Monthly Archives: February 2008

The so-called Google Generation debunked: libraries better worry

The British Library buildings at St Pancras

After signing up to a petition to protect the funding of the British Library a while ago, I get mail-outs from them every now and then. As spam goes it could be a lot worse, I read my mail plain-text anyway and the articles they link to are often at least passing diverting. Rarely however are they as well-loaded as this one, which I got the PDF of and read avidly. They’ve been looking at browsing habits on a truly broad scale, and though they admit left right and centre that there are all kinds of problems with the sample, which I find sort of encouraging, the tentative findings are quite interesting. What it is is a study by a group at University College London called The Centre for Information Behaviour and Evaluation of Research who have basically been profiling virtual research behaviour by age, so as to see if there really is a “Google generation” of web-users or not and what that means for future researchers. Their conclusions, broadly, are that (i) there isn’t, because after a certain stage of growth everyone uses the web in broadly the same way if they use it at all, no matter whether they’re 20 or 70; (ii) this does seem to mean that real research skills are dropping off, because if people can’t find an answer in a few minutes’ web-searching they stop, and (iii) this means that almost all libraries, academic or public, are being desperately outdated in the way they present their contents and make their resources available and that those who wish to retain much of a user base need to start doing really special things to remedy this lack of appeal pretty much now. And they have some suggestions, but it’s all fairly fascinating for anyone who’s been on both sides of the process of digitising knowledge and putting it online, and I do urge you to have a look at the full report.

Seminary XX: Hugh Kennedy is inaugurated

Agh! The previous entry is already on its way to being the most popular thing I ever wrote, and it was someone else’s findings. All I can do is add content to remind people I have actual academic interests as well as spending my time on the Internet darkening the name of young ladies. So! it’s a post about an actual academic paper!

You see, the London School of Oriental and African Studies have a new Professor of Arabic, and it’s Hugh Kennedy. And therefore there was on the 18th February an inaugural lecture and I was there, because I try not to miss an opportunity to hear Hugh speak; it always leaves me with a real humbling sense of how much more there is to know and hope that it’s actually possible to know it. Someone who really knows their stuff but stands basically outside your normal field of work can do this, as I’m sure you’ve experienced.

This time Hugh was talking to the title “History, Memory and Legend in the Great Arab Conquests”, and if you follow his career closely, this may sound a bit familiar:

Cover of Hugh Kennedy’s The Great Arab Conquests

Hugh talked about the problems of the factual content of the sources for the early Arab conquests, you see, which are mainly non-contemporary and highly literary, and argued that they are not good evidence for the facts of the conquests, although that may sometimes be in there, but they are excellent evidence for the attitudes and issues of the writers who are living with the consequences of the conquest. Now as I recall that general answer is how we were supposed to get our A-grade at History A-Level (“every source is evidence for its writer, even if not for much more sometimes”), but it’s always worth seeing what applying this gets you.

I’m not going to go into great detail about what we got actually was, though, because you can buy or otherwise get Hugh’s new book that I’ve pictured above, as did I, and find that actually most of this lecture is in pp. 1-40, arranged slightly differently but hey. This is not to say that it wasn’t good, and it was certainly worth hearing what Chris Wickham had to say in his introduction speech, but it did make my two sides of avidly-made notes a bit redundant. Ach well. It’s a remarkably readable book…

Buried with his sheep before him (this one’s for the smut-minded out there)

Some archaeologists working in Ireland, at Corofin, County Galway, may (or may not) have found an early Christian site there, identified by 65 burials in what could, if generously interpreted, be a vallum, an earth rampart that is traditionally held to mark the limits of a monastic enclosure in Celtic areas. Some might say that, given how difficult it is to actually identify Irish Christian sites in archaeological terms, or any religious site at all for definite really, this is a bit hopeful, but the burials are all supine, extended (except for one) and oriented east-west and so, while even that is not ambiguous, I don’t see why it shouldn’t be a Christian cemetery. That isn’t what I wanted to mention. In fact this entry is dedicated to bloggers like Carl Pyrdum and Jennifer Lynn Jordan, the sort of people who can use the phrase “monkey butt-trumpet” and mean it.

