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Yes, folks, it’s come around again. The promises of negotiation and concessions that ended the last round of strikes in the UK higher education sector all came to nothing and meanwhile our pay has dropped still further against inflation and … Continue reading

In celebration of the life of Susan Reynolds

It has become all too frequent a thing, as I get older and those who have helped me along my career remain the same distance older than me, that I have to put aside whatever I had meant to post on a given blog day because news reaches me that somebody who deserves celebration or memorial has sadly died, and thus it is today. Susan Reynolds, whom I feel as if I’ve mentioned on this blog a hundred times, passed away on Thursday morning, with family and friends around her, I am told. (There don’t seem to be any obituaries up yet; I have to thank Fraser McNair and David Ganz for making sure I knew.) She was 92. I am very sad about this, because I enjoyed her work and indeed her company a lot and I know I’m not alone in this, but I’ve had a couple of goes at writing this as tidings of doom, and it just won’t write like that because everything I remember of her was basically uplifting and encouraging. So I blog not to mourn Susan but to celebrate her, and I hope that if you knew her you can do likewise.

Portrait photograph of Susan Reynolds

This seems to be the only photo of Susan on the Internet, and is probably from the 1980s? And more immediately it’s from the IHR website, linked through

I suppose that for most people, or rather for people who didn’t have the privilege of hanging around the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in London a while, Susan Reynolds is a name one knows primarily from her books, and especially Kingdoms and Communities in Medieval Europe and the almost-infamous Fiefs and Vassals.1 There were actually more than that, including two Variorum collections of essays and her last actual monograph, completed in 2014 when she was a mere 85, plus a plethora of useful and incisive chapters and articles I could cite, but those two books especially kept her on reading lists across the English-speaking world within quite a short space of their publication and will continue to do so for a while yet.2 That’s because there are few people who could deal as well as Susan did with all the difficulties of interpreting massed textual sources by people whose thoughtworlds were a millennium removed from our own and still extract some kind of synthesis about what they did and why, often over really quite a scale. So there’s all that, the kind of scholarly legacy we might all hope to leave but must know that few of us will, but if you know Susan’s name it’s because you know some or all of that already. What might not be so obvious, without having met her or talked to her, is quite how remarkable it was that any of that came to be, because Susan’s passage through the life academic was not by any means what would now pass for normal.

Now, I’m not going to recount her life here, partly because who am I to do that and so on, but mostly because she did it herself, in an interview for the IHR in 2008, and it’s online here. The sound file is gone from there, but happily, if ironically, the Internet Archive has preserved it where the IHR’s own archive pages have not, so there you can not just read it but hear it—and you don’t have a full impression of Susan unless you know how she talked. So I very much recommend giving that a listen. But, either in text or in sound, gather in the first fifteen minutes or so, in which she laid out her scholarly biography, because it’s sort of amazing, for at least these reasons:

  1. she did not get a first at undergraduate, she had no MA, no Ph. D., and her only postgraduate qualification was a diploma in archive management;
  2. she was never a professor; in fact I’m not sure she was ever promoted in any of her jobs; and
  3. much of her substantial work was only begun, let alone published, after she retired at age 58 from what was only her second university post; even Kingdoms and Communities only came out three years before that.

It’s easy to say to all that, well, things were different then (and she repeatedly stressed those differences in the interview), but that makes it sound as her work also dates from some distant era, whereas actually, Fiefs and Vassals came out when I was an undergraduate; Kingdoms and Communities went into its second edition just as I finished being an undergraduate; and her last book came out when I was working in Birmingham. And this was a retiree, turning out work that overthrew or updated whole subfields in ways that young ambitious scholars would have suffered greatly to achieve. In her sixties into seventies, in other words, Susan Reynolds became a whole new big thing in the field. If anyone’s life demonstrates that it’s never too late, surely this is it.

Now of course, she was an ageing lady by then and, as that interview shows, deeply conscious of having once been brighter and faster and being able to remember more. I had a couple of conversations with her where she lamented this, while I wished I were half as sharp even then. She had a reputation among attendees of the IHR seminar as a fierce questioner, and certainly she would pin anyone down on matters of what the terms used in medieval sources really meant—one of her hobby-horses, definitely, though again, the interview is very good in explaining why it matters—but I don’t think I ever saw her kick downwards, beyond that injunction to think about words. The impression I formed was that she didn’t think it was fair to attack anyone her junior, and of course by the time I knew her there weren’t many people who weren’t… The two people I saw get the full force of her critique, in fact, were John Gillingham, in person, and Rees Davies in print, and it is to be noted that she singled both of them out, in that interview, for praise as brilliant scholars; so I think she just felt that they should have known better…3

Certainly, what I mainly remember Susan for is interest and kindness. Quite early on we bonded somewhat over being the only two people in England whom each other knew to have thought about what the people called Hispani in the legislation of the Carolingian rulers actually were, in terms of status; but I used to make a point of chatting with Susan whenever I was in the IHR and saw her, partly in the hope of some delicious bon mot that could be quoted later, I admit, which I was not the only one collecting, but also because it was always interesting to talk with her and because she was always happy to be interested.4

The Semantic Triangle, as conceptualised by Charles Ogden and Ivor Richards

The Semantic Triangle, as conceptualised by Charles Ogden and Ivor Richards and as used by Susan Reynolds, from Patricia Brenes’s In My Own Terms, linked through, where further explanation is provided

On one occasion, when she had a presentation to give in the near future in Vienna and was reckoning to use Powerpoint for the first time, in her eighties let’s remember, she asked if I could work through the software with her when I was next in London, to prevent her holding everything up and being “foolish”. I think it was me just because I was there while she was worrying about it, but we set a date anyway. By the time it came round, every other reason I’d had for being in town that day had collapsed. I went down anyway though, from Birmingham I think, because I just couldn’t face cancelling on Susan. I went straight to the IHR, found her in the tea-room, corralled an empty seminar room in which to do the computer demo, and spent ten minutes coaching her with the software and fifty fascinating minutes discussing the implications of the single diagram she’d painstakingly got onto the slide for her paper, which I have found again and which you see above. We got chucked out of the seminar room when someone actually needed it for a seminar, parted ways and I went straight back home on the train, and that was basically my day. I look back on it now as a day tremendously well-spent, and kind of an honour. The volume of essays that was dedicated to her clearly professes that it wasn’t just me who felt this way about her, either.5

So as I say, I tried to write this sadly, and obviously I am sad that she’s died, how could I not be? Apart from anything else, lockdown must have been tremendously hard for someone whose life was so arranged around the sociability of London academia and a regular routine of library visits, and I’m glad that at least by the time the time came people could be with her again. But I also don’t suppose she was actually finished, despite being 92; I imagine there were things she was still working on and indeed work of hers that must still be in press and will now follow her intellectual cortège, and we might wonder what else there would have been if she’d been given any more time. But despite all this, I cannot remember Susan Reynolds sadly. Tales of her will continue to delight me, her work will continue to anchor and inspire my own, and I hope I will always smile, even if sadly, to think of her. And I hope this all sort of explains why. I feel very fortunate to have known her.

1. Susan Reynolds, Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe, 900-1300 (Oxford 1984; 2nd edn 1997); eadem, Fiefs and Vassals: the medieval evidence reinterpreted (Oxford 1994).

2. What to select, where to start? Firstly the other two monographs, of course, Reynolds, An Introduction to the History of English Medieval Towns (Oxford 1977) and eadem, Before Eminent Domain: Toward a History of Expropriation of Land for the Common Good (Chapel Hill NC 2014), both prefigured by useful shorter pieces. After that, a top five illustrative shorter pieces might be eadem, “What Do We Mean by ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘Anglo-Saxons’?” in Journal of British Studies Vol. 24 (Chicago IL 1985), pp. 395–414; eadem, “The Historiography of the Medieval State” in Michael Bentley (ed.), A Companion to Historiography (London 1997), pp. 117–138; Susan Reynolds, “Empires: a problem of comparative history” in Historical Research Vol. 79 (Oxford 2006), pp. 151–165; eadem, “Early Medieval Law in India and Europe: A Plea for Comparisons” in The Medieval History Journal Vol. 16 (New York City 2013), pp. 1–20; and eadem, “Society: hierarchy and solidarity” in Benjamin Z. Kedar and Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks (edd.), The Cambridge World History, volume V: Expanding Webs of Exchange and Conflict, 500 CE–1500 CE (Cambridge 2015), pp. 94–115.

3. I can’t remember what John had done to catch Susan’s ire, but I think it must have been at his IHR presentation of the paper which became John Gillingham, “Fontenoy and After: pursuing enemies to the death in France between the ninth and the eleventh centuries” in Paul Fouracre & David Ganz (edd.), Frankland: The Franks and the World of the Early Middle Ages. Essays in Honour of Dame Jinty Nelson (Manchester 2008), pp. 242-265, which was before I began blogging. In Davies’s case the problem was caused by Rees Davies, “The Medieval State: The Tyranny of a Concept?” in Journal of Historical Sociology Vol. 16 (Oxford 2003), pp. 280–300, to which cf. Susan Reynolds, “There were States in Medieval Europe: A Response to Rees Davies”, ibid. pp. 550–555. Davies’s piece was itself a critique of Reynolds, “Historiography of the Medieval State”, so it could be argued that he started it.

