You know, at the moment my readership actually goes down when I post something, whereas the longer I stay silent the healthier it gets. I’m not quite sure what goes on here, whether I’ve just reached search-engine critical mass or something. Hullo the new readers anyway. I shall risk driving you away by putting in more content, as I’m running badly behind.
On Wednesday 24th October the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar took a short trip up the road to have a joint meeting with the University College London Institute of Archaeology. This is obviously the sort of thing that should happen more often, and indeed the speaker referenced a paper by Guy Halsall that pointed out how silly it was that these two seminars never met, as of 2003, though unfortunately I didn’t get a handout and Guy’s own webpages haven’t been updated since he moved to York, so I can’t give a further citation.1 It was pointed out by Andrew Reynolds, who had organised the meeting (for which the archaeologists had generously shifted their usual meeting day), that ordinarily of course Guy had never been able to go to that seminar himself because he was usually teaching at the same time that it was on. Generally we all agreed that London is just too busy, which was easy to do given the hundred or so of us that were crammed into a room made for forty to sit in comfort.
But I’m digressing. What on earth led a hundred-plus academics to come and squeeze into a darkened room in UCL, you may be wondering, and the answer is that the speaker who was talking about Guy, historians and archaeologists was none other than Professor Dame Janet Nelson, or Jinty as most of us know her, and she was speaking to the title, “Spades and Lies? Interdisciplinary encounters”. Now Jinty’s worked with a good few archaeologists, and meanwhile has her own definite views on what’s useful and what isn’t in the study of the past, so it was clearly going to be worth hearing, and she didn’t disappoint, although she had warned me beforehand that it was going to be a rambling anecdotal piece. Well, so it was I guess, but every anecdote had a point as an example and Jinty’s own asides and self-deprecations make her an endearing speaker, especially when she has something definite to say but, you get the impression, isn’t sure whether you’ll take her seriously. What she had to say was largely a set of stories that, like St Bede with his Ecclesiastical History, aimed to give examples of interdisciplinary practice both bad and good,
For if history relates good things of good men, the attentive hearer is excited to imitate that which is good; or if it mentions evil things of wicked persons, nevertheless the religious and pious hearer or reader, shunning that which is hurtful and perverse, is the more earnestly excited to perform those things which he knows to be good…. (HE, Preface)
I can’t even attempt to reproduce the various stories that came out, but the upshot was that she feels that the two fields need to respect each other’s aims and our common ground a lot more. We’re all trying to do the same thing, she argued, and it doesn’t get us anywhere to denigrate the other approach when we should instead be trying to see what it can contribute to our understanding.
Thus, her title referred to an article by Philip Grierson that I reminded you all about a little while ago.2 I didn’t mention this, but that article opens with the memorable quote, “It is said that the spade cannot lie, but it owes this merit in part to the fact that it cannot speak.” Philip then went on to stress how all archaeological evidence is subject to interpretation and that, really, people ought to be more careful with that then they often are, and so on. Jinty stressed that she was a great fan of Philip’s work and owed him a great deal (not least because he’d been one of her D.Phil. examiners!),3 but had to say that this was exactly the kind of attitude that she felt wasn’t helpful; mocking specialists from across the divide for how they use ‘your’ evidence is not the way forward. Of course, archaeology has moved on a lot since 1959, and meanwhile there exist far too many historians who’ve forgotten Philip’s warning as I was trying to point out, but it’s a fair enough point. Which is not to say that Jinty didn’t herself have some private gripes about some archaeologists’ use of documents, but some historians came in for mild censure too. Overall it was entertainment: but I must get hold of the handout as the depth of reference it seemed to involve would be a really useful thing to have handy when next I have to deal with the gap (which will be in January I think, though details are not yet on the web) between the text and the trench.
* The roadsign image at the head of this post is the work of, and copyright to, Mary Chester-Kadwell. I’ll justify my use of it to her if she objects next time I see her as `fair use’ somehow or other, possibly by buying her drinks till she agrees, but I think she would prefer it if it didn’t get distributed from here, so please don’t be reusing it without her permission. A link to her web presence is concealed under the image.
1. Though if I had to guess, I’d imagine it would be his “Early medieval archaeology and history: some interdisciplinary problems and potentials for the twenty-first century” in Hans-Werner Goetz & Jorg Jarnut (eds), Mediävistik im 21. Jahrhundert. Stand und Perspektiven der internationalen und interdisziplinären Mittelalterforschung, MittelalterStudien des Instituts zur Interdisziplinären Erforschung des Mittelalters und seines Nachwirkens, Paderborn, 1 (Paderborn 2003), pp. 163-185, about which I am able to inform you thanks to the incomparable Regesta Imperii OPAC.
2. P. Grierson, “Commerce in the Dark Ages: a critique of the evidence” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 9 (London 1959), pp. 123-140, repr. in idem, Dark Age Numismatics, Variorum Collected Studies 96 (London 1979), II.
3. As well as a faint horror of the passing of time during my lifetime, this fact again makes me marvel at Philip’s longevity. Jinty is retiring this year, 2007, two years later than she wanted to in 2005. I don’t know when she did her doctorate, but Philip, who examined it, had at least six papers out in 2001 and a last one in 2002, and was still firmly intending to get back to work, when he felt up to it, until very shortly before he died in early 2006, and was still collating reference material and reading new work for most of 2005. If Jinty had had her way she’d have retired before her doctoral examiner had stopped working. It’s not a bad run, you know?