Words or material culture?

As an archaeologist, the words of Danton and his obvious passion for the discipline “history of books” had all kinds of thoughts swirling in my head. For the last three years, I’ve been heavily reminded in every lecture that material culture is vital in understanding past societies; jewellery can teach us about The Roman elite, swords about vicious and bloody Viking battles, and coins the subtle art of exchange and bribery in Early modern Australian prisons.

What about text? We study all kinds of texts in school to teach us about lessons vital for our knowledge of everyday life, but what about using text, as well as the delicate science of early printing and manufacture, to learn about those who lived hundreds of years ago? Could our comprehension of how books were not only digested, but created (in the very early periods of materials such as wood, Ivory and bone) and sold, teach us about the areas of society often silenced and abandoned? After all, it is through text and the beginnings of paper production that enabled those in Germany to learn and digest Martin Luther and his opinions of the Catholic Church. If Luther had not had the access or skills to use these tools, would the German Reformation have taken place? And if Henry VIII had not had the ability to send letters to the pope in Rome, would he and Anne Boleyn been able to completely change the course of our religious history? If it weren’t for the birth of the printing press and growing conversation of word and text, one of the biggest religious tides in Europe would not have taken place.

Books can give us a detailed insight into society that objects cannot (my archaeology lecturers would shun me for voicing this opinion). Words give a bias and view of history that material culture unfortunately fails to do. Through the study of the “history of books” we can really begin to see how technological advances changed a society, much like we are now with the fast evolution of the digital age.

Fleur Stevens