AsiaNow Speaks with Morgan Pitelka, Author of “Reading Medieval Ruins”

Morgan Pitelka is a professor of history and Asian studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of Reading Medieval Ruins: Urban Life and Destruction in Sixteenth-Century Japan, published by Cambridge University Press and winner of the 2024 Honorable Mention, John Whitney Hall Prize.

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

Reading Medieval Ruins is about daily life in late medieval Japan, based largely on archaeological evidence from a unique historical site. For approximately a century, the capital of Echizen Province was a small city called Ichijōdani, nestled in a remote valley inland from what is now Fukui. The city was destroyed by the armies of the warlord Oda Nobunaga in 1573, part of the opening act of the re-unification of Japan that led to the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603. The destruction of the city, which was never rebuilt, ironically sealed the material evidence of Ichijōdani’s urban life in the ground, and archaeologists have been diligently excavating and analyzing its palaces, temples, neighborhoods, and residences since the 1960s. The book looks at the grammar of Ichijōdani’s urban plan, particularly its unusual layout as a city constrained by the slopes of a narrow valley, and its riverine connections to the world beyond. It uses material culture to consider the daily schedules of the city’s diverse residents. It studies the religious sites of the valley, its social and cultural practices, and indeed the devasting and violent war that curtailed its vibrancy.

What inspired you to research this topic?

I was originally attracted to the site for its significance in the study of the history of ceramics in Japan. Excavations of Ichijōdani reveal a particular configuration of ceramic consumption, with abundant earthenwares used for rituals, provincially-manufactured stonewares for daily use, and imported Chinese and Korean ceramics used in tea gatherings as well as for daily meals. Delving into the scant archival history of the Asakura family (the warlords who founded Ichijōdani) and putting those documents into conversation with the excavated evidence was thrilling, making me want to understand how the Asakura engaged with and related to the artisans, merchants, and other urban commoners who lived alongside them up and down the valley.

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

The site itself presents many challenges because its material condition was so completely transformed in such a brief period. The excavations are incredibly thorough, but the resulting knowledge is quite fragmentary. Whole neighborhoods haven’t been excavated yet; temples have been found but we don’t know their names. All kinds of basic information you would expect to have for a city is simply absent, because of Ichijōdani’s complete destruction. In that sense the wars of the late sixteenth century acted to erase the diversity and complexity of historical subjects’ lived experiences, and those conflicts need to be reevaluated not as generative forms of progress toward the modern but rather as powerful barriers to understanding and engaging with the past.

On the other hand, my two previous research projects focused on famous and still-influential families with long and proud histories, which made accessing sources, wrestling with the active secondary scholarship, and requesting image permissions complicated, expensive, and sometimes very political. By contrast, the archaeologists, historians, and curators with whom I interacted in the course of this research did not treat the material evidence as their own private patrimony, and didn’t handle the analysis of Ichijōdani as some sort of branding exercise, which allowed for more empirical and educational conversations to unfold. Accessing publications and obtaining image permissions for educational and scholarly purposes was, as it should be, a relatively straightforward process. I am so grateful to the staff of the Fukui Prefectural Ichijodani Asakura Family Museum for all of the incredible scholarship, educational exhibits, visitor programs, and materials they produce.

What is the most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

I have mentioned this anecdote in many presentations as well as in the opening passage of the prologue, but the story of the identification of a doctor’s residence in Ichijōdani is really quite remarkable. Archaeologists excavated a fairly large residence in a neighborhood that was mostly occupied by warrior estates, but this residence had a different style of gate and an unusual layout of buildings. In the remains of one building, they located a large Echizen-ware jar that contained scraps of a book, most of which had been burned or otherwise destroyed along with the city. But miraculously, through collaboration with medical historians and historians of China, they were able to identify the fragments as parts of the text Materia Medica of Decoctions (Tangye Bencao, 湯液本草), by the Chinese doctor Wang Haogu (1200–1308). The additional excavation of various ceramic, metal, and other tools and implements related to the practice of medicine led to the conclusion that this was the home and business of the city’s resident doctor. It is noteworthy that we can see a glimpse of the practice of medicine in provincial, sixteenth-century Japan, which used tools and knowledge from across East Asia, from the excavation of this one archaeological site.

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

One of my goals was to try and understand the vitality of Ichijōdani not only in terms of the larger context of late medieval Japan but also in the exciting new framework of the global medieval. I therefore collaborated with historians, art historians, and archaeologists who work on other regions of the world to investigate the concept of the “palace city” in sites ranging from Iraq, Turkey, and Italy to Hungary, England, and Spain. Glaire Anderson’s work, such as The Islamic villa in early medieval Iberia: aristocratic estates and court culture in Umayyad Córdoba (Ashgate, 2013), was inspiring, as was David Rollason’s book The Power of Place: Rulers and Their Palaces, Landscapes, Cities, and Holy Places (Princeton, 2016). Similarly, Amira K. Bennison and Alison L. Gascoigne’s edited volume Cities in the pre-Modern Islamic World: the urban impact of religion, state and society (Routledge 2007) as well as various publications by Alistair Northedge on Samarra and Bryan Ayers on Norwich were also major influences. I was mostly buried in the Japanese sources, but reading these global medieval scholarly works always helped me to think more broadly about the findings at Ichijōdani.

Finally, what has captured your attention lately—as a reader, writer, scholar, professor, or person living in the world?

I am working now on the rebuilding of Kyoto from the late sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth centuries. I want to understand the impact of the city’s reconstruction after a century of civil war on the buildings, monuments, riverbanks, flora and fauna, and people of the imperial capital and the larger Yamashiro Basin in which it was located. I’m hoping this study will illuminate the intertwined cultural and environmental histories of the city in a moment in the history of Japan when most of our attention usually shifts to Edo.

The AAS Secretariat will be closed on Monday, May 27 in observance of Memorial Day