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What’s (Been) Going On

I stubbed this post in April last year, meaning then to tell you at least in outline what was happening in my life and with this blog. As the fact that it’s now most of a year on from that and that this post is being written in Turkey, you will guess that actually things are not much quieter, but they are better than they have been and I do have hopes that some kind of blogging can resume here. So this post is about what that might look like, and says something about how things got this way.

The path to this point (has not all been easy)

So. Obviously we all know that in October 2015 I got a job as Lecturer in Early Medieval History at Leeds, and at that point the blog was a little bit more than a year behind. Now, because I had not been around to advertise my new modules because I was then still working somewhere else, two of them did not recruit enough students to run, so in my first year in post I was teaching less than I expected. That said, I was still teaching on, er, two large-scale first-year courses, one second-year one I’d built myself and two graduate skills courses, plus a couple of guest appearances, all of which was new prep, and I put, um, 4 grant applications in in that time as well (of which I got 2, one of which is why I am right now in Turkey and the other of which saw me co-curating a numismatic exhibition at the end of the next year—plus ça change…). For a while I was also, of all things, enrolled on a MOOC by way of learning my way round an admin role which I subsequently demitted, so I was busy enough. But I was still blogging and still reading a bit. Nonetheless, I am told by my partner that in the second semester all this plus marking turned me into a grey joyless sink of exhaustion, in part presumably because I’d had minor surgery just before Christmas 2015 and was still recovering; one of our cats getting run over also didn’t help.

The Parkinson Building, University of Leeds

The office building where this story mainly takes place, the Parkinson Building, University of Leeds, its grandeur equalled only by the unpredictability of its upstairs water supply. By Tim Green from Bradford [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Now, come October 2016, I had been able to advertise my own courses, so the two that were dormant had recruited and now had to run for the first time. In addition to that, I co-led an overhaul of our medieval survey course, which is taught to the whole cohort, and I also co-convened our intensive palæography course. What this all meant was that, more or less by accident, I was now teaching across 10 modules and running 6, only 2 of which were repeating in the same form as the previous year and 2 of which were entirely new, one involving collaboration with our Library’s (brilliant) Special Collections team and the other, a full-year module, involving lots of translation of primary material on what quickly became a week-to-week basis. I also put in 3 more grant applications and got 2, and was of course now also dealing with the work coming from the previous ones… I was also now studying for and putting in for Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy, which I got, and Fellowship of the Royal Historical Society, which I also got. I mentioned the numismatic exhibition already. Oh yeah, and I bought a new house and moved halfway through all of this! The new house is much much better and a great delight, but the commute is longer and of course moving is never easy, especially when you’re buying in a chain.

Study right at Exley Hall

The other place this was all (by now) happening, my half of our study at home, complete with me at work in it and the (new) junior cat trying to work out why

In the classroom, again, the second semester was heavier than the first. By the middle of it, unable to progress anything outside teaching and working more hours than I ever have to keep that going, I had to tell my press that I could no longer deliver my next book in the foreseeable future, and shortly after that I hit a crisis point that meant that something had to be done. My bosses were personally sympathetic and quick to act, and I also owe thanks to my union representative and Chris Wickham, who were both vital support. Anyway, the main positive result of all this (apart from the successful funding bids) was that an application I’d made for a semester of study leave was approved; the secondary positive result was that despite everything I got a teaching commendation, for which I must mainly thank my students, and I suppose the third one was the HEA Fellowship. For the study leave I had targets that amounted to finishing an article-length piece of work every month—which I did do—so blogging time was still hard to find. And now study leave is over, I’m still on probation and I’m back to teaching, with what is for now a lighter teaching load, but still enough to mean that a short-lived attempt at weekly blogging has stumbled. Obviously (obviously!) the blog is not my first priority, but it is a priority, so what can happen with it?

