Tag Archives: self-justification

Gold and fool’s gold strained from the web

Ordinarily I do links-posts when I have little other content to post, and I save up links against that day so that I’m sure I shall have something interesting to show you all. The way this goes wrong, of course, is the current situation where I have forty-odd posts that I hope will be interesting existing in some state, and also a whole bunch of saved-up links getting increasingly out of date. So, let me clear some decks with some commented things for you to look at and then resume more autocthonous programming.

Digital Treasure

  • Page 185 of the Cartulaire Générale de CíteauxFirst and foremost in this, periodically an update arrives in my INBOX from the Chartae Burgundiae Medii Ævi project of which I’ve made mention here before, the guys who finally indexed the Cluny charters for the greater good of the world. Though they have fewer big goals now their progress is still considerable and ongoing, and more and more stuff is coming online. For me the most exciting thing in the recent batches is the cartularies of Dijon and Pérrecy, now online as facsimiles both of the manuscripts and of the edition, but for many others, I’m guessing that the star attraction will be the General Cartulary of Cîteaux, and indeed its other cartularies too. All of this, as far as I can see, is also included in the searchable database that was the starting point of the whole project. Really, one just wishes Burgundy had been bigger (though of course `one’ is not the first to do that…)
  • Newly-cleaned sword pommel from the Staffordshire HoardMore locally, although it’s almost old news now, conservation efforts on the Staffordshire Hoard are still continuing and new information about it keeps becoming available. One of the good things about that project is how keen they have been to keep the non-academic population in on the loop, and in this day and age of course that involves social media. An example of this, featuring some pictures that were new when I stored the link, and are still shiny, can be found here along with the input of one of this blog’s more important supporting characters, on whose work more soon.

Physical treasure: notable finds

  • Saxon woman cow buried at Anglo-Saxon Oakington cemeteryObviously we can’t have a Staffordshire hoard every year, it’s not like we’re in Gotland or something, but this was pretty good anyway, a burial from the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Oakington in which the remains found were an apparently-wealthy woman and a cow, a weird anti-pairing to the warrior-and-horse combo with which we’re more familiar from Sutton Hoo and Lakenheath. Worth a look even if bodies aren’t your thing; as for me, I have to build this lady into a lecture now…
  • Monastery of BenedkitbeuernThen, across the Channel, and in fact really quite a lot further, about as far as possible really. But we start across the Channel, at the monastery of Benediktbeuern, where in the fifteenth century a rather fancy Bible was made, in four volumes. This we know because it is now in Auckland, New Zealand, where recently investigations have revealed at least eight strips from a much older Bible, from the time of Charlemagne (whom the story calls “the French and German emperor” – better than choosing just one I suppose?), that were reused as binding material. The survival of ancient manuscript material as linings and joints for newer ones is not unusual, but the distance of travel involved here rather is; as the Waikato University researcher who found them is quoted as saying, “these little pieces of manuscript have travelled further than any other piece of Carolingian manuscript as far as we know”. Slightly amazing!
  • Portrait denarius of Charlemagne as Emperor (812x814)Nonetheless, in some ways more amazing is another find from the era of Charlemagne, although this, a portrait denarius of Charlemagne from an unidentified mint and dating from the short space of his reign in which he was acknowledged as Emperor by his counterpart in Constantinople (812-814), is a find made a long time ago; it’s amazing because in March it sold for 160,000 euros, making it one of the highest-price medieval coins ever sold.1 (The estimate had been a mere 30,000…) We all know, of course, that very little if anything is worth more than Charlemagne but evidence of this is usually harder to quantify!
  • I got the first of these from Antiquarian’s Attic and the latter two from News for Medievalists, so hats duly tipped to them.

Finds more controversial

Site of the prehistoric temple at Ranheim, NorwayThere were two stories I wanted to comment on in this kind of category, but I don’t think I’m quite up to doing more with this one, which isn’t medieval in the slightest, than to say, can you imagine how this knowledge would have been used 150 years ago? We have, after all, seen on this blog the kinds of fight that can break out over who was where first… So, more interesting and relevant perhaps is news of the discovery of a pagan temple site at Ranheim in Norway, with a sequence of dates running from a fire pit in the lowest layer whose charcoal radio-carbonned to the fourth or fifth centuries BCE and a last-used date of 895×990 AD, after which the building was apparently carefully dismantled, pulled down and levelled, thus explaining the remarkable preservation. Now, this is an amazing site if that’s all correct, but the story has been presented in a very odd way. Admittedly, I have sourced this information from a site called Free Thought Nation (by way of Archaeology in Europe), so it’s perhaps unsurprising that it is down on Christianity, but it’s the way it’s down, which it supports with alleged quotes from the excavator, that surprises me: they read the site as having been dismantled and levelled to hide it from the forces of Christianization at loose in Norway at the time, probably prior to the faithful emigrating to more tolerant pastures like Iceland. Why, though, should we not suppose that the temple was taken down as part of Christianization? Because it’s not violent enough, or something? More probably, I suppose, because it was not subsequently re-used for a Christian site of worship, implying that no population needing one remained, but it’s still a bit odd, as is the effort the article goes into to establish that this religion, whatever it was, predated Christianity, but does not demonstrate any settlement nearby. So okay, pre-Christian religion, yes! How does that help? and whom?

