Beyond Words

Auslander, Lorna, “Beyond Words,” American Historical Review, Oct 2005, 1015-1035.

This article discusses the benefits of including nonlinguistic historical resources in our research. This includes art, architecture, and the objects people used in their everyday lives. They allow us to use more senses than merely sight. By examining them, historians can better tap into the emotions and flavor of the time. Objects also played an active role in history. Crowns made a person a king, rings changed single persons to married couples, glass windows shaped how one viewed the world.

There are challenged to working with these objects. The historical context must already be known. We possess different value systems both throughout our individual lives and across generations, which shape our perception of different objects, and we do not know the emotional experiences associated with these objects.

However, the study of goods gives an excellent view of the commercial values of a society. The objects associated with different socio-economic classes show their values and concepts of beauty. Literary and art scholars have already done much to interpret how these objects have been portrayed, usually separating into either the study of the material aspects or the cultural aspects. Archeologists do a better job combining the two aspects, and historians should follow their careful methodologies in analyzing what they have found.

Auslander gives two examples of how nonlinguistic study can benefit historical research: She shows that during the French revolution shows that the furniture, porcelain, and other decorations changed very little, except in public buildings. Such objects held vvery little political meaning, and shows a deeper sense of universality in the way the ‘revolutionaries’ viewed France.

She also studied French Jews, showing how their homes had been at the exact same level as other residences before the war. Afterwards, many of their hoes had been ransacked, and the returnees were forced to compile large inventories of the stolen goods in an effort to reclaim some of their lost possessions. These inventories frequently followed the paths the applicant would take through their homes: starting at the front door and working inward, listing the objects most important to them first, and filling in the rest as they came to mind. Bedrooms occupied the most space for women, while dining rooms were given in large detail by men. These inventories provide a intricate view of the values of these people, their place in society, and their place within their homes.

This article provides a fascinating way of analyzing any heirlooms one may have of their ancestors, as well as any inventories they took out, or the layout of an ancestral home. By following Auslander’s advice, a genealogist can add a new degree o


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