The state of the blog, present and future

Well, if we take a look at the blog as it currently sits, it is upwards of 700 posts going back more than a decade, and its sheer mass on the web means that it continues to draw at least some traffic even if I do nothing with it, which is quite gratifying. I have at least been able to keep up with comments and I think some kind of community remains aware when I post, and to you folks also I am very grateful. But we have this silly double structure of ‘sticky’ front-page posts that I wanted you to know about straight away, as opposed to the regular posts emerging blinking from the backlog, and I have literally sixty more stubbed, and in some cases part- or all-written, from up to three years ago, which I was determined to post in order between my normal seminar reporting. Even with as little detachment as I can manage, this has become a structure of lunacy that can’t be maintained. On the other hand, I really miss the interaction and sense of having a public, and the constructive and amusing response to half-formed ideas I could get here; as a sandbox, as well as a public face, blogging has seemed a worthwhile exercise to me ever since I worked out what I really thought it was for, and I want to get it going again and keep it there. I have also, I admit, used the fact that I have a blog on which to publicise my endeavours in a couple of my funding bids, and it’s probably not wholly honest if I can’t shout about my successes here as well as via Leeds press releases.

So, most obviously, the seminar and conference reporting cannot continue as it once did. That may prove something of a relief to those who were covered, though I know some people liked it, but it just took so long, and in any case I’m now outside the so-called Golden Triangle so can’t report on it to those likewise outside as I used to. On the other hand, I don’t want just to jump-cut three years of my life, especially since as the narrative above tells you, they have been busy and full of things and successes on which I would ideally have reported with glee. And there are all these posts stubbed which belong in that time. So, I have a plan and it looks like this:

  1. The ‘sticky’ posts will all be unstuck when I next post, and return to their places in the stream; there should be no more of them.
  2. I will start a new series of posts called ‘Chronicle’ or something like that, in which I just record what was going on in my life academic in chunks of a month or two at a time, in as summary a form as I can manage, mainly to give chronology to the whole effort but also by way of presenting some kind of a record of what the transition into full-time long-term academia, with which I know I’m not the only one who has struggled, looked like (and looks like) from here. That will continue till I reach the present day, and I’ll adapt the size of them so that I am gaining on that goal each time I post.
  3. In between those posts I will insert shorter focused pieces on the things in each chronicle chunk that merit their own reporting, or which were stubbed at that sort of point, and so there’ll still be something here other than me trying to make my diary entertaining.

And maybe that will work! I hope that I can post most weeks, probably on Sundays, and that that ought actually to work down the backlog. I guess we’ll see how it goes? I’m very conscious that my previous promises of a return to blogging have, like prophecies of the end of the world, all so far proved false, but hopefully this is easier to bring about than Apocalypse. Assuming the horsemen don’t arrive, therefore, see you soon! And thanks for continuing to hang round A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe!


In memoriam Ted Buttrey (1929-2018)

2017-2018 has been a rough transition, like 2010-2011’s second instalment but with the deaths closer to me this time. I would have liked the last post but one to be enough for one winter but the toll has continued to ring and ring hard. I already failed to mention Professor Peter Spufford, whom I didn’t know well but should have recorded here after he died on 18 November 2017; I can’t point to a good obituary just yet but there must be one coming, probably indeed in the upcoming Numismatic Chronicle. I likewise would have wished to say something about John Casey, whom I only met a couple of times but was fun both to read and to talk to. But I cannot fail to mention Professor Theodore Vern Buttrey, Junior, because he was one of my favourite people in Cambridge and while his death, on 9 January, was not unexpected as he’d been fighting prostate cancer, more or less in secrecy (I found out last October) for some time, and also he was eighty-nine, still his praises must be sung because he was a fantastic guy. Also, he would be terribly embarrassed by my saying as much on the web, and so if I’m to commit such a sin at all, I must do it so thoroughly that he would feel obliged to step up to the role of his own personality. So Ted, this is your stage.

