Harvard Medieval Material Culture Student Workshop


Wednesday, April 3, 2019, 6:00pm to 7:00pm


Sackler Building 323, 485 Broadway

Martin Carver (University of York), Wearing Wealth: A Discussion about Social Change from Coinage to Clothing. This seminar for undergraduate and graduate students is part of the 2019 Harvard Medieval Material Culture program The View from the Trenches: Archeology and Medieval Studies Today, and is co-sponsored by the Committee on Medieval Studies, the Medieval Studies Interdisciplinary Workshop, the Medieval History Workshop, and the Harvard Numismatic Association. Please RSVP to Sean Gilsdorf by Monday, 1 April if you would like to attend.

Wearing Wealth: A Discussion about Social Change from Coinage to Clothing

The questions to be introduced in this seminar are how and why the indications of wealth changed in England between the sixth to ninth century. The story line is broadly as follows: in sixth-century Britain, people invested in their personal appearance, in weapons, brooches and especially in textiles. Similar attention was given to dressing their horses. The Anglo-Saxon cemeteries have the lion’s share of the material, but the ethos appears to be shared with the Britons, Picts and Irish too, where wealth was reckoned in cattle and stored in cattle hides; but clothing was also a crucial signal.

At the end of the seventh century, there was a gradual change in emphasis from apparel to treasure, as indicated by the Sutton Hoo burials, the Staffordshire Hoard and the late female furnished mound burials. In this same period, Christianity was redefined as an institution—in the north and west largely monastic, in the south and east largely episcopal—and wealth was also redefined in two ways: in the English areas, investment was in large buildings, grand farms and wheat as a cash crop; in the (more spiritual) Celtic areas in sculpture and illuminated books. 

Coins were made and hoarded in the seventh century too (as gold), but only after the ninth century was the incipient nation monetized (in silver pennies). This may have been partly in response to the need to buy off the Vikings, and as a way of processing the large amount of bullion amassed during the Viking wars. In the tenth century most of the new towns created as forts over the area conquered by Wessex (= England) were provided with mints, to enable the crown to distribute wealth to friends, servants and enemies. Only in the eleventh century, as imported pottery finally returned to Britain, were these pennies able to serve a monetary economy.

As a coda, Professor Carver will raise some questions on ‘personhood’. How far was wealth apportioned between men and women? How far was it measured by access to food? How far was it inherited? As well as the existing methods of osteology, archaeozoology and archaeobotany, new techniques such as stable isotope analysis and DNA are being mobilized to address these questions.