Links involving me

More humbly and mundanely, there are two things I could point you at that reflect on my various endeavours, though only one of these involves Vikings I’m afraid.

  • The one that doesn’t is that I lately updated my personal academic webpages, so if you want to be up-to-date with my publications list (on which more here too before long), to see which of my various projects I’m admitting to working on currently or simply to get the latest on my hair, they’re here. Now I just have to get all my institutional ones similar…
  • Dunnyneil Island, Strangford Lough, Ireland, from the airAnd secondly, and more excitingly, back in May I got an e-mail from someone at BBC Ireland asking for comment on the excavations at Dunnyneil Island in Strangford Lough. This is only the second time I’ve been asked to be a media mouth, and the first time I didn’t realise how tight the timescale was and so missed out; this time I answered mail with unparalleled alacrity and as much help as I could be. I was, however, fully expecting this to be cut about, abbreviated and misused and I was completely wrong: quite a lot of what I wrote is now part of this story by Laura Burns, and all the quotes from me, modulo typos, are actually what I sent her. I’m rather pleased with it, and I wish all medievalist journalism was as good. You may like to have a look.

And finally…

Also, for those with problems with Oxford (including simply not being here), there’s this, which the Naked Philologist sent me and which I offer without comment…


1. In this dating I follow the view of Simon Coupland, and before him Philip Grierson, that Charlemagne only began to issue these coins once recognised as emperor by the eastern one (see S. Coupland, “Charlemagne’s Coinage: ideology and economy” in Joanna Story (ed.), Charlemagne: Empire and Society (Manchester 2005), pp. 211-229, repr. in Coupland, Carolingian Coinage and the Vikings: studies on power and trade in the 9th century, Variorum Collected Studies 847 (Aldershot 2006), I, but the auction house in question, Künker’s, have used a more cautious/less precise date.

Leeds 2011 Report 4 and final

[Written offline on the same trip to Birmingham as previous.]

The last day of Leeds was made extra-special for me, as had the last day of Kalamazoo been both this year and the last—it’s stopped being funny now and my have something to do with my decision not to present at either next year—by having to be up first thing in the morning after the dance to make sure my sessions ran OK, including, you know, my own paper. Basically the whole of the rest of Leeds for me was the Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic sessions and then missing booksellers with whom I’d reserved stuff, and finally goodbyes. So, the latter two need no discussion here and the former is quickly dealt with, thus!

1507. Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic, I: royal charters and royal representatives

Portrait of Charles the Bald in the so-called Vivian Bible

Portrait of Charles the Bald in the so-called Vivian Bible

  • Alaric Trousdale, “Some Thoughts on the Charters of King Eadred, 946-55″
  • Shigeto Kikuchi, “How High the King? Monarchical Representation in Carolingian Royal Charters”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Taking it to the March: Carolingian justice in 9th-century Girona”
  • Attendance was surprisingly good given the circumstances; even Alaric turned up eventually… But seriously folks: this was a pleasant mix of new and old because, well, you know, I was there at the start of these sessions and presented in every one of the six years they ran; Alaric was an early adopter; and Shigeto had only just met us all. Alaric showed indisputably that there is more that can be said about the politics of Eadred’s rule of England than what’s in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (though even there I think he shows up pretty well, consistently defeating all comers); Shigeto used both charters and art history to demonstrate that Carolingian kings or their clerks probably really did have a policy about what titles they used in describing their power in their documents, which was excellent—diplomatic and art history should meet more often—and then there was mine. I’ve already said I didn’t think much of mine: it was a game attempt to make something of a research question that didn’t come good, and I had to try and argue a trend from three instances of my chosen phenomenon (shifts in the representation of royal power at court hearings in Girona) because that was all there were. But hey, it made for a couple of good blog posts.

1607. Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic, II: members and margins

"Representation of the medieval social network with force directed algorithm", Boulet et al., "Batch kernel SOM and related Laplacian methods for social network analysis", fig. 1

  • Julie Hofmann, “Women and Witnessing under the Carolingians: a reappraisal”
  • Arkady Hodge, “When is a Charter not a Charter? Documents in Non-Conventional Contexts in Early Medieval Europe”
  • Fabrice Rossi and Nathalie Villa-Vialaneix, “Exploration of a Large Database of Charters with Social Network Methods”
  • This session was, in all ways, a bit less traditional in its modes. Julie was raising difficult questions about the assumptions people have made about what women were and weren’t allowed to do, in terms of dealing with property and being generally legally active, and even beginning to answer them using her forthcoming database of the material from Carolingian-period Fulda. Then, you may have occasionally heard, especially if you work on Ireland, Scotland or Bavaria, of property transfers being written into Gospel books or similarly solemn but non-documentary contexts. But wait: Scotland… and Bavaria? And in fact more widely than that, which is what Arkady was showing: he argued strongly that when you have this many instances of a weird oddity, we probably have to stop thinking it’s odd, which will mean actually thinking about it! And lastly Fabrice, who was the one of this pair actually giving the paper (though weirdly I met Nathalie at the next conference I went to), made a complex system with lots of maths in it understandable to a lay audience and I think left them fairly excited that they could probably get something new out of their datasets, however large, using this kind of technology. This is not easy to do, and he did it well, even though he was speaking in his second language, so I was impressed. And, of course, that this paper even exists is ultimately down to this blog post, and it may the most academic impact this blog’s ever had (unless stories of students printing posts for study purposes are actually true, which would be worrying). So it closes a circle or two to have ended with it.

