Free Trade and Free Movement of People: diplomacy and material culture in the early and high Middle Ages

Free Trade and Free Movement of People: diplomacy and material culture in the early and high Middle Ages

By Jenny Benham

Paper delivered at Oslo University, Institutt for arkeologi, konservering og historie, 15 September 2017

“Arrival of the English Ambassadors” by Vittore Carpaccio, painted between 1495 and 1500.

Introduction: In 2008 the Early Modern Historian John Watkins called for a ‘multidisciplinary re-evaluation of one of the oldest, and traditionally one of the most conservative, subfields in the modern discipline of history: the study of premodern diplomacy.’ Watkins drew attention to the fact that scholars interested in race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, subalternity, and new modes of intellectual history have occasionally used diplomatic sources, but they have rarely investigated the diplomatic practices that created those sources in the first place.

In the last ten years or so since that article, the historiography on medieval diplomacy has become a little more  populated, yet there was one related discipline or lens through which to look at pre-modern diplomacy that Watkins forgot: namely, material culture.

There has of course already been some work done on diplomacy and material culture, primarily relating to diplomatic gifts: who could forget the polar bear sent by the Norwegian king, Håkon Håkonsson, in the mid-thirteenth century to the English king, Henry III. Apparently, the keeper, according to the English financial records, was given a muzzle and an iron chain so that the  bear could go fishing in the River Thames near the Tower of London. Henry III was also famously given an elephant, the first ever seen in England apparently, and is depicted here in the Chronica Maiora of Matthew Paris.

Clearly, there is a wealth of material relating to diplomatic gifts. However, beyond this aspect, and a few references about trade in treaties and links to this in coinage, surprisingly little has been written about material culture and diplomatic  practice.

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