Monthly Archives: April 2008

Loads of medieval Latin online

Did any of you happen to follow that link that I FWSE‘d up back there to the Latin text of Isidore’s Etymologiae? It goes to the Latin Library at an organisation called the Ad Fontes Academy, which appears to be a Christian school in North Virginia, not even higher education. But this site is huge. It’s not terribly well organised, but the alphabetical drop-down, as well as a raft of Classical authors and an entry for Medieval Latin, includes Alcuin, Ammianus, Aquinas, Augustine, Cassiodorus, Einhard and the Theodosian Code, and that Medieval Latin entry leads to a page whch names many more. And for each author it’s only the obvious big works but that gives you the whole of Augustine’s Confessions and the De Civitate Dei, it gives you (for example) what is I guess the RHC text of Albert of Aachen’s history of the First Crusade (among several other Crusades texts), Einhard’s Vita Karoli, Thegan’s Gesta Hludowici Imperatoris, Nithard, Richer, Magna Carta, the Origo Gentis Langobardorum, Dante’s Monarchy… and more I don’t even recognise. It’s a treasury, and it’s searchable and copiable e-text, whereas the Digital MGH for example is image files precisely so that you can’t just copy and paste chunks out of their copyright publications.

Of course, you have to ask where these texts are coming from, because no copyright is given, and neither is the source edition indicated anywhere. A brief page-by-page of the text here of Einhard’s Vita Karoli and the dMGH version leads me to believe that they are in fact the same, so I guess this voluminous resource has been assembled by OCR’ing venerable copies of the Monumenta, the Recueil des Historiens des Croisades and the like and carefully removing all apparatus, editing marks, signes de renvoi and indeed anything that might let it be traceable. I have to wonder exactly how hard permission for this was sought, and ask if this is really a very moral way to assemble a Christian study library. Nonetheless, is that going to stop me using it? Well, when it’s something I can read through the dMGH, yes. When it’s one of the few volumes of RHC that Gallica have left online at the Bibliothèque Nationale, then again, yes, although if I just want to copy and paste a quote this version may well still be tempting. But there’s loads of stuff here I would not easily find elsewhere, so it’s moral quandary for me when those texts beckon. For those without such qualms, meanwhile, there it is… (Also added to the increasingly confusing list of Resources in my sidebar there.)

In which Robert Darnton appears to have the answers

I mentioned that I had another post brewing featuring a further interview from Maria Lúcia Pallares-Burke’s The New History, and that interview is with French Revolutionist Robert Darnton. I once studied this stuff, as an undergraduate, and I didn’t know the name, which is odd because I recognise a lot of what he seems to have said from lectures; Tim Blanning and he must work in parallel brains. All the same, I’m not going to go hunting his work right now: I did mention a to-read pile half a mile high, as you’ll recall, and I finished that book chapter today and generally Clio is keeping me busy right now.

Robert Darnton

But there are a couple of really heartening perspectives in the interview. Pallares-Burke tailored her questions to her subjects, and edited out the least interesting answers I assume, but there are some running themes that come up in most of the interviews: the importance of women’s history, the balance between empirical work and theory, and so on. Sometimes the interviewees have answers, sometimes they gloomily disclaim the possibility of answering them, but Darnton frequently comes over as just having the answers to everything and making them seem obvious.

The first of these is where he is asked why he has such a passion for history, and his answer really is for me “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed”:

I find something deeply satisfying about the study of the past, and I don’t know quite what it is. I feel it most when I work in the archives. As the tenor of a life begins to emerge from the manuscripts and I see a story unfold from one document to another, I have the sensation of making contact with the human condition as it was experienced by someone in another world, centuries away from mine. It may be an illusion, and I may get it wrong. I may sound like a romantic. But the archives, in all their concreteness, provide a corrective to romantic interpretations. They keep the historian honest. Unlike literary scholars and philosophers, we must marshal evidence in order to sustain our arguments, and we cannot pull it out of our heads. We extract it from boxes in the archives.