Because that was the end of the Problems and Possibilities sessions, and I think it genuinely is the end. We certainly aren’t running any next year, whoever `we’ would be, and I don’t think it’s needed. Though we’ve managed to rally every time, it’s often been a struggle to get speakers for these, but this year that was because a lot of people who might have been interested were already presenting in other related sessions. There were other sessions dedicated to being clever about charter evidence. It would be nice to think we’d started a trend—maybe we did, maybe we were just on one—but at the very least it is no longer up to us, and specifically me, to keep it trending. So, for now, Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic ran from 2006 to 2011, inclusive, and thankyou to all who helped it do so.

But it doesn’t end with the sessions, folks! The reason that blogging has been so sporadic of immediate late is actually exactly the opposite of that. After the peak year in 2007 when we had nine papers and a tremendous audience, my co-organiser Allan Scott McKinley observed, “If people want to hear this stuff we should really think about publishing it!” and he was of course right, as I have found he usually is. It has just taken us a while, for various reasons, to get round to it.1 But the other thing that happened at this Leeds was that we got given a deadline to come up with a book by our prospective publishers, and that deadline was December 31st. Yowch! It is of immense credit to our planned contributors that only one of the seventeen of them did not agree to try and meet this, and all but one have in fact managed it at time of writing despite immense odds against in several cases. I owe them each a considerable debt. I typed this on the way to and from meeting with Allan, now my co-editor as well, and as a result of that meeting I can say that I’m pretty sure this thing is going to happen, and that it will be pretty damn good. There’s two chapters here I already wish I could set for my students, they’re so helpful, and a bunch of other interesting things too. I won’t plug it in detail yet: firstly it has to go through full review still, and secondly it’s not yet clear exactly what the running order will be, but as well as the last two blog posts I wrote two thousand words of introduction today while perched on Allan’s sofa and this reaffirms in me the conviction I’ve had every time I pile this stuff up and look at it; this will be an exciting volume, which I think may be an unusual boast about something to do with charters. So look out for more as we have it. And that will have been the final upshot of my Leeds 2011 conference experience.


1. And I believe I still owe Kathleen Neal several drinks (or one big drink) for helping dispel one of those reasons without offence to anyone.

In Marca Hispanica XXI: the Palace of Saint Stephen, and others

Having confused matters by likening a shrine of one of the earliest English saints to a Catalan church, now I’m going to deepen the confusion with a post about an actual Catalan church. And, furthermore, it’s badly out of sequence because I went to this place on my second trip to Catalonia in January 2009. Only then I didn’t mention it or take any photos (hence the one, only, Wikimedia Commons image for this post) because I didn’t realise it was relevant…

The church of Sant Esteve de Palautordera

The church of Sant Esteve de Palautordera, from Catalan Wikipedia

Well, why on earth not? Look at the ornamentation along the top of the nave there. I gather the tower was rebuilt in 1581 so that shouldn’t necessarily have caught me, but still. And worse, I should have known because I’ve read about it, albeit in the first documents I read relating to this area, not even during my doctorate but during my M. Phil. At that point, though, I had no connection to the place at all and wouldn’t have known the name, which is: Sant Esteve de Palautordera. It is documented as early as 862, in a grant by King Charles the Bald of the Western Franks to Count Sunyer I of Empúries, interesting as it’s a way from his territory as we know it.1 Perhaps because of that, by 908 the church was with Count Guifré II Borrell of Barcelona, Girona and Osona, whose tomb I went to see this time out; and by 911 he had passed it onto the monastery of Sant Cugat del Vallès, whose tower I use as my avatar. So every which way I turn the place is connected to something I’ve already done, and I found this out how? By idly checking the place out in the Catalunya Romànica when writing up the post on Sant Pere de Vilamajor.2 Now of course the church you can see is not the church that was being granted and that presumably dated to my period, this being twelfth-century where it’s older than the rebuild and the original probably being wooden, but nonetheless the site, where I have been only for completely non-historical reasons, is positively loaded with significances I never knew.

There are two further reasons this is embarrassing. The first is the name of the place. You may be aware from my earlier writings here that place-names in Palau- are thought significant by some writers in this area; mostly the fact that the word, which is translatable as ‘palace’, crops up is taken to mean that they were once fiscal estates, and indeed, I found when studying Gurb that one of the largest of these areas, Palau de Voltregà, was almost entirely held by the comital family in the early tenth century and that its alienation to Santa Maria de Ripoll (without which, and their eventual loss of it to Santa Pere de Vic, we wouldn’t know much about it) required the signature of a mysterious judge called Centuri son of Centuri, whose status I examine in that little paper I was suggesting you buy the other day but who seems to have been concerned solely with fiscal properties.3 Now, there is an alternative view espoused by Ramon Martí of the Universitat de Girona that these place-names actually represent Muslim garrison sites from the brief Muslim occupation of Catalonia.4 This, shall we say, has not commanded universal acceptance, and if you follow the first link in this paragraph you will be taken to a paragraph where not only do I not accept it, I bring up an old story about one such place where the ‘Palau’ appears to have been the bishop’s sixteenth-century tithe barn, or so at least is the local story. You know where that place was? That’s right, here. You know when the place-name is first attested? 986.5 The local story is wrong. I should just shut up sometimes.