You see, the owner of one of the skeletons was buried with a sheep, in what some might call a “compromising position”, as you can see:

compromising Corofin inhumation

The reporting page coyly says that this has led to some “unlikely suppositions”, and well, yes, it would wouldn’t it? But what then would a likely one be? Any suggestions?

Advertisement for my collaborators’ learning

I observe that at the Heroic Age blog, the programme for the upcoming MANCASS conference can now be viewed in its full glory, which is, for Anglo-Saxonists at least, reasonable to considerable. I mention it merely because you may, if you’ve been reading really closely, or are actually one of the participants, remember that two of the speakers, Allan Scott McKinley and Martin Ryan, are my collaborators in making Leeds sessions about how to use charters happen. Alex Burghart is another colleague of a sort, and his stuff is always interesting, and of course with both of Professors Higham and Brooks speaking there will be entertainment and erudition aplenty. I may well have to trot along myself, but even if I don’t, it’ll be worth attending I should think. Wednesday 26 March, so still time to register…

Seminary XIX: Rosamond McKitterick looks at the Liber Pontificalis

There is a certain speed one has to get up to with Professor McKitterick’s papers, at which one can take in a full manuscript description in about five seconds. Without this one can get hopelessly lost as the details of stemmas and contents ravel inextricably before you. Or at least, this is how it happens to me, and I’ve been listening to Professor McKitterick a long time now. But this time, at the Institute of Historical Research‘s now-legendary Earlier Middle Ages Seminar on 13 February, where she was speaking to the title “The Liber Pontificalis in its Early Medieval Historiographical Context”, there were only three or four manuscripts gone into in detail and after about ten minutes of floundering I caught up and was able to follow the string of intriguing and subtle points.

Miniature from a late manuscript of the Liber Pontificalis

The Liber Pontificalis, for those unfamiliar, is a collection of papal biographies that runs from Peter up to the mid-ninth century. It is believed, so Professor McKitterick told us, to have been written in two big bursts, a first draft circa 530, an update probably in the 570s, and then a new set of lives added in the seventh century after which it was sporadically updated life by life. The paper showed that there was at least some reason to believe the `second draft’, the 570s version, circulated independently, and the later versions are not widely known.

Her basic points were that, firstly, there is all kinds of stuff going on in Italy at the time, the Ostrogothic wars, Justinian’s attempted reconquest, and so the repeated agenda of the popes proving how superior they were to the patriarchs of the East in theological argument has all kinds of agendas to it; and secondly, that even in Italy there is a ferment of historical writing at the time, all dealing with this idea of how to cope with the fact that Rome, which previous centuries of Christianity had managed to appropriate into their intellectual world view as centre of a new, holy Roman Empire (not that one! but think ‘Eternal City’ -> ‘City of God’ in good Eusebian tradition) was no longer centre of the world, but only centre of the West, and that rather shakily what with the Lombards. So what you get is a debate over the popes versus the emperors, and Professor McKitterick was urging us to see the LP, not as an official history, at least not when it was composed even if it later became one, but as a contribution to that debate, using secular serial biographies like Suetonius and the Historia Augusta as a model for a new set of ruler-histories replacing the emperors with the popes. And she emphasised that this was going on at the same time as a long-term programme of replacing Roman Imperial monuments with new Christian building, starting new processions governed by the liturgy, and thus remapping how people link up the city in their minds, and so on. In short, there’s an awful lot of change going on in Rome, and the popes are a big part of it, but not everyone view the changes the same way and the Liber Pontificalis is only one of the voices shouting about it, merely the best-preserved. (Though one irony that came out of the paper is that none of the surviving manuscripts seem to come from Rome itself.)

