Anyone reading or writing about the Middle Ages quickly runs up against the issue of absence, and the frustration of trying to piece together a picture of the past from a few fragments of evidence. Surviving texts and objects provide evidence for the existence of many more human-made items that can no longer be located. The loss of medieval texts, historical and otherwise, is coupled with an even greater loss of the material record. Surviving textual accounts of the material culture of this period – of the churches, palaces, houses, boats, reliquaries, wall paintings, textiles, ivory mirror cases, book bindings, and much more – not to mention contemporary documentation of secular collections and sacred treasuries, present a tantalising glimpse of medieval life, and hint at the richness that material sources had for medieval authors, and might have had for us had they survived. Such records, the circumstances in which they were created and how we should (and should not) use them, are the main subjects of this book.
The potential for objects as records, and perhaps even creators, of history was as much at play in the past as it is today. In the Middle Ages, some of those who set out to write about the past made reference to the evidential potential of a wide variety of artefacts. In the early twelfth century, Orderic Vitalis, writing about sources for the reign of William the Conqueror, observed that the churches that the king had built ‘stand as noble witnesses to his piety and generosity’. In England, in the early thirteenth century, Thomas of Marlborough described relics, books, and precious objects that had been given to the abbey of Evesham in the eleventh century to be ‘lovingly preserved here for ever’. Such accounts not only served to link past and present, but were used to construct arguments for the actions and character of the people associated with them. Thus, Thomas claimed that ‘Earl Leofric and Countess Godgifu, wisely rejecting the world for the most part […], magnificently built the abbey at Coventry and many other churches in their love for God, and enriched them with lands, possessions, and many beautiful treasures’.