And the second reason? I found out in the Catalunya Romànica that Sant Esteve has what is apparently a rather fine relief of the Mother of God dating from about the same time as the tower rebuild, but I didn’t see it. (Neither can I find a photo online.) I didn’t see it because I was actually in the church for a service, for reasons to do with my domestic life and not for explanation here, but which were enough to cause minor ructions with the people I was staying with who had to get me down there. So things were already fraught, and I tend to find dropping in on others’ worship embarrassing, as I have none of my own. It doesn’t help when the service is not in a language in which I am comfortable—all the behavioural clues have to be got from movements of the congregation—and accompanied by an invisible guitar rather than anything more high church, which is what my limited Anglican experience tended to be. Organs, you know, which you could supposedly find in the most isolated Catalan churches in the ninth century after all. Anyway, the whole thing was sufficiently trying that I sat at the back and snuck out soon after it was over, and thus never actually went in far enough to realise how old the place or its paintwork were. I should hand back my historical explorer’s badge and my qualifications as a historian of the medieval Church. So okay, now I’ve confessed I feel a bit better, but no less stupid. But it was best that you know.


1. Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia II: els diplomes carolingis a Catalunya (Barcelona 1926-1955), 2 vols, Particulars XXV, which awards the properties to the local Sunyer after the removal from the Frankish Marquis Hunfrid of Barcelona in 862. Presumably this was not least because if Sunyer hadn’t acted for Charles it seems pretty unlikely that anything could have been done to dispossess Hunfrid.

2. Where Carme Barbany i Gurans and M. Rosa García i Parera, “Sant Esteve de Palautordera” in Antoni Pladevall i Font (ed.), Catalunya Romànica XVIII: el Vallès Occidental, el Vallès Oriental, ed. Maria-Lluïsa Ramos i Martínez (Barcelona 1991), p. 413, give the details used here.

3. For Palau, Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History (London 2010), pp. 107-108 and refs there; for Centuri, idem, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: organisation of society in the pre-Catalan ‘terra de ningú'” in †Alan Deyermond and Martin Ryan (edd.), Early Medieval Spain : a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London 2010), pp. 97-127 at pp. 104-107, which also discusses Palau briefly.

4. R. Martí, “Palaus o almúnies fiscals a Catalunya i al-Andalus” in Hélène Debax (ed.), Les sociétés méridionales à l’âge féodal : Hommage à Pierre Bonnassie (Toulouse 1999), pp. 63-70.

5. So say Barbany & Garcí, “Sant Esteve de Palautordera”, though I’m not sure of the basis: Abadal, Catalunya Carolíngia II, Sant Cugat del Vallès III, does mention the place, as “Vitdameniam, que vocant Palatium, in valle Dordaria”, but goes on to mention several other villages in the valley and I’m not sure it isn’t just repeating the earlier concession to Sunyer, which seems to me to be just as close to making the link of the names, i. e. not very. There’s no missing that it’s the right place, however; the church is named further on, along with its still-sister up the road, Santa Maria. But Santa Maria would be another post.

Seminar CIII: in which I document the end of an era

Sorry about the gap; this term is burying me somewhat. Matters should improve in a fortnight. Meanwhile, I am so behind with seminar write-ups that I must reluctantly skip those about which I am qualified to say little, and this leaves me moving on, to my complete surprise I assure you, to ME.1 Because, in fact, the presentation to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in London on 15th June this year was by your sometimes-humble correspondent, talking with the title “Managing power in the post-Carolingian era: rulers and ruled in frontier Catalonia, 880-1010″.

Jonathan Jarrett presenting his research at the Institut of Historical Research

The cunning and alert reader will notice a suspicious similarity between paper subtitle and the title of my book (which, I seem not to have said for a while, you can buy here), and that would be a fair cop. I was not quite presenting new research here, although there was some towards the end; if you happened to have and have read my book, have heard me at Leeds in 2010 and also read this blog post, I’m afraid you would have learnt nothing from this presentation except by linking it all up. I don’t think anyone there present fell into all those groups, however, so I hope it was diverting for them, and there were at least some pretty pictures. What the paper did, essentially, was to give the overall thesis of the book, with some cherry-picked examples, synthesize my conclusions there, and then as a kind of epilogue talk about my next major project, and the comparisons in the way that Borrell II and his contemporaries presented their power in their documents that I have been able to make as part of the early work on that project. As such, there might be some point for the person who hasn’t read my book, but is wondering if they should, in reading this paper first, and if it leaves you wanting more, well, it’s out there. For that reason, and also just out of vanity, I uploaded the text I wrote for this to Academia.edu here. I have no plans to do anything further with it, so I imagine it will stay there unless Academia.edu melts down or disappears. You should be aware that I didn’t have time to put notes on it, so all my claims are unreferenced, but most of them are in the book and the rest will shortly appear.2

Attendees of the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research

Alice Rio invites an audience member to make their point, if they dare (I kid, I kid...)