4. For which reason, in Jonathan Jarrett, “Settling the Kings’ Lands: aprisio in Catalonia in perspective” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 320–342, you will find on p. 321 n. 2 a citation of Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals, pp. 107-111, which until Cullen J. Chandler, “Between Court and Counts: Carolingian Catalonia and the aprisio grant, 778-897″ in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2002), pp. 19–44, to which I was responding in my piece, was the only work in English in what Carolingian or Catalan aprisio might in fact be. The thanks that Susan, among others, got on p. 320 was for exactly those kinds of conversations.

5. That volume being Pauline Stafford, Janet Nelson & Jane Martindale (edd.), Law, Laity and Solidarities: Essays in honour of Susan Reynolds (Manchester 2001).


It would be reasonable to ask where I have been, and the answer is basically, on holiday in Wales. I did mean to have some blog written up before I went that I could schedule to make things run uninterrupted … Continue reading

Teaching scholarship, MOOCs and the digital pivot

This is a post whose original core idea has aged badly since its stubbing nearly four years ago, but looking at it, I thought the total rewrite it now needed was actually indicative of something worth saying. So I hope you’ll forgive me if I lead you through some old thinking before I take stock of where we now seem to be. The subject is the digital transformation of university teaching, and specifically that demon of internet commentary circa 2015, the Massive Open Online Course or MOOC.

'MOOC: every letter is negotiable', by Mathieu Plourde

‘MOOC: every letter is negotiable’, by Mathieu Plourde (Mathplourde on Flickr) – File:MOOC-Poster.png, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

It is one of my contracted professional obligations in my current job to keep abreast of trends in the scholarship of education itself, as well as my mainline academic field or fields. This makes sense in as much as teaching is most of what, professionally, I do, but it is not without its frustrations, as that scholarship is prolific and I don’t think it’s controversial to say that it has yet really to establish clear standards of quality control. There certainly are serious, large-cohort or long-running studies of techniques or teaching environments and so on that make full use of the potential of the classroom (or rather, lots of classrooms in collaboration) as a laboratory for educational strategy and technique.1 The trouble for the people who put that kind of experimental planning and effort into their pedagogical scholarship is that they seem to stand as much chance of getting published as, and to share more or less equal standing in publication and citation when they do with, studies whose experimental basis is more like ‘I’ve been teaching small groups in the same small instititution to the same general demographic for thirty years now and though I don’t have records or anything, here’s what seems to work.’2 And I have to say, I have probably learnt at least as much about teaching from some of the latter as I have from the former, which might unkindly be seen mainly to provide data that shows what we mostly already suspected.3

But there is another trend in this scholarship, anyway, which is prognostication. I could list you scads of articles that exist only to say, “we predict that everything is going to change in the next few years in such-and-such a direction”, and they would probably almost all fall into three groups, being about either the ‘flipped classroom‘, ‘blended learning‘ or MOOCs. Of these, the most accurate looks like the ‘flipped classroom’ group, arguing with often-sound data for the improvement in learning and retention that happens if you use your classroom time for interaction and discussion rather than for lecturing, and instead have the information acquisition set as preparation and use the classroom time to work with that information and make sure it’s understood at the level where the students can do stuff with it.4 The only thing that annoys me about that scholarship is how they manage to keep selling as new methods that represent how the humanities, at least, has largely been taught for decades. Asking students to read in advance and come to class prepared to discuss, or even already having written something about, it is how I was taught and, I think I could safely say, how my father was taught either side of the Second World War, so how this keeps being published as a new idea beats me.5 Of course, it blurs into the second category, blended learning, when the prep work is digital content rather than just reading or a physical-space lecture, but the actual structure of the learning is not different. Anyway, this is not actually my subject for the day, just a frustration.

Diagram of flipped vs. traditional classroom learning

You see, in what discipline or subject area has the right-hand method been ‘traditional’ inside this century? And could whoever they are please catch up with the humanities so that we don’t keep getting buffeted in the bow wave of your reform efforts? Image from the UK’s Learning Foundation, linked through; I claim fair use because commentary…

So instead my target is the scholarship or commentary which, in 2017, was saying that the future was either partly-online or partly-digital education, i. e. blended learning, which has been going on for a while, or else fully-online and centralised in the form of the MOOC. I was actually signed up to a MOOC for 2015-16—is it ironic that it was about blended learning? I’ll let you decide—as training for an administrative role I then held and so I got some idea not just of how they were supposed to work but how they actually do, or don’t. (Of course, this is the same sample-of-one no-control anecdotal standard of scholarship I was just separating from stuff with any wider basis, but this is why it’s a blog post not a journal article, isn’t it?) But even as I was doing this, the generally hyperbolic level of excitement about them had struck me as weird. I think it was a recurrent thread on a blog I wish I still had time to read, Not of General Interest, that alerted me to this, but then I started collecting references, and some example titles would be, ‘MOOCs: another weapon in the outreach armoury’, ‘MOOCs are Coming’, and my two favourites, ‘This Could Be Huge’ and ‘An Avalanche is Coming: Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead’.6 It’s probably worth noting that none of these were peer-reviewed work, although the third is good journalism and I cite it often below; but it’s almost as if genuine educators didn’t find all this plausible… And indeed, as Undine’s posts already linked show, it wasn’t hard at the time to find push-back and criticism as well, but we seemed to be pushing against a technology-evangelical wall.

I say ‘we’ because I had definitely settled against the whole MOOC idea by the time I originally stubbed this post. This was not because I thought they were dreadful ways to learn, as such, but I did think that they were somewhat missold, and most of all that there was a bait-and-switch going on from their evangelists about the economics involved. The rhetoric that all the literature I could find, and the teaching I received, was to the effect that you, the educator, can now access this mass of pre-prepared digital content and incorporate it into your own courses/modules/whatever, thus saving you valuable time and enlivening your material for your students!7 And call me a cynic, but my reaction was, “that sounds a lot like, ‘your content is boring because it’s not modern and digital; someone else is already doing what we want from you better than you are; if we can just replace all your stuff with content we bodge in from elsewhere, or even just record your content, we can get rid of you, save your wage and just pay teaching assistants to do seminars on the recorded content, because hey man, it’s history, it’s literally all in the past, not like it’s gonna change amirite?'” Using MOOCs was pretty clearly out-sourcing, and one only ever does that to save labour costs. In other words, I saw MOOCs pretty squarely as a resource to which cash-poor universities could resort to cut teachers, and which cash-rich universities who didn’t need to cut teachers could create to sell to the cash-poor ones. That was more or less explicitly Harvard’s rationale for starting to generate them, and I’m sure there were other universities whose digital learning teams had similar glinty-eyed aspirations.8 But to me it seemed obvious that we should neither use nor make these things because by doing do we would, somewhere or other, be making a colleague and maybe eventually ourselves redundant.

Graphic of the digital pivot

I include this just because it is so impressively meaningless; it is supposedly a representation of the ‘digital pivot’ from a story in the MIT Technology Review from last year (linked through), which was sponsored by Hitachi but seems mainly to be about Walmart.

Now, that was the point of the original post, but the thing is, from four years on, it’s obvious that the promised revolution hasn’t happened, isn’t it? This was already becoming evident even as I stubbed the post; only a few days before major MOOC provider Udacity had decided to stop generating new courses and declared MOOCs ‘dead’, and by 2019 the subsidence of the phenomenon had been noted even in Science.9 But then came the Great Digital Pivot of 2020, which you might have thought was the tidal wave that should reverse the fortune of this dying tool, the point where everyone had to go not even blended but full-online. But it seems to have made no difference. Coursera, FutureLearn, EdX and a few other firms continue to offer such courses, but we have seen neither of the outcomes once predicted, where cheap online learning replaces universities or where universities start using extensive external content instead of their own staff (though if some of the staff cuts currently being fought in the UK go ahead, I guess that could still change).

So why not? Why didn’t the pandemic save the MOOC and why was it so ill in the first place? I think there are two big reasons. Firstly, as was being observed even in 2012, no-one was quite sure how to make them pay. The point of them was to be open access, after all, so you couldn’t charge up-front. The way Coursera used to work, and may still, is that you could do the whole course for free but had to pay a small amount to get certification that you had done so; I guess that the logic was that those who had actually completed the course would want to be able to prove it, and with literally millions of learners, even if conversion rates were terrible, you should still see enough of those payments to cover creation or licensing of content and running costs of the IT infrastructure, and even minimal ongoing staff time; a teacher-pupil ratio of 1:21,000 (as instanced below) should make that possible… But it seems that drop-out rates were even more terrible than that, and that actually you can just about keep going on that model but not make the forecasted mint. So only the biggest offerers have survived and very few universities have built MOOCs to try and make money; a few embraced them for a while as advertising for full degree courses, but I’ve seen nothing to suggest that that seems to work either.10 So reason one: a massive misjudgement of the world population’s willingess to pay for this kind of product.