Professor Ted Buttrey in a seminar in Vienna

“Seriously, you’re gonna do this?” Ted, I am gonna; I owe you no less.

I’m not sure Ted was ever off a stage, if he was where people could see him; he actually did act, indeed one of the first conversations we had where I realised what an strong character he was was when he came into the Department of Coins and Medals announcing that he had been selected as one of the extras for Elizabeth: The Golden Age, which was then filming in Ely. He had thought it best to lie about his age so as not to risk crossing their insurance thresholds, and accordingly, apparently, his legs can be seen in one scene and his top half in another, amid a crowd of bearded Spanish grandees tutting in the background of Philip II’s court. I don’t know how many septuaganarians would do that; by the time I left the Department, however, I knew that Ted was one of them. He also quoted Shakespeare rather a lot, with great and stagey disappointment in the younger generation if it wasn’t recognised, but was as likely to throw out bits of Sophocles, on whom he wrote what is as far as I know his last book; with numismatists it’s always possible there’s another draft that someone is going to finish off, and while I don’t know of one he was always trying to get something else finished before it was too late, so I bet there’s at least one.1 He will also probably still have shipments of numismatic sale catalogues, of which he had amassed the world’s largest collection at the Fitzwilliam, inbound, which is going to be a touch day for the crew who remain there when they arrive, emotionally as well as physically. I remember celebrating the 35,000th catalogue’s accession and the Department’s new mobile shelving with an afternoon of tea, cake, Latin acclamations and sung rounds, accompanied by one of my colleagues on “the Giant Wurlitzer”, a very small Casio keyboard that she discreetly played behind a bookshelf so as not to dispel the illusion. Ted had, of course, written all the words himself, including apologies from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Queen and the Chancellor of the University none of whom, sadly, were able to be present, and I hope I still have the Order of Ceremonies somewhere. Again, who else would do such a thing, and do it over mobile shelving and auction catalogues?

Professor Ted Buttrey with a cartload of numismatic sale catalogues in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

None but Ted! Here pictured with a fresh shipment and a very fake smile in the Grierson Room of the Department

But as the fact that a great numismatist’s last book would be on Classical drama should tell you, Ted was more than a numismatist, and indeed he sometimes described himself as a philologist first and foremost, and this was probably fair if you just take it etymologically (as of course such a person would), in as much he really loved words. It was from Ted I learnt to play Boggle, and while I got to the point where he didn’t often beat me, the real point of the game was not who won but the lengthy arguments over whether the particular combination of letters he’d found on the grid was in fact a real word or not; we haggled for long enough over ‘sawdusts’ that another then-member of the department subsequently got me a mug made with the word on it. To his delight, because my father had been (indeed, when I started there, still was) much of an age with him and had had an American wife, I knew quite a lot of Ted’s backdated Americana references, like Pogo, another huge sink of wordplay for the player with words, and could spar back at him with them. Lunches in the Department were made the more splendid for Ted appearing dramatically in the doorway with a Boggle set and proclaiming, “The hour cometh, and now is!” There was less Boggle after I left and still less after the mug-making colleague did, so I very much hope there’s someone willing to play wherever Ted’s spirit now roams.

Jonathan Jarrett, Ted Buttrey and Vladimir Nastich in the McClean Room, Coins & Medals, Fitzwilliam Museum

Myself, Professor Ted Buttrey and Professor Vladimir Nastich in the McClean Room, Coins & Medals; my beard is more sensible now

What else should be said of Ted? There are many stories to tell, most of which maybe don’t belong here like when I made his life dramatically easier at a stroke by showing him the double-click; Ted had determinedly learnt computers as an early adopter and then carried on using that computer in retirement from 1991 to about 2003, with no-one to tell him about some of the major changes his post-2003 machine embodied. But one cannot speak of Ted as a whole without also including his role as a fraud-busting detective. Not only did he catch two coin thieves at the Department during his tenure as Keeper, one of whom he quite deliberately set up with an opportunity he couldn’t miss, but, much more famously, exposed a traffic in early Mexican and American gold bars which he held to be fakes, including pointing a finger at the traffickers; they then sued him for libel, but the suit was dismissed and since no legal verdict was reached against Ted’s accused either I’ll leave it there, but it made the papers.2 Such was the man.

