From 18-20 September 2008 a congress on Consumption patterns and standards of living in the rural medieval world will take place in Valencia. These two topics are quite new areas of research, or at least, they have not yet been investigated fully by medievalists. Production, and social relations of production, have attracted the attention of historians more than consumption. Consumption has always been something of a secondary concern, partly because of the dominance of the idea that peasants mostly consumed within a subsistence economy, in patterns that were largely unchanging over time.
Against these images of immobility, a more varied and changeable reality with regard to the possibilities of consumption is becoming established. This reality is reflected in the inequalities of wealth, status, political power and literacy that lay at the heart of local communities. Another pressing question is, what is the real meaning of living standards? How can they be defined? In recent times, an purely economic history approach to this problem, based primarily on changes in prices and wages, has come to be seen as old-fashioned and inadequate. Instead, such quantitative methods have been replaced with more impressionistic and dramatic approaches, which in turn has led to a reliance on anecdote and to the pure descriptive processing of the sources.
In discussing living standards, it would therefore be useful to establish a form of economic history which takes into account the contributions of social history and even of cultural history. Moreover, for qualitative analysis we should not forget microhistory, whose value lies in providing singular cases that are intensely studied. It is also necessary to broaden the notion of family income in order to take account of the contributions of family members other than the head of the household. An increase in female and child labour, or a general increase in work (a growth in 'industriousness') could make up for an incidental drop in real wages. In this period, peasants devoted part of their free time to other forms of work. Those kinds of activities were usually unpaid, but the households got a benefit from them (to make charcoal, soap, cloth, to hunt or to fish...). A growth in incomes may also have been linked to an increase in the number and variety of available consumer goods, and their diffussion throughout society.
Some thirty historians from several different countries will gather in Valencia with the aim of analysing the wide range of challenges posed by these topics. The congress is organized in four main areas: the house and its contents, consumption patterns, the family and the community, and self-consumption and the market.
This website contains the congress program, abstracts of the papers, links to the personal websites of the delegates or to some of their articles and to some research about the topics discussed during the congress, and a bibliography that will be progressively expanded with new contributions. With this web page we want not only to help with the preparation of this event, but also that the ideas and topics of the congress will go on thanks to the definitive texts of the lecturers and the pdf of the published proceedings.
Antoni Furió and Ferran Garcia-Oliver
Universitat de València
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