The second day of the summer school on quality in medieval and modern economies included three sessions exploring the quality of work and products, means of assessing and certifying the quality, and the subjective versus objective characteristics constituting quality. In the first morning session on Labour Quality, Marc Bompaire took his audience through the elaborate processes of money making, showing that the minting of coins in the Middle Ages involved much more than the simple iconic act of striking (Coins and their Qualities). Subsequently, Emilie Roffidal explained procedures of an entirely different production, the production of art in eighteenth-century Marseille (Quality of craftsmanship and academies of art: the case of Marseilles in the eighteenth century).
In the following session, Quality of Products and Consumption Goods, the speakers engaged with the medieval and modern understandings of qualities. Gil Bartholeyns in his paper on the Quality of Products and Consumption Goods explained that the notion of quality was introduced only in the seventeenth century, showing late objectification of the concept. Quality as a variable of production evolves from being property of an object. The word ‘de qualité’ used in the modern translation of the Perceval is used to render the medieval ‘bel et bien’, epithets used to characterise the young knight’s new set of clothes.
Anne Conchon explored the Quality of products and the construction of markets in the eighteenth century. Conchon highlighted the interaction of different agents, institutional and private, in the production and certification of quality. The production of quality involved complex processes, necessitating the introduction of marks to guarantee the quality of certified goods, such as the royal stamp applied in the Sedan manufactures in the eighteenth century. Curiously, at the end of the eighteenth century, the notion of quality, which is relatively subjective, tends to disappear, ousted by such categories as the place of origin (cf. wine, for which determination of quality was suggested by reference to the department of production rather than by the ‘uncertain means’ of tasting, Report to the General Assembly dated 1790).
The afternoon session continued on Conchon’s issue of subjective and objective criteria in determining the quality of products. In the first paper, Skarbimir Prokopek spoke into the relation between the material and the immaterial in trade exchanges in his paper Money and Confidence in Genoa in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In the second paper, I explored different characteristics of a quality horse in the fourteenth-century England (Horses of Quality: Determining the Quality and Market Value of a Horse). The third paper, by Pierre-Emmanuel Bachelet took us into a different place, time and culture: Exchange in the context of strict commercial regulation. Japanese and European merchants in the north of modern Vietnam. Finally, in another part of the world, Cheikh Sène outlined a variety of goods on the market of the eighteenth-century Senegambia. Different places, different goods and various approaches, all showing how quality is a cultural construct, which could be of relative importance in societies, depending on moral, aesthetic and economic values involved.
In the evenings of the first and second days of the summer school, we went on guided
tours. The first day, it was the museum of the Valley of Susa, with objects of religious art on display; the objects were mainly sculptures and paintings from the Late Middle Ages, although a few items dated to the earlier period, like the famous triptych of the Madonna on display in the chapter. One object, what looked like a Christmas tree without a tree, excited most interest among the participants.
On the second evening, we went over the former Franciscan convent and the church, and heard the legend of the donkey who refused to bear the sacred objects stolen from Susa. The bucking donkey is depicted realistically on a fresco dating to the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century.
I was so impressed by the legend and its hero that I kept looking for it around Susa, and found what could be a more recent interpretation of the motif at the parish museum. The donkey is as realistic as ever, delivering a decisive kick to the thief.