Object Histories - Flotsam as Early Globalism

Collaborative Group

Professor Beate Fricke, Professor Finbarr Flood


History of Art


The past decade has witnessed the proliferation of histories written on and from objects. This reflects a number of significant developments in the humanities, from increased attention to circulation, gifting, and the early history of commodities, to a renewed concern with materiality and the potential agency of material things. Historians of medieval art often face the challenge of writing histories for which unique artifacts, images, or monuments are the only available archives. In these cases, the object functions as its own archive, the absence of related written sources compelling the researcher to pursue compensatory lines of historical inquiry. But how does one choose where to start, which lines to trace, and which to ignore or neglect? The collaboration between Finbarr Flood and Beate Fricke considers such questions in relation to the writing of connected histories focused on medieval flotsam—artifacts or images that appear as unique survivals. It explores the pre-modern reception of such objects, their capacity to stimulate new artistic trends, and the methodological problems inherent in treating artifacts as archives to facilitate the writing of medieval histories in the present. The project is structured around case studies drawn from medieval Europe, the central Islamic lands, and the Christian kingdoms that lay on their peripheries. Engaging critically with recent interest in object-oriented histories of early globalism, the aims of the collaboration are two-fold: first, to challenge existing artistic, cultural, and geographic imaginaries that often set the limits of contemporary scholarship (between “Islamic” and “Christian” cultures, for example); second, to do so in a way that offers a meta-reflection on the process of analysis itself—on approaches to questions of displacement, mobility, and reception in modern scholarship and the value of what now appear as unique works for reimagining larger artistic and cultural phenomena. Developing a dialogue facilitated by visits to selected sites and workshops, the ultimate aim is to produce a co-authored handbook for those who depend on objects as sources for the writing of complex multi-dimensional histories. Award period: July 1, 2016 through June 30, 2018