Monthly Archives: February 2009

Vocational Ph.D. programs: is this the future calling?

I’m often conscious that I don’t fully understand the differences between the US and UK higher education processes, so I’m not quite sure how bothered to be by a recent news item that I came across at Cliopatria. The story is that Drew University, a small liberal arts college in New Jersey, recently rebuilt its entire history Ph. D. program with a decidedly vocational bent. They have striven to assure that each student, of the few they will carefully choose, will teach their own course for a year as part of their programme, which will be closely constrained to take no more than five years and be tested throughout with historiographical essays that are more like what they’re actually going to have to do after they graduate than the exams they used before. They also aim to haul in all kinds of help from other departments and contribute as much as they can back in exchange.

Grad student etiquete, from Jorge Chams PHD Comics

Grad student etiquete, from Jorge Cham's PHD Comics

A lot of this makes sense for a very small university running a graduate program; to do so at all, which the article emphasises is unusual, requires a lot of pooled resources and selectivity about they’re trying to achieve. In fact I wish big departments in the UK would do more about this kind of sharing of aims between schools and periods, perhaps they could benefit from some similar pressures. That said, there are a lot of things that strike me very oddly, and I don’t know how many of these are just a difference between US and UK practices. Testing, first and foremost. In the UK most Ph. D. students have to pass an upgrade at some point in their course, without which they can only attain a Masters degree; there isn’t really any other form of testing, because the ambitious ones will already be working on conference papers and publications, which one could see as the real tests. And while I’m familiar with the archetype of the never-finishing grad student from the USA’s pop culture, this doesn’t stop me thinking that five years is still a huge chunk of one’s life to use on a doctorate. I took five years to do mine, but three of them were part-time and I was an Assistant Lecturer on a course with the time of two fewer teachers than it had been planned for during some of that; I also spent much too long on a first article, though I guess the work paid off at the time. In the UK it is conventional to over-run, but since one usually has to do so on one’s own money, rarely by more than a year; someone who over-runs by more than a year either has a private income, or probably isn’t going to finish, because they have already had to start in on a real-world career to make ends meet and stop needing the doctorate or enjoying the study. It takes unusual bloody-mindedness to continue to defy one’s normal employability in those circumstances. So there is obviously something basically different about the experience in the USA that means I don’t know how weird the bit that unsettles me is.

That bit is, how much like a vocational lower degree this seems. This bit particularly struck me:

At Drew University our public humanities project will require all our doctoral students to hold internships at intellectual arenas outside the university: museums, foundations, publishing houses, schools, and magazines. In partnership with these institutions, our students could apply their knowledge by designing humanities programs that directly serve the public, such as a museum exhibit or a high school curriculum. We will also sponsor a workshop on writing for a lay audience, taught by a professional author. Thus our program will prepare students for careers in both academia and the nonacademic `knowledge industries’—and some of them will probably choose the latter path.

Now, I know people who would really have benefited from such provision in their doctorate, because that is the path they have wound up on. All the same, is it the point? I did my Ph. D. to do a particular piece of research that would be recognised to have shown that I could be a real historian and work in the profession. In fact as many have found that is not so easy, no matter how good your thesis, and the work just doesn’t stop there. So I can certainly imagine that this could just be seen as realism, and it’s not as if the Drew programme makes anyone less likely to get hired; in fact, in some ways they are merely formalising practices that exist in most places already, like finding your students teaching experience on your courses, and their students will benefit considerably from this being done properly I imagine. But it bothers me all the same that this is being so tailored to getting a job. Really, as I’ve said, history is not supposed to be a marketable discipline, though you can surely write books that make you money from it. But Drew are picking a small cadre of élite students and instructing them how to deal with there being no way to continue their research. They are basically saying it doesn’t matter how good you are, you may not make it here. Surely only realistic, and nothing I haven’t told students of my own who will probably go on to outperform me. All the same it feels like something’s gone wrong if it finally has to be institutionalised.