And he goes on with a short defence of the existence of actual facts, but already he’s got my vote there: that is exactly what I do it for, and if I’d paid attention to this when I first read it you’d all have been saved my waffling for several screens trying to say the same thing only worse. You get a glance of someone else’s life for a short space of time: and you know that it was real, that this character you find or envision really did have a life and that you may with some luck and judgement be imagining them correctly, because there was a reality that you might be able to approach. Real people. It is the point.

The latter, and less inspiring perhaps but still very neat, is where Pallares-Burke poses him the query that she has put to several of the other historians interviewed: when you go to the archives, do you go with no idea of what to look for, and just report on what you find, or do you go with a theory and a set of questions? The one risks finding nothing because of lack of focus, the other risks finding what you looked for and no more. And, well, yes, true to an extent but surely there’s some better conception because look, we do in fact get some history work done. It takes Darnton to add sense and a third way:

I love to do research because you never know what you’ll find when you open an new dossier and start reading… I think that intellectually it’s also invigorating, even though in my manner of describing it it may sound as if the historian’s task is digging a ditch. The reason for its being invigorating is that you go to the archives with conceptions, patterns and hypotheses, having, so to speak, a picture of what the past was like. And then, you find some strange letter that doesn’t correspond to the picture at all. So what is happening is a dialogue between your preconceptions and your general way of envisaging a field, on the one hand, and on the other hand, this raw material that you dig out and that often does not fit into the picture. So, the picture changes and you go back and forth between the specific empirical research and the more general conceptualization.

Again, he is right. Those Casserres parchments I blogged about earlier were my latest case of this: I went expecting to find a vicecomital takeover of a small church and a raft of donations and found instead what seems to be the wholesale adoption of a substantial mother church’s archive by making what French diplomatists would call “copies figurés”, copies meant to look like originals, and getting people to sign the new copies but putting them all onto as few parchments as possible… And I’m still going back and forth between what monastic archives are supposed to do and what this one seems to have done as a result. He has it right, I tell you.

Darnton seems to interview a lot: I found two more, both focusing on the impact of the Internet and Google (and Google Books, in one case), whilst looking for an image of him just now; so if you would like to know more, and since those subjects are hot concerns of both mine and others, you may find these links interesting.


Robert Darnton, interviews with Maria Lúcia Pallares-Burke, Oxford, July 1996 & May & June 1999, ed. Pallares-Burke as “Robert Darnton” in eadem, The New History: confessions and conversations (Cambridge 2002), pp. 158-183, quotes from pp. 162 & 170-171.

Cartulary of Sant Cugat del Vallès now online (data data data!)

Hispanists rejoice! It seems to have been a long while since The Library of Iberian Resources Online was updated, but it recently has been. Wait: you didn’t know about LIbRO? It’s worth knowing about. What it is, is e-texts (and pleasantly laid-out ones, too, not Project Gutenberg style plain text) of important scholarly texts covering the period 500-1500, and it’s not just secondary work but some really useful sources, most obviously until now, for me at least, Scott’s translation of the Visigothic Law, but also a few important chronicles. They have a link offsite to a text of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies, which would be a glorious thing for many if it were still there. It’s not, but a cursory Google reveals that the whole thing, in Latin of course (I’m not even sure how you could translate an etymological dictionary, even one as packed as that), is in fact still online here. They also link out to a page that, o important thing, turns out to be all the journals of the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas online, or at least their most recent issues, which has given my reading list an immediate and guilty start as I discover what’s been in the last two issues of Anuario de Estudios Medievales that Cambridge UL haven’t yet made available. But anyway, LIbRO has been worth a look for some time, and is now even more so as a small shedload of new texts seems to have gone up in the last two months.