Cover of Buttrey and Hubbard, Guidebook of Mexican Coins

Cover of Buttrey and Hubbard, Guidebook of Mexican Coins

Obviously I have to mention his scholarship, as well, and it would be too seductively easy to pick out stuff like his work on Domitian’s rhinoceros, on spintriae (careful with that link, probably NSFW unless your work is Roman numismatics or history) or his three excellent and finely-written articles decrying attempts to put numbers on the production of ancient coins which I have praised here before, in general the quirky, funny or destructive (though always scholarly), if only because it would be so hard to pick a small number of the more important publications like the coins from the excavations at Sardis, with the late Ian Carradice the new standard catalogue of the coins of the Flavian emperors, or what is still the go-to book on Mexican coins though his first book of all…3 I mean, there is loads. The American Numismatic Society’s library catalogue contains 116 items under his name and they must be selling him short. Though, weirdly, as he told me once, he’d never actually found a coin in context himself, there were very few coins about which he didn’t know something; though I discovered later that it was not original to him, he was not wrong once to say, “I am a numismatist, and nothing numismatic is foreign to me.”4 And he will be missed for that, and for the work he might still have completed if he’d lived on further, but I don’t often cross with his actual fields of interest, and I personally will miss the Boggle, the elevated drama of his conversation, and the endless fund of stories he could tell—he had crossed the Atlantic by sea more than once, for example—and the fact that when next I go to the Fitzwilliam there will no-one with whom to “savage the reluctant scone” as I would have if Ted were still there. Ladies and gentlemen, I invite you to applaud; the show must end for us all but few of us will deserve reviews as glowing as Ted’s should be.

(I live in hope of being able finally to deliver the new shape of the blog that I have now repeatedly promised. But seriously, people just need to stop dying…5)

1. I actually can’t find any trace of the Sophocles book now that I look, so it may be that it is still in press and it actually will be his last book. I’m fairly sure he told me it had gone off to a press…

2. Of course, it’s a mark against the guy that he would say ‘who’ where he meant ‘whom’. In the words of Doc Owl from Pogo which Ted would sometimes quote, “Whom? Moom?”

3. T. V. Buttrey, “Domitian, the Rhinoceros, and the Date of Martial’s Liber De Spectaculis” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 97 (London 2007), pp. 101-112, online here; idem, “The Spintriae as a Historical Source” in The Numismatic Chronicle 7th Series Vol. 13 (London 1973), pp. 52-63; idem, “Calculating Ancient Coin Production: facts and fantasies”, ibid. Vol. 153 (1993), pp. 335–351; idem, “Calcuating Ancient Coin Production, II: why it cannot be done”, ibid. Vol. 154 (1994), pp. 341–352; S. E. Buttrey and T. V. Buttrey, “Calculating Ancient Coin Production, Again’ in American Journal of Numismatics Vol. 9 (Washington DC 1997), pp. 113–135; T. V. Buttrey, A. Johnston, K. M. Mackenzie & M. L. Bates, Greek, Roman and Islamic Coins from Sardis (Cambridge MA 1982); T. V. Buttrey and I. A. Carradice, The Roman Imperial Coinage, vol. 2 part 1 (revised edition): From AD 69 to AD 96 – Vespasian to Domitian (London 2007); T. V. Buttrey and Clyde Hubbard, Guidebook of Mexican Coins, 1822 to Date, 6th edn. ed. by Thomas Michael (Fort Collins CO 1992).

4. An earlier instance somewhere in P. J. Casey (him again) and Richard reece (edd.), Coins and the Archaeologist, 2nd edn (London 1988), but drat it, I haven’t written down where, sorry.