Two seminars, two cities, part 2: Seminary XLI for added Wendy Davies

Miniature from the Codex Goticus Legionensis (c. 960) showing priests toasting each other

Miniature from the Codex Goticus Legionensis (c. 960) showing priests toasting each other

As just mentioned, from having tried arguing with Peter Heather about DNA evidence (and discovering that I was under-read) I went back to work and then hoofed it for London as soon as the Museum shut so as to hear Wendy Davies telling the London Society of Medieval Studies her answer to the question, “What Can We Say About Local Priests in Northern Spain before the Year 1000?” I was actually slightly late because of the afore-mentioned transport troubles but I got most of it. If you’ve read Acts of Giving since I told you to (come on, come on) you will know some of what she can do with the charter evidence on this subject, but because this was new work, it went beyond what you can find there.1 And since it will be coming out, and indeed first be developed at Leeds I believe, as I have reason to, I don’t want to say too much. I will however mention a few bits and pieces, as I usually do.

A lot of the scribes in the León and area evidence are seen enough times that we know they worked for big people, the cathedral of León itself, the kings, or the big monasteries whose archives give us all this information. However, when a certain priest only turns up in one archive writing transactions that relate to one area, especially when that area is way up in the Cantabrian mountains miles from Sahagún (as it might be—okay, this was one of her examples) then you can be fairly safe in saying firstly that this guy was the local priest and secondly that the local priest wrote charters for people. It’s much harder to see him doing anything else, but Wendy did draw out some evidence. They got thanks gifts for teaching and preaching, so they did do that, though we don’t know how much or what; they dealt with burial. We have surviving liturgical works and vessels, but putting them in a local context is frequently very sketchy. The local ones seem to be rich for their villages but not on a kingdom scale, though priests that rich do turn up, including one Vincentio at León who is the only person Wendy has ever seen in a contemporary medieval source described as “dives”, rich, rather than great, powerful or some similar term, and he gets called it by the Queen, too, or her scribe at least, so that was interesting.

Another thing that came up was orthography. The spelling of charters tends to vary a lot from Classical norms, and one of the things we’d like to know is how much this reflects the spoken language. In Catalonia it all looks quite plausibly like Romance influence until about the 1020s when suddenly we have feudal oaths that preserve actual spoken Romance and it turns out to be a whole different order of thing.2 Here Wendy also weakened such hopes by pointing out that some scribes will vary spelling even between documents, or spell witness’s names in two different ways, and so on. I have seen this from my texts before but never thought of making it make a wider point; as ever I bow to her on this sort of deduction.

There were lots of questions and a great deal more that I could say, but firstly time is short, and secondly I would like at least some of you to come and hear Wendy’s account of this work at Leeds and so I’ll leave it there. There will be more Wendy Davies posts very soon (though I’ll stop before too long, I promise) so this is probably enough to be going on with.


1. Wendy Davies, Acts of Giving: individual, community and church in tenth-century Christian Spain (Oxford 2007), pp. 36-65.

2. On which you should read Adam Kosto, Making Agreements in Medieval Catalonia: Power, Order, and the Written Word 1000-1200 (Cambridge 2000).

Interesting-looking conference

Bearnán Conaill, the bell of St Conall of Inishkeel

Bearnán Conaill, the bell of St Conall of Inishkeel

I may be cutting this one a bit fine to be any use to anyone reading, but this looks like it might be worth the money: a conference at the Cambridge Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, called ‘Between the Islands: Interaction with Vikings in Ireland and Britain in the Early Medieval Period’, 13th to 15th March, registration deadline the 27th February. Speakers include Alex Woolf, sometime commentator here and general good thing, Claire Downham, Judith Jesch, John Hines and James Barrett, there’s also a paper about the Sea Stallion of Glendalough, the abstracts are online for your perusal, and all in all I may have to happen along. If I do, I shall try, eventually, to report.