I would like to think that reason two was that the turkeys who would have had to generate this content saw the wisdom in not voting for Christmas, but I’m pretty sure that in this employment climate you can pay would-be academics to teach pretty much anything, however much it may be against their long-term interests. So reason two might instead be a thing which the pandemic has very clearly exposed, which is that whether it’s because they think it results in better learning or because it forms part of the much-championed but little-specified ‘university experience’, people doing degree-level education actually want to receive it direct from people they think are experts, and have the chance to interact with those strange beasts in real time. In theory, that was possible in MOOCs, if you signed up to them when they were new and kept up with their schedules; the designers and instructors would be around and responding to comments as far as they could. But with 38,000 people signed up to a course, many contributing several times weekly, and probably two staff members running it in only some of their time, you can see how much chance there is of reaction from the instructor really happening for most students.11 If you were well behind on the content, then you probably didn’t even have the benefit of peer discussion and learning; there just wouldn’t be enough people on the same unit as you at the same time to sustain a conversation. This was certainly my experience, and I suppose illustratively, I never actually finished the course myself. An Edinburgh study in 2013 made the problems even more clear, however: they found that a MOOC took eight hours a week to set up and sixteen hours a week to run, for only one of the two staff involved; only 2,000 of 42,000 students enrolled actually completed it; the students expected instructors to be more present than was actually possible; those who fell behind didn’t find it desirable to catch back up (as I also found); and, as one of their students (identified as “Bertin”) put it on their blog, “the overall effect for me was knowing that I don’t want to do an e-learning course they run that I had previously been interested in taking”.12 Oops!

What this means is that making these things work is actually very hard, but even when they do there’s really very little difference, other then the endurance required to finish a MOOC, between it and any other online training course like the ones they give university staff on heavy lifting or fire safety or gender and race equality, all useful within limits, but basically canned content with zero interaction with the supposed teacher. And it seems clear that, even though often enough when you have students in a classroom with you it seems like interacting with you is absolutely the last thing they want to do, when the alternative is no interaction at all, it’s worse, and they’ll pay to avoid it, or at least accumulate fairly abstract debt (in England and Wales, anyway; I realise that student debt has more serious implications where the Student Loans Company doesn’t periodically go bankrupt from shortage of repayments). And MOOCs, it seems, were and are that alternative. Perhaps they could be made to run better, with more student-teacher interaction and more live content; but it would send their costs up, reduce their universal accessibility (because live means in a fixed time and place) and probably therefore make their margins worse not better. So I cautiously think that university teachers might now be safe from this revolution, at least. The blended learning evangelists look like being a lot closer to the future, and indeed the present really, but that would be another post. Let me mature that one a few years too before trying it, eh?

1. I hope I can be forgiven no more than one example per generalisation, even though by so doing I am myself normalising bad scientific practice; sorry. But: the biggest large-cohort highly-designed meta-study I know is Elif Kara, Mirco Tonin and Michael Vlassopoulos, ‘Class size effects in higher education: Differences across STEM and non-STEM fields’ in Economics of Education Review Vol. 82 (Amsterdam 2021), 102104, DOI: 10.1016/j.econedurev.2021.102104.

2. For example, the perfectly worthy but not really scientific Anne Firor Scott, “Why I Teach By Discussion” in A. Leigh Deneef and Craufurd D. Goodwin (edd.), The Academic’s Handbook, 3rd ed. (Durham NC 2007), pp. 212–216, on JSTOR here. A charming example I also have to cite is Harry Brighouse, “Becoming a Better College Teacher (If You’re Lucky)” in Daedalus Vol. 148 (2019), pp. 14–28, DOI: 10.1162/daed_a_01758.

3. A really good anecdotal practice paper is Brett Lunceford, “There Are No Girls in My Classroom: A Pedagogical Note” in ETC: A Review of General Semantics Vol. 68 (New York City NY 2001), pp. 63–67, which I don’t know how you’d find without being told. A somewhat unsurprising large-scale study is Louis Deslauriers, Logan S. McCarty, Kelly Miller, Kristina Callaghan and Greg Kestin, “Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Vol. 116 (Washington DC 2019), 19251, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1821936116, which laboriously shows that on the whole students prefer it when they don’t have to work as hard to grasp what’s being taught even if it teaches them better to do so.

4. There is an incredible amount of work trialling flipped-classroom approaches or resisting them. A very recent and huge meta-study, which ought to lay the matter to rest but probably won’t, is Khe Foon Hew, Shurui Bai, Weijao Huang, Phillip Dawson, Jiahui Du, Guoyuhui Huang, Chengyuan Jia & Khongjan Thankrit, “On the use of flipped classroom across various disciplines: Insights from a second-order meta-analysis” in Australasian Journal of Educational Technology Vol. 37 (Tugun 2021), pp. 132–151, DOI: 10.14742/ajet.6475. Some suggestions that the effects might be socially variable in Elizabeth Setren, Kyle Greenberg, Oliver Moore & Michael Yankovich, Effects of the Flipped Classroom: Evidence from a Randomized Trial, discussion paper #2019.07 (Cambridge MA 2019), online here.

5. Evangelism: Dan Berrett, ‘How “Flipping” the Classroom Can Improve the Traditional Lecture’ in Chronicle of Higher Education, 19th February 2012, online here; Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams, Flip your classroom: reach every student in every class every day (Eugene OR 2012); Jennifer Gavriel, “The flipped classroom” in Education for Primary Care Vol. 26 (Abingdon 2015), pp. 424–425, DOI: 10.1080/14739879.2015.1109809; or Betty Love, Angie Hodge, Cynthia Corritore and Dana C. Ernst, “Inquiry-Based Learning and the Flipped Classroom Model” in Problems, Resources, and Issues in Mathematics Undergraduate Studies Vol. 25 (Abingdon 2015), pp. 745–762, DOI: 10.1080/10511970.2015.1046005.

6. Respectively Chris Parr, “MOOCs: another weapon in the outreach armoury” in Times Higher Education, 11th July 2013, p. 11; David Williams, “MOOCs are coming”, AdvanceHE, n.d., online here; Zoë Corbyn, “This could be huge…” in Times Higher Education, 6th December 2012, pp. 34–39; and Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnelly & Saad Rizvi, An Avalanche is Coming: Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead (London 2013), online here. Corbyn says some academics were then forecasting a ‘Napster moment’ (p. 36), which seems unintentionally accurate given that in the end Napster perished and traditional recording labels somehow survive…

7. See even now Peter G. M. de Jong, James D. Pickering, Renée A. Hendriks, Bronwen J. Swinnerton, Fereshte Goshtasbpour and Marlies E. J. Reinders, “Twelve tips for integrating massive open online course content into classroom teaching” in Medical Teacher Vol. 42 (Abingdon 2020), pp. 393–397, DOI: 10.1080/0142159X.2019.1571569.

8. Harvard’s offering discussed in Corbyn, “This could be huge”, pp. 36 & 38.

9. Justin Reich and José A. Ruipérez-Valiente, “The MOOC pivot” in Science Vol. 363 (Washington DC 2019), pp. 130–131.

10. Corbyn, “This could be huge”, p. 38, where the example is the University of London, in one of its very rare corporate actions.

11. Numbers from the Stanford course around which Corbyn, “This could be huge”, is centred; see esp. pp. 36 & 38.

12. Reportage from Chris Parr, “Wisdom and Crowds” in Times Higher Education, 18th April 2013, pp. 24–25.

Periodical Coincidences

Here’s something a bit more light-hearted this week, or if you prefer, trivial. This builds on a very old realisation of mine of something basically meaningless, when during building up a list of things I hoped to read for my MA dissertation I clocked that the journals Viator and Britannia started in the same year, with their first issue in 1970.1 Both Latin titles, too, but different sides of the Atlantic and basically different, though overlapping, period focuses, so it’s hard to do anything with that fact other than notice it. And there that idea rested until some way into my doctoral research, which I approached fresh from employment which had given me the dangerous idea that you could solve almost any information management problem with an Access database, as long as you didn’t mind solving it badly. And we have already seen since long ago that my instincts in these directions are rarely sanely guided

So, what I wanted was a database into which I could transcribe my old paper lists of things I hope to read (present tense because by and large I still do hope to…) along with the somewhat crazy system I had devised of clocking their apparent importance and the number of times I’d seen them cited (which is also a measure of importance, however bad), basically an accumulating set of marginal sigla.2 Well, that could be turned into a numerical score and apart from the fact that this system inevitably privileged stuff that was ancient, it was a functional way of building reading lists as far as it went. That wasn’t very far, though, really, because my old paper lists, in an effort to keep things one line long only, had only ever recorded the volume-level location of articles and chapters, not their actual titles, which might have been invaluable as keyword. Without them, however, I just new that, for example, there were lots of things I apparently needed to read in the 1986 volume of Annales but without raw memory or going and looking at it, I’d no idea what they were.3 Not my best piece of diversionary work, all told, but there we go; you don’t go building bibliographical databases by yourself in every developer’s least favourite database software if you’re a completely sensible person, do you?

