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New Materialism and the Multicultural Middle Ages

In this episode of The Multicultural Middle Ages podcast, Liam Waters (UC Berkeley) and Ana C. Núñez (Stanford) use new materialism as a disciplinary approach to the Middle Ages, exploring the connections between medieval cultures, times, and places. Focusing on examples from their respective fields, the hosts discuss how both literary and physical material culture of Viking Age Scandinavia and Crusade-era Jerusalem generate discourse aimed at reclaiming marginalized voices, understanding medieval perceptions of self, and discerning the social, political, and individual impact of physical objects. Building on the work of materialist scholars such as Bill Brown, Jane Bennett, and Bruno Latour, Liam and Ana take us from Viking Age cosmogonic myths to the personal possessions of Jerusalem's queens.


The Multicultural Middle Ages is a podcast where medievalists from all professional and disciplinary tracks can come together to think and talk about the oft-unsung reality of the Middle Ages as a diverse historical and cultural period. It offers public-facing, open access content directed at experts and non-experts alike to present updated, accurate, and culturally responsible accounts of the plurality of the medieval period. The podcast is produced by Will Beattie, Jonathan Correa-Reyes, Reed O'Mara, and Logan Quigley in partnership with the Graduate Student Committee of the Medieval Academy of America. For thorough notes on every episode of the podcast, including abstracts, participant biographies, transcripts, and further reading sources, see The MMA's "Show Notes" document.

For further reading on the subjects discussed in this episode (season 2, episode 4), see the following:

Primary Literature:

Anthony Faulkes, trans. and ed. Snorri Sturluson: Edda. London: Everyman, 1995.

Carolyne Larrington, trans. The Poetic Edda. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Christopher Tolkien, trans. The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise. Edinburgh and London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, 1960.

William of Tyre. A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea. Translated by Emily Atwater Babcock and A.C Krey, 2 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1943.
Secondary Literature:

Arjun Appadurai. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Jane Bennett. Vibrant Matter. London: Duke University Press, 2010.

Bettina Bildhauer. Medieval Things: Agency, Materiality, and Narratives of Objects in Medieval German Literature and Beyond. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2020.

Bill Brown. “Thing Theory.” Critical Inquiry 28 (2001): 1–22.

–––––. A Sense of Things. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Caroline Walker Bynum. Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe. Brooklyn: Zone Books, 2011.

Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, eds. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

Aden Kumler and Christopher R. Lakey. “Res et significatio: The Material Sense of Things in the Middle Ages.” Gesta 51 (2012): 1-17.

Anne E. Lester. “Possession, Production, and Power: Reading Objects in the Material Field.” Medieval Feminist Forum 56, no. 1 (2020): 204-20.

Bruno Latour. “Can We Get Our Materialism Back, Please?” Isis 98, no. 1 (2007): 138–42.

–––––. We Have Never Been Modern. Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Marcel Mauss. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Translated by W. D. Halls. New York: Norton, 1990.

Helen J. Nicholson. Sybil, Queen of Jerusalem. London: Routledge, 2022.

Ana C. Núñez. “Queen Sybil of Jerusalem from the Perspective of Her Material Culture.” Paper presented at The Crusades and the Latin East, School of Advanced Study, University of London, Institute of Historical Research, March 2023.

Bissera V. Pentcheva. The Sensual Icon: Space, Ritual, and the Senses in Byzantium. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010.

Kellie Robertson. “Medieval Things: Materiality, Historicism, and the Premodern Object.” Literature Compass 5, no. 6 (2008): 1060–80.

–––––. “Medieval Materialism: A Manifesto.” Exemplaria 22, no. 2 (2010): 99–118.

Timothy Liam Waters. “Materiality and Myth: Encountering the Broken Body in the Eddic Corpus.” Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 18 (2022): 179–206.

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Thing Theory in Literary Studies

That things capture our imagination is hardly news. As Andrew Cole wrote in a 2016 issue of October, "materialism is as old as the hills." Cole claims that new approaches to studying things allow us to find similarities where we have too often found difference, and that this method dates back at least to Hegel and Marx. The study of matter has proceeded under a number of names: dialectical materialism, material culture studies, and, more recently, vibrant materialism, and object-oriented ontology. The scope of such studies has likewise been expansive, ranging from the sub-atomic to the galactic, from Lucretius to Latour.


Nevertheless, "thing theory," a term that loosely bundles together a range of approaches to studying material culture, began to gain critical traction in literature departments in the early 2000s. It gave many literary scholars a new way of looking at old things. For some this included tracing the material histories of objects within books (Elaine Freedgood and John Plotz) or tracing the history of the book as material object (Leah Price and Peter Stallybrass). For others, it meant pondering the ways that language and narrative reorganize subject-object relations in the minds of readers (Bill Brown and Allan Hepburn). Not simply a way of tracking the fate of snuffboxes, stamp collections, and kaleidoscopes, thing theory allowed scholars to consider what our relationships to these items reveal.

By now, thing theory may seem to name an academic trend long past, but the expansion of object studies and various post-humanisms across disciplines suggests that it remains as relevant as ever. Many of the most urgent problems of the twenty-first century reveal an entanglement between humans and things. Climate change, biotechnology, intellectual property, drought and famine, even terrorism and war can hardly be discussed without addressing such entanglement. Recent work in affect theory, animal studies, and the environmental humanities (to name just a few contemporary approaches) shares a commitment to thinking of the human subject alongside the object world. This commitment produces deeply interdisciplinary work. Reading the objects in literature and the object of literature has always involved attention to modes of production, consumption, and perception. Earlier work in thing theory and literary studies borrowed methods from anthropology, archeology, and art history; now these disciplines are borrowing back. Anthropologists such as Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing (The Mushroom at the End of the World, 2015) and Kristin Peterson (Speculative Markets, 2014), art historians like Caroline A. Jones (The Global Work of Art, 2017) and Jennifer Roberts (Transporting Visions, 2014) and media archeologists like Johanna Drucker (Graphesis, 2014) and John Durham Peters (The Marvelous Clouds, 2015) provide rigorous accounts of materiality; they also attend to the narrative, meaning-making capacities of that materiality.

This Colloquy highlights innovative work situated at the intersection of literary and material culture studies. Weaving together insights from different periods and different disciplines, the scholars whose work is presented here study the particularity of things in order to address larger concerns. Literary things can make human desires, narrative forms, historical contexts, and patterns of circulation legible. New methods and approaches may be taking shape; the thing endures. But as scholars of the Anthropocene have made clear, just how long some of our most precious objects can endure still depends upon human stewardship or disregard. Thinking about the agency of things alongside our own has raised a series of ontological concerns that cross disciplinary boundaries. But literature, which can interrogate things as they are and as they might be, has the capacity to point in new directions. Many questions animate the conversation assembled here: what does it mean to "read" an object across disciplinary perspectives?  How do literary movements (i.e. realism, postmodernism) and literary periods (i.e. Victorian, twentieth-century) stage things differently? Does thing theory entail close or surface reading: what is its relationship to post-critical methods and the descriptive turn? Can thing theory grant us access to narratives of exclusion, marginalization, and subjugation that might otherwise remain invisible? Is there an ethical or political danger in dissolving the subject-object divide? Where can the thing lead us today? What stories does it have left to tell? 

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