Researchers in the U.K. are studying tiny, everyday objects in the Early Middle Ages—keys, shoes, floor tiles, chests—and tracking their passage from person to person, which is quite a detective story. Looking at the artifacts, I think about the many ways keys still pass from hand to hand. How ceremoniously we are presented with the key to our first car, a lover’s apartment, a new office, a cabinet of confidential files. How carefully we entrust friends, relatives, or neighbors with our spare keys. How mayors are handed the keys to the city; how janitors jingle huge key rings, the only tangible symbol we give them to acknowledge their importance to us.
In 12 Theses on Attention, the authors write that “true attention, given to objects, unerringly reveals the presence of others.” That is certainly true here: nearly always, the involvement of other people is implied. The researchers involved in Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries, 1000-1700 intend to “challenge elite historical narratives” by looking at the ways these everyday objects were handled by people of all stations as they were moved, lost, conveyed, pawned, or traded.
Though these are social objects, they are also material. The stuff of which they are made establishes their agency and its constraints, and can itself be symbolic. An iron key will last forever, but its rust reminds us of time’s passage.
When we bought our house, now well over 100 years old, I held the antique keys in my hand, loving their weight and ornate design, sure there was an energy swirled into those oxidized molecules. The outside door keys had been changed many times, but these inner keys had not, and they had been clutched and twisted, hidden and retrieved by many hands. Also, they were tiny works of art. Why is it that so few objects are made to be as beautiful as they once were?
Bruno Latour writes of a Berlin key, cleverly designed so that one blade must be pushed through the lock and retrieved from the other side. Quite a few are still in use; they were designed for communal entrances, because they force people to remember to lock the door behind them. Skeleton keys are another old, fascinating solution; I used to envision an actual skeleton, bones rattling as he bent over a lock. But any of us can have skeletons for our closets. Our first house had two slanted rooms in the top half-story, and the realtor explained that they were probably used as kids’ bedrooms. My husband glanced down, then paled: the lock was on the outside. That fact haunted us for the next thirteen years, as we tried not to think of imprisoned children above our bedroom ceiling.
There are happier key mishaps, though. My mom and I once flew to Florida and rented a car—which, given our budget, turned out to be a purple Gremlin. She winced and slid behind the wheel. I was so horrified by all the pink and blue plastic Christmas trees, I barely noticed our purple sparkler—until we went to midnight Mass, came out sleepy at 2 a.m., put the key in the tinny lock, and heard it snap in half. This seemed a catastrophe until a kindly old parish priest with a thick brogue ushered us into the rectory, poured me my first Irish whiskey, and told us stories that outlasted the locksmith.
Today, our cleverest solutions are Bluetooth, locating our keys for us before we enter full-blown panic. I need that device: we once had to pay a princely sum to have both doors re-keyed because my housekey was buried somewhere in a pile of mulch. Then there was the time when, moving my mother-in-law’s stuff, I managed to drop her apartment key through the narrow slot between the elevator and the floor. Luckily, its duplicate was back home, on a heavy and mysterious ring of keys to who-knows-what, some kept in sentiment, some slid on slapdash. I dread the occasional need to flip through that ring, past keys to suitcases we never locked; beloved parents’ long-sold houses; cars that had memorable personalities; cedar chests that once held wedding dresses, handsewn quilts, sterling baby rattles, hope. An accumulation of treasures and dreams and responsibilities, some of them old secrets, others still imbued with possibility.
Keys of the old-fashioned sort can be known in a tactile way, their metal warming in a damp, nervous palm or cooling our fingers with the relief of access. The coding on a plastic hotel key card does not open itself to us in the same way; it is opaque and disposable, rarely saved as a memento. Nor do those lumpish remote car fobs possess any charm; they look almost indecent when you tug them apart to reveal their traditional metal spines.
Soon no keys will be left, save the museum artifacts and rusted old keepsakes. We will pass through doorways using fingerprints that, after our death, will dissolve. This feels a little sad and misty (though I am in far less danger of losing my index finger in a pile of mulch). Still, the real power of a key no longer resides in the physical object. The real power is the metaphor we have made of it. Unlocking someone’s secrets. Keying in on what matters, highlighting key points. Finding the key to happiness.
Ancient Egypt’s ankh symbol was called “the key of life”—eternal life. In the Bible, keys signify teaching authority. Saints and kings are painted with keys in their hands, representing either spiritual or temporal power. The Japanese tie three keys together to unlock health, wealth, and love. Lord Ganesh, in Hinduism, carries keys to unlock wisdom. In the West, young people used to be given a key pendant when they turned twenty-one, signifying their new freedom and bright future.
Spies once used keys to decode their messages. Teachers use answer keys. The keys on typewriters and pianos unlock different languages. We sing on- or off-key; get keyed up or stay low-key. Dream of a key, and you are finding a solution to a problem that has nagged at you for a long time.
“If you can’t find the key to success, pick the lock,” one meme suggests wryly. Another urges: “Don’t give up. Normally it’s the last key on the ring that opens the door.” And as Charles Dickens pointed out, “A very little key will open a very heavy door.”
What will researchers in the next millennium make of all that?
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.