I try and keep this blog mostly on the actual Middle Ages and writing about it, and not get drawn into too much conversation between bloggers about blogs. The times that a particular British TV critic would go on about how much he hated TV about TV, in phrases I won’t use here but which could be paraphrased mostly using words starting with ‘self-‘, have influenced me greatly here. All the same, there are times when ya gotta. First of these is that Gabriele Campbell of the Lost Fort has nominated me for an award that I’m not sure what to do with or whence it comes. It seems to just be a meme but still, somewhere I’m sure someone is counting the times the little design they created appears somewhere and generally monitoring us like aliens monitoring us from ABOVE MAN I’M TELLING YOU!!1!eleventy-one! etc. Lemme make with the tinfoil hat already!
I’d be inclined to ignore this, but Gabriele’s nominated me for something before and I ignored it then too, and then, even while this was in draft, Another Damned Medievalist nominated me for the same award! Also, more pertinently, I’m temporarily short of content, so OK, I’ll bite. But I’m not going to tag ten others as the meme wants. I hate being tagged myself unless it really gives me something to play with. What I will do, which is subtly not the same thing, is try and explain why I think ten of the blogs I read are worth the reading.
- It would be somewhat rude, of course, not to start with Gabriele, who is one of a number of historical fiction writers running a blog to test ideas and connect with her peers. These are blogs that by and large I avoid. The reason I don’t avoid Gabriele’s is partly because of the sense of humour, but mainly because when she writes about somewhere she’s usually been there and taken brilliant photoes. Honestly, there are more shots and explanations of European castles at The Lost Fort than on several castle tourist sites, and the photoes are far better.
- Another fiction writer whom I make an exception for is Carla Nayland. A quantity of the blog is local photography and there’s a recipe every month, some of which look damn tasty but not medieval. However, she does her research: there’s as likely to be a post untangling matters of the Anglo-Saxon calendar or disambiguating two Pictish kings as there is either of those, and if you don’t know Insular early medieval history or its debates particularly well you will find a clever and easily-fathomable introduction to several at Carla’s blog. So if you had been ignoring it because of its averred fictionality, let me assure you that that’s misleading.
- Now let’s talk the ones that I turn to hoping for a smile to be raised. You are all reading Jennifer Lynn Jordan’s Per Omnia Sæcula aren’t you? I can’t see why you wouldn’t be. Irreverent perhaps—well, no, definitely, in as much as paper cartoon puppets of Charlemagne can hardly be reverent—but erudite, passionate and you never know exactly what’s going to crop up.
- Much more certain for what will turn up, in as much as there is a tag cloud in which the words “Angelina Jolie” and “boobs” turn up quite large (though the latter not as large as another tag, “not boobs”), is Carl Pyrdum’s Got Medieval; despite what I’ve just said Carl deploys considerable learning about the Middle Ages, often based on close readings of manuscripts that are carefully illustrated in his posts, in the great purpose of having fun, and also of using large numbers of amusing footnotes. Also, there are but few places out there where an author publically disclaims everything he’s written, and this is one.
- Sticking with the reading for enjoyment, two very different approaches to an Anglo-Saxon academy come from Professor Michael Drout and she who trades as The Naked Philologist. From Drout’s Wormtalk and Slugspeak we get justifiably infrequent but always learned posts which take complicated things, be they Old English verse and its manuscripts or academic management, and make them comprehensible to the outsider in a sensitive way. I don’t feel involved in many of the things that Professor Drout does, but I’m always interested in reading them.
- On the other hand, la Philologiste is more likely to come up with carefully-crafted cartoon icons and humourous retellings of hagiography than give lengthy state-of-the-field discourses (though there have been some of them as well). What can I say? At some level, the enthusiasm and the love of the subject matter are not dissimilar, and they mean I’m always glad to see her avatar in WordPress’s blog surfer (as well as faintly envious of an undergraduate already deep in manuscript work).
- There is a little cluster of three, which there are many good reasons to read, but which I follow because what they write is likely to touch my own research, and there aren’t very many people who do this, and still fewer on the Internet. Best known to the readership because of being so well-established, I suspect, is Another Damned Medievalist whose Blogenspiel was one of the first medievalist blogs of which I was aware and gave me the consciousness that people were doing this and that it could be done in conjunction with a job. Second, because I know the writer in real life and because our interests overlap considerably, but also because the questions she asks of our material are very different from mine, is Magistra et Mater, whose likewise long-established blog I took rather longer to happen on. Third and newest, but providing me a series of interesting perspectives on how my material looks from later, if you see, is Clio’s Disciple, whom I may have frightened by mentioning here (though I imagine it’s good for no more than a couple of hits, all the same).
