The Problematic of Things

Recently, while on a trip to Istanbul, I fell and shattered my knee. I ended up having surgery there and, thanks to my husband’s Herculean efforts, am now back in the States coping with recovery. I am unable to bend my right leg, a requirement that will persist for at least 6 weeks, and I ambulate using a combination of crutches, walker, and wheelchair, whatever will fit into a particular environment. I have had to negotiate multiple living spaces: hospital room, hotel room while waiting for the surgeon’s ok to fly home, my sister’s house, and now our small apartment in New York City. Each new space presents its own issues: stairs, bathrooms, door widths, all have become my challenges and nightmares. But one of the most pressing issues for me is the status of my things.

Prior to my accident, I was an orderly person. I was not obsessive about it but I did believe that certain things should go certain places: makeup and medications belong in the bathroom; books and iPads on my desk or by the bed depending; clothes in the closet, dresser, or laundry hamper. Each thing has its appropriate home. Now everything has changed and these discrete objects jumble together in a promiscuous mix determined by where I plan to plant myself at any given moment. So, next to my bed my medications snuggle up with my makeup (most of which I don’t use right now), and my books gossip with my iPhone. And the ever present water bottle surveys all with disdain. All this because much of the time I sit up in bed as it is the easiest place to keep my leg straight and elevated. Of course, when I migrate this motley community migrates with me, although not in its entirety. So, depending on what I can succeed in carrying, my iPad and pills make day trips to my desk, where my wheelchair with its leg extender reigns supreme. My water bottle stays home and I flirt with different containers as I sit in my workplace. And door frames, chair seats, sinks and counters change their primary functions to become my helpers and supporters as I move slowly around my environment. Yet, despite changing roles these items retain their own nature independent of my needs. And my need for them amplifies their claim as things to my attention. Each time I move laboriously from the bedroom to the living room only to realize that I have forgotten something I want to use, that object, that thing, thrusts its existence into my life.

This life of things, independent yet responsive, resistant, or indifferent to my challenges, has caused me to ponder medieval collections of things. As medievalists we frequently encounter an array of images and objects hanging out together; inhabiting spaces that seem puzzling in their diversity and even contradictory natures. Images which strike us as overtly sexual or scatological claim territory and attention in the midst of sacred texts and more recognizably religious subjects. Contemporary rulers, workers, clerics share the pictorial or sculptural world of saints, and even Christ himself. The humble, practical fly swatter assumes the status of liturgical implement like the chalice or paten. And the comb plays amorous ambassador or sacred purifying agent depending on who uses it and when.

A reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo ship burial, with everything in its proper place?

A reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo ship burial, with everything in its proper place?

The haphazard arrangement of objects on my nightstand causes me to wonder about the jumble of objects, images and themes to be found in some less visible medieval spaces like burial hoards and church corbels. What links the objects–the helmet, the buckle, the shield decorations, shoulder clasp, purse lid, and silver plates—of the Sutton Hoo burial other than the person interred in this grave? Or the corbels at Kilpeck Church, what are we to make of the collection of animals, human heads, grotesques, embracing lovers, and the famous sheela-na-gig? Is it the physiological processes of the body, especially the female body as Marian Bleeke suggests, that motivated the installation of such diverse figures on this Romanesque church?[i] Should we even attempt to discern some overarching theme, or should we acknowledge that such an endeavor may speak more to the our desire for consistency than to twelfth century attitudes.

Kilpeck HerefordIn all these instances—my nightstand, Sutton Hoo, Kilpeck—it is the audience, the viewers, that provides the thread along which these images and objects are strung like beads. We can only be certain that each object, each image, carries its own history and its own legacy that may be subsumed within a larger ensemble but never entirely disappears.

I am happy to note that my fellow medievalists, after a long history of denying, ignoring, or trying to suppress these mixes, or attempting to find unitary explanations that force them into possibly false consistencies, have embraced the wonderful jumble that is medieval visual and material culture. Images and objects are acknowledged as living together in ways responsive to the needs of the people using them, yet always retaining some autonomy. Like my makeup, medicines, books, iPads, these witnesses to another time and place also reveal the struggles and challenges, hopes and dreams of those living with and among them.

[i] Marian Bleeke, “Sheelas, Sex, and Significance in Romanesque Sculpture: The Kilpeck Corbel Series,” Studies in Iconography 26 (2005): 1-26.

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