Two seminars, two cities, part 1: Seminary XL with Peter Heather

Tuesday 3 February was a rather busy day for London-range early medievalists. The afternoon had Peter Heather speaking to the Cambridge Late Antique Network Seminar to the title, “Predatory Migration and the First Millennium”, and then the evening saw Wendy Davies (for it is again she) asking, “What Can We Say About Local Priests in Northern Spain before the Year 1000?” in front of the London Society for Medieval Studies. Although Britain was at that time suffering considerably from its rulers’ conclusion that it’s not economical to avert the loss of billions of pounds of revenue by giving local authorities enough money to keep some snowploughs about the place, meaning that transport was heavily disrupted when prolonged heavy snowfall occurred, it was just about possible to manage both… But I’ll blog them separately, as there was little connection between the two and comments may be less confusing that way. So here’s Peter’s first and Wendy’s will follow.

A map of supposed invasions of the Roman Empire, from Wikimedia Commons

A map of supposed invasions of the Roman Empire, from Wikimedia Commons

I’ve mentioned Professor Heather here in the past as being someone unafraid to imagine large-scale population movements in the early Middle Ages, which somewhat sets him apart from his contemporaries who have often feared that all numbers in medieval sources are exaggerated (because, for example, if that really is a barbarian army coming across the steppe, are you hanging round to count them?), that they indulge in literary tropes related to origin myths in which peoples move en bloc without losing any of their identity—tropes that subsequent work on ethnicity has problematised—and lastly because modern migrations just don’t look like this. The old-style ‘age of migrations’, the ‘invasion hypothesis‘, presupposes population movements that are deliberate (as opposed to unplanned flight), aggressive (that is armed, ‘predatory’) and closed; that is, that the Sueves were still Sueves when they’d reached Galicia from Darkest Germania, because they had neither shed many people to local populations as they passed nor taken in so many as to dilute their identity or material culture. To a generation or more of scholars this has seemed very unlikely to have occurred very much, if at all.

Peter, who was in part plugging a new book called Empires and Barbarians which must be continuing the theme of his last one in this respect, laid these planks of the counter-argument out (and I wouldn’t like to say there might not be others, but these certainly exist) and conversationally but thoroughly jumped on them until he felt that they were broken. Part of this involved a saving strategy, mind: he agreed that many supposed invasions were not what they are cracked up to be, but because we can tell this from, for example, Ammianus Marcellinus’s descriptions, then when Ammianus does say that a full-scale migration of a people with predatory intent was afoot, as he does of the Gothic revolt in 376, we ought to take him seriously in that case too. Ammianus also describes the refugee Alemans as a people being made up of lots of separate bands of followers briefly united under one ruler, and Peter compared that to the shifting Viking warbands that made up the Great Army five centuries later. Peter pointed out that such a combination of elements must have been very hard to maintain, and that no-one would do so without some kind of plan in mind, although questions forced him to concede that that plan might well no longer be the one that the ‘people’ had had in mind when they had set off. Lastly he explained the difference compared to modern migrations, so fluid, open and multivalent with a composition of small bands of individuals or families, as being one of economic determinism. Nowadays, he argued, immigrants can not only amass the capital to move by themselves but can expect to be economically able to sustain themselves alone when they arrive at destination, because there are many jobs and a specialised economy and it is possible to access wealth in many ways. In late antiquity on the other hand, he argued, while you can certainly find work, you can’t individually find wealth because, apart from loot that you can only keep if you go away again, wealth is land and land needs many people to run and still more to roust its previous occupants. If you intend to take land, he argued, better bring an army.

Romantic depiction of the Gothic invasion of the Roman Empire

Romantic depiction of the Gothic invasion of the Roman Empire

I’m okay with this as long as it’s allowed to represent an extreme case. I think it is, yes, arguable that the Goths in 376 formed themselves into a confederacy whose express object was to take land in the Empire by force where the Huns couldn’t reach them and that to this end they moved en masse with women and children (for which Peter had textual support too) to make it so. On the other hand, it was certainly possible to find a livelihood on your own terms in the Roman Empire as a small-scale immigrant: look at all the legislation about waste land needing farmers. It may have been harder to find a bit of waste to call a new home under the Empire because of the claims of the state than it was, well, on the Spanish March of the Carolingian Empire (hem hem), but people did move in in small numbers without fighting, I’m sure. So there is some reason that the Goths don’t break up and try that which is bigger than simple economic necessity, and I don’t think that Peter has saved the invasion hypothesis. He’s just made the (special) cases where we ought to allow it more explicable, and therefore defensible. No small thing; but between that and the lively disagreements over DNA evidence that also emerged in questions, he may have to argue a bit more yet.