The monastery of Sant Cugat del Vallès

For my immediate purposes the most exciting and useful of these is the first two volumes of the cartulary of Sant Cugat del Vallès. I’ve written here before about Sant Cugat and its charters, but to reprise, Sant Cugat’s archive is one of the largest in the area, and although its records only go back to 875 (and are then very patchy till about 940) even though it has claimed to be much older, they are important for two reasons. Firstly, they are from an area which is rich, and much focussed on by the powerful because of being near the capital and the fertile and commercially-useful coast which is also the first line of expansion. Secondly, there is that expansion. In 875X7 King Charles the Bald conceded to Sant Cugat a huge swathe of territory in the far edges of the frontier which at that time was utterly beyond use and contact with authority. Then, over the next hundred years or so, the border of authority inches forward by a process I’ve referred to in the past as “the continuation of Carolingian expansion”, and about which I hope to be writing again soon. And by the 980s, say, Sant Cugat, which has a long memory, are suddenly looking at these lands that they were then given being accessible to them. Now of course, people are living there, people who do not recognise the monastery’s supposed rights, and who even if they did would and do appeal to the Visigothic Law’s thirty-year-rule that says unchallenged tenure for that long is permanent. And the result is loads of hearings in which these frontier people, whom Sant Cugat’s monks either joyfully greet as friends of the saint or dismiss as christiani perversi or worse, depending on how opposed they are, turn up and state their positions. It’s gold for someone like me who wants to find out what existed out on the edge. Also, because Sant Cugat are dealing with so much of this stuff, they get blasé about it. There is for example a place which is now called Sant Boi de Llobregat, a big town. Barcelona cathedral has lands there, given by Count Miró Borrell II’s brother, and so from various other sources do the Barcelona monasteries of Santa Anna and Sant Pere de les Puelles. And so does Sant Cugat, but it’s only from Sant Cugat that we know that the place was actually called Alcala, that is, the Arabic for castle, al-qalat, until quite late, because Sant Cugat see Arabic names and weird half-Christians all the time and don’t see the need to dress it up, whereas the city institutions seem to want to make their properties look, well, proper. So if you are looking for frontier weirdnesses and places where people have made their social structures up out of leftover bits, this is where you’ll find it.

Title page of Josep Rius Serra\'s Cartulario de «Sant Cugat» del Vallés

The only downside is that the fourth, index, volume, which was done by a different editor some thirty years later after the original editor died ‘in post’, is not here. In fact I only know of one place that has it, although quite a few places in the UK have the original three volumes of texts. If and when that goes up it will be a huge help, because simply searching is not very effective. LIbRO’s searchability leaves much to be desired, and even Googling will not usually get you through the various possible spellings of the Romanticising Latin used by the scribes, though it’s a start. But even for the meantime, just having the actual texts that handy will be useful to me again and again. I have no idea whether it might also be to you, but I thought I would enthuse about it anyway.

Actually doing research: "nobles of the palace", Barcelona 990 A. D.

Lately my work has been held up by a single piece of research I’ve been trying to do as quickly as possible for the last chapter of the eventual book (though don’t get over-excited, I’m not revising these things in order and there’s still loads to go). This bit however needed new work and has been a right dog. It’s kind of done now and I thought there would be worse things I could do than say something about it.

I’ve been looking at Borrell II, again, and in particular at whether he had a steady court of followers and dependants, or whether he had to draw a self-standing nobility to him by patronage. The answer is kind of `both and neither’ as you’d expect, but in order to give some concrete examples of this I’ve zeroed in on one particular hearing.1 It’s an interesting and unique hearing in itself, as the matter of it is that an official called Sendred whose title is custos monetae—if he were an organisation he’d be a Currency Watchdog I suppose—appeals one of Barcelona’s moneyers, Guiscafred, for making substandard coin. What we have is not actually the document where he was tried, however, because Bishop Vives of the city immediately sails into action and tries to argue with the count that, because Guiscafred is the bishop’s man, the bishop ought to try him. Now this is of course the right of clerical privilege that got Thomas á Becket killed, but Borrell and Vives, at least as they are recorded by the unusually verbose and hyper-accurate judge Ervigi Marc, whose detail is often really useful in these records, have a civilised exchange about it. Borrell is said to have emphasised that it’s his business to protect the public, and that however much he respects the Church action has to be taken here, and Vives therefore offers the compromise that if Borrell lets him deal with it, he will administer sentence without any further delay. This settlement, not the actual trial, is what the document is intended to record, but it’s already opened up many many cans of worms that tell us loads about how money was being produced, used and checked in the city at a time when other documents tells us its standard was a problem.2

Courtyard of the Palau Comtal de Barcelona, now the Plaça del Rei, as it stands today

But the interest for me, at least today, is that Ervigi Marc (call him Harvey Mark if it helps you) states that this hearing was held in the palace of the count in Barcelona, which although we have reason to believe it had recently been rebuilt is the first mention we have of that building, and he calls the assembled worthies who are hearing the case “nobles of the palace”, nobiles palatii. So my question was, immediately, who are these people and how ‘palatine’ are they?