Vain though I undoubtedly am, however, I am not actually the point of this post. The era whose end I’m documenting is not, in fact, the Carolingian one in the lands of its most loyally disconnected supporters, but one in the history of the actual seminar. Again, long-term readers will know I have been going to this seminar a long time, and it’s a lot longer than the blog too, but it goes back far further than me; it was, I believe, started by none other than R. Allen Brown, and taken over subsequently by John Gillingham and then/also Jinty Nelson. In other words, its second set of convenors have now retired. (Susan Reynolds includes some of these details in her reminiscences here; like her, I have found this seminar a lifeline, albeit for different reasons given our respective statuses.) And in that time, it has almost always been held in the Ecclesiastical History Room of the Library of the Institute of Historical Research, in the Senate House of the University of London. This, by ancient precedent, allowed those attending to haul volumes of the Patrologia Latina (or occasionally even the Græca) off shelves to check references during discussion and on the other hand by equally ancient precedent prevented anyone else using the books in there during the seminar. The other ancient custom, which had to be explained with embarrassment to every new speaker, is that the audience did not applaud, a rule which I only very rarely saw broken.

Attendees of the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research

Professor Reynolds herself, centre of photo, among other worthies of the seminar

This has now all stopped. The Senate House is being extensively rebuilt internally, the entire IHR is being refurbished in a two-year project, and the Library has therefore been moved to the other side of Senate House. Once it reopens, the seminars and the books will be housed separately and basically it will all be different. Whatever that room is to be used for in future, it seems unlikely that it will ever again house this seminar (though the seminar itself continues meanwhile, in new accommodation). And for that reason, once I’d wound up, Jinty Nelson had the typically excellent idea of getting people to photograph the room, the gathering, the proceedings and the surroundings, so that it could be somehow recorded for posterity. And Jinty and Alice Rio, both of whom I can never disappoint, asked me to put it up on the blog, and so now I have. And when it moves off the front page I shall set it up as its own page and link it from my Seminars page in the top menu bar there, and so, I hope, it will be documented as long as I have the blog, which is something I have no plans to stop doing soon. If it lasts as long as the seminar has, though, that’ll be something…

Attendees of the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research

Jinty herself, centre back, explaining; not sure what the others are looking at, probably a camera by this stage!


1. It was actually a surprise, because I had to look up the date I presented before I realised I was next. I thought I’d be writing up a conference at this point, which is instead next. The paper I’ve elided was Aleksandra McClain, “Commemoration, Landscape, and Identity in Medieval Northern England”, presented to the Oxford Medieval History Seminar on 13th June 2011, which displayed great command of her material, was very clear and seemed likely to be right in stressing that Northumbria was no cultural backwater even in the thirteenth century but did hold to conservative forms of funereal display as part of a local complex of identity; I just have no basis on which to critique this at all or anything to add of my own, so I’m afraid I cruelly relegate it to this footnote.

2. References for the new stalkers and the search engines: J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History (London 2010); idem, “Caliph, King or Grandfather: strategies of legitimisation on the Spanish March in the reign of Lothar III” in The Mediaeval Journal Vol. 1 (Turnhout forthcoming).

Stock Take VI: the work, the job, the life?

This is the sort of post that is more use to me than to you, most like, so tune out as soon as you feel ready. You might just remember that in May of 2010, I was professionally required to write a report on my academic year, which was actually quite encouraging. Some time before that, too, I’d done a set of four posts here about the various pieces of work I had in process, mainly in an effort to shame me into doing something about their ridiculous number. When I came across that May stock-take whilst looking for a link a year later, it struck me this would be worth doing again, just to see how I’ve done. This has actually taken some time, because it meant trying to squash the four posts into one, which is of course huge and which I have therefore mounted elsewhere, for any real stalkers or procrastinators, as a hidden page under a password (that being `goonthen’) here. I’m not sure why you should really want to read it, but it will remain thus accessible till this post drops off the front page just in case. For the normal people, though, I’ll do a summary here and then add some brief notes on the year’s employment and maybe something about life more widely. I reserve my options on that last though, because I’ve been sleeping badly for a while and so everything is currently coloured grim, whether it is really or not. Anyway, here we go. Continue reading

Someone is wrong on the Internet

XKCD strip 386

XKCD strip 386

That really should have been a subject header of mine a long time ago (not least given its pedigree). I suspect it will recur now. This is another post where I try and clear backlog by combining things that I’d decided to blog about separately, and in this instance the linking theme is things I read on the Internet that made me angry. (This happens a lot, as you’ve probably spotted).