Screenshot of Jonathan Jarrett's custom bibliographical database

Screenshot of the madness

Anyway, all this does have a point, honest. Because I didn’t have article and chapter titles in the database, when I came across what might be a new journal article, the easiest way for me to find if I had it recorded was not to search for the author’s name or the journal’s title, but to search for the combination of volume and year, which in theory should be close-to-unique. So, for that issue of Annales I’d have searched for ’41 (1986)’. But doing so reveals that also in their 41st volume that year were, probably among others, the Deutsches Archiv of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica and the Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie.4 Now, obviously, this isn’t really surprising: there’s hundreds and thousands of academic journals, even just in the arts and humanities, and only a couple of hundred years of journal-issuing academia in which for them all to have existed. Most of them will be crowding the newer end of that timeframe, too.5 Coincidences are obviously inevitable. But there are an awful lot, once you start noticing them.

Now, I am a pattern-spotting animal and, like man as a species, perhaps so evolved for it that I spot patterns that aren’t really there too easily. This leads one to start asking those always-dangerous questions that begin, “Can it be a coincidence that… ?” For example, Cambridge’s Anglo-Saxon England (not then meant to be controversial…) and the Deutsche historische Institut in Paris’s Francia (perhaps never to be controversial) both seeing first light in 1972 could be coincidence, but could also be certain constituencies of academia all feeling that their interests, perhaps looking a bit fringe in the wake of Vietnam, the hippy movement and its disintegration (remember all those campus occupations…), needed a new forum for their mutual recognition. Was there a cross-channel medievalist moment happening there?6 Or am I spinning hay?

Anyway, whether or not this is crazy pattern spotting, I notice two really boom years, in which I don’t see what any plausible connection could be across so wide a range of journals but something feels like it was going on. The weaker of these is 1975, in which year it seems clear that several academic networks had decided that existing fora for their kind of work were inadequate, as a result of which in one year you get Birmingham’s Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, the Jahrbuch für westdeutsche Landesgeschichte and things like Islamochristiana, Critical Inquiry, Journal of Historical Geography and Journal of Medieval History, as well as the Royal Numismatic Society’s briefly separate list of Coin Hoards. One can work towards reasons for some of these: there’s a Marxist thread linking some of those journals, and if I dug enough into their histories and first editorial boards I might find people who had bounced ideas off each other, but while you might adduce something about the general state of growth of, especially, UK academia in the 1970s, it’s hard to explain why 1975 rather than 1974 or 1976, and of course if I were interested in different journals or different fields perhaps those years would show up instead…

Still. We already drew attention to the student riots and general academic upheaval of 1968, and I can’t help wondering if something really did rattle a lot of cages at that point because the real bumper year shown up by this utterly unscientific and useless sampling method is 1970, when as well as Britannia and Viator already mentioned, the academic world was given, in no particular order:

I can’t help but feel that something was going on, and of course, something had been. Almost certainly it is only coincidence, of course. But let me ask you: can all these coincidences really just be coincidence… ?

1. The former for Herwig Wolfram, “The Shaping of the Early Medieval Kingdom” in Viator Vol. 1 (Berkeley CA 1970) pp. 11-20; the latter, apparently, for A. L. F. Rivet and Kenneth Jackson, “The British Section of the Antonine Itinerary” in Britannia Vol. 1 (London 1970) pp. 34-82 and Anne Robertson, “Roman Finds from Non-Roman Sites in Scotland: More Roman ‘Drift’ in Caledonia”, ibid. pp. 198-226.

2. Ironically, partly because I now actually do use better software, I can now easily produce citations on how useless citation counting is, such as Michelle L. Dion, Jane Lawrence Sumner and Sara McLaughlin Mitchell, “Gendered Citation Patterns across Political Science and Social Science Methodology Fields” in Political Analysis Vol. 26 (Cambridge 2018), pp. 312–327, DOI: 10.1017/pan.2018.12; Eric A. Fong and Allen W. Wilhite, “Authorship and citation manipulation in academic research”, ed. Lutz Bornmann in Public Library of Science One Vol. 12 (San Francisco CA 2017), e0187394, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0187394; or Jack Grove, “Quarter of citations in top journals ‘wrong or misleading'” in Times Higher Education, 16th October 2020, online here.

3. Actually, they were Dominique Iogna-Prat, “Le « baptême » du schéma des trois ordres fonctionnels : L’apport de l’école d’Auxerre dans la seconde moitié du IXe siècle” in Annales : Économies, sociétés, civilisations Vol. 41 (Paris 1986), pp. 101-126; Michel Rouche, “La crise de l’Europe au cours de la deuxièèe moitié du VIIe siècle et la naissance des régionalismes”, ibid. pp. 347-360; Stéphane Lebecq, “Dans l’Europe du Nord des VIIe-IXe siècles : commerce frison ou commerce franco-frison?”, ibid. pp. 361-377; Bailey K. Young, “Exemple aristocratique et mode funéraire dans la Gaule mérovingienne”, ibid. pp. 379-407; Patrick Geary, “Vivre en conflit dans une France sans État : typologie des mécanismes de règlement des conflits (1050-1200)”, trans. Jacqueline Falquvert, ibid. pp. 1107-1133 and Robert Bartlett, “Technique militaire et pouvoir politique, 900-1300”, trans. Falquevert, ibid. pp. 1135-1159. Crikey, when Annales still meant something…

4. For, respectively: Hartmut Hoffmann, “Kirche und Sklaverei im frühen Mittelalter” in Deutsches Archiv für Erforschung des Mittelalters Vol. 42 (oops)(Hannover 1986), pp. 1-24, and Kenneth H. Jackson, “The date of the Tripartite Life of St. Patrick” in Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie Vol. 41 (Amsterdam 1986), pp. 5-45.

5. If the whole format of the academic journal is a bit strange to you at this point, here’s a confirmation that you’re not daft, it is strange, at least now: Jo Guldi, “Reinventing the Academic Journal” in Daniel J. Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt (edd.), Hacking the academy: new approaches to scholarship and teaching from digital humanities (Ann Arbor MI 2013), pp. 19–24, online here. However, it is arguable that it did make sense once: see for a lightweight intro Bonnie Swoger, “The (mostly true) origins of the scientific journal” in Scientific American 27th July 2012, online here.

6. I’m conscious that I tend to tell the history of culture in the 1960s and 1970s largely on the basis of my music collection, but I could also cite Jeff Nuttall, Bomb Culture (London 1968) as an intimately involved primary source.

Metablog XIV: What It Is

A full ten years ago, two eminent medievalist bloggers noted the tendency of at least medievalist, and perhaps all academic blogs, to descend slowly into long hiatuses, punctuated by posts that only apologise for not posting, followed inevitably by final silence.1 They knew of what they prophesied, as it turned out; one of them went silent a year later and the other lasted into 2016, having moved his operation almost entirely to Twitter, before falling silent himself, and now it seems as if his site has been hacked or camped for the last couple of years. It doesn’t bode well, but nonetheless, I don’t think this is what is happening here. For a start, I should say given the times, I am well and safe, in fact doing really pretty well given the situation, I have my job and a good wage, I am working from home, I am pretty free from most dangers and it all could be much worse. But still no blog, huh? So I ought to step out of backlog and sequence and try to explain why posting is happening here so rarely these days.

So firstly there is the work situation. I explained where some of the issues came from about six months ago, and I won’t rehash that except to say that the government is mainly to blame, but the way it looks at the moment, in short, is this:

  1. Digital teaching takes more preparation and more aftercare and curation of content (unless you want to do it very poorly, which I don’t).
  2. Alongside the live version of my modules, I also have to construct an asynchronous one for students who can’t access the classes, and together with the previous I am probably having to spend three times the time I would have spent on teaching pre-Covid.
  3. Digital grading also takes longer than marking papers the old-fashioned way, though we’ve done our best to streamline the associated bureaucracy to make up for that.
  4. Our first-year students do formative work as well as summative work, so there is approximately a third again as much marking for them.
  5. We had a much larger intake of first-year students than usual this year, and I am teaching probably twice as many of them as I would usually teach.

The obvious arithmetical result of this is that, shall I just say, I am working more hours than usual. Once one fits in shopping (in a world where every step into a shop represents a small, minimised but possible chance that one will quite literally catch one’s death), housework and the general management of a home life—despite the tremendous help of my partner, in whom I am incredibly fortunate—I can now usually only find one spare day a week, and currently I am quite often spending that outside, high up, or helping my family. This is not, therefore, giving me a lot of spare time or headspace for blogging.

Close-up of incised design on the Swastika Stone, Ilkley Moor, England

Here, for example, is a close-up of the incised design which gives the name to the Swastika Stone, on Ilkley Moor, photographed this very afternoon

So there’s that, but there’s also what to blog about. My research has more or less been on hold since mid-2019; my reading has been limited to stuff for teaching, almost to exclusion; I have not been participating much in seminars, despite the profusion of digital opportunities, because while the papers are interesting I have discovered that what I went to them for was really the chat afterwards, and besides there is the time issue mentioned; and so I do not really feel like a current part of academia who might comment on what is going on in the world of medieval history. I also don’t want to write about teaching, as that does not necessarily end well.