Methodologically this is a lot of what I do, a kind of poor man’s prosopography, but there are problems, mainly the lack, except in the case of the august scribe, of surnames. So someone is present called Sunifred: you wouldn’t believe how common a name this was at the time, and there’s just no way to say which of the other Sunifreds who turn up with the count or the bishop are when they’re not closely associated with some land where they turn up consistently. Likewise people called Miró. But with some of the group we can do better. There are for example two people called Guitard. This makes it almost vanishingly unlikely that one of them is not Guitard de Mura, a minor noble who makes it good by getting concessions of castles from both count and bishop of Barcelona beginning at about this time; he will surely have been there when the two came into dispute in his home city. That leaves the question of who the other one is, and there’s a guy who turns up witnessing for the monastery of Sant Cugat for areas all over the general Barcelona area (which Guitard de Mura does not, as his lands are all further away or actually in the city, as far as we can tell) who is at least a possible.3 There are several other names that leap out at me from Borrell’s other documents; it is at least a good chance that the attenders called Bonnuç & Seniol are the men of that name who sporadically and separately witness Borrell’s documents all over the frontier territories, here with the boss on this occasion. A deacon called Arnulf who seems to have otherwise only appeared in or around Girona also turns up only with the count, and was therefore perhaps a tame and apparently portable chaplain, which makes it likely that some Girona contingent was there, so that the Gauzfred who is present is probably the Vicar of Girona we know from later documents. And the judges are Borrell’s men too, of course, and one deacon present, Adalbert, seems to be a judge in training who only gets the full title in later appearances. Another Recosind appears to be a city landholder who deals occasionally with Borrell. Likewise, there is present a Marcuç who seems to crop up in city contexts and maybe also occasionally witness for the nearby monastery of Sant Cugat del Vallès. But it’s not just Borrell’s men: one person called Sesnan, I can’t find in Borrell’s documents, but one such is in a fair few of Bishop Vives’s, and seems to be someone the bishop gives land at the end of his life, perhaps as a reward for years of service. You’d expect there to be a few of the bishop’s men present, after all, given that one of them is the accused. And the bishop’s palace is actually right next door, possibly even adjoining the comital palace, so ‘nobles of the palace’ could be a bit relaxed as a term?

But there are also a bunch of people who just don’t recur. The names are sometimes so odd that I would think it was a garbled copy, except that it’s an original and Ervigi Marc is firstly easy to recognise by his signature and secondly not a man to make that kind of mistake. It does however mean that you can be sure, when someone is called Falcuç, and is a deacon, that he is not seen elsewhere, because all of the documents from Osona, Manresa, Girona, Besalú, or the archives of the cathedral of Barcelona, the counts themselves (though that is patchy this early) or that of Sant Cugat (though there there is a later monk of the same name at least) are well indexed and he does not occur. This guy is a one-off appearance, and there are a few others like him too. What kind of ‘nobles of the palace’ can these be who are never seen there, or anywhere else either? Not nobles at all, surely.

So my initial conclusion is that, unfortunately, Ervigi is talking a regular gathering of incidental petitioners up big because big people are involved. Actually the assembled are there for a whole bunch of reasons, and some of them are probably ordinary citizens just come along for the ceremony or to plead their own cases. Someone wanted a good crowd for this one, hauled them all in, and Ervigi lets style get ahead of fine status gradations. But it’s still a good little exercise in who might be there when the count holds court, and shows quite nicely that the body is always changing because many of the count’s men all have lives of their own and turn up either when he needs them or they need him but not by default, which is more or less what the rest of the discussion into which this chunk will go has been showing as well. So I would say that’s what it shows of course, at least it’s consistent with that. But if anyone would prefer to offer a different view I’m open to it…


1. A. Fabregà i Grau (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Barcelona: documents dels anys 844-1260. Volum I: documents dels anys 844-1000, Fonts Documentals 1 (Barcelona 1995), doc. no. 201.