DIgital Archaeology my Archive

The first one was this, which is a particularly annoying piece of wheel reinvention and may not be something you want on a work monitor, not least because it’s on Fox News but also because they have for reasons of pure prurience decided to illustrate the piece with a lingerie website. The schtick is simple enough, an advertising executive who’s done a certain amount of digging around to rebuild some old websites and had, when this was reported, now organised an event in London where he showed off the results. He is calling this digital archaeology (and the latter word presumably brought it to the notice of David Beard at Archaeology in Europe, where I first saw the link; hat duly tipped), and it’s not uninteresting, especially the note that mostly, websites can’t be entirely recovered no matter how good the cache is, the supporting images and so on are just gone. The bit where my temperature started to rise, though, was this:

Boulton isn’t the first to preserve the world of computers for future generations. The Software Preservation Group has been working since 2003 to catalog and archive software the world’s software resources. It’s an offshoot of California’s Computer History Museum, which archives the output of Silicon Valley. But these groups don’t preserve the Internet’s content itself, and certainly don’t consider themselves archaeology projects.

The name is not the problem. The problem is that people have been doing this for years, and I don’t mean Google. I am perpetually shocked when people don’t know about the Internet Archive and its Wayback Machine. More and more people are becoming aware of the former as they try and manœuvre themselves into a position of being a publically-funded runner-up to Google Books, which as has been mentioned here before is something some wise people think we need, but the foundation behind this all is much more than PDF repository (or even a storage site for gigabytes and gigabytes of Grateful Dead spin-offs’ live recordings). They have been trying to archive a copy of the whole damn Internet since 1996, and the job has, you know, got harder since then. Can you remember the URL of your old personal webpages at university, your first faculty Internet resource, that silly joke site where you’d already seen the stuff that someone e-mailed round your list of friends? It’s probably still there, have a look. It won’t be all there, and you do have to have the URL—no free text search—but nonetheless, a shocking amount has been preserved there, they’re working with the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian and they deserve not just our support, but also for enough people to know about them that this jumped-up executive can’t convince even a service as dull as Fox that he’s doing something new.

And, breathe. Next patient, the Daily Telegraph.

I know it’s the Telegraph but this is still rather stupid

On 25th November, apparently, the UK Education Secretary, got a petition from an outfit of school history teachers called The Better History Group demanding a reform of the way the subject is taught in UK schools. Now, I am no fan of bad history as you know, so I am not against this. Sadly my and the Telegraph‘s definitions of quality differ rather. Take this:

It was suggested that at the age of 11, pupils should learn about the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, early medieval England and the Crusades.

At 12, pupils should be taught about medieval life, the English conquest of Scotland and Wales, the 100 Years’ War, the Wars of the Roses, the Renaissance, the Reformation, Elizabeth I and overseas exploration.

Because of course the Middle Ages is entry-level stuff and not at all challenging or difficult, and chronology rules us all anyway, right? Why not the other way round, from the stuff they can do with help from family to the stuff they really really can’t? Also, hullo, anything from east of the German border at all apart from colonialism? I assume that the end result is in any case the same and that by the time they’re eighteen they’re studying the Third Reich same as most history students now. Pah. And this:

“The current nature of source-based assessment in examinations, both at GCSE and at A-level, bears little relation to actual historical practice or even to actual historical sources.

“Consequently, not only are students drilled in formulaic exercises of little practical application, but an enormous amount of time is wasted preparing them for these exercises, time which could have been better spent in extending their historical knowledge.

“Since analysis of source material is, in any case, meaningless without extensive knowledge, the lack of this renders current practice in source analysis a largely pointless exercise.”

You, the reader, will be familiar with the fact that one of the few things we can all agree on, from Guy Halsall to Stanley Fish, is that history teaches critical thinking,1 and the core of that, surely, is analysis of source material. What is suggested here is, more or less, to junk that in favour of a good patriotic singalong. I think, alas, that will play well with this government, given their flirtation with Niall Ferguson’s ‘bring back the empire in our school’ rhetoric of earlier this year. But if it actually said this, I would tear up this text—’a report’, says the Telegraph, abdicating any source analysis in the proper spirit of its informants and putting the whole thing under the headline “Children ‘ignorant of British history’ because of trendy teaching”, just to get the bigots’ heart-rate up—and jump on it, lots, because it would not only make inbred colonialism the stuff of modern education but it would also make the upcoming school population and next generation of voters even more stultifyingly unable to tell when someone is bullshitting them. And that, I begin to fear, seems to be what the powers-that-be actually want, because I’ve no idea what else they can be trying to achieve like this.

Private Eye cover 1074

And this would probably be the point at which the British political class realised they could ignore popular protests now

That said, the actual report is much less bad than what the Telegraph—and this is of course not the first time thinking people have had to have this conversation—have made out that it says. I can’t find any of the quotes here in its text, and they do emphasise critical thinking taught by exposure to source material, a single joined-up history course but without the ‘little Empire’ focus (or indeed any recommended content) the Telegraph have added. So I don’t mean to condemn the Better History Group at all, their approach and thinking seems more or less admirable to me from their actual report. But that actual report is most definitely not what the Telegraph are quoting, and they don’t tell us what it is that they are. Of course, to spot that they’re making stuff up to cause their readers to froth, rather than doing actual journalism, you’d have to have some kind of critical awareness and a readiness to check sources. So perhaps it’s not just the government who could use a more credulous and unthinking population, hey? Man, I hate it all.