5. The 2010 post I mentioned was also weighed down by the death of many important musicians, at least important to me, and sadly this is no different. Not only have I taken this long to find out about the death of Walter Becker, bassist-and-more of Steely Dan, in September, but “Fast” Eddie Clarke, once of Motörhead of course, also didn’t make it through this killing winter. The classic line-up of Motörhead is now hopefully reunited, though if so Lemmy will have some serious retractions to make… Anyway, it needs to stop now please, this has just been too many figures of renown to lose in a month.

Two More Greats Gone: Simon Barton and Mark Whittow

This is a kind of repetition I really hope stops arising. The pressure is not off my life in such a way that blogging as we knew it, or anything like, can yet be resumed, but the one thing that I can’t justly not write about is people I wish hadn’t just died, and just a bit more than a year since I last posted it is, awfully, that that once more brings me out of hiding. I’m sorry if anyone was hoping for better, and I’m sorry that the news I have is so terrible, but I owe both these men a lot and have to say something in their honours.

Professor Simon Barton of Central Florida University

Professor Simon Barton, of Central Florida University and previously of Exeter University, photographed by James d’Emilio in 2017 and borrowed from Professor D’Emilio’s Twitter stream

I still don’t know what happened to Simon Barton. There is nothing on the web about his death anywhere that doesn’t apparently go back to a tweet by Simon Doubleday on 17th December publicising an announcement on the Facebook page of the Sociedad Española de Estudios Medievales, and for a while that seemed like such an odd place for the news to crop up, and it so odd that it was not repeated, that I was very much hoping that an obituary notice had been prematurely posted and that it would soon be contradicted. But that contradiction has not come and other places have begun to post tributes, and I guess it must be true. I first ran into Simon Barton because when still at Exeter, long ago in I think 2003, he accepted a paper I’d offered to the Second Conference of the Historians of Medieval Iberia. That was a good and very friendly conference, and while the paper never actually got finished I apparently did well enough to be invited back in 2005, and that paper became my infamous Aprisio article. Basically, Simon kept inviting me back to things, even at times when surely unbeknownst to him I felt as if I would have to be leaving the profession soon and was no kind of real scholar. His cheerful encouragement whenever I had contact with him has been a reliable constant for quite a lot of my academic career, all the more valuable because there was no reason he needed to provide it. It was a recent pleasure for me in the previous academic year to start using his work more thoroughly in my teaching by way of repayment, and it was only getting more interesting as he went on; his most recent, and now I guess last, book, really transcends the institutional and political sort of history in the tradition of which he had begun. And now there will be no more, and of course there are also all the ruptured personal ties and grief that death leaves behind it about which I really can’t say anything meaningful except how sorry I am.

Dr Mark Whittow at Corpus Christi College, Oxford

Dr Mark Whittow at Corpus Christi College, Oxford

That inarticulacy in the face of death hurts all the more for the other victim of the season, Dr Mark Whittow. Here, horribly, there is no doubt: Mark was driving home from Banbury on the 23rd December, there was a collision and he was killed. Why this is a blow for the subject, others have already put far better than I ever could—the article on the website of St Peter’s College, where he was a fellow for many years, has him perfectly written up—but here, what I can’t say of Simon, I can picture the house that will now be emptier and the people who must grieve and it’s awful. I’ve sat round that breakfast table and on those sofas, with Mark being controversial because the conversation was more fun that way, and again I was made welcome there when that mattered a good deal. Within days of my arrival in Oxford, indeed, Mark had made himself known to me and roped me into giving a paper at short notice (a paper which, by a horrible irony, until very recently rested with none other than Simon Barton, who was editing a book in which it was finally to appear), but he made up for it with dinner and that famous welcome, and for the remaining years I was in Oxford we plied each other with college and other hospitality and made grand plans whose minuscule chance of realisation, given how busy we both were with other things, didn’t make them any less entertaining. He also enjoyed the blog, and it seems especially perverse, however obvious, that he can’t comment on this post. He would have been pleased at least, I imagine, to know that his death would make both the Times and the Telegraph, but there’s no question that he’d rather have been around still having fun, and he had, perhaps more than anyone else I know, worked out how to have it. The timing and the family he leaves behind make this all seem very cruel already, but so does the sheer vivacity with which Mark lived and of which he and we would all have enjoyed so much more. I shall miss him and Simon both and I wish they weren’t dead.