2. On which you will some day be able to see J. Jarrett, “Currency change in pre-millennial Catalonia: coinage, counts and economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 168 (London forthcoming).

3. I’m not giving the detailed cites for these people’s occurrences, it would swamp the page and you don’t really need it. Or, if you do, you can wait till the book comes out :-) But at least you can now access the Sant Cugat documents online. That’s such good news, in fact, that it will make for a post by itself…

This month I have partly been reading…

While I tinker with horrible legacy Word files listing people who turn up in various Catalan charters on the one hand, do my actual job by way of finishing images of unofficial 18th-century token coins on the other, and assimilate various other things that we’re not talking about here any more, I also find time for a bit of reading. I have to, because over the last year and a bit, I have amassed a ridiculous to-read pile. It started with my starting to clear house and thus becoming a member of various give-away groups on the Internets—and some of them were giving away books. It continued with my finally redeeming the prize I won from Blackwells for my EME paper (which they would give me only in the form of their books, but that’s OK, they have a few.) Then I went to Leeds, and for the first time did so with a salary, and the bookfairs of the International Medieval Congress are dangerous to a young man in such a condition, who must inevitably be in want of a library. And finally I was allowed to take home quite a lot from the shelves of the about-to-be-vacated office of the person at KCL whose courses I was teaching last year, I mean, really quite a lot. My to-read pile is now arguably larger than my entire other book holdings, and I have a teaching library of some standard, most of which I haven’t actually read…

Now because as we know Life Gets in the Way, even before all that lot arrived I had books in the pile from 2006. That was clearly getting silly, and so I pulled open a hole in my schedule and found more idle reading time. The main rule is `no notes, just read’, because I’d almost forgotten how to read for fun. So even though a lot of the pile is academic, I’m trying to read it for leisure. And recently that has led me to the following two books, Robin Lane Fox’s The Classical World: an epic history from Homer to Hadrian (Harmondsworth: Penguin 2005) and Pierre Bauduin (ed.), Les fondations scandinaves en Occident et les débuts du duché de Normandie : Colloque de Cerisy-la-Salle (25-29 septembre 2002) (Caen: CRAHM 2005). The latter I’m still getting through, though interesting stuff already, but the former I can speak on now.

Cover of Robin Lane Fox's The Classical World

The Fox book was deliberately aimed at the popular market, I’m sure, and I’m not sure I’d like to meet the author given what he seems to think that market wants, but there is no question that as a work of narrative history it’s a tour de force. (Even Peter Heather thinks so, if you don’t believe me.) The conceit of the book, which is that it’s a history to explain Hadrian’s world to him, gets a little annoying, but nonetheless in six hundred pages you get from pre-Classical Greece to late Classical Rome and finish with some sense of how it ties together. (Not that history does always do that, of course, but moving on.) The front cover, as has been mentioned, manages to call this epic three times, once in the title and twice in the review quotes, but really it’s not, it’s better done than that. We have relatively little narrative detail for Ancient Greece, and rather more for Middle Rome; correspondingly, the Greek sections of the book have more chapters about society and lifestyle (always including sex; classicists are allowed to do this, medievalists not, as we have observed) and the Roman ones fewer. The pace therefore varies rather, and sometimes, as with Alexander the Great most of all, it is too short: the boy emperor is dealt with in about twenty pages and leaves very little explained (though now we know more anyway). Fox clearly also thought this was unjust as I see he has now published a full-length work on Alexander alone, so I admire his restraint.