Well, what does all that matter, you may say, when you have literally four years of backlogged content written, stubbed, planned or plotted? And it’s a fair question, but I can’t help feeling that in the current state of things my past holiday snaps, from a time of travel we may never see again, reports on papers one could no longer go to if they were on, or even more substantial things whose moments of motivation are, nevertheless, long gone, do not represent quality provision for my readership. When I face the blog these days, I feel like a comedian who has stepped onto stage and had a horrible moment of certainty that none of their material is any good.

So where does this leave me, and you my readers? Well, for a start, I’m going, probably next Sunday now, to take a very mean look at the various things in that backlog of posts. If I no longer find them interesting, I’m certainly not going to inflict them on you, so they will get dropped. Right now, that is about as far as I’ve got with the resolves, but if people have thoughts about what they are finding useful here when it happens, what there could be more of, what is not so interesting and so on, I will gratefully receive them and see what I think can be done about them. Otherwise, right now, I just hope that you are all well and safe and not too badly affected by the pandemic and its knock-on consequences, and that at some point soon all of this looks a bit better.

1. Brantley L. Bryant and Carl S. Pyrdum, “On medieval blogging” in postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies Vol. 2 (Goleta CA 2011), pp. 304–315 at p. 315.

Is Victorian the New Feudal?

University and College Union pickets outside the University of Leeds on 9th March 2020

University and College Union pickets outside the University of Leeds on Monday

Since we are back on strike this week and I can blog unpaid if I want, let me bounce an idea off you all. I’m not sure how strongly I hold to this, but I found myself reflecting on it after going to the paper by another colleague of mine, Dr Elisabeth Leake, that I mentioned a few posts back. It is this: that whereas for many years, nay, centuries, the medieval past has been the one that modernity sets itself against, with especial reference to the word ‘feudal’, we are now moving into an age where that thing we do not wish to be is Victorian. Obviously, in saying such a thing I need to define ‘Victorian’ and more particularly I need to define ‘we’, given how much some people do in fact want to be Victorian in at least some ways. I probably mean ‘nineteenth-century’ more than ‘Victorian’, in fact, since I want to think more broadly here than Britain (so often the best plan). Still, I think there is something here to chew on, which I’ll try and set out a bit more.

Star performers at the 2013 Llandrindod Wells Victorian Festival

Star performers at the 2013 Llandrindod Wells Victorian Festival, image Crown Copyright and used under Open Government License

You would have to have been reading here for a very long time, or else have got here after avid pursuit of reviews in Early Medieval Europe, to remember that in 2010 I reviewed for that august journal a book by Kathleen Davis called Periodization and Sovereignty.1 Looking back now, and knowing how much I have continued to cite that book since then, I should have been nicer about it; I still think it is really two ideas extended to book length by considerable repetition, and it’s not really about the Middle Ages, but those two ideas are quite important. Specifically, one of them is that the pejorative sense of the word ‘feudal’ goes back to seventeenth-century discourses of modernity in which it came to typify the outdated aristocratically dominated social structures against which both the Jacobean kingdom, to an extent, and the new Parliamentary movement to a different and greater one, now set themselves. As Davis argues, here (and everywhere?) periodization is an act of power and differentiation; by saying that there is a division between ‘now’ and ‘then’ you mark yourself off as having left the ‘then’ behind.2 Whether or not you think that medievalists should use the ‘f-word’ to describe their societies of study, this helps understand how everyone else is using it and is arguably another reason to be careful.3

Cover of Kathleen Davis, Periodization & Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism & Secularization Govern the Politics of Time

Cover of Kathleen Davis, Periodization & Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism & Secularization Govern the Politics of Time (Philadelphia, PA, 2008)

However, it’s now possible to find people trying to argue away the term ‘modern’ in much the same way as Brown and Reynolds want to get rid of ‘feudal’, albeit not for the same reasons. Indeed, their reasons are not the same as Davis’s, and I think it’s something more Davis-like that we’re watching. Of course, we have arguably never been modern, or equally arguably never haven’t, and paradoxically for medieval people ‘modern’ would have been the bad word with which to define that which was wrong, because their acts of power by periodization most often worked in the other direction; we are not ‘novel’ but still hold to the ancient ways…4 But, dear reader, I digress; this post, like Davis’s book, isn’t really about the Middle Ages. What I’m getting at is that we now most definitely have the word ‘postmodern’, which is another periodization term and therefore, per Davis though she doesn’t say it, another act of power by disassociation: modernity? We’re beyond that now.5 So where did it stop?

I can see two obvious answers here, and they’re both World Wars, although I think one could definitely add the financial crash of 2008 in the role of the buffers that finally stopped the intellectual train of modernity from rolling. At each stage things gave way: in particular, though not uniquely, in the Great War, among so much else, such as the last medieval empires, the idea of social progress by industrialisation, squashed into the corpse-filled mud of the trenches; in the Second World War one might single out colonialism, the price charged by the colonised for the survival of the colonial powers turning out to be decolonisation; and in 2008 it was the self-assurance of global capitalism, which had until then managed to maintain its own progress narrative and globalisation operations but now found itself faltering.

Julian Berthier's 'Love Love' on display at Canary Wharf, London, UK

Hereby hangs a separate tale. For a short while in 2008, you could see this in the small dock that is what remains of the original Canary Wharf, London, surrounded by the banking and finance megalopolis that now occupies the rest of the site. At the time my anthropologist of resort was working nearby and later lamented that they had not photographed it and labelled it ‘Capitalism’ for dissemination by Internet, but it turns out to be weirder than that, because the boat was not sinking. It has in fact been modified to float and indeed sail like that as a piece of art by one Julien Berthier called ‘Love Love’. That briefly raised the possibility that M. Berthier or his patrons (Lehman Bros, ironically!) had themselves hit on the very same satire as T’anta Wawa, but actually it had been arranged nearly two years before the crash. I’m no longer sure what the moral of the tale should be, therefore…

Now, I’m well out of my area of expertise here and a suitably-equipped modernist or cultural studies specialist can probably shoot me down in flames. But I reached this argumentative position by considering the things that the Western academy currently disparages: the most obvious, and for me quite rightly, is colonialism, as we try to decolonise the curriculum and address the structural whiteness of the profession and indeed the attainment gap between white and non-white students—which, ironically, seems actually to be generating more work on colonialism rather than on non-Europeans when they were not subject to colonial rule (or even recognising colonisation within Europe, where traditional medievalists could, if they chose, get involved…)6.

That would probably make the starting point of the new dispensation circa 1948, which fits with Elizabeth’s work indeed, and that in turn would make the disparaged past the wartime Europe of fascism and empire.7 (Of course, Europe maintained quite a bit of fascism thereafter, as another of my colleagues, Professor Peter Anderson, works to remind us…) But from a medievalist perspective, the roots go back further. Of course they do, right? Medieval studies has come lately and somewhat violently to the idea that colonialism affects it at all, but we have been deconstructing some older ideas for quite a while, sometimes with modernists’ help and sometimes coming up with things that the modernists might profit from learning. In the former category I think of the idea that nations existed before the modern nation-state, whose weakening hasn’t exactly reduced the volume of medievalist scholarship in search of national origins but has at least moved it forward to points where those origins could be the work of government rather than the inborn ethic of an inexplicably coherent people.8 Associatedly, in the latter, I think of all the post-war work that has been done to dilute and question the idea of steady and reliable ethnicity. It would not be unfair to say that, like at least modern-day geneticists, early medievalists now either don’t think about ethnic identity very hard or, if they do, don’t believe in it as a stable category; even if one doesn’t accept that an early medieval individual might have been able to self-determine in ethnic terms, I think we would pretty much all accept that ethnicity could change across one or two generations, rather than being something you were stuck with that travelled in your blood and never diluted out.9 Of course, most of that work is about people who were, functionally, white, which does potentially distance it from the problems we now see ourselves facing; there is of course now quite a lot of work on the almost contradictory attitudes of various medieval writers to issues of race that did map onto skin colour, which could certainly be negative, even when the people in question probably weren’t actually black (I’m thinking here of Berbers in al-Andalus), but also apparently perfectly accepting (as with the black bishop in my previous post).10 Nonetheless, the separation of ‘identity’ from ‘race’ within ‘ethnicity’ and the idea that identity must be both expressed and accepted to do its social work remain, I think, some of our big teaching points.