Rex totius Bretanniae?

Obverse of a silver penny of King Athelstan of Wessex (924-39) from the Winchester mint by the moneyer Wulfheard, legend reading +ÆÐELSTAN REX TO BRI, now in the British Museum, SCBI 34 no. 162

Obverse of a silver penny of King Athelstan of Wessex (924-39) from the Winchester mint by the moneyer Wulfheard, legend reading +ÆÐELSTAN REX TO BRI, now in the British Museum, SCBI 34 no. 162

Apropos of a local postgrad seminar paper around here the other day which I think it would otherwise be inappropriate to blog, this question arose in the discussion. King Æthelstan of Wessex, or indeed England or yet Britain, as you can see from the coin above used the title Rex totius Britanniae, King of All Britain. In 936 this aspiring king landed the eventual Duke Alain II Barbe-Torte of Brittany, with whom he had grown up, at Dol to take over the rather Viking-battered principality for his own, which with his English support Alain duly did.1 Æthelstan must have known it was called Brittany by analogy with Britain; did he think his claimed “totus Britanniae” included it, do you suppose? Was this a takeover, or just a spreading of his friends? Is there a difference in tenth-century Europe? From one corner to another, I just wonder.


1. Source for this is Flodoard’s Annals, ed. Philippe Lauer as Les Annales de Flodoard, publiées d’après les manuscrits, avec une introduction (Paris 1903), online at the Internet Archive where last mod. 19th June 2008 as of 9th February 2009 (warning: the OCR’d plain-text is unusably garbled, the PDF is your only resort), cap. ΜΓ, and now transl. Steven Fanning & Bernard S. Bachrach as The Annals of Flodoard of Reims, 919-966, Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures (Peterborough ON 2004), s. a. 936. For background see Joëlle Quaghebeur, “Norvège et Bretagne aux IXe et Xe siècles : un destin partagé” in Pierre Bauduin (ed.), Les fondations scandinaves en Occident et les débuts du duché de Normandie (Rouen 2005), pp. 113-131.

Tintagel newly Arthurable

Tintagel viewed from above the mainland

Tintagel viewed from above the mainland

I like to think I’m current on this blog, but sometimes I have these moments where I am left to go, how did that get past me at the time? There is but small comfort, in this case, in learning that UK archæological magazine Current Archaeology is also a bit behind the times. Anyway, it was news to me, and I promised a post to Michelle at Heavenfield after mistakenly correcting hers on the place, maybe it’s news to you: there was probably a royal residence at Tintagel somewhen in the fifth to seventh centuries that might make a plausible setting for some Arthurian Dark Age warlord’s court, and the archaeology justifying assertions like this was published in 2007. Now Current Archaeology are reporting on it in what appears to have been their last issue for 2008.1 The new issue is just catching up with that Orkney stack that yielded a King Edgar penny that I mentioned before, too. Anyway…

A while ago someone asked me about Arthur and Tintagel and the result was one of my pub history rants, because Arthur is a subject about which British early medievalists get asked only slightly less than the Vikings, in my experience at least. At that point I didn’t know much about Tintagel and was still working with what I’d been told about it as a major import centre, but not really a secular power centre.2 I should have wondered about that, because whereas Anglo-Saxon trading sites of that period tend to be associated with, but not at, secular power centres, British and sub-Roman ones are very often at castles, though there is an extent to which we know about them because we dig obvious, visible castles more than eroded beaches and riverside fields. Dinas Powys and its massive assemblage of Mediterranean pottery, to which the Leslie Alcock book I have written about here so much adds several northern parallels, should have warned me there was probably a power presence here too.3 Well, turns out that a team from Glasgow (Glasgow again! They do shedloads up there) has been working on expanding that since 1990, with help indeed from television, helicopters and submarines, and indeed cunning use of your FWSE of choice will find them explaining this to The Heroic Age, so I don’t really have an excuse for not knowing. It’s their work that Current Archaeology is expounding. The web version gives you only a preview, and the eight-page feature with a great many gorgeous photos is actually pretty in-depth cover for CA though the lack of detail about the dating evidence is still very frustrating.