Professor McKitterick’s work is these days mostly on intellectual history, in a way, and she and I cross paths little except in wondering how people went about getting charters written. How much the average Roman man in the street cared about all this, when he could still be running round whipping the local maidens in the Lupercalia as the LP records with distaste, is a good question perhaps. But her work, by making the most of a huge volume of basically intellectual source material, opens up a vastly rich world of thinkers who were not stuck in ivory towers, but walking those same streets, thinking about what went on there, and then writing stuff from which we can sometimes get back at their world.

I’ve been meaning to use that joke for years

Maximum points to my colleague Rory Naismith, who aside from various Herculean labours to the greater good of numismatics has also managed to do something I’ve been wanting to see done for a long time, which is, to actually use the gag “an Offa you can’t refuse” in academic print. Although the relevant journal homepage is sadly a couple of years out of date (I don’t understand why editors let that happen, it’s maddening, and could never occur in the sciences), I am assured that Rory’s article, “An Offa You Can’t Refuse? Eight-Century Mercian Titulature on Coins and in Charters” is indeed in Quæstio Insularis Vol. 7 (Cambridge 2006) at pp. 89-118, and I laud and magnify the pun, because as an employee of a University I am allowed to have the taste in humour of a magpie in jewellery so it’s OK.

Objectivity and Crusader motives: maybe not so simple

Nat Taylor has a recent post in his Genealogist’s Sketchbook, talking about the historian’s right, or not, to make a moral judgement of the period we study. Are our standards applicable to the age so long gone, when religion and fear were so much more immediate (at least, now the Cold War is over and we’ve all learned to stop worrying and love the bomb…)? Or should we just withhold judgement on things like pogroms, Crusades, witch-hunting (not really medieval that one, of course, but you know what I mean) and so on that unfortunately still sing with contemporary relevance? Can we afford not to take a moral stand, when others are using those precedents to justify continuing, or at least excuse, such atrocities? Aren’t we supposed to be the voice of truth?

Well, I’ve argued elsewhere that it’s our business to confront the messiness of the past in whatever level of detail is necessary, and that because objectivity is impossible given how messy our own perspectives are, the best we can do is consciously try to separate what the evidence says from an acknowledgement of our own stance on the issue. That is to say, we must judge, because we are doing so already whether we like it or not. So we must make our perspective obvious, and say things like, “I personally find this distasteful but it clearly happened” rather than idealising or hiding the bad bits. Sorry, Bede, I realise you wouldn’t agree, but I think that’s what we need to do.

Godfrey of Bouillon, King of Jerusalem, with some of his knights

That said, I’m not sure Nat has lighted on the best example of necessary judgement. He is talking of teaching the Crusades, and reports setting the question, “Why did the First Crusade succeed, and why should it not have?” His point is the rarity of moralising answers to this question, but his comment on one that he did get causes my antennae to twitch. He reports:

One student wrote: ”It should not have succeeded because it was ill-conceived, disorganized, and motivated in large degree by chauvanism, xenophobia, and greed.” In fact, an army largely motivated by those things should succeed quite well, I think: no troublesome scruples or complex perspectives to slow them up.

Well, if you look to the top right of this browser window or tab, you’ll see a link called “Crusader Motives”, whereat lies a full-blown scholarly paper which addresses the question of where this, what I call the ‘we’re only it for the money’ argument about why people went on Crusade, belongs in the historiography. That in fact has been the question that’s brought the most hits to this blog ever since I put that page up. Because, you may not realise, the money motive has been more or less dumped from the scholarly picture in the last twenty years, largely under the influence of Jonathan Riley-Smith and his school, who have brought out all kinds of spiritual motives, love of oppressed brothers, the honest desire to save one’s soul by a supreme sacrifice in the name of the Lord, or a lord, or the two together in a powerful feudal-religious complex, devotion to Saint Peter, I mean you name it, anything more moral than simply getting rich quick. And as I discuss there, one of the planks of the Riley-Smith argument is that getting rich on Crusade was tricky because it was really very expensive to go and the evidence for returns is pretty discouraging. My stance is that actually, people still did hope they might get rich, and indeed preachers told them they might, but obviously the plethora of other reasons to go made things easier, and they certainly didn’t think in only that way. So I think Dr Taylor’s student may need to read, well, me…