Only one thing irks me about the book, really, aside from the author’s delight in smut, which is at least being true to his sources. That thing is one that the ‘epic’ review quote denies, by saying that Fox tells the story “without moralising”. Yeah right. We are repeatedly told how great Athenian democracy was, slavery not withstanding, and contemporary moral perspectives are given on most of the lead characters. Fox likes rogues, dislikes prudes and those who disdain others for failings they possess, and tells us his views quite forthrightly. One can only assume that the quoted reviewer missed this simply because he agreed. Fox doesn’t do this by way of approval or censure, mind, just pointing out the difference, but I still notice it every time. It shouldn’t hinder you from reading an excellent book, though you will find it hard to follow up the references (these are sparing but effective) as he uses some system of short titles for the primary sources that isn’t expanded anywhere! argh. It is not perhaps an introduction for scholars; but for what happened in what order and who such and such a person was, and where in the story they all fit, not at all bad, not at all bad.

Life Gets in the Way II

I’m back, but even after the advertised lull I have little to say here right now. I’m reading some interesting stuff, and I could talk about that some; I have another post I mean to write reacting again to an interview in Pallares-Burke’s The New History; and I was planning to revive the blog’s oldest purpose and advertise what I’m doing in a kind of ‘my projects right now are…’ round-up, though that was supposed to come with a web-page revamp that shows no signs of imminence. At least some of these will actually happen, but I’m afraid that the past week has served a quantity of personal life disaster up, of the order of ‘drink a lot of gin and brood on the point of it all until blessed sleep descends’, and I’m just really not feeling the enthusiasm necessary to try and enthuse you in turn. Ironically, in this time Clio has been pretty good to me and several things look like making print at once in a rush at the end of the year, but, as I say, not feeling it right now. I do apologise for this melancholia; as I am burying myself in work by way of distraction, I imagine I’ll have something to spark some writing for you fairly soon.

In the meantime, have fun with the changing sidebar and if you have any relevant questions (about my subject, that is; personal life will never be exposed in more detail than this on this blog) feel free to demand answers as that will at least get me writing here…

Added in Passing VII: AFK and seminar schedule

At long last I’ve run out of pre-drafted content, and I’m now packing for a weekend away that is going to keep me from the keyboard at least until Monday in any case. I’ll try and have something interesting for when I get back, but in the meantime it’s probably worth saying that the upcoming term’s schedule of the Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research is now online. Not much for me there, but I have a lot to be doing in any case.

For now, however, I must leave you quiet for a few days.

Oh for heavens’ sake Internet! (Google Penance)

Let me borrow an admirable feature from Got Medieval, in which blogger extraordinaire Carl Pyrdum repairs the places where his blog has not answered the questions asked by those whom search engines have brought to it. This one’s fairly simple. Someone reached here from putting this question into answers.com:

Did they had sex in the middle ages?

I get too much of this stuff after a careless rant of long ago used both the words `medieval’ and `sex’, so I guess I must atone by filling this apparent gap in the interblag. Okay, this may not be news to the experts reading, but bear with me, apparently people need to know. The answer is: yes, yes they did. In fact we can prove this by induction. So your assignment, anonymous searcher, is: show that medieval people had sex starting from Descartes’s “I think therefore I am”. I’ll start you off: “I am, therefore…”

I’ll leave the rest to you and get back to banging my head on the desk now. Bonus points for correct conjugation of ‘to have’.

What kind of post-modern are you?

No, not some journal poll, but a question raised in the interview in her The New History that Maria Lúcia Pallares-Burke included with her husband, Professor Peter Burke. He comes across, perhaps unsurprisingly, as a very clear-headed and sympathetic model of academic detachment; perhaps to drag more out of him, her questions by contrast seem oddly negative and nihilist. So, as well as saying things I can relate to about how one’s books are attempts to repair the previous one (I know I haven’t finished one yet, but it’s only discipline that’s stopping me writing the beginning of the one that will hold some of the stuff I won’t be able to say in the first) and that one really needs to get out of Oxbridge fairly frequently if one wishes to work there without becoming terribly isolated, some of his questions address what are becoming this blog’s perennial questions about how much theory helps or hinders and what use the whole historical enquiry shebang are. While I stay busy with actual writing and learning how little I know about real numismatics despite working in the middle of it for two years, you can therefore ponder the thoughts of someone wiser than me about this, our profession.