So what do they say? In brief, they detected lots that the earlier excavations weren’t subtle enough to find, making the picture on the near-island a great deal busier, and divided it on the basis of radio-carbon dates (calibrated; I suppose if I want them uncalibrated I better read the report) into three phases, centering on 395X460 CE, 415X535 and 560X670. That is to say, after some probably late fifth-century disuse it was revived in the sixth century and at that stage it was pretty large, the fortress wall (previously thought to belong to the high medieval castle but now dated by `unequivocal’ evidence to the fifth-seventh centuries) being greater in length even than South Cadbury, which has been generally associated with Camelot in legend since the seventeenth century. Although he later regretted it, Leslie Alcock observed when reporting on Cadbury that so large a perimeter implied a warlord who could gather enough men to defend it all, as any part undefended would have made a defence of any kind pointless.4 Tintagel, in its extremely isolated position, would be a lot harder to assault, but for all that some similar argument can be made. So yes, it’s a power centre, presumably for the kingdom of Dumnonia. The excavators do stress that it may not have been fully occupied for most of the year, which is fine with me, but when it was, it apparently had to hold a lot of people and they bought and used Mediterranean pottery, implying Mediterranean food and drink imported, and generally acted like Romans more than a bit. Whether Arthur fits into that depends very much on when you consider him to have maybe existed: if I was going to I’d wonder about the second phase more, but really I don’t think this is a worthwhile exercise.

The Artognou stone, found at Tintagel in 1998

The Artognou stone, found at Tintagel in 1998

Now, speaking of things that aren’t worthwhile exercises, have a look at this. This is a further piece of the argument for a royal centre here. I don’t think they need it; Gildas would have called anyone able to fill this place a tyrannus which makes them what we can call a king without worrying too much. Saying which king might be a bit much, but this stone is supposed to tell us more along those lines. It came out of a drain where it had been recycled as a cover in some later phase of occupation. If you can see the inscriptions scratched into it, the smaller lower ones are supposed by epigraphers to be later, and list some Latinised Celtic-sounding names, Paternus, Coliauus, Artognou, Col… again. The upper part, the big wild letters over-running what is now the edge, have been read as H A V G, and that has been expanded by no less a figure than Charles Thomas as H[onorius] Aug[ustus], that is the name of the Emperor contemporary with the first phase of medieval occupation here, which also apparently fits the lettering style. From this we are asked to believe that some Roman authority was still operative here then, hanging on to the tin trade, and that the later names are kings associating themselves with that remnant of Imperial power and renown.5 Well, I’m not alone in being sceptical about this—heck, I’m famous for being sceptical, right? I don’t want to argue with Charles Thomas about the reading, even though that `V’ has tails that mean that I would, untrained, read it as an `X’, and others have suggested that it should really be read [M]AXE… and therefore refer to someone called Maxentius. That would not be an emperor unless the lettering is earlier than Thomas supposes, as Emperor Maxentius died in 312, but it might be someone wanting to sound like an emperor. I like that better, because this is clearly not official inscription, it’s all over the place; this is graffiti. If Thomas is right, which he probably is given who he is, I agree that it means that someone cared who was emperor and I also agree that the names on it were probably people who wanted to sign up with the Empire’s memory somehow, but I don’t think that the messy look of the stone means anything like as serious as CA seem to be suggesting.

Of course, for some people the real news was that `Artognou’ as a name is sort of like Arthur. I don’t buy it myself, and again as I say I am not alone. But since I first wrote anything about Tintagel in answer to the question of evidence associating him with the place, and this time the dating would fit better, I think I owe it to the person to whom I then tried to give chapter and verse to keep up to date here.


