In Clare College, where I have the fairly vestigial honour of being a College Research Associate, there is an actual college library, but there is also the Fellows’ Library, which is less of a library and more of a collection. The room contains some 6,000 volumes, and most of them are seventeenth- or eighteenth-century. I was in there a Monday recently gone with some guests who were thrilling over a first edition of the Micrographia of Robert Hooke, which is indeed A Thing, but as I remarked to the classicist whose guests they were, the great thing about our fields is some of these books are still on our reading list. For example, if you work with medieval Latin, you may often have been quite glad that Gallica at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris put du Cange’s Glossarium mediae et infimae latinitatis online, though you may have groaned at the laborious single-page PDF format (there are efforts being made to deal with this, by the way). But some places are just lucky enough to have a real copy… Oh, and another one of the abridged edition, for the easy words. Who uses these, now? Answer: I will, now I know they’re there, at least if I can find a reason why those ones make more sense than the U. L.‘s copy.
Then a more private piece of joy, or at least, less likely to be widely shared. The field of charter history more or less starts with a book by a monk by the name of Jean Mabillon, who in the late seventeenth century set down to explain, as part of a long argument he was having with a Dutch scholar by the name of Papenbroeck, in what ways you could reliably distinguish a genuine charter from a faked one. I’ve repeatedly argued that just telling ‘authentic’ from ‘false’ doesn’t mean an awful lot by itself, but it’s still important to be able to do it, and Mabillon’s De Re Diplomatica is still pretty much the manual from which all else derives, partly because it’s huge and comprehensive but mainly because he was just that good. I’ve read some of it in translation, but actual copies of this specialist work are kind of uncommon.1 But Clare have one, of the second edition. I don’t think I can really spare the time to sit there evening after evening and read it—the Latin seemed really quite clear from what I could skim—but it’s sorely tempting.
I don’t go to Clare very much, because the hope of teaching proved illusory, this year at least. But the Haskins Society trip left me sufficiently short of cash that free food seemed like a good idea, so I recently made use of my dining privileges and went to High Table, you see. The food and wine is of course part of the point, but the other point is that it’s where you talk to people in the college with whom you otherwise have no dealings, and that’s the occasion of the last thing I wanted to mention. I was sat next to Dr Andrea Manica, who works on population biology, among several other biological fields. He was kind enough to be interested in my stuff, or at least in the coins (this is a worrying trend these days) but I was more interested in his, because he mentioned a project of his that, he thought, had proved that genetic biodiversity in the human population basically correlates to geographic distance.2 That is, if you take two human population samples, the difference in their DNA will be proportionate to the geographic distance between the samples. And you might think that that was to be expected, but tease out the implications: this means that there are no significant groupings. To put it another way, he thinks his work proves that race is genetically non-existent. Even migration is making little difference, it must just be disappearing in the assimilation process. We know, I risk adding, from chromosomal studies like Blood of the Vikings, that distinctions are possible, at least at a statistically marginal level, and you know, people do have different colours of skin and so on, but it rather knackers any ideas about ‘racial character’ being ‘in the genes’ and makes nurture look a lot heavier than nature again.
Now this has pretty substantial ideological implications, yes, but also, if you’ve done early medieval history you may have heard this before, particularly if you’ve read work that used the word ‘ethnogenesis’. Archaeology of previous centuries has been very keen on showing populations in material culture, and correlating goods in the ground to people on the hoof. And more recent work has been loudly contending that ethnicity is portable, chosen, and constructed, and that a new incoming population would be genetically washed clean into its wider pool within three generations if that. Up till now however we (because I’ve certainly adopted these claims, being then young, brash and anti-racist and now at least being the latter two) haven’t had the evidence to back this up, and the new trend for skeletal and DNA work has looked as if it might be going to prove us wrong. Now, the burden is back on the racialists I think, and if their findings have weight, it’s going to be a more complicated explanation than we had been used to think.
1. The translation I read is Jean Mabillon, “On Diplomatics”, ed. & transl. R. Wertis in P. Gay & V. G. Wexler (edd.), Historians at Work (New York 1972), 2 vols, II pp. 164-198, for what use this may be.
2. If you have a look at the bibliography on his departmental web-page, it looks as if we’re talking about F. Prugnolle, A. Manica & F. Balloux, “Geography predicts neutral diversity of human populations” in Current Biology Vol. 15 (Amsterdam 2005), pp. 159-160, and A. Manica, F. Prugnolle, & F. Balloux, “Geography is a better determinant of human genetic differentiation than ethnicity” in Human Genetics Vol. 118 nos 3-4 (Berlin 2005), pp. 366-371.