Duncan Probert

It is more than two months since I have been able to post here, and though the blog is recently now a full ten years old it is also fair to ask what kind of health it is in. I may now have an answer to that question and time to frame it, but today is not the day where that happens, because news reached me by e-mail today of the unexpected death of fellow medievalist and stalwart member of the black-clad and long-haired, Duncan Probert, a couple of weeks after suffering a stroke. Duncan, who had come to medieval studies as a second or even third career, I met when he was at Birmingham and I was at the Fitzwilliam, and over our occasional meetings at conferences and seminars over the next few years he developed into a respected and highly productive scholar of medieval English names, place- and personal, who could make that work comprehensible to outsiders despite handling large datasets by preference. He worked on many projects, most recently at Kings College London, and managed to combine the hard-headedness of real-world employment experience with an irrepressible belief in the power of human ingenuity to solve problems. He also drew good maps. He will be missed by many; with this post I count myself among them. Rest well, Duncan.

Debunking History: book review

Cover of Ed Rayner and Ron Stapley, Debunking History

Cover of Ed Rayner and Ron Stapley, Debunking History

Some time ago someone got me a copy of Ed Rayner and Ron Stapley, Debunking History: 152 popular myths exploded, 2nd edn. (Stroud 2009), as a present. Their reasoning was that as a historian I ought to enjoy it, and eventually I read it and my reactions were sufficiently mixed that I thought a review might be in order. That is, after all, a form of appreciation of a gift, right? It’s made me think…

I have to make some kind of disclosure beforehand, which is that the authors tackle nothing earlier than the eighteenth century and mostly British and European episodes, with some US ones and recent global politics salted over the meat. That despite, I don’t think I’m just ragging on them here from the perspective of the ignored medievalist; they picked that period and area because it’s the one they know, they say early on (p. xv), and indeed their currency with the debates seems pretty clear (though of course, I’m a medievalist, so they could probably fool me pretty easily). And they have a reasonable preface about the different ways in which people can be wrong about history: factual error, uncritical adoption of myth or legend (the one without historical foundation, the other with) and controversy of interpretation leading to an as yet unjustified opinion. At the least, this is thinking work, and I’m not unfriendly to such books, as my occasional mentions of the key medievalist one will have shown.

One does have to wonder about the title, though. As far as I can see, the authors have chosen their particular misapprehensions to combat largely by meeting them as school or college examiners (p. xv), and fair enough, but very few of them meet their own definition of ‘myth’; indeed, ‘Popular Misunderstandings’ is only one of the thirteen chapters, while in the case of some topics like the Carbonari, the Tonypandy Massacre, the Speenhamland system, Harold Wilson’s devaluation of the pound in 1967, the origins of the word ‘dole’ (which they get wrong, because of not knowing their ancient history) or the Ems Telegram, I doubt that there is any really ‘popular’ opinion to correct; some of these things were unknown to me, and I am a historian who tries to talk to his modernist colleagues every now and then and so on. Probably only someone who has examined history A-Levels in the UK for a long time is familiar with everything in this book. Neither, often, do these ‘popular myths’ wind up ‘exploded’; some of them are sustained, most of them are conditioned or qualified and a few outright rejected, but even in those cases the reasons that people have understood incorrectly are also usually set out and seem reasonable in their own terms. So I think the publishers probably have some blame to bear for deciding what would be on the cover of this book and how little relation it might bear to the contents. This is not History debunked: this is, I think, two experienced teachers claiming a right to decide what History is.1