1. Rachel C. Barrowman, Colleen E. Batey & Christopher Morris, Excavations at Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, 1990-1999 (London 2007), reported on in eidem, “What is Tintagel?” in Current Archaeology no. 227 (London 2008), pp. 22-29. I’m not quite sure about the excavators being the authors of the CA article, however; they’re named as “source” which suggests that the actual presentation is down to the editor, Andrew Selkirk, or one of his team, which might explain some of the stranger things it says (see n. 5 below).

2. Charles Thomas, Tintagel, Arthur and Archaeology (London 1993). The CA article actually gives quite a good run-down on the earlier interpretation as a monastic trading centre, based on digs by C. A. Ralegh Radford in the 1950s.

3 Leslie Alcock, Dinas Powys (Cardiff 1963), rev. in idem, Economy, Society and Warfare among the Britons and Saxons (Cardiff 1987); see also idem, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850 (Edinburgh 2003), pp. 209-210.

4. Idem, “Excavations at Cadbury-Camelot” in Antiquity Vol. 46 (London 1972), pp. 29-38; see also idem, Arthur’s Britain (London 1971), pp. 219-224 & 347-349, disowned in idem, Kings & Warriors, p. 5. Cf. idem, “Cadbury-Camelot: a fifteen-year perspective” in Proceedings of the British Academy Vol. 58 (London 1982), pp. 355-388, repr. in idem, Economy, Society and Warfare.

5. Barrowman, Batey & Morris, “What is Tintagel?”, pp. 27-29. It’s not clear to me that this is genuinely Thomas’s reading: none of the other places I find discussing this stone have him as source for anything more than the later names and their dating, and I can’t find anyone else reading it as `H A V G’. The CA article says, “we can now offer a corrected and more comprehensive interpretation based on meticulous study by Charles Thomas”, but whether this is coming from the site report, Thomas’s actual reading or the various spinning processes that have apparently been interposed between Thomas and this article, I’m not sure.

Horses for courses

(I promise that this is the last entry for a while I will begin with a non-medieval piece of token coinage. This one is relevant, but possibly only to one reader. Back to the real deal shortly, after I have met some deadlines…)

Reverse of a copper halfpenny token issued by an uncertain party between 1787 and 1805 depicting Pandora's Breeches afire with a serpent beneath, Fitzwilliam museum CM.BI.1925-R

Reverse of a copper halfpenny token issued by an uncertain party between 1787 and 1805 depicting Pandora's Breeches afire with a serpent beneath

… on the other hand, one persistent advantage of the attachment to Clare is the conversation. One Monday not long ago, after finding a fellow Thomas Spence enthusiast (see above), I got talking to my more immediate colleague Dr Tatsuya Mitsuda, who has now landed a job in Japan and so will not be my colleague for much longer. This means that he is wrapping up his current field of research, which has been on the ownership of and fascination with the horse in modern culture. Among the interesting things he said is that it takes till horse-racing becomes a popular sport for horses to become so personalised as to get names, as before that the focus is on the rider and also very upper-class; affection for horses, he suggested, was mainly a middle-class thing.

A stone carving of Odin on Sleipnir

A stone carving of Odin on Sleipnir

This, it seemed to me, was likely to be vulnerable to attack from the Middle Ages, which is a concern fresh in my mind as you know, but the only named medieval horse I could immediately think of was Sleipnir, who is something of a special case. Now, having been directed by the Unlocked Wordhoard, who were also good enough to link to me, to an almost-irrelevant post at In the Medieval Middle that referred to a relevant one, I have the full answer and a characteric recommendation to read more Jeffrey Cohen, which indeed perhaps I should do some day, though I may wait for his Leeds keynote before I judge the urgency of this given my to-read pile. Anyway, the answer is that, as I suspected, chivalric literature has quite a few named horses in it and Karl Steel also had some more twisty examples that you can follow up there if such things interest you. All the same, I think Tats has some safe ground to retreat to from this onslaught of the medievalists in terms of popular, that is widespread, ownership of horses and the identification of the horse as celebrity is still interesting. Just, perhaps, not as new as all that.