Category Archives: Uncategorized

Seminar CLII: the modern decline of Charlemagne

My progress through my ridiculous seminar report backlog now picks up in the summer of this year with none other than old acquaintance and collaborator Charles West, who on 6th May 2014 found himself in Birmingham addressing a new seminar of the Institute of German Studies, the Not the First World War Centenary Seminar, which was concentrating on alternative anniversaries to the one that we aren’t allowed to miss this year. Therefore Charles was brought in to address us on the topic, “Charlemagne and the Future of the European Past”. Now, as it happens, of recent years Charles has ventured onto the Internet himself along with a cadre of colleagues from Sheffield who contribute to their History Matters blog, which I recommend, and thus it is that you don’t have to take my word for it what Charles thinks about this issue, because he had already written something about it here. So I’ll be brief here and refer you over there if you want to debate things.

A perfectly-arranged photograph by Andreas Herrmann of the statue of Charlemagne outside the Rathaus in Aachen

A perfectly-arranged photograph by Andreas Herrmann of the statue of Charlemagne outside the Rathaus in Aachen

The short and essential pitch of what Charles had to say is that Europe used to be a lot more fussed about Charlemagne as a figure of importance than it has now become. Whereas he was the point of origin for the Holy Roman Empire and the man whose achievement in bringing a swathe of Occidental territory under one rule both Napoleon and Hitler expressed an intent to beat, and even after the war still the figurehead of various prizes and speeches intended to foster European unity, this has fallen off of late. In this, the 12th centenary of his death, which has sparked a number of exhibitions and celebrations around the Continent, that at Aachen was expecting only a third as many people as attended a similar exhibition at Paderborn in 1999 (and I’ve no idea how many it in fact got).

Poster for the triple exhibition at Aachen, Karlder Grosse: Macht, Kunst, Schätze

Poster for the triple exhibition at Aachen

Charles put this down to two related things: in the first place, the early European Union was surprisingly close in extent to the territories ruled by Charlemagne (including the British Isles obviously attached but clinging to ideas of sovereignty anyway); Spain, Portugal and Greece kind of sneaked in, Scandinavia in general has some explaining to do but the lines east and south were otherwise close, whereas now that we count Eastern Europe in full and the Baltic States and are dithering over Turkey, the old model no longer fits even slightly. This larger Europe also has no collective history together: this group of countries have never been a unit, even Rome never ruled them all, so appeals to our great common history and its unifying figureheads (of whom, after all, there are few enough if that’s your aim) cease to have anything like as much traction. The whole paper thus served as another reminder that whatever we think we’re doing as historians, our work is put to use by people with political agendas that determine why people are interested, and when those agendas don’t need our work they instead put it out to grass. Charles concluded that the best way we can proceed is to tell the story we have and let it find its own audience, but of course we would also usually like it to find financial support and, well, there has ever been the rub…

Metablog IX: the tenth century at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

The next post was supposed to be the third and final one wrestling with the figures from the polyptych of Santa Giulia di Brescia, but I realised while setting up the previous one that it was post no. 899, which means of course that this is post no. 900. A moment’s further reflection will then reveal to you that this means A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe has just entered its own tenth century, and I thought that was worth marking.

World history time chart for 800 to 1500 from H. G. Wells's The Outline of World History, p. 614

World history time chart for 800-1500, as drawn out in H. G. Wells’s The Outline of History, being a Plain History of Life and Mankind, revised edn. (London 1920), p. 614

As even this 1920s picture arguably has right, 900 was not a particularly auspicious time in world history, at least in political terms. Several great empires were in decline, with consequent dislocation, chaos and fragmentation, from China across to Western Francia, and the up-and-coming ones like Ottonian Germany, the Samanid emirate (not on Wells’s chart), Fatimid Egypt or the briefly revived Byzantium not yet evident in their trajectory. In Europe, at least, the climate’s slow improvement was probably leading to a slow increase in bottom-up prosperity, but the ways that was working out higher up the social scale where surplus was appropriated might have hidden any real benefit for the producers. I hope that little of this applies to the blog over its next hundred posts, but there will at least be a continuation of the kind of geographical spread that seems to have become typical here as I one way or another wind up working on or teaching almost everywhere in the Middle Ages.