1. Oh, no, hang on, Stanley Fish doesn’t think that, sorry. He thinks he ought to be paid by the public for doing something he is willing to say is useless and doesn’t help them at all. It’s enough to make you wonder exactly how the public purse is funding the guy.

Take note(s): a miscellany of how-to posts

I don’t talk here very often about the actual techniques of scholarship. I write about diplomatic, and text criticism, and close reading, or at least I get these things out and show them off in practice, but that isn’t quite what I mean. In fact, I am probably a little scared of writing about my actual approaches to the daily business of learning, because whereas I have no problem writing, and always feel guilty reading the posts of those who do, I do often feel that the way I go about reading scholarly work and taking notes could be a little dysfunctional. So I don’t really want to display it in case everyone thinks I’m a freak.

A sample of Jarrett notes

Over the last few months I’ve noticed a range of posts that go deeper than this and make that revelation, or otherwise tackle the basic techniques of study, and it seemed worth making the comparison at last. This is not because I feel vindicated or anything, I have a lot to learn from these people; rather, it’s that I think I now need to express this as an issue as a first step to tackling it. The first of these was a post at Medieval History Geek about note-taking. Curt Emanuel regularly downplays his knowledge in medieval history at that blog yet plainly reads more than most of us ever manage and seems to recall an awful lot of it: here he explains how. The crucial bit is this:

For the past several years, whenever I read something I keep a notepad nearby and jot down anything which I think I may want to refer to for future reference. These can be broad concepts but typically these are specific arguments, quotes or research findings that have a bearing on issues I’m interested in. I’ve found that writing an actual review I intend for public consumption raises my recall level immensely – those take me 2-4 hours to put together, I have to refer back to whole passages/sections of the book, cite specific statements, etc. Unfortunately I haven’t reached the point where I do that for everything I read.

However when I have time, I take my notes and enter them into a spreadsheet. The columns are titled Topic, Time, Region, Author, Title, Pub Date, ISBN, pp, Category, Location, Date Read, and Comments. Most of these are self-explanatory…

He also says, “I wish I’d started doing this 15 years ago”, and I could say the same, I see the value of it very immediately. I suffer a lot less now that I have many of the books I regularly refer to on my shelf but as a postgraduate I was continually hampered by the reference I couldn’t find. Curt says this is an amateur tip but it seems to me it’s quite the reverse, it’s a professional approach, taking the material less as an entire work in itself and more as part of a greater project—it’s clear that Curt loves reading this stuff of course, but what I mean is that his notes are squarely aimed at future use he may be able to make of it, rather than a need at some point in the future to reprise what the whole thing said, which is much more where I have wound up aiming.

The Jarrett primary bookshelf

Before I go on to the whole comparison though, there then cropped up in the London Review of Books this piece by Keith Thomas, who despite his more modern focus has featured here before. Here the crucial bit is this:

When I go to libraries or archives, I make notes in a continuous form on sheets of paper, entering the page number and abbreviated title of the source opposite each excerpted passage. When I get home, I copy the bibliographical details of the works I have consulted into an alphabeticised index book, so that I can cite them in my footnotes. I then cut up each sheet with a pair of scissors. The resulting fragments are of varying size, depending on the length of the passage transcribed. These sliced-up pieces of paper pile up on the floor. Periodically, I file them away in old envelopes, devoting a separate envelope to each topic. Along with them go newspaper cuttings, lists of relevant books and articles yet to be read, and notes on anything else which might be helpful when it comes to thinking about the topic more analytically. If the notes on a particular topic are especially voluminous, I put them in a box file or a cardboard container or a drawer in a desk. I also keep an index of the topics on which I have an envelope or a file. The envelopes run into thousands.

This procedure is a great deal less meticulous than it sounds. Filing is a tedious activity and bundles of unsorted notes accumulate. Some of them get loose and blow around the house, turning up months later under a carpet or a cushion. A few of my most valued envelopes have disappeared altogether. I strongly suspect that they fell into the large basket at the side of my desk full of the waste paper with which they are only too easily confused. My handwriting is increasingly illegible and I am sometimes unable to identify the source on which I have drawn. Would that I had paid more heed to the salutary advice offered in another long forgotten manual for students, History and Historical Research (1928) by C.G. Crump of the Public Record Office: ‘Never make a note for future use in such a form … that even you yourself will not know what it means, when you come across it some months later.’

This makes me feel a good deal better. Professor Thomas is obviously aware that in some ways this is so antiquarian a practice as to merit words like ‘dinosaur’, and yet no-one could question the quality of the work he gets out of it. It makes even me quail at the labour involved and the time wasted on filing, but then these are very much the problems I see in my own methods. So, I suppose it’s on to them.