Lombard belt fittings, from Wikimedia Commons

“Lombard belt buckles”, says Wikipedia, to which one might reasonably ask, “How do we know who wore them and whether they claimed to be or thought they were Lombards? Maybe these were just cool. Wearing Levis doesn’t make us all American…” Image by Sailko, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Now, the ideas that this work attacks are nineteenth-century ones. And when you start looking around, there are other nineteenth-century ideas dying on the spears of postmodernism: the idea that there is necessarily such a thing as a fixed definitive archetype of a text, rather than whatever we have that the author left which maybe he or she wanted to change, or had already circulated in other versions, or in charter terms, the idea that there is an ‘original’; the idea that trade is necessarily a benefit to the societies involved, perhaps, although the current global trend isn’t listening to the post-colonial scholarship about how empires used trade to dominate weaker partners here as it might; and there are probably others.11 I think that there are probably many more, and that it’s not just the medievalists who now find themselves wanting no longer to be the heirs of their nineteenth-century forebears. Of course, it’s ironic that we set about doing this while our own dying empires return to protectionism and the restriction of movement, defensive measures that make perfect political sense when you’re in a weaker position with respect to your opposing quantities but sit badly with postmodern, post-state, post-capitalist ethics, not least because they only make sense in terms of those same nineteenth-century stable national identities. We’ve either got something important to tell the political world here or we’re badly out of step with change—perhaps both—but as ever, we are struggling to convince the world, or indeed our employers, to listen to us.

Logo of the Societas Aperiendis Fontibus Rerum Germanicum Medii Aevi, which has edited the series Monumenta Germaniae Historica since 1819: 'Holy Love of the Fatherland Gives the Spirit'

Logo of the Societas Aperiendis Fontibus Rerum Germanicum Medii Aevi, which has edited the series Monumenta Germaniae Historica since 1819: ‘Holy Love of the Fatherland Gives the Spirit’, image from their site. This is the ethic that gave us medievalists so many of our core texts, almost all edited to produce that single Urtext that may never have existed. The thing I love about this as a teaching point is, of course, that its expression of German identity predates the German state by some way…

What that thing we have to tell and what the wider implications of this are, I haven’t got as far as working out—part of the problem with getting people to listen, of course—except maybe this one point. If, in fact, the medieval world is losing its relevance as the Great Other of Our Past to which both disparagement and fantasy resort, in exchange for factories, steam, brass, smoggy alleys and empire, then we may at least be a bit freer to decide what it should mean or tell people; but that elusive term ‘relevance’ is going to be harder and harder to claim, unless we work on two things. The first of these, more difficult, is medievalisms in the post-modern; I’m sure there are some, not least because even if the gaslamps might be encroaching there’s still a lot of market for medievalising fantasies at the moment. The second, though, and the one I’ve contended for for longer, is the value of the Middle Ages as a society that did things differently to us, which probably actually now grows more powerful, because if it also did things differently to the Bad Other, the reasonable use of it as an alternative perspective should become easier to promote. Since the Bad Other of this hypothesis was itself quite medievalising, though, and the Middle Ages did of course also have empires, slavery, and mass production even if not industry as the modernists would see it, that might require a level of special pleading and blinkers I’m not sure I personally can pull off…12

Silver dirham struck at Wasit in AD 734/735, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B73

Here is a mass-produced medieval item, a silver dirham struck at Wasit in AD 734/735, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B73. Florentine textile would be another obvious example; so would thirteenth-century Paris study Bibles… The production line is itself not a difficult idea to come up with, it was mechanised energy that made the difference.

Anyway, this is where my musings have led me. There is probably plenty wrong with the above and I offer it up only for testing, perhaps to destruction, but I wonder what people think?

1. Kathleen Davis, Periodization and sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time (Philadelphia PA 2008); Jonathan Jarrett, “Periodization and Sovereignty. How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time. By Kathleen Davis. The Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2008. viii + 189 pp. £28. ISBN 978 0 8122 4083 2” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 348–349.

2. Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty, pp. 23-50.

3. Old reasons to be careful to be found in Elizabeth A. R. Brown, “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe” in American Historical Review Vol. 79 (Washington DC 1974), pp. 1063–1088, DOI: 10.2307/1869563, or more extensively Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (Oxford 1996); for recent resistance, see Richard Abels, “The Historiography of a Construct: ‘Feudalism’ and the Medieval Historian” in History Compass Vol. 7 (Oxford 2009), pp. 1008–1031. I have never quite finished forming my own view.

4. ‘We have never been modern’ is easy to cite, because in French it was the title of an influential book by Bruno Latour, available in English as Latour, We have never been modern, transl. Catherine Porter (Cambridge MA 1993). “We have never not been modern” is harder. The earliest use of it I can quickly find as a reaction to Latour is in a 2004 blog post by Steven Shaviro, “Bruno Latour”, The Pinnochio Theory 18 February 2004, online here, but it was already being used as a phrase that needed quotation but no referencing in a much earlier article on a quite different subject, Donna J. Haraway, “The Virtual Speculum in the New World Order” in Feminist Review, Consuming Cultures, No. 55 (New York 1997, pp. 22–72, on JSTOR but not recommended reading with food or if squeamish. The quote was obviously already around but I can’t find out who first said it. Presumably it was a response to Latour… Anyone know? As for medieval reverse period snobbery, I immediately think of Hrabanus Maurus, and I probably do that because of listening to Mayke de Jong, who briefly dicusses that learned cleric’s studied avoidance of novelty in her “Monastic Writing and Carolingian Court Audiences: some evidence from Biblical commentary” in Flavia De Rubeis and Walter Pohl (edd.), Le scritture dai monasteri, Acta instituti Romani Finlandiae 29 (Roma 2003), pp. 179–195, online here, at pp. 189-190 with references.

5. For writing of this kind a good anthology is Joyce Appleby, Elizabeth Covington, David Hoyt, Michael Latham and Allison Sneider (edd.), Knowledge and postmodernism in historical perspective (New York City, NY, 1996), though a review of this and other works in the same vein by Patrick Karl O’Brien here shows that the victory of the postmodern is far from complete, and may even be heading for mainstreaming.

6. Two justifiably and simultaneous strident calls for this work in L. Le Grange, ‘Decolonising the University Curriculum’ in South African Journal of Higher Education Vol. 30 (Matieland 2016), pp. 1–12, online here, and Savo Heleta, “Decolonisation of higher education: Dismantling epistemic violence and Eurocentrism in South Africa” in Transformation in Higher Education 1 (Durbanville 2016), a9, online here, but it’s not just South Africa with this problem, as witness Hannah Atkinson, Suzanne Bardgett, Adam Budd, Margot Finn, Christopher Kisane, Sadia Kureshi, Jonathan Saha, John Siblon & Sujit Sivasundaram, Race, Ethnicity & Equality in UK History: A Report and Resource for Change (London 2018), online here, esp. pp. 63-64 but really passim. As for colonisation within Europe, I was thinking straightforwardly of R. R. Davies, The First English Empire: power and identities in the British Isles 1093-1343, Ford Lectures 1998 (Oxford 2000), which people seem slowly to be forgetting.

7. See Elisabeth Leake, “At the Nation-State’s Edge: Centre-Periphery Relations in post-1947 South Asia” in Historical Journal Vol. 59 (Cambridge 2016), pp. 509–539, and eadem, The Defiant Border: The Afghan-Pakistan Borderlands in the Era of Decolonization, 1936-65 (Cambridge 2017).

8. In this area we’re all more or less stepping in the path laid down by Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, 2nd edn. (London 2006), online here, which may not be a perfect book if you’re a medievalist but is a very good place to start, and means that for example we now have the assumptions behind George Molyneaux, The Formation of the English Kingdom in the Tenth Century (Oxford 2015) rather than those behind, say, William A. Chaney, The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England: the transition from paganism to Christianity (Manchester 1970).

9. The case for self-determination in Patrick Amory, People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489–554 (Cambridge 1997); my go-to reference for this concern is Walter Pohl, “Telling the Difference: Signs of Ethnic Identity” in idem and Helmut Reimitz (edd.), Strategies of Distinction: The Construction of the Ethnic Communities, 300–800, The Transformation of the Roman World 2 (Leiden 1998), pp. 17–69, with honourable mention to Florin Curta, “Some Remarks on Ethnicity in Medieval Archaeology” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 15 (Oxford 2007), pp. 159–185. Resistance in Heinrich Härke, “Anglo-Saxon Immigration and Ethnogenesis” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 55 (Abingdon 2011), pp. 1–28, online here, even though the same man can write “Archaeologists and Migrations: A Problem of Attitude?” in Current Anthropology Vol. 30 (Chicago IL 1998), pp. 19–46. For a geneticist’s statement of the irrelevance of race, see Andrea Manica, Franck Prugnolle and François Balloux, “Geography is a better determinant of human genetic differentiation than ethnicity” in Human Genetics Vol. 118 (New York City NY 2005), pp. 366–371, online here.

10. My references for the work that’s gone on demonstrating that the Western Middle Ages were not completely lacking people of colour are sadly thin; I need to collect more, but at the moment the best thing for it I own is Pamela A. Patton (ed.), Envisioning Others: Race, Color, and the Visual in Iberia and Latin America, The Medieval and Early Modern Iberian World 62 (Leiden 2016), and I’m more aware of work that wants to stress that there was also racism in the Middle Ages, such as Debra Higgs Strickland, Saracens, Demons & Jews: making Monsters in Medieval Art (Princeton NJ 2003), Sara Lipton, Dark Mirror: the medieval origins of anti-Jewish iconography (New York City NY 2014), or Geraldine Heng, The invention of race in the European Middle Ages (New York City NY 2018). We might also ask why all this work is by women and why there are no equally obvious male contributions, but that would be a different post, by somebody else!

