The Economic History Review

Renaissance attachment to things: material culture in last wills and testaments1

Volume 65 Issue 3
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Pages: 984-1004Authors: SAMUEL COHN, JR
Published online: July 19, 2011DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0289.2010.00593.x

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Over the past decade ‘material culture’ has become a sub-discipline of Italian Renaissance studies. This literature, however, has focused on the rich and their objects preserved in museums or reflected in paintings. In addition, the period 1300 to 1600 has been treated without attention to changes in the relationship between people and possessions. The article turns to last wills and testaments, which survive in great numbers and sink deep roots through late medieval and Renaissance cities and their hinterlands. They reveal aspirations and anxieties about things from post-mortem repairs to farm houses to pillows of monk’s wool. These aspirations changed fundamentally after the Black Death. Earlier, during the ‘commercial revolution’, ordinary merchants, artisans, and peasants on their deathbeds practised what the mendicants preached: stripping themselves of their possessions, they converted their estates to coin to be scattered among pious and non-pious beneficiaries. After the Black Death, testators began to reverse tack, devising ever more complex legal strategies to govern the future flow of their goods. This work of the dead had larger economic consequences. By encouraging the liquidation of estates, the earlier mendicant ideology quickened the velocity of exchange, while the early Renaissance attachment to things did the opposite.