Peter Burke

Firstly, Dr Pallares-Burke asks him if he thinks that post-modernist approaches have robbed us of any chance of getting at the truth. He is subtle in response, distinguishing between a deliberate and self-conscious philosophical approach (as ‘post-modernism’) and a vaguer embedded cultural assumption (as ‘post-modernity’). Unsurprisingly, he sees the conscious version as more helpful, but characterises both as being about a readiness to believe that social structures, assumptions and beliefs are ‘soft’ and changeable, that accepted dogmas may change, and that the individual retains agency in the wider world, as opposed to older views that put us all in the grip of deterministic social forces. His actual answer to the question is that our new perspectives make it less likely that we will attempt to impose our vision on a swathe of history but also makes us less likely to do the work of relating what was then to what is now, a task of interpretation that he sees as the core of the historian’s task. It’s quite interesting to find a self-avowed practitioner of the ‘new history’ that the book’s title distinguishes saying that, in retrospect, it’s been unhelpful because of opening the possible range of questions so wide that historians now lose touch with each other. In particular, I could see the force of a suggestion that interdisciplinarity is a very necessary thing, but drives in many directions, and that if what we wind up with is a range of historians who speak more to members of other fields than to historians, all we have done is create more incompatible specialisms. That is, interdisciplinary scholars need to keep enough touch with some central idea of history that they can still usefully inform each other, not just their more traditional colleagues.

Secondly, there’s a bit that may as well be quoted in extenso:

“‘What is the use of history?’ Marc Bloch wrote a whole book trying to answer this simple question, put in all its simplicity by a child, because, as he said, it dealt with the important issue of the ‘legitimacy of history’. How would you deal with this question?

“If you’d like a short answer to this huge question, I would simply say that the use of the study of the past lies in helping us to orient ourselves in the world in which we live. A longer answer would involve making distinctions between uses (more or less practical), and also between pasts (more or less remote).

“Since the world is in constant change, it is impossible to understand it without trying to locate what is happening in broader trends over time, whether they are economic, cultural, or whatever. This is the essential justification for the study of the recent past. But the recent past is not intelligible by itself. I sometimes think that we ought to teach history backwards, starting with current events….

“Another use of history is to tell people about their ‘roots’, the culture from which they and their families came. At a time when more and more people feel uprooted in a world which is changing faster and faster, and when many people have been physically uprooted… this psychological function of the study of the past is an important one. It explains the increasing interest in local history in the last few years.

“But to study our own past alone is dangerous. It encourages insularity and a sense of superiority over others…. So it is crucial to combine the study of ‘us’ with the study of others, more or less remote….”1

This makes me ask myself several questions. I am very much interested in the early medieval history of the country from which I come, my first piece of sustained research was on Anglo-Saxon London and my second was on Scotland, where I have ancestry and family. I moved to looking at Catalonia principally because, as Magistra says below of literature, it has the sort of sources that answer the questions I want to ask. And my knowledge of England does help with my study of Catalonia, if only in contrasting the very different way the two societies used charters. All the same, I don’t think I do this to anchor my identity; if anything I do it to dissolve it, to suggest that my modern nationality and heritage (and, I suppose, privilege—it may all be guilt-driven, in the end) are no more important than what some small landowner did with a short-lived terracing project on the side of a Pyrenee eleven hundred years ago. The selection of my ‘other’ has been driven by a desire to find unploughed historiographical ground and an interest in mixing zones and liminal territories, and it may well have pushed me further than is good for me from the mainstream. But despite all of this introspection, I have given very similar answers to the `what use is history’ question in the past, even if I no longer do, and it gives me to wonder that I no longer seem to believe it. It may well be truer for others than it is for me.

