Monthly Archives: February 2008

The so-called Google Generation debunked: libraries better worry

The British Library buildings at St Pancras

After signing up to a petition to protect the funding of the British Library a while ago, I get mail-outs from them every now and then. As spam goes it could be a lot worse, I read my mail plain-text anyway and the articles they link to are often at least passing diverting. Rarely however are they as well-loaded as this one, which I got the PDF of and read avidly. They’ve been looking at browsing habits on a truly broad scale, and though they admit left right and centre that there are all kinds of problems with the sample, which I find sort of encouraging, the tentative findings are quite interesting. What it is is a study by a group at University College London called The Centre for Information Behaviour and Evaluation of Research who have basically been profiling virtual research behaviour by age, so as to see if there really is a “Google generation” of web-users or not and what that means for future researchers. Their conclusions, broadly, are that (i) there isn’t, because after a certain stage of growth everyone uses the web in broadly the same way if they use it at all, no matter whether they’re 20 or 70; (ii) this does seem to mean that real research skills are dropping off, because if people can’t find an answer in a few minutes’ web-searching they stop, and (iii) this means that almost all libraries, academic or public, are being desperately outdated in the way they present their contents and make their resources available and that those who wish to retain much of a user base need to start doing really special things to remedy this lack of appeal pretty much now. And they have some suggestions, but it’s all fairly fascinating for anyone who’s been on both sides of the process of digitising knowledge and putting it online, and I do urge you to have a look at the full report.

Seminary XX: Hugh Kennedy is inaugurated

Agh! The previous entry is already on its way to being the most popular thing I ever wrote, and it was someone else’s findings. All I can do is add content to remind people I have actual academic interests as well as spending my time on the Internet darkening the name of young ladies. So! it’s a post about an actual academic paper!

You see, the London School of Oriental and African Studies have a new Professor of Arabic, and it’s Hugh Kennedy. And therefore there was on the 18th February an inaugural lecture and I was there, because I try not to miss an opportunity to hear Hugh speak; it always leaves me with a real humbling sense of how much more there is to know and hope that it’s actually possible to know it. Someone who really knows their stuff but stands basically outside your normal field of work can do this, as I’m sure you’ve experienced.

This time Hugh was talking to the title “History, Memory and Legend in the Great Arab Conquests”, and if you follow his career closely, this may sound a bit familiar:

Cover of Hugh Kennedy’s The Great Arab Conquests

Hugh talked about the problems of the factual content of the sources for the early Arab conquests, you see, which are mainly non-contemporary and highly literary, and argued that they are not good evidence for the facts of the conquests, although that may sometimes be in there, but they are excellent evidence for the attitudes and issues of the writers who are living with the consequences of the conquest. Now as I recall that general answer is how we were supposed to get our A-grade at History A-Level (“every source is evidence for its writer, even if not for much more sometimes”), but it’s always worth seeing what applying this gets you.

I’m not going to go into great detail about what we got actually was, though, because you can buy or otherwise get Hugh’s new book that I’ve pictured above, as did I, and find that actually most of this lecture is in pp. 1-40, arranged slightly differently but hey. This is not to say that it wasn’t good, and it was certainly worth hearing what Chris Wickham had to say in his introduction speech, but it did make my two sides of avidly-made notes a bit redundant. Ach well. It’s a remarkably readable book…

Buried with his sheep before him (this one’s for the smut-minded out there)

Some archaeologists working in Ireland, at Corofin, County Galway, may (or may not) have found an early Christian site there, identified by 65 burials in what could, if generously interpreted, be a vallum, an earth rampart that is traditionally held to mark the limits of a monastic enclosure in Celtic areas. Some might say that, given how difficult it is to actually identify Irish Christian sites in archaeological terms, or any religious site at all for definite really, this is a bit hopeful, but the burials are all supine, extended (except for one) and oriented east-west and so, while even that is not ambiguous, I don’t see why it shouldn’t be a Christian cemetery. That isn’t what I wanted to mention. In fact this entry is dedicated to bloggers like Carl Pyrdum and Jennifer Lynn Jordan, the sort of people who can use the phrase “monkey butt-trumpet” and mean it.