11. While I know that I’ve read short punchy proclamations of the death of the single original Urtext in scholarly editing, trying to find any of them on the web drowns you in Biblical scholarship that is predictably uninterested in the idea of plural originals, so right now the best I can find is the first part of John Bryant, The fluid text: a theory of revision and editing for book and screen (Ann Arbor MI 2002). On the same problems in charter studies I tend to cite Jonathan Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished Ph.D. thesis (University of London 2005), online here, pp. 38-48, which some day I will write up into a proper methodological article. As for exploitative trade, the most obvious example available right now to me is probably Erika Rappaport, A thirst for empire: how tea shaped the modern world (Princeton NJ 2017), which should probably make me feel guilty rather than thirsty but sadly doesn’t.

12. On Victorian medievalising the best thing I’ve found is Marcus Bull, Thinking medieval: an introduction to the study of the Middle Ages (Basingstoke 2005), pp. 7-41.

Metablog XII: A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe now ad-free

I’m hoping for time to get another post up as well as this one this weekend, since this will be short (really), but, the attentive reader may have noticed a small change in the appearance of this here blog over the last week, which is to say that where once there were advertisements there are now (I believe) none. I’d love to say this was out of much-delayed concern for my readers, but actually what happened is that the photos for the last post took me over my free storage limit. At which point, I balanced all, brought all to mind, and so forth, and reasoned that firstly, I really didn’t want the grief of going back through old posts to remove pictures, secondly that that would probably be bad anyway since some of the old posts tend to get much more traffic than my new ones do these days, and thirdly that it would only to be ‘kick the can down the road’, in the phrase that the UK’s recently indecisive politics have made popular, since I don’t plan to stop taking or uploading photos any time soon.

Early modern building to let in Istanbul

Here’s one now! Property to let in Istanbul, just up the hill from the Archaeological Museum, convenient for the trams, and I suspect its own special set of maintenance surprises inside. We did not enquire…

But fourthly and perhaps most important, I have been writing this blog for 13 years and 1 month now; it has got me a few conference invitations, a number of vital references, some academic help here and there, two actual publications at least and an uncountable number of friends and contacts, and in none of that time have I paid its actual hosts anything at all. When thus balanced, that last fact seemed the most out of kilter, especially given my nowadays more-or-less-secure status. So, this is now a paid-for blog, I have twice the storage space so ought not to have to worry about that for another decade, and as a side benefit, you no longer have to put up with advertisements. I hope this is a good thing! Meanwhile, thanks to you, the audience, who make it worth doing!

When is a Nestorian not a Nestorian? Mostly, that’s when

This is a post I stubbed long ago apropos of a discussion that followed on Jonathan Dugdale’s long-ago seminar paper at Leeds in late 2015, which was then brought home to me afresh as I taught the early spread of Christianity in my module Empire and Aftermath for the first time there in February 2016. You see, the early spread of Christianity was mainly eastwards, into the Caucasus, Persia, and then points even further east, India at an uncertain date between first and fifth centuries and China, even, by the seventh, if not before.1 The West was a much slower adopter. What this post is about is how, when that story of eastward spread is told, the Christians of the East are almost always termed ‘Nestorians’, which is mostly wrong. That has been pointed out, but only for two of three reasons and here I want to point out the other one.

Nestorian priests in a procession on Palm Sunday, in a seventh- or eighth-century wall painting from a Nestorian church in Qocho, China

‘Nestorian’ priests in a procession on Palm Sunday, in a seventh- or eighth-century wall painting from a ‘Nestorian’ church in Qocho, China, by DaderotOwn work, CC0, Link, with snigger quotes all to be explained below

So firstly, who are these ‘Nestorian’ Christians anyway? Well, Nestorius was a patriarch of Constantinople in the early fifth century, before orthodox (and therefore, later on, Catholic) Christian doctrine was fully settled. One of the big issues in Christian theology is exactly how to imagine the crucial mystery, the embodiment of God as man, and this remains one of the biggest rifts in the Christian firmament: did God have to shed his divinity to be a human being? If so, wouldn’t that mean that God didn’t Himself die on the cross, but merely His human avatar? Contrariwise, if God remained fully divine, and therefore immortal, even when walking around in human form, how can He be said to have died for our sins, or to have died at all, since God did not cease to be at the Crucifixion? If the Son was a separate and separable part of God, not only do both of those questions still arise but so does the problem of how an explicitly monotheistic religion can have plural godheads, and so on. It’s not simple, and the orthodox solution, that Christ has two natures, human and divine, intermixed without division, remains fairly mysterious.

So in the fifth century divisions arose over this.2 (If you’re a decent theologian, the following is probably going to be horribly over-simplified, which please forgive; if it’s actually wrong, though, please also chime in and correct me. But, as I understand it…) One view, the ‘Monophysite’ one, which is the root but not the modern belief of the Coptic Church of today, held that there was only one nature in Christ, fully divine; this faction lost their imperial support at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, setting up all kinds of future problems.3 Before that, however, there was an argument about whether Christ could perhaps have two natures, and Nestorius, according to his opponents, held that He could have. It’s important to specify that this is not something that Nestorius clearly says in his surviving writings, but lots of those were written after he was fired at the Council of Ephesus in 431.4 After that, many of his supporters were removed from their posts too, and a good proportion of them made their way eastwards, firstly to Persia where they alternated between being a rival form of Christianity to the Empire’s that the Persians encouraged as a diplomatic strategy and being a mistrusted potential fifth column, depending on the level of paranoia in the Persian establishment of the day.5 In the worse patches of that, and also out of the general desire to spread the good word, Christians of this stamp also moved further east, and this is why we have this historiographical trope that Eastern Christianity was Nestorian. But it ain’t necessarily so…

The Daqin Pagoda, controversially claimed to be part of an early Nestorian church in what was then Chang'an, now Xi'an, China, built during the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD)

The Daqin Pagoda, controversially claimed to be part of an early Nestorian church in what was then Chang’an, now Xi’an, China, built during the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD), image by J. Coster, Jcoster, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link. For problems with the identification of this otherwise-seventeenth-century-recorded building, see Michael Keevak, The Story of a Stele: China’s Nestorian Monument and its Reception in the West, 1625–1916 (Aberdeen HK 2008), pp. 132-135, though I have to say he doesn’t exactly produce any evidence against it, or attempt to level any dispute at the claimed evidence beyond colonialism.

There are three ways this can be wrong, you see. One is that these eastern Christians may not actually have believed what Nestorius is supposed to have professed. That is obviously doubly likely if Nestorius himself did not but was misrepresented by his opponents, but secondly, even if he did, positions near his but more acceptably orthodox could easily exist, and this is in fact where the modern-day Church of the East, in its various denominations, now sits. That doctrine itself was only first agreed at the Council of Beth Lapat in 484, after the Persians had recognised a follower of Nestorius as the new Catholicos of the Christians in their empire, but then it was not Nestorius, but his follower Theodore of Mospuesta who was taken as the fount of doctrine. Theodore’s position, modified further by the Eastern theologian Babai the Great, was something much more like the orthodox one, “with the two qnome (individual natures) of Christ… unmixed but eternally united in his single parsopa (person)”.6 Of course, the Syriac terms used here aren’t necessarily equivalents of the Greek ones on which the Orthodox theology is based, but that could be held to reduce the difference between the two Churches to one of translation, although both sides tended to emphasise more difference than that. This is still the position of the Assyrian Church of the East, but it isn’t very Nestorian; indeed, they managed to resume communion with the Catholic Church in 1994. Sebastian Brock made this point quite some time ago in an article whose title declares his position loud and clear: “The Nestorian Church: a lamentable misnomer”.7

St Mary's Assyrian Church, Moscow

St Mary’s Assyrian Church, Moscow, image by By A.Savin (Wikimedia Commons · WikiPhotoSpace) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

So the so-called Nestorian Church wasn’t actually Nestorian? Well, not so simple, according to more recent work, because after some centuries Nestorius’s name and history, rather than his theology, began to surface as an anchor to the Church of the East’s past, its origins in the lands of the Empire and its nature as an exilic faith.8 I guess this has something to do with the replacement of the Persian state that had once nurtured the Church by the new non-Christian power of Iran; roots now needed to go back to somewhere Christian and Nestorius, as Patriarch of Constantinople, was their highest-placed founding figure, even if doctrinally superseded. Thus we find parts of the modern-day Assyrian Church of the East who would call themselves Nestorian, as well as moves to cease the veneration of this troublesome maybe-heretic in the Church. It’s all still alive.