Let no-one say I can’t take criticism as well as I give it

A so-called `Pictish Beast’ as seen on the Pictish symbol stones of Scotland

By means I won’t go into, I have recently got hold of the newly-published Vol. 17 of the Pictish Arts Society Journal, and I discover therein a rather worrying paper by one Jonathan Jarret [sic], entitled “The Political Range of Áedán mac Gabrán, King of Dál Riata” (pp. 3-24). Quite why a paper on a Gaelic ruler most famous for his defeats of the Picts is doing taking up most of a journal (there are only 40 pages, and 4 other papers occupy the remainder) on the Picts and their culture is hard to immediately determine, but the answer may come in an apologetic foreword from the editor, who explains that due to a “longer than acceptable” delay and lost graphics many contributors withdrew their papers. Jarret’s offering is therefore one of the few stalwarts, but a cruel reviewer might hazard that the author (who appears, from his easily-Googlable web-pages, to work not on Scotland at all but Catalonia a good three centuries later) was hard-put to find an alternative. His lack of awareness of the latest scholarship is surprising; the latest reference given in the strangely-formulated bibliography is from 2000,1 and he thus misses such important work as Alex Woolf‘s papers in the 2006 Scottish Historical Review arguing for a relocation of the Pictish kingdom of Fortriu to some distance north of where it is conventionally supposed to have been. The fact that Jarret is pouring forth opinions about a period before the term ‘Fortriu’ is used (as he acknowledges) might excuse him for continuing despite this, as he seeks only to designate an area by the name, rather than ascribing an organised structure to it; but all the same, can he really be unaware of articles in the foremost journal of the field on his immediate subject? If so, should he really have been published, even in a minor one?

With such provisos made, the paper is not without its interest, but much hampered by its author’s rather young style. Jarret lowers hopes at the start by simultaneously apologising for and trying to defend the practice of hypothesizing where evidence lacks. He then leaps into the source material, but he is only at p. 5 before he is using sources which he has not explained, and does not until several pages later when he needs a deus ex machina source to extract himself from an irredeemable tangle over the fates of Áedán’s grandsons. It may be that he intended to mention the sources in proper order but was carried away by a lengthy and perhaps unnecessary, however correct, passage arguing with Benjamin Hudson’s theories on the Prophecy of Berchán; Jarret’s theory about it is hardly better-supported, though, and he or his editor (again, if there was one) would have done better to stick to whatever structure he had originally envisaged. Jarret at least shows a reasonable awareness of the difficulties of the material (although little enough care is taken about this when the author has a pet theory which it can be twisted to support), but the structure is an unhappy compromise between geographical and chronological. Again, editing could have made this clearer (and the paper shorter!)

The core of the paper is a suggestion that some of the successions recorded in the Pictish king-list could be best explained if, firstly, it be accepted that Pictish king-ship regularly proceeded down the female line, which is at variance with Bede’s testimony on the issue—the author’s rather outdated anthropological references do little to increase his pretence to authority here—and then, secondly, that a number of Áedán’s sons were found political marriages which allowed them so to succeed in those kingdoms. He is not of course the first to suggest such explanations for the king-list’s oddly familiar names, but he draws a far greater significance from the marriages suggested than, for example, Marjorie Anderson ever would have. The complexity involved in his suggestions would in fact have been much clarified with a family tree; one might generously and regretfully suppose that this was one of the ‘lost graphics’.