You see, the owner of one of the skeletons was buried with a sheep, in what some might call a “compromising position”, as you can see:

compromising Corofin inhumation

The reporting page coyly says that this has led to some “unlikely suppositions”, and well, yes, it would wouldn’t it? But what then would a likely one be? Any suggestions?

Advertisement for my collaborators’ learning

I observe that at the Heroic Age blog, the programme for the upcoming MANCASS conference can now be viewed in its full glory, which is, for Anglo-Saxonists at least, reasonable to considerable. I mention it merely because you may, if you’ve been reading really closely, or are actually one of the participants, remember that two of the speakers, Allan Scott McKinley and Martin Ryan, are my collaborators in making Leeds sessions about how to use charters happen. Alex Burghart is another colleague of a sort, and his stuff is always interesting, and of course with both of Professors Higham and Brooks speaking there will be entertainment and erudition aplenty. I may well have to trot along myself, but even if I don’t, it’ll be worth attending I should think. Wednesday 26 March, so still time to register…

Seminary XIX: Rosamond McKitterick looks at the Liber Pontificalis

There is a certain speed one has to get up to with Professor McKitterick’s papers, at which one can take in a full manuscript description in about five seconds. Without this one can get hopelessly lost as the details of stemmas and contents ravel inextricably before you. Or at least, this is how it happens to me, and I’ve been listening to Professor McKitterick a long time now. But this time, at the Institute of Historical Research‘s now-legendary Earlier Middle Ages Seminar on 13 February, where she was speaking to the title “The Liber Pontificalis in its Early Medieval Historiographical Context”, there were only three or four manuscripts gone into in detail and after about ten minutes of floundering I caught up and was able to follow the string of intriguing and subtle points.

Miniature from a late manuscript of the Liber Pontificalis

The Liber Pontificalis, for those unfamiliar, is a collection of papal biographies that runs from Peter up to the mid-ninth century. It is believed, so Professor McKitterick told us, to have been written in two big bursts, a first draft circa 530, an update probably in the 570s, and then a new set of lives added in the seventh century after which it was sporadically updated life by life. The paper showed that there was at least some reason to believe the `second draft’, the 570s version, circulated independently, and the later versions are not widely known.

Her basic points were that, firstly, there is all kinds of stuff going on in Italy at the time, the Ostrogothic wars, Justinian’s attempted reconquest, and so the repeated agenda of the popes proving how superior they were to the patriarchs of the East in theological argument has all kinds of agendas to it; and secondly, that even in Italy there is a ferment of historical writing at the time, all dealing with this idea of how to cope with the fact that Rome, which previous centuries of Christianity had managed to appropriate into their intellectual world view as centre of a new, holy Roman Empire (not that one! but think ‘Eternal City’ -> ‘City of God’ in good Eusebian tradition) was no longer centre of the world, but only centre of the West, and that rather shakily what with the Lombards. So what you get is a debate over the popes versus the emperors, and Professor McKitterick was urging us to see the LP, not as an official history, at least not when it was composed even if it later became one, but as a contribution to that debate, using secular serial biographies like Suetonius and the Historia Augusta as a model for a new set of ruler-histories replacing the emperors with the popes. And she emphasised that this was going on at the same time as a long-term programme of replacing Roman Imperial monuments with new Christian building, starting new processions governed by the liturgy, and thus remapping how people link up the city in their minds, and so on. In short, there’s an awful lot of change going on in Rome, and the popes are a big part of it, but not everyone view the changes the same way and the Liber Pontificalis is only one of the voices shouting about it, merely the best-preserved. (Though one irony that came out of the paper is that none of the surviving manuscripts seem to come from Rome itself.)