- That seems to be nine. So let me last mention The Rebel Letter, which is not something I might be expected to like. I don’t think that the author and I would get on in person, we have very different backgrounds and interests and a great deal of the blog is personal life which I don’t really consider it this blog’s job to bring forward. However, she writes really well and often enough that is writing about, if not medieval texts (though sometimes) the academic life, its travails and costs and its occasional fierce joys, that I have no compunction not only in linking it but following it as if it were the most relevant thing in the world.
This omits a few obvious suspects: again, I assume everyone is already reading some, like The Unlocked Wordhoard and Geoffrey Chaucer (TM) Hath an Extreme Blog: Go England! It Ys Rad!, as it’s currently trading. Also, I think it’s vital to keep up with David Beard’s Archaeology in Europe, but I only mentioned that a few posts ago and no-one seemed interested; more fools you then, that’s where the new source material’s going to be reported. But this’ll do for now.
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Now then. You’ll perhaps have noticed that significantly absent from the blogroll is In the Medieval Middle, which is because I don’t read it. My occasional ventures there when Richard Scott Nokes cherry-picks a good bit have left me thinking I don’t really want to: at its worst I find it irrelevant, self-gratulatory and insubstantial, and at its best mainly poetic rather than useful, to me at least. In general terms, it just doesn’t have much to do with what I want to study, which is not to deny its worth for others working in a more literary and less historical vein. However, because I’ve been known to say so much in public fora, I thought it was worth making it clear that I am nothing at all to do with this. This, a new rival blog enjoying the title In the Medieval Muddle, is a far worse waste of effort, or at least it is so far. I wouldn’t deny the importance and potential use of their mission, but the combative tone, the inherently destructive critique with no positive readings to balance it, and the incessant sniping at particular people means that it reads like a very bitter and over-elaborate grudge match that I would have no part of even if it were offered. I shan’t even comment there, tempting though it has already been; I am on neither side. I’ll explain why.
I did my undergraduate and my Masters degrees at Cambridge, and then by a series of accidents ended up doing my Ph. D. at London. I will usually defend Oxbridge against stereotypical charges of élitism: it does want to be, and tries hard to be in ways that people ignore, an élite that anyone good enough can join, though given how slowly its recruitment base changes, I can understand the point of view that doesn’t want to be part of it. I do get upset by people who tell me they didn’t apply “because they don’t take people like me”, though. Rubbish: I knew some. They had more ambitious teachers, perhaps, parents with bigger aspirations, more support, but none of this means that Oxbridge wasn’t interested in recruiting the best brains it could get wherever they’d been trained. Of course, they also want to select people who’ll do well and not hate it, which is much more like gatekeeping though not necessarily sinister in motives. Actually, inside the system there is quite justifiable paranoia about what this perception of bias may do to their funding some day; it’s in their interest in many ways to change it, which means changing whatever reality lies behind it too, but it’s slow doing. (This is all fresh in my mind because of a recent article about it in the British Guardian newspaper, which you can find discussed here where you’ll realise you’ve just read my comment.)
All the same, Oxbridge does remain, for the moment, altogether too upper-middle-class, rich and isolated from social distress. This can only be changed by changing its population, which is rather Catch-22; in order to attract people from a broader social base, it needs more of them. And sometimes, it is not very attractive to these people. Sometimes, indeed, it is downright stupid and ridiculous and does itself no favours. One of the reasons I was glad to get out to London, once those accidents had occurred, was the far easier dialogue between ‘rival’ scholars that I met, for example, at the Institute of Historical Research. Quite a lot of them were ex-Oxbridge or on their way back, but they didn’t feud. And this struck me as pleasantly strange, because the first and only time I went to a graduate seminar during my Masters (poor, I know, but read on and also understand that I had a great deal on my plate that year outside the degree), I’d seen Oxbridge at its worst. I won’t name the names, but an eminent professor who was convening the seminar that day, was heartily disliked by another eminent professor. The latter turned up late and bustled in, interrupting proceedings, whereupon the following exchange genuinely took place:
Eminence 2: Hullo everybody, sorry I’m late, you weren’t starting without me were you?
Eminence 1: Now [Eminence 1], we wouldn’t dream of starting without you.
Eminence 2 cocks hand to ear: Did someone say something? No? Well anyway.
At this point I realised I was seeing two grown men who supposedly represented the intellectual peak of my intended profession unwittingly reenacting the Mary Whitehouse Experience. Eminence 2 is an authority on his subject whom no-one can ignore even now; and here he was playing playground “I can’t hear you” games. Yessir: welcome to adulthood. Oh no, that would be somewhere else. London was never like this; there were in fact feuds but they were conducted by means of the antagonists just avoiding each other and getting on in public, you know, like adults. Back in Cambridge, it was much too often History Today done live.
So, anonymous blogger at In The Medieval Muddle, you see this:
That’s you, that is. And alas, you are in stalwart, noble and respected company.