Map of Europe c. 900

Map of Europe c. 900 care of

I do still try and keep my focus on the tenth century, though, and I have therefore been asked whether I think there is any particular dynamic to the so-called ‘secolo di ferro’ that marks it out as an era to study. It seems to me that there is, and that it is the coincidental but contemporaneous disintegration of two superstates at opposite ends of the Mediterranean, the Carolingian Empire (a unit of sorts even in its divided form post-840) and the ‘Abbasid Caliphate, both continuing in some form but giving up much political space into which a myriad of new states intrude from around their peripheries, like young trees in a forest shooting up when big old trees falling opens holes in the canopy. By 1000 there would be several powerful polities in each of the zones these had dominated, Anglo-Saxon England, the Ottonian Holy Roman Empire, the Fatimid and Andalusi Caliphates, Byzantium enduring, the Turkic sultanates and the Samanid Emirate to name but a few, and the subsequent few centuries could be seen as a contest for supremacy that changed hands a lot in the East and that, in the West, no-one except maybe the papacy really won. When you’re looking at changes of centrality like these, it seems to me that the best place to be watching from is the edges, the old and new frontiers, where the consequences of such events can be seen as changes in political direction. That’s been my conviction for a long time and it continues to power my enquiries, and thus, my writing here. I hope it will also continue to keep you reading, at least until the millennium!

Home isn’t where the medieval architecture is

There’s been quite a lot of change in my life lately, and though this post has been stubbed since January it provokes reflection on those changes, because for New Year 2014 I went home. Or at least, I went to where my mother lives and where I grew up, but what does that tell us? I didn’t even know this was there:

This, as you can tell, is not my photo, because I hadn’t brought a camera when we went a-calling in very early January. I firmly expected it to be locked, as per my general expectations of the Home Counties, but was happily wrong. The building is twelfth-century, for the most part, though the tower is fifteenth-century. There is some sculpture in it that survives from the earliest period, and some fourteenth-century wall painting, which seems to show the Annunciation and the Ascension; presumably other scenes from the Life of Christ were also once here, and these are now quite hard to make out but still there. I had only the very poor camera in my phone, which struggles badly with low light, and it couldn’t capture these, but the esteemed Highly Eccentric gave it a go with the camera she had with her, and if you want to see more that’s here. Of what I did take, this one shot came out sort of OK.

Interior of Holy Cross, Sarratt

Nave, rood screen and presbitery

I grew up two miles or so from this place; it wasn’t my notional parish church, but it’s not much further away than that. It’s also decidedly more medieval, but I never went here before. That would be not least because then I was neither church-goer nor medievalist, of course, but it joins some reading about the area’s local history over the last year or so to leave me aware how little I understood of the idea where I grew up in the terms that are now significant to me. By a strange irony, I type this now about the same distance from where my mother grew up. Both these places have seen some change but what’s changed most is me as observer. One leaves home either in order to try and return able to support oneself or to make a new home elsewhere, I guess. One of the toughest things for me about the life academic is how hard it makes that latter for those who do not early get the elusive permanent job. Wherever one is won’t be where one is next, and the roots always have to be ready to come up. I suppose this post is an occasion to reflect, then, that even our deepest roots are not as deep as we sometimes think they are, and that it doesn’t have to be in youth that one plants them.