Most interestingly perhaps, Jarret envisages many kingdoms under the Pictish political umbrella, and this idea would make Pictland, with its various material cultures and obscure royal lineages, much more like other medieval states and thus more comprehensible if more fully developed. On the other hand, the idea of Bruide map Maelchon as a kind of high king agreeing these marriages with the briefly-mighty Áedán goes far beyond the evidence of that ruler’s control over the area’s supposedly-lesser entities, unless the evidence be the Vita Columbae‘s natural concentration on the one, distant, Pictish ruler its subject managed materially to affect. Jarret therefore follows his sources’ bias here rather than countering them. As a result his picture of a partly Gaelic-ruled Pictland is terribly Ionan, and will have to remain the hypothesis of which he warns the reader at the outset.

In the grand scheme of things far more sketchy and less well-researched things have been published on the Picts, frequently indeed in this same journal although it also once deservedly had a good name for scholarship, and while one hopes that Jarret’s new work on Catalonia is better-founded (as, with the vastly superior levels of evidence from that area, it obviously could be), he would not have needed to be ashamed of this paper in 2000, when it seems to have in fact been drafted. Unless however he was in fact unable to prevent the journal’s editors (the journal, worryingly, is ceasing publication with this final issue) from using a text, apparently unreviewed and unedited, dating from then rather than its much-subsequent publication date, it will be something of an albatross on his CV should anyone be able to find a copy to read. Even if the fault lay entirely with the editors, hopefully unlikely, Jarret will find it hard to convince outsiders of his blamelessness. His comfort may lie in the fact that those who will read it and be qualified to comment were probably already aware of his work in 2000, when he seems first to have been presenting this paper. This reviewer can only wish Dr Jarret better luck with his new work!

1. For example, all authors are credited as authors, none as editors, even where it is well-known that the texts are ancient—the author appears well aware of this but this seems an inexplicable alteration for an editor to make. Likewise, all primary sources are identified by sigla but there is no note explaining the sigla used—indeed there are no footnotes or endnotes at all!

Or, to put it another and less contrived way: before I got mail from them two weeks ago saying it was in print, I hadn’t heard from these people since 2001. They’ve lost the family tree, though admittedly even I can’t open that file in anything any more—but I could have redrawn it much better in Flash if they’d only asked, as well as fixing the other flaws that seven years’ detachment lets me now detect. They have deleted all the endnotes, which made quite a lot of difference. They’ve not done any corrections except mangling the bibliography; I certainly didn’t get to see any proofs; and a previous editor told me it would never come out and that I should submit it elsewhere, as a result of which a couple of people reading this who’d expressed an interest are now owed my sincerest apologies. If I’d ever thought they’d do this I would not have offered you the paper, I’m sorry. I suppose I’m glad it’s out at last, but really, when speaking before of the particular fringe of fundamentalist ethnists that inhabit amateur Pictish studies, I have before now, I admit, childishly hyperlinked the phrase “blue-rinse loonies” to the Pictish Arts Society’s pages. And now that they can hardly bother me more, I have to say: well, this is why…

On the other hand, as they have also not done anything as serious as making me sign over copyright, I can also say, if you can’t get hold of this but would like to, and are willing to take into account the modifications I would have made, the paper (still as of 2000 but this time with endnotes intact!) is up for download on my web-pages and I’d much prefer that version to be cited, however amateur it looks. (Bibliography here.)

Archaeological primer for historians

Cover of Graham-Campbell and Valor (edd.), The Archaeology of Medieval Europe

For once a short post, this just to draw your attention to a new book edited by James Graham-Campbell and Magdalina Valor called The Archaeology of Medieval Europe, Eighth to Twelfth Centuries, Acta Jutlandica LXXXIII:1, Humanities Series 79 (Aarhus 2007). According to Amazon it’s not out yet but there’s a review copy here, and it looks pretty good. There’s sections on broad themes (Research and Teaching, Peoples and Environments, Rural Settlement, Urban Settlement, Housing Culture, Food, Technology Craft and Industry, Material Culture and Daily Life, Travel and Transport, Trade and Exchange, Fortifications, The Display of Secular Power, Religions, Religious Buildings, and Life Death and Memory, punctuation of list titles brutalised by me for clear separation), and little articlets giving a basic historical orientation when they move into areas that may be unfamiliar to the readers, like al-Andalus. Lots of maps too. And although most of the contributors are Scandinavian, as you’d expect for a book part-edited by a Vikings specialist and published in Aarhus, they do appear to be up-to-date with scholarship even in those farflung areas, which is reassuring, because so many archaeologists don’t talk to historians because historians don’t talk to archaeologists and so on and so on.

