Early Modern Inventories and Identities
Usually undertaken following the death of a family member, inventories record the immovable goods within a household, as part of the transmission of property. Historians have used early modern inventories to pursue several angles of research in relation to domestic interiors, focusing on the changing nature of decorations, the use and configuration of space, identity, and social networks. They allow the historian a unique insight into early modern homes, especially when many of the items from non-elite homes have not survived. Inventories can tell historians about the complex construction of gendered, emotional, and professional identities in early modern Europe and how such identities played into the wider context of social networks.
Inventories as sources
Historians are unable to ascertain fully the human reactions to material objects, whether by the owners themselves, or from visitors. As Hamling and Richardson encapsulate, inventories do not show the ‘unselfconscious behaviours and personal habits which shape quotidian experience’ – this must be left to the historian to deduce and construct from other sources. Giorgio Reillo shows how historians should not view inventories as ‘snapshots of realities, but the result of strategies, biases and representational intentions’. The idea of value is thus distorted through the prisms of what an individual notary thought important to include or exclude. Moreover, inventories do not always mention the acquisition and previous transmissions of goods between people, which can also be insightful when examining the role of objects in facilitating social networks. It can also be difficult to use inventories to track how the use of space changes over time, as well as the items which are placed between spaces, such as corridors and outdoor areas. Inventories leave historians in the dark about a number of areas, but when corroborated with other sources such as wills, testaments, and paintings they can still allow historians to consider issues surrounding identities and social networks in new ways.
Nevertheless, inventories are useful for telling historians about the shared responsibilities between men and women in facilitating social networks within the home. Inventories have variable degrees of usefulness in relation to gender, as often possessions are characterised as ‘marital’, which can make it difficult to distinguish between how the role of material objects varied between husband and wife. Inventories sometimes specify the gender of objects in relation to their use. This can be seen in the inventory of Portuguese merchant banker Emmanuel Ximenez in Antwerp (1564–1632). Being one of the most prominent houses within the neighbourhood, Ximenez’s home exemplified the extent of his networks as a merchant. His inventory frequently distinguishes between male and female chairs, for example in the ‘large Sitting Room or Downstairs Room in the Back House’. This room was used for entertaining guests, whether for purely social or wider business purposes, supporting Ximenez’s work as a merchant. The inventory shows how men and women both used the space, indicated below:
Three large Spanish men’s armchairs
Eight tall Spanish ‘table-chairs’ for men
Nine Spanish women’s chairs
Both men and women worked together in order to facilitate and promote their own social networks; this was not merely a male exercise, a fact that refutes the idea of gender segregation within the home. One room could be appropriated into different gender zones of activity, for example with the men playing cards (indicated in the above passage with the ‘table-chairs’), whilst women undertook other activities such as embroidery (hence the nine chairs). The roles of husband and wife in relation to social networks were distinct but complementary and were reflected in the different designations of furniture within inventories. Social networking was therefore shared between husband and wife and contributed to the wider familial identity for business purposes.
Professional identity: portraits and books
Inventories also illuminate aspects of professional identity, especially in relation to business networks. Domestic interiors strategically functioned as a social lubricant in the business world. Portraits, books, and paintings played an essential part in the process, eliciting ‘a sense of nationhood or historical continuity, or suitable remembrance of virtue’.
Ximenez’s inventory shows how he used portraits within rooms which regularly received guests to situate his own identity within the wider social networks of the local area and beyond. The inclusion of twenty-six small painted portraits of the Dukes and Duchesses of Brabant in the front sitting room of his house showed that despite his Portuguese background, he specifically wished to identify with those longstanding elite families. Similarly, the presence of Adrianus Barlandus’s Chronicle of the Dukes of Brabent further revealed his conscious efforts to identify with Antwerpian local history and antiquarian culture. Further, the inclusion of portraits of the Medici family in the ‘large Sitting Room or Downstairs Room in the Back House’ also represented his international trading connections and therefore exemplified his business reputation to the guests he chose to receive. The inclusion of this diversity of portraits showed his strategic attempt to present a corporate identity which was compatible with local and international networks, contemporaneously blurring the boundaries between the private and public spheres of his house.
Inventories show how individuals such as Ximenez fashioned their public and personal identities through the objects displayed within their homes. Sociability was shared between both men and women within the home and certain objects were gendered. Inventories also reveal how personal objects could help construct and perpetuate identity in relation to local, national and international networks, in a bid to exemplify and enhance business and civic reputations. Despite their limitations as sources, inventories can offer new insights into the homes where historians have little surviving evidence, capturing how individuals fashioned their identities and places within networks in distinctive ways.
For more on Ximenez and his inventory, see the following excellent website: http://ximenez.unibe.ch/inventory/