Name in Lights VII & Print XII

[This was originally posted on December 3rd 2013 and stuck to the front page, but now I’ve reached the point in my backlog where it would originally have fallen, I’m releasing it to float free in the stream where future readers might expect it. Don’t laugh, chronology is important to historians…]

Cover of Writing History in the Digital Age, ed. by Kristen Nawrotski & Jack Dougherty

Cover of Writing History in the Digital Age, ed. by Kristen Nawrotzki & Jack Dougherty

Some of the announcements I make here, despite backlog, deserve to be made while they’re still current. Such a one is this, though even it is a bit behind-hand: very shortly after my arrival in the new post described below, there emerged a volume edited by Kristen Nawrotzki and Jack Dougherty called Writing History in the Digital Age. This volume has had an interesting history, because it’s very largely been written and edited in public view online here. They solicited some contributions, got given others, had a couple of dedicated reviewers go through them but also let the authors see each others’ work (for once! why is this not done more often, and why does it make so little difference normally when it is?) and accepted comments from the open web too. These were surprisingly useful, and I know because I’m in it, and as I’ve recounted before wound up as a result in a collaboration I had never expected with a co-author I may never meet. In any case: the results are out, and because it’s in the University of Michigan Press’s digitalculturebooks imprint that means you can read it for free on the web here. Oddly, the title page names no authors, so you would have to be told that my/our piece is near the bottom, entitled, “Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging, and the Academy”. This may be a direct link to that essay, which is an oddly difficult thing to do. I suppose they would like you to buy the print version, which I believe exists and of which I am hoping some day to receive oneactually looks really nice and smart.1 In the meantime, though, as well as our piece I would especially recommend the several pieces on teaching with Wikipedia, something many of us may have thought of doing but fewer met the complications and teaching points involved in trying. The whole thing’s pretty good, though, and well worth some browsing time I think. I humbly recommend it to the readership…

Boring statistics: three drafts of my original version, still visible here, and three of the combined one but thrashed out in only two fairly frantic days in 2012; submission of final text to appearance, 1 year 8 months, not bad by the standards of the Academy alas. I still think it’s worth noting these things, because especially when you’re writing about the Internet, as I know all too well, content dates fast. I hope we’re still more or less of relevance, though.

1. Yes, there is still apparently a market for print works about the Internet. Have fun typing in those URLs… Full citation: Alex Sayf Cummings & Jonathan Jarrett, “Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging, and the Academy” in Writing History in the Digital Age, edd. Kristen Nawrotzki & Jack Dougherty, digitalculturebooks (Detroit 2013), pp. 246-258, doi:10.3998/dh.12230987.0001.001.

Avatar of Change

The morning spent photographing charters in Vic last year lately described got me a lot of good stuff, relevant to several different projects, but also one quite unexpected outcome, which was not a text, but a drawing. I was paging through the somewhat ragged Calaix 6 as carefully as I could looking, I guess, for the fragmentary Cal. 6 núm. 1600 I showed you last post when this suddenly fell before my eyes on a verso just, er, inverted:

Verso of Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, núm. 1302

Verso of Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, núm. 1302

Actually, now that I poke into this I really should have more information on it than I have. It seems to be another document written by the scribe Ermemir, one of the people whose signatures I was trying to collect on this trip, that I in fact missed, and so it’s slightly galling to find that I have a photograph of the verso but not the text. Well, I will just have to go back again. But also I should have known this was here, as Ramon Ordeig’s edition (the second time I’ve met the text of this document) notes in his, well, notes on the document: “Hi ha dibuixada una bèstia quadrúpeda”, which you may not even need translated, “There is drawn here a four-legged animal”.* I never noticed the note… But I did see the original, and my immediate thought, after “Wow! Dragon!”, which may be over-stating things a bit, was “That’s a new avatar, that is.”

The monastery of Sant Cugat del Vallès

The monastery of Sant Cugat del Vallès, avatar of me as Tenthmedieval for about seven years at time of writing

A long time ago now, Michelle of Heavenfield asked me where my avatar came from and the answer was, more or less, a badly-founded whim. It’s been me for a good few years now but it’s also misleadingly religious, later medieval and connected to a place I’ve only ever passed on the train and whose documents I hardly use. This, however, is from my main archive, exquisitely contemporary (the document is from 1000 exactly, though I admit there’s no clue when the sketch was made; it could even be prior to the use of the parchment for the charter) and cool in a way that has no spiritual implications now recoverable, and seems a lot more like the kind of presentation I want. So, there we go, it’s done. By my beast shall ye know me, till I find something even cooler anyway!

* Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. no. 1858, also edited as Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segles IX i X), ed. R. Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-1996), 5 fascicles, doc. no. 644.

Models for a public academy

Student protests in London 2011 behind book-cover shields

At least some people still believe the humanities can defend themselves…

This is another post that represents a long thought process, and not a very conclusive one. Towards the end of 2012 I was becoming gloomy about the state of the academy, probably not least because of grave doubts over my future place in it, but also because of the various UK government initiatives that seemed set to make life in it harder and less honest, about which there’s been better commentary than mine would be. In Oxford, where I then still was, this was for many taking the form of wondering if the university might be able to go it alone, partly out of frustration at what the pressure to meet and manage targets was doing to the size of the administrative establishment even as money for teaching and research was being cut, but also out of the ability of some commentators to come up with costings that made it look as if even Oxford was unlikely to get back in research money as determined by the REF what it had put in in staff time and effort and lost research time. And if not Oxford, then who? And so on. And it all had me thinking if there might be a way to envisage a future university which did not have the reins held by government money in this way.

I am now further out of this bubble than I was in December 2012, though you can see that even much later I was still smarting with this kind of logic, but back then I was reflecting on the double-edged sword of the problems history has generating the kind of ‘impact’ on public policy now demanded by the government for its money and the continually steady recruitment this supposedly useless degree manages in so many places. History is, as Magistra put it in a different context, a cash cow, even if it’s still probably not possible to teach it at university level as a money-making enterprise except to the very rich. Still, it is usually facilities-light (no labs) and student-heavy, and this tells us surely that we are not without impact, that people think history can be useful to them (for, for example, stopping people believing rubbish) or is just interesting, and this is also suggested by the fact that books on it sell, even books with footnotes. Book sales and student recruitment are of course not counted as measures of impact, which is vexing because it is the most obvious impact we have, on people’s minds and memories.

The obvious conclusion I was being led to in December 2012 was that it might be possible, then, to operate academic history research on some kind of broad-based public subscription model. Kickstarter had just started operating in the UK, too, so some kind of model for how it might be done now existed: a plea passed around blogs and Twitter, per project. You’d have to be good at explaining why it was interesting and what your project would find out, and you’d hope to get conventional publication out of it (of which free copies would need to be available for some of the subscribers I guess), but the primary communication of progress and results would be online, with people who genuinely cared and had the best reason so to do. It might be really quite energising, if also probably exhausting, and it would escape the national constraints of so much current funding.

But after a while I realised that what it could not be is big. It would have to meet the salary and travel costs of each researcher; a year’s work probably costs £40,000, then, living fairly cheaply (because of course, unless this is still happening inside the university, you have a lot of costs for access to published materials, for the reasons we’ve just discussed). Kickstarter currently has about £190,000,000 pledged to it (says Wikipedia as of today, with conversion from dollars by UCC), and while that’s obviously not the same as money actually paid, let’s just assume for a second that that is a reasonable sum to think this initiative could raise, after the same sort of growth period. That is a university sector, a whole international university sector, sciences and all, of 4,750 researchers. The UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency says that there are currently 185,535 academics employed in the UK alone, and while I’ve no idea whom they count in or out, it is still two orders of magnitude bigger than all that Kickstarter money could fund.

In any case, Kickstarter’s median funding level is in the four figures of dollars (says Wikipedia again), so pursuing that analogy means that we’re looking at maybe funding two months’ of work, not a year’s. That means six times as many individual projects but the £190,000,000 was Kickstarter’s sum for the year, not two months, so that’s the same people doing six projects a year to stay afloat. There are all kinds of bits of this comparison that don’t join up but it’s not at all encouraging. It seems more than likely that any academy that operated thus, in direct service of public pockets, would have to be dramatically smaller than the one we currently possess, or else funded substantially by commercial interests. So we are not going to get free this way.