Work paused for ironic photography moment

I take long notes. I take them in longhand, and they are laborious. I originally started doing this because I was aware that I would not necessarily be able to get at the relevant works when I next needed them—even if the library were open during my essay crisis, which was unlikely given that I used to write in the absolute last possible small hours, the relevant volumes might be on loan or ‘in use’—and therefore my notes were going to have to be a halfway useful précis of the original from which that might be reconstituted. I mark things I know I will want to be able to find with asterisks in the margins; I also record citations, where I think I ought some day to follow them up, and their signes de renvoi go in the margins too with a note of which bibliography it’s necessary for. In my notes on charters, the margins also feature lines joining up occurrences of persons or places. My margins get very full. Arguably, I no longer need to do this; I could database the charters straight off, I could have a subjects/themes file like Curt, I own many of the books and they have indices, much of the journal material is online, and so I have folders full of notes I never look at because electronic search is so much quicker.1 Also, my longhand is execrable, and even I tend to be unable to read it after a while, so when I come up against something I know I’ve read but can’t recall properly I type up my notes on it. I also do this when someone else wants my notes on something, which does sometimes happen, but I do it less out of generosity than because I know this is the only chance I’ll likely get to remember what was in there. And of course it is doing the work twice, to a great extent, which is wasteful of precious time. There are all kinds of ways to forget things like this, too, though I would usually have at least some chance of finding them again if I can remember what work it was in; often I do, but not always. A file like Curt’s or even envelopes like Professor Thomas’s would serve me well here.

The legendary notes file as I see it

Instead, I patch this leaky technique with technology. I have a digital list of all my notes, which I mainly use for copying and pasting bibliographical citations but which also helps me find things (the online version lacks my scribbles about what folder the notes are in). Very often, when I come across something significant, I ensure that I can find it again by adding it into a draft paper as a footnote, usually in the intention that it will stay there but sometimes quite consciously simply so that I have it somewhere where a search on text in a file will bring it up. And indeed this is one of the things that the blog has come to do for me as well; I post about something I ought to know about or work on and then after a while Google, and to a lesser extent WordPress’s inbuilt search, will find it for me. Without electronic search this whole enterprise would founder very quickly. So there is a case for change here; as with quite a lot of my life, academic and personal, I have started with a badly dysfunctional practice mainly designed to keep me away from criticism and interaction, and then patched it till I can pass as a functional human being in sossity without having to uproot embedded practices. I’ve got quite good at this over the years, and know from experience that this is much more likely to work with my brain than deliberately fighting its deficiencies with a slash-and-burn approach I’m always too scared to embark on. All the same, I see room for change here and wonder how I may convince my recalcitrant psyche to go about it. Not least, I will I think very soon at last be getting a laptop. This will make illegible longhand notes an even more stupid thing to cling to, and yet, I already type far too much and the note-taking has become part of my reading process. I am slowly digitising my bibliographies, as an Access database, but you know, there’s Endnote and so on. So there is quite a lot I could do to modernise myself. I’m just not quite sure where to start…

Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed that when you’re writing apropos of something you saw on the Internet that suddenly half the rest of the Internet seems to be distracted by the same thing? It may just be that when you have a hammer you start seeing the nails in things or possibly it’s that the operational experience anyone has of the ‘net is quite small and filtered quite strongly by their own preferences. Either way I find Doug Moncur today writing about very similar themes in a way that suggests that maybe patching with technology is still the best way to go, if I don’t mind updating my technology a bit:

All my interesting, work related pdf’s sit on my windows live skydrive in a great chaotic heap. Call me Nennius – but even when I was a researcher and one built collections by writing the details on index cards and organising them I was never particularly diligent. More a pack rat with a good memory rather than organised….

Of course what Zotero and Mendeley do is allow you to build collections, and put metadata around them, ie impose structure….

… I reckon I need to start using these tools properly in order to understand about them, in fact become more structured myself ….

Which last bit is, you see, more or less what I was trying to say myself, without knowing what the tools might be. So there’s a project for some future weekend.

Another workspace shot

Meanwhile, however, I also want to note a couple of articles about reading. Here I have less to say. I think of myself as a slow reader, but it would be much truer to say that the heavy note-taking and reference-copying have slowed my naturally high reading speed down. Reading without having to take notes is a liberty I hardly ever get to indulge in these days and when I do it’s kind of a giddy feeling to be operating at full speed again (although there are obvious problems here). The point is to keep reading, and continue to feel like you’re in touch with scholarly work and able to deal with it. Rex at Savage Minds codified this even further and says, “read an article a day,” and you will see that I am there agreeing with him though, interestingly, not all his commentators do. And I found out about that from a post at Stephen Chrisomalis’s always-excellent Glossographia, which picks up the theme and works it a little. I have far less to say about these two posts, because I essentially agree with them or feel that I have beaten the weaknesses they identify, but I certainly recognised what they were talking about and would recommend them as reading to anyone who is wondering how the hell we are ever going to get all our stuff done. It is an issue. The blogosphere is probably a good place to look at it. Here’s my ten pennyworth.


1. I actually revolt against the database approach for charters, however. A big part of my reading of charters is to treat them as narratives with stories to tell. If I database first I don’t actually read the stories, I just skim them for keywords and never get the context, the oddities of phrasing that may overlay crucial details, the personalities of participants and scribes. I also feel it would be a very poor way to respect the people I study to essentially depersonalise them into data like that. So although there are certainly issues with the way I process the data once I have them, issues that I have identified and that, one day when I can afford to hire someone, I will get fixed by Wikifying my data files, I think the way I first encounter that data is actually about right, here at least.