So, if you feel that the future lies in breaking that chain of non-communication by branching into archaeology and its theory and results for our field, my rapidly-gathered opinion is that this book is possibly the best thing you could start with for the time being. A high medieval counterpart volume is apparently to follow, but I’m sorted mate, and will hope to pick a copy up at Leeds

Well-considered trifles

It is the nature of the web that it’s heavily linked, obviously, and as you’ll have spotted I love adding subtext to writing with HTML, but just recently I’ve been getting the gratification of people linking to me, which is far less silly and rather more of an endorsement. If I mention them here, along with some other things that exploration has lately led me to, it’s not so much blowing my own trumpet, I assure you—I mean, you’ve read it all already—as the natural result of following such links through to the now-legendary ‘One Step Beyond’.

I already mentioned my appearance in the latest instalment of Carnivalesque, but since then I seem to have been featured in a number of other round-ups, including a post on the site of one Steven Till who is apparently reading—hullo, sir—and in Vidi X at Archaeoastronomy. I can’t work out from that if this is a carnival of any kind or if it’s just a numbered edit such as I favour myself, but I’m grateful for the link anyway. Also as is frequent I owe a tip of the hat to Dr Nokes for linking, and also to Melissa Snell. I just recently bought my first proper hat so I shall endeavour to tip it in relevant directions shortly. If necessary I can provide photos, but I somehow doubt you require it.

Elsewhere, I see that it’s time to question ourselves as medievalists, or at least as scholars of literature, once more. And for those who consider themselves literary scholars more than historians, it would be easy for me to say, “well, yes, you do have a problem”, because of there not being the defence I raised a little while ago of being society’s memory specialists. But that defence itself was raised as a further thought after attacking similar doubts of my own, so it’s good to see that there are more defences than I thought of, because at Old English in NYC Mary Kate Hurley has raised another. Although I’m not sure she explicitly says this, what I take from her post is that as well as the critical thinking her virtual opponent dismisses, on the basis that almost any kind of thinking can be critical if done at all, the study of literature teaches habits of deep thinking, looking always for the next layer of interpretation and significance. This is something that I haven’t seen suggested elsewhere, and since history does it too, even if I think there is possibly only so far that it can go before becoming an Ouroboros-like autophage, I can get behind it. Or, given we’re talking layers on layers, on top of it. Underneath it? I’m not sure, moving on.

Speaking of being on top of things, this is damn cool, because it involves (a) geophysical survey (which as we all know is the future), (b) archaeology from aeroplanes and (c) lasers. And of these the greatest is lasers, obviously, but it still looks pretty good.

On the other hand, speaking of being beneath, these are also damn cool, and this time the link involves a rebellion against the Empire and, if not pirate gold, at least gold bearing the mark of a privateer admiral. Surely we can agree that that’s cool?

You know, occasionally I worry that my job is actually turning me into a numismatist. I have two numismatic papers in process, and spent the early part of the week trying to teach a bunch of programmers about coins that I’d imaged for them. If I was going to become a numismatist, though, or even a collector, it would not be medieval stuff but Roman coins to which I was drawn, because the richness of their symbolic language and the naturalism of their portraits makes them very dense objets d’art. But thanks to another of the miscellanies of the inimitable Dr Nokes, I find that I am not alone in this, and that if I want to enthuse about Roman coinage there will be at least one other place whose example I can follow, so this cheers me greatly. There be shiny.

That’s enough meta-content, surely I can generate some abstruse musings on eschatocols or something to drive you away again now…