Conference Blog: Final days

I am writing this final update on Lubeck from the departure lounge at Hamburg airport, and hoping that my laptop battery doesn’t give out on me!

It has been a really great week and I feel like I have learnt a huge amount. Some of the highlights over the last couple of days included Wim De Clerc’s presentation of his amazing work in the Brugge/Bruges area. Brugge was placed in its context with towns along the 20km Zwin canal, all with very distinctive attributes and, of course, an incredible wealth of elite mercantile and aristocratic activity. Ronald Van Genabeek’s lecture on ‘s Hertogenbosch also presented some impressive artefactual and environmental evidence for aristocracy contained within cess pits in the town during the 16th and 17th centuries; finds included guinea pig bones and pumpkin imported from the Americas!  I also really enjoyed presentations from Riga and Tallinn, urban areas with really interesting sequences, which I was much less familiar with. The most fun presentation was from Per Widerstrom (Visby) with some great audio and graphics.

My paper was on Thursday, and I looked at the period 900 to 1200 AD in York. As with a number of other papers, I tried to grapple with defining key material indicators of nobility, whilst acknowledging the important and transforming presence of the (largely undocumented) merchant classes from the tenth century, and perhaps earlier.

I looked briefly at aspects of the Coppergate excavations, trying to tease out evidence for ‘aristocratic’ lifestyles, including hunting (sparrowhawk bones), feasting (cranes, sturgeon), luxury dress (use of silks) and riding gear. This is all potentially good evidence for merchants developing an elite lifestyle, although some losses could equally come from rural aristocrats or nobles who visited town! 

After this, I looked at the development of the Hungate area – it’s mercantile character, potential failed 10th century church, later churches and secular Norman building (now under the Moxy Hotel) -as a case study in the development of an urban estate by an aspirational family (the Nuvels). Here, I was trying to show something of the complexity and multiple tiers of elite in York by the start of the Twelfth century. I think it went quite well, and I got some good questions and comments after, so hopefully it was a useful contribution!

The end note paper by Luisa Radohs, who has recently completed here doctoral thesis at Aarhus on the identification of urban elites, was also really useful for us all to start contextualising nobility in a more comparable, and even quantitative way. Luisa made the point that ‘to properly understand aristocracy in towns we must seek to understand social differentiation in general’, that material culture is not always specific to a social group, and that therefore an understanding of social context is critical. Luisa noted that an interdisciplinary approach, especially utilising the historical framework that we have, is essential. These points were reinforced in the final discussions.

It has been my first-time visiting Lubeck, and it is an impressive place, demonstrating the sheer wealth and influence of the medieval Hansa towns. Our amazing host, Dirk Reiger of Lubeck Museum service, gave some excellent tours of the cathedral quarter (largest brick Romanesque building in Europe) and St Mary’s Church (the largest brick gothic building, and built by merchants), I’ve also been into countless undercrofts and merchants cellars! I would like to extend my sincere thanks to Dirk and his colleagues for their hospitality.

This standing conference is a rare opportunity for medieval archaeologists from across Europe to meet and discuss a single theme, and come away with a common, updated, research agenda. We will all take our insight back to the towns that we work in and hopefully apply this insight, both methodologically and theoretically. The Lubeck Colloquium is a really important institution, and I hope it goes from strength to strength, learning from its traditions and collective expertise, as a new generation of researchers start to get more involved. In short, a fantastic week!