2016 Conference blogs – Materiality and Meaning: Goods as Legal and Cultural Currency

Kate Kelsey Staples, West Virginia University, US

Materiality and Meaning: Goods as Legal and Cultural Currency

Medieval people exerted actions on things – they bought and sold; they reused and repaired; they stole. They stored value and meaning in goods. Yet, to what extent can we know how these goods acted on people? And, what can we learn from that action? Medieval court records reveal that material objects, commodities in many cases, shaped lives and tied people in bonds of obligation, real, proclaimed, or denied.

In 1540, Richard Flower sued Edmund Backeton in the Court of Chancery over a wall-hanging, a secondhand saye cloth, for his house in Fletestreet in London (TNA C 1/987/13). Saye was a popular type of cloth used for a variety of purposes by the sixteenth century, and wall-hangings were not uncommon in burgess households. The image in figure 5 in ‘Ways of Seeing Early Modern Decorative Textiles’, in Textile History (47:1, 2016) by Catherine Richardson and Tara Hamling (available on Open Access here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00404969.2016.1144672?src=recsys) suggests how such wall-hangings in the sixteenth century may have functioned.  Flower and Backeton disagreed over the amount charged, in a classic he-said, she-said equity case. When we read these records, we tend to focus on the business contacts, networks, and disputed amounts. Yet, the saye cloth physically marked the contract between businessmen and it served as a constant point of reference throughout the court record. I argued in this paper for the CHORD conference that by considering this material object we can unlock some new meaning to this case and others like it.

In this record, we have a decidedly one-sided version of the truth. However, the saye cloth as a ‘thing’ served in this case as a buttress of that truth. Without the detail about where the cloth came from, how it was negotiated for, and even where it was hung, Flower’s case against Backeton may have foundered. It allowed the judge to envision, materially, the nature of the dispute and how Flower was wronged. The saye cloth had a value, but it also had a cultural and legal currency. It served as the glue for a business contract, and it provided leverage in a legal setting. Finally, as this material object was a secondhand good, these court records bring the trade in used goods into sharper focus.


Thank you to the audience of the 2016 CHORD conference for their thoughts on the paper I delivered at ‘Retailing and Distribution before 1600’. Thank you, too, to my research assistant, Morgan McMinn, who worked on analyzing this case with me.

For additional publications by Kate Kelsey Staples, please see:

‘The Significance of the Secondhand Trade in Europe, 1200-1600’, History Compass 13:6 (June 2015): 297-309.

Daughters of London: Inheriting Opportunity in Late Medieval London. Brill Academic Publishers, 2011.

‘Fripperers and the Used Clothing Trade in Late Medieval London’, Medieval Clothing and Textiles, 6 (May 2010): 151-171.


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One response to “2016 Conference blogs – Materiality and Meaning: Goods as Legal and Cultural Currency

  1. Pingback: CHORD blogs | Association française d'histoire économique

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