This was my conclusion when I happened across one of Eileen Joy’s many manifestos for the university outside the university that she has herself started creating. Because of her willingness to put her lack of money where her mouth is in this respect, I take Eileen’s vision seriously: if she can live by it, so may others be able to. Despite this, she and I have never seen eye-to-eye about the scalability of such alternatives, and finding myself at the end of the same thread of apparently-inexorable arithmetic, I wrote a long comment. It was so long that I decided it was in fact part of this post, and so here it is:

“The numbers game is the problem, of course. In at least one Utopia the university is a social and economic organisation that permits scholars to focus on the production of, well, let’s not say knowledge but insight, without having to hustle for a living first and foremost. I’m going to claim that teaching is part of that process, too, though it mires us in awkward ethical positions about trying to reproduce ourselves or create structures that make our education ‘vocational’ by making spaces for our pupils, many of whom are as worthy of them as we are. When the numbers don’t add up any more to make the ideal possible, though (and to be honest I’m not clear how they ever did, or how any government ever accepted the Haldane Principle), that lack of trammeling of our work and thought is first to go, of course. At that point, and especially at this point, abandoning the structure looks like the useful and ethical thing to do. But we will still have to hustle to pay to do our work on the outside. Even if we run as vagabond scholars living on publishing and generosity, we are still selling to live and that means someone is buyer. Who’s free to think, then?”

What a cheerful man, eh? And this is all damn discouraging, but what I have also been noticing is that not everyone is being discouraged even so. Eileen is obviously the most encouraged and encouraging, but the search for direct access to the public purse to solve the problems of dealing with its appointed guardians has still been happening. The first link I had for this is now half-invisible behind a paywall, so I can no longer see what the exact basis for the headline “Crowdsourcing the search for some missing royalty” is, and I think it may be labour rather than funding. Still, it’s a way, and it seems to have done fairly well for what is now the Irish Archaeology field School. And then there was this:

Section of the PHD Comics cartoon for 6th May 2013

Section of a PHD Comics cartoon on just this issue

Again, that’s science, but in the public marketplace the two cultures punch much more equally, I think. And yet all the same the numbers are what the numbers are and I don’t feel that I’ve given up hope prematurely. This may be the way a small bit of the sector now goes. It may at least prevent us from returning to a Victorian academy where privately-funded scholars do most of the interesting, but often problematic because unchecked, work and propagate it via learned societies, but the academy it enables will still be very painfully shrunk. And yet larger alternatives still fail to be imagined

Open Access done wrong

Some of the posts I have queued up from last year are now looking sort of irrelevant. I’m not sure this isn’t one of them, because as I will conclude the debate is now moving on, and because it represents a reply I wrote in May 2013 to a blog post written in February 2013 responding to various other documents and reports from earlier that year, but still, the debate is active, and I hope to catch up on it soon, and meanwhile my starting position might as well go on record, I guess? The basic position to which I seem to be developing is, the Anglophone world doesn’t know how to do open access, and until it does pursuing that agenda may serve some ugly outcomes.

Open Access seal

It’s a good graphic, but does it really tell us that this debate is going to be pursued solely by rational evaluation of outcomes?

The starting point for me here was a post at Historian on the Edge, here, itself expanding on a comment on a post at Modern Medieval where I also commented, so you can see where I was starting from there if you like. At that point Historian on the Edge had lately been locked down to allow comments only from Google accounts, and I didn’t want to get one just to chime in there, so I stubbed my draft comment here as a post and expected it to be up rather soon than this! The Historian on the Edge post had done a sharp job pointing out the damage that author-pays models of open access publishing might do to the careers of new or less established scholars, and pointed everybody to a then-recent open letter by the President of the Royal Historical Society on the issue which made some of the same points. (And that in turn links to many other documents including one from the American Historical Association also reckoning that the model looks bad for history, and which also seems canny to me.) Anyway, to his points I then wanted to add this:

“I’m glad to see this issue getting a higher profile, and even gladder to see the RHS actually doing something, even if it is essentially to look out for its own activities. All the same, I find it exasperating that what they call for is a ‘debate’, and a debate to be conducted almost entirely between ourselves. Surely the correct response is a stand against the idea, given that many of its qualities as proposed are so pernicious? Is there much to debate? (I think that in this respect the Open Access agenda is the cloth over the conjuror’s hand.) This has so far happened with almost all the government’s proposed reforms, but the appropriate response to this kind of thing is surely not, ‘Let’s all talk amongst ourselves about how we can compromise with the government,’ it’s ‘This is awful and it should not stand‘. The issue that should be making us all jump, as you correctly say, is: ‘Where’s the money going to come from for us to do this?’ The answer appears to be: ‘Why, from you yourselves! We will not be giving any extra money for this.’ Indeed, I can’t see any reply to that question that would make more sense than, ‘Since you will be buying far fewer expensive journals you can all cut your library’s subscription budgets and use it to fund self-publication!’ Firstly, and weakest, that’s unlikely to happen: the library budgets may be cut but the savings won’t make it to academics. Secondly, of course, what you also touch on, this assumes that we never need to read anything by people from countries who still publish with publishers, which is not how research works; perhaps Willetts & co. still think that all work worth reading on any academic field comes from the Empire? And, thirdly, peer review doesn’t like self-publication and I can’t see how it ever will. But is there any other way in which going to an APR model is actually going to be cheaper for institutions and, more especially, for those without institutional support for their work?

Open Access debate graphic

It’s great that there’s an international movement to make top-quality knowledge fully accessible, don’t get me wrong, but it will have to be answered nationally, not internationally

“I’m still not sure that this government actually has a higher education policy, and it gets clearer and clearer that the coalition aspect of it is preventing them actually forming policy, but if there is one, I think it might best be seen as privatisation by strangulation, by raising the costs of public funding so high that eventually universities decide to do without. Since the managerial class of most universities see size, turnover and income as more important than viability, however, that particular decision will be very far off for most of them. None of it looks as if they think it might be important to have expertise on things somewhere in the country.”

There are a lot of things there that I think I would now put differently, especially in the last paragraph and not least because of a lot of time spent debating such issues with the authors of a new and recent publication on these issues done for the British Academy (who have got involved at last) that I have yet to read fully.* When I have I hope to write more on this, but that delay means there’s time for exactly the kind of debate I was disparaging a year ago! I suppose the key issues I still see as worth pursuing in that comment are not so much about open access as about publishing and the academy, and they are these:

  1. Peer review costs a lot in terms of time but is terribly remunerated; we cannot easily make it more expensive but neither can we do without it. It seems to me that since the only part of the mechanism into which money systematically goes is the publishing industry, it is them we should be looking at to bear those costs.
  2. Academic research is an international operation, as are most of the biggest publishers interested in it, but its components are nationally funded and vulnerable to political concerns of an entirely uninterested kind, as we see here; the main agenda here is that the Tories would like to be paying a lot less government money for the university system they want, as far as I can see, rather than any clear ideas of what that system should be or how to achieve that.
  3. This is the issue it is not least because the UK academy has no adequate means of resistance or debate to such policies, since its representative bodies like Universities UK are too entrenched in competition for the increasingly limited public money there is to be able to band together to find alternative ways to support academic research, giving them neither interest nor ability to lobby the government with better ways to build excellence in intellectual endeavours.
  4. Given all these factors, I think that the current shift towards open access, while laudable in motivation and intent, is one of the forces that’s going to break the current model of the academy, academic careers and academic publication and I really think therefore that we should have some kind of alternatives ready before we give in to it!

On that last, I have more old thoughts to be updated which will follow in a couple of posts’ time. On the others though, I am very much open to debate. What are your thoughts?

* Rebecca Darley, Daniel Reynolds & Chris Wickham, Open Access Journals in Humanities and Social Science (London 2014), following up on Nigel Vincent & Chris Wickham (edd.), Debating Open Access (London 2013).