The so-called 'Nestorian Stele'

The so-called ‘Nestorian Stele’, photography by your humble author. As you can possibly tell, it is an absolute pain to photograph, being covered in glass and open to the sunlight, so what you can mainly see there is a window’s reflection. There is a much clearer image here, and I’ve no idea how they got it; it’s so bright that having seen the real thing I have to suspect Photoshop…

But I said there were three ways that the trope of Eastern Christianity being Nestorian could be wrong, and what set me off on this rant originally was running again into this object in the literature, and then later on, as you can see, seeing it myself. This is known everywhere as the Nestorian Stele, and it is a marvellous thing, being a dedicatory inscription set up in 781 that tells the history of the ‘Luminous Religion from Da Qin’ in China, and it is clear that this religion was Christianity.9 It’s written in Mandarin characters and some Syriac, which tends to confirm what it says about the origins of its teaching, and it’s quite a long text, in scripts I don’t read and languages I don’t understand, so it seems simplest to present the summary of John Lawton which you can find in context on the web with its references:10

The text consists of three sections. The introduction is primarily doctrinal. It relates how a supreme, triune, creator Being responded to the disobedience of humanity by being born to a virgin in Da Qin (大秦), a name that loosely refers to the Roman Empire. The inscription summarizes the life and mission of this Son, or Messiah (弥施訶), and states that works of scripture were preserved. In addition, it describes the way of life and liturgical practice of his followers in China, who named this doctrine Jingjiao (景教), the Luminous Religion or the Religion of Light. The second section of the inscription relates the history of the first 146 years of the Church in China. In the year 635 C.E. (early Tang Dynasty, 618-907 C.E.), a priest named Alopen (阿羅本) traveled from Da Qin (most likely Syria) to Chang’an (長安), then the capital of China and now named Xi’an, and met with Emperor Taizong (太宗). This tradition’s scriptures were translated into Chinese, and after studying them the emperor issued an imperial edict in 638 endorsing the dissemination of the religion throughout China. Monasteries were built in Chang’an and many other cities, monks served the needs of the poor and the sick, and the Jingjiao community enjoyed imperial gifts and support. With thanksgiving for the success of the Luminous Religion in China, the writer concludes with a celebratory poem. The inscription then documents that the stele was unveiled on February 4, 781, and subsequently lists approximately 70 names of Christian clergy, written in both Syriac and Chinese.

So it’s not that ambiguous, you might think, and much has therefore been written about it and its evidence for cultural transmission, religious syncretism, Chinese religious plurality and of course the early history of the Church of the East.11 But wait. I haven’t given you a full translation because it’s quite long, but, I have read one and there is nothing in it to tell you more about that crucial bit, exactly how God was born to a virgin as the Son.12 The Christology of the Luminous Religion is not made clear. Perhaps it was thought too abstruse for the monumental context, perhaps too high-level for a Chinese public new to Christian ideas at that point, perhaps it didn’t seem seriously definitional to the writer, a priest called Adam in Syriac and Jingjing in Chinese. We have some writings of the missionary he says brought the faith to China, one Alopa, which also don’t settle this point.13 But the Nestorians were not the only exilic Christian denomination, not even the only one originally from Syria; what with the Empire’s various theological divisions, the Persians’ occasional suspicion of Christians and then Islam’s takeover of much or all of both areas, there was probably no Eastern Church some of whose members didn’t at some point start moving eastwards looking for more tolerant homes.14

Chinese characters and Syriac letters alongside each other on the so-called 'Nestorian Stele'

Still plagued by glass reflection, this shot nonetheless catches some of the Chinese characters and Syriac letters side-by-side

So there’s just no way to be sure that Adam/Jingjing was a member of what would come to be known as the Church of the East. For exactly this reason, as well as Brock’s older point about the term ‘Nestorian Christian’ possibly just being discourteous, a very recent piece by Scott Fitzgerald Johnson refers to him only as a ‘Syriac Christian’.15 But the tide is not far out on this, and I think it has a long way to go before turning. So, in the terms of that metaphor, this post is my little sandcastle, intended to defend historical ambiguity and uncertainty where it is needed. Not all Christians in the East were Nestorians; not even all ‘Nestorians’ are or were theologically Nestorian; it’s possible even Nestorius himself wasn’t. We know something about what Adam/Jingjing believed, and that he had fellows, but we don’t know how large his Church was or that it was the only one in China. This is one of those places where a bit more recognition of what we don’t know would open our minds to a lot more possible stories…

1. I think what I was reading when this kicked off in my head was Garth Fowden, Empire to Commonwealth: consequences of monotheism in late antiquity (Princeton, NJ, 1993), which is excellent on that eastward spread and the remaining connections with the Empire.

2. I think I first learnt all this stuff from Robert Markus’s The End of Ancient Christianity (Cambridge 1991), whch I heartily recommend still, but a shorter introduction might be Richard Lim, “Christian Triumph and Controversy” in G. W. Bowersock, Peter Brown & Oleg Grabar (edd.), Interpreting Late Antiquity: Essays on the Postclassical World (Cambridge MA 1999), pp. 196–218.

3. On why the Copts are not Monophysite, in more detail than that link, try Sebastian P. Brock, “Miaphysite, Not Monophysite!” in Cristianesimo nella storia 2016 no. 1 (2016), pp. 45–54, DOI: 10.17395/82929.

4. Brock goes through the Church of the East’s theological statements in detail in Sebastian Brock, “The Christology of the Church of the East in the Synods of the Fifth to Early Seventh Centuries: Preliminary Considerations and Materials”, in Everett Ferguson (ed.), Doctrinal Diversity: Varieties of Early Christianity, Recent Studies in Early Christianity 4 (New York City NY 1999), pp. 281–298.

5. For three very different perspectives on Persian Christianity, see A. V. Williams, “Zoroastrians and Christians in Sasanian Iran” in Bulletin of the John Rylands Library Vol. 78 (Manchester 1996), pp. 37–54; Philip Wood, “Collaborators and Dissidents: Christians in Sasanian Iraq in the Early Fifth Century CE”, in Teresa Bernheimer & A. Silverstein (edd.), Late Antiquity: Eastern Perspectives (Warminster 2012), pp. 57–70; and L. E. Patterson, “Minority Religions in the Sasanian Empire” in Eberhard W. Sauer (ed.), Sasanian Persia: between Rome and the Steppes of Eurasia (Edinburgh 2017), pp. 181–198.

6. As well as Brock, “Christology”, this is laid out fairly clearly in either of Wilhelm Baum and Dieter W. Winkler, The Church of the East: a concise history (London 2003), online here, or Christoph Baumer, The Church of the East (London 2013), not online but beautifully illustrated.

7. Brock, “The ‘Nestorian’ Church: a lamentable misnomer” in Bulletin of the John Rylands Library Vol. 78 (Manchester 1996), pp. 23–35.

8. I found it in Philip Wood, The Chronicle of Seert: Christian historical imagination in late antique Iraq (Oxford 2013), pp. 140-142, but it’s done in more detail in Nikolai N. Seleznyov, “Nestorius of Constantinople: Condemnation, Suppression, Veneration” in Journal of Eastern Christian Studies Vol. 62 (Leuven 2010), pp. 165–190.

9. On the equation of Da Qin with the Roman Empire, see Krisztina Hoppál, “The Roman Empire According to the Ancient Chinese Sources” in Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae Vol. 51 (Budapest 2011) 263–306, DOI: 10.1556/AAnt.51.2011.3-4.5.

10. David Lawton, “Description and Significance of the Nestorian Stele, ‘A Monument Commemorating the Propagation of the Da Qin Luminous Religion in the Middle Kingdom’ (大秦景教流行中國碑)”, online here.

11. See P. Y. Saeki, The Nestorian Monument in China (London 1916), online here; Michael Keevak, The Story of a Stele: China’s Nestorian Monument and its Reception in the West, 1625–1916 (Aberdeen HK 2008); Zhao Liguang, Treasures Engraved on the Steles: Art of Calligraphy in the Xi’an Beilin Museum (Xi’an 2016), pp. 162-165 (no. 65); or now Richard Todd Godwin, Persian Christians at the Chinese court: the Xi’an Stele and the Early Medieval Church of the East, Library of Medieval Studies 4 (London 2018), only the last of which catches the point I’m trying to make here.

12. There is a full translation in Saeki, Nestorian Monument, pp. 162-165, and a more modern one in L. Eccles and S. Lieu (transl.), “大秦景教流行中國碑 : Stele on the diffusion of the Luminous Religion of Da Qin (Rome) in the Middle Kingdom”, online here.

13. Lawton, “Nestorian Stele”, p. 4, citing Saeki, Nestorian Monument, pp. 116-117, but actually I can’t find it there.

14. Fowden, Empire to Commonwealth, pp. 121-137.

15. Scott FitzGerald Johnson, “Silk Road Christians and the Translation of Culture in Tang China” in Simon Ditchfield, Charlotte Methuen & Andrew Spicer (edd.), Translating Christianity, Studies in Church History Vol. 53 (Cambridge 2017), pp. 15–38; cf. also Godwin, Persian Christians.


I’ve just realised on starting to write the next post that in the last one, covering January to March 2016, I forgot one fairly major thing that helps explain why I was finding that period so difficult to manage, which … Continue reading