As for his first justification, that history needs background and the background needs background, ad infinitum, that I baulk at much more readily. Only a modernist can get away with this; it is teleological. Anything old that has not had modern social phenomena that can be claimed as its offspring loses its ‘use’ in this sort of argument, and studying it therefore leads to scrabbling attempts to make it ‘relevant’ that should be alien to anyone trying to be objective. Sometimes, things are interesting even if they didn’t lead to anything else. This is the problem that Randolph Starn was trying to get round with the genealogical approach I described a while ago, and as I said there, sometimes things just don’t fit into linear schemes. One could just about fit such societies into Professor Burke’s idea by considering the distant past as an ‘other’ to give us perspective, and certainly I think that’s something I get from studying it, but just as Professor Burke gives no impression of really wanting to look at the early medieval roots of his study areas, I don’t really want to take my studies forward to the sixteenth century to see what they go on to mean: I feel quite strongly that they had meaning at the time, if we can but get at what it was, and that that’s enough. The question remains, that he addresses and I don’t, is: as I am not then but now, what do I think is the point of moving this stuff, via my interpretation, from then to now? I’m not sure I have an intellectual answer that is more than “LOOK WHAT I FOUND!”, and I may need to think about that some more.

Those are the bits I have the strong reactions to. As to interdisciplinarity, I think I’m actually situated about right, trying to be able to understand the basics of work in most fields enough to ask for meaningful clarification from an expert, and understand it, whether that be literature, liturgy, archaeology (most usually), anthropology or even physics. I still want to do what I think of as just ‘history’, though some would say I am hard social and some would call me soft political, and I don’t mind. But because all this stuff is happening too, I like to be able to understand what its practitioners are saying without leaving my own work for weeks at a time (which is why apparently deliberate intellectualisation and obfuscation annoys me). As for post-modernity and post-modernism, I don’t even care where I am on the spectrum; labelling my approach has no interest to me at all, especially with labels that I suspect are not useful to describe it. But maybe you the reader see something there you like?


1. Peter Burke, interview with M. L. Pallares-Burke, Cambridge, May and June 1999, ed. Pallares-Burke as “Peter Burke” in eadem, The New History, pp. 129-157.

Mad science, palaeography, genetic mutation and manuscript transmission

I’ve just been mailed about what sounds like a project that could be completely misguided, well-guided but bonkers or actually really quite cunning. Observe this page at the website of Cambridge’s Department of Biochemistry, and ask yourself what a research group in Plant Biology are doing with a picture from the Canterbury Tales on their page. Is it just that they’re observing “Whan That Aprille” week? It seems not.

In fact these guys are working on testing a theory (which has been published in Nature and therefore presumably isn’t utter babbasquadgeness) that scribal errors accumulate down a manuscript stemma in a manner with analogies to the accumulation of mutation in DNA sequences. What would that tell us, I wonder, and the answer apparently is: they’re not sure yet but maybe something about likelihood of copying error? I guess it might give us tests for how many redactions a text had gone through from an exemplar, and I can see how there might be theoretical parallels: an error that fits well with its context may be preserved (for example, “bretwalda” for “brytenwalda”, no?) because it makes sense, in the same way that a favourable mutation might… I suppose? They also mention using it to clarify processes where one text was made from several different ancestor manuscripts, and I suppose it could make that process of comparison more rigorous although to be honest comparison of variants is already pretty gosh-darn scientific in that field when done right (that is, by people who actually understand statistics, who are sadly scant in medieval studies).

Anyway, in order to test this they are getting volunteers to copy some medieval texts and then they’re going to analyse the errors. I would have thought that observation would weaken the scientific validity of this: if the volunteers know their errors will be counted, they’ll make them differently surely? But I expect it to generate some bad science coverage in newspapers all the same. If anyone reading is interested in taking part, bearing in mind that it’s in Cambridge UK and as far as I know none of you reading are, and bearing in mind that there is no pay, you can apparently contact Professor Howe for more information.

N. B. I owe the word `babbasquadgeness’ to an old friend, John van Laer, and if he asks, I went thataway


Their references are: Christopher J. Howe, Adrian C. Barbrook, Matthew Spencer, Peter Robinson, Barbara Bordalejo & Linne R. Mooney, “Manuscript evolution” in Trends in Genetics Vol. 17 (Amsterdam 2001), pp. 147-152; and Adrian C. Barbrook, Christopher J. Howe, Norman Blake & Peter Robinson, “The phylogeny of the Canterbury Tales” in “Scientific Correspondence” in Nature no. 349 (London 1998), p. 839.