Professor McKitterick’s work is these days mostly on intellectual history, in a way, and she and I cross paths little except in wondering how people went about getting charters written. How much the average Roman man in the street cared about all this, when he could still be running round whipping the local maidens in the Lupercalia as the LP records with distaste, is a good question perhaps. But her work, by making the most of a huge volume of basically intellectual source material, opens up a vastly rich world of thinkers who were not stuck in ivory towers, but walking those same streets, thinking about what went on there, and then writing stuff from which we can sometimes get back at their world.

I’ve been meaning to use that joke for years

Maximum points to my colleague Rory Naismith, who aside from various Herculean labours to the greater good of numismatics has also managed to do something I’ve been wanting to see done for a long time, which is, to actually use the gag “an Offa you can’t refuse” in academic print. Although the relevant journal homepage is sadly a couple of years out of date (I don’t understand why editors let that happen, it’s maddening, and could never occur in the sciences), I am assured that Rory’s article, “An Offa You Can’t Refuse? Eight-Century Mercian Titulature on Coins and in Charters” is indeed in Quæstio Insularis Vol. 7 (Cambridge 2006) at pp. 89-118, and I laud and magnify the pun, because as an employee of a University I am allowed to have the taste in humour of a magpie in jewellery so it’s OK.

Objectivity and Crusader motives: maybe not so simple

Nat Taylor has a recent post in his Genealogist’s Sketchbook, talking about the historian’s right, or not, to make a moral judgement of the period we study. Are our standards applicable to the age so long gone, when religion and fear were so much more immediate (at least, now the Cold War is over and we’ve all learned to stop worrying and love the bomb…)? Or should we just withhold judgement on things like pogroms, Crusades, witch-hunting (not really medieval that one, of course, but you know what I mean) and so on that unfortunately still sing with contemporary relevance? Can we afford not to take a moral stand, when others are using those precedents to justify continuing, or at least excuse, such atrocities? Aren’t we supposed to be the voice of truth?

Well, I’ve argued elsewhere that it’s our business to confront the messiness of the past in whatever level of detail is necessary, and that because objectivity is impossible given how messy our own perspectives are, the best we can do is consciously try to separate what the evidence says from an acknowledgement of our own stance on the issue. That is to say, we must judge, because we are doing so already whether we like it or not. So we must make our perspective obvious, and say things like, “I personally find this distasteful but it clearly happened” rather than idealising or hiding the bad bits. Sorry, Bede, I realise you wouldn’t agree, but I think that’s what we need to do.

Godfrey of Bouillon, King of Jerusalem, with some of his knights

That said, I’m not sure Nat has lighted on the best example of necessary judgement. He is talking of teaching the Crusades, and reports setting the question, “Why did the First Crusade succeed, and why should it not have?” His point is the rarity of moralising answers to this question, but his comment on one that he did get causes my antennae to twitch. He reports:

One student wrote: ”It should not have succeeded because it was ill-conceived, disorganized, and motivated in large degree by chauvanism, xenophobia, and greed.” In fact, an army largely motivated by those things should succeed quite well, I think: no troublesome scruples or complex perspectives to slow them up.

Well, if you look to the top right of this browser window or tab, you’ll see a link called “Crusader Motives”, whereat lies a full-blown scholarly paper which addresses the question of where this, what I call the ‘we’re only it for the money’ argument about why people went on Crusade, belongs in the historiography. That in fact has been the question that’s brought the most hits to this blog ever since I put that page up. Because, you may not realise, the money motive has been more or less dumped from the scholarly picture in the last twenty years, largely under the influence of Jonathan Riley-Smith and his school, who have brought out all kinds of spiritual motives, love of oppressed brothers, the honest desire to save one’s soul by a supreme sacrifice in the name of the Lord, or a lord, or the two together in a powerful feudal-religious complex, devotion to Saint Peter, I mean you name it, anything more moral than simply getting rich quick. And as I discuss there, one of the planks of the Riley-Smith argument is that getting rich on Crusade was tricky because it was really very expensive to go and the evidence for returns is pretty discouraging. My stance is that actually, people still did hope they might get rich, and indeed preachers told them they might, but obviously the plethora of other reasons to go made things easier, and they certainly didn’t think in only that way. So I think Dr Taylor’s student may need to read, well, me…