Despite that, the contents often seem pretty good, though not always and the bad cases are worrisome as we’ll see. The balance is about forty-sixty between cases where the authors think that the jury must remain out (so that the ‘popular’ misapprehension is that there is an accepted answer) and cases where there is an answer and it’s not the one the authors think is popularly held. Each controversy is set up with a short summary rubric then the facts as we know them are set out and the changes in historians’ interpretations or the reasons for popular misapprehension exposed. It’s usually clearly and pithily written and it sounds authoritative, though it would take a lot of work to dig up the evidence on which they base their conclusions; there is a decent-looking bibliography (pp. 437-441), thematically organised (and mostly recent) and separated into a reading list and a reference list, the latter apparently being the support for the authors’ judgements but hard to link back to them. Despite that, the book would make a good update for someone who studied modern history a generation ago, I think, though that person might then want to read more than or differently from what he or she is set here.

That reader would need to be more neutral than the authors, indeed, whose own prejudices and interests sometimes loom very large in their writing. This is in part evident in the selection: one or both of them clearly have interests in military history and there is an awful lot of ‘great men’ stuff. But again, I don’t mind that. More problematic are the judgements made in such cases. Is it really a historian’s job to answer such questions as “Talleyrand: was he guided by principle or personal advantage?” (pp. 41-43: the latter, so no explosion here), “The Last Tsar: a vicious tyrant?” (pp. 53-56: thoughtless more than vicious), “How Deserved was the Reputation of President Reagan?” (pp. 205-208: undeserved but deliberately promoted), “Edwardian England: a golden age?” (pp. 179-181: not for anyone below gentry level), “Hitler: dictator or dreamer?” (pp. 319-322: a man without workable plans or the brains to realise that but with the will and opportunity to oppress those who threatened his attempts to bring them about anyway, so, both?), “Disraeli: the father of modern Conservatism?” (pp. 376-379: no!), “The Papacy: was it soft on Fascism and Nazism?” (pp. 398-402: yes but for the sake of survival) or, most of all, “Did Tony Blair betray British Socialism?” (pp. 420-426: socialism already long dead in Britain, sez they)? I could pick many more, and they’re all matters of opinion, as if a historian’s proper job is to guide society’s moral verdict on its architects or attackers. We do, of course, exist partly to make people feel better about things, I admit that, even if another part of our point is to make people question everything, but these potted verdicts are so inherently subjective that I would expect any reader who can follow them to realise that there’s nothing authoritative about them and that one really doesn’t need a historian to reach them.

This is especially worrisome when the authors’ own prejudices come out. They are in general pro-Britain although only in the twentieth century, where all its politicians have apparently done the best they can with limited information except maybe Blair (an absurd topic to include, given that we have only heard most of the evidence while this post has been in draft, six years after the book was even revised)! One of the authors at least, however, is acutely contemptuous of the USA, and this comes out especially in another of these worrying subjective verdict cases, “‘McCarthyism’: did the end justify the means?” (pp. 66-70). Here I’ll quote the most egregious bit (p. 69):

“Could the same phenomenon recur in American affairs? There is little doubt it could. The political leadership of the USA and the bulk of the American nation remain intensely patriotic in their feelings. They are starry-eyed to the point of mawkishness in their love of their homeland, whether or not the ideal qualities for which they regularly lay their hands on their hearts are as evident in their lives as they imagine. It is their firm belief that foreign states are deplorably feeble and cynical in not sharing their shining patriotic vision. To them, a clear-sighted grasp of America’s national interests, a single-mindedness in their country’s interests and a willingness to sacrifice themselves for their country are absolute imperatives, producing the same gut impulse to ‘save America’ as it did fifty years ago against communism. In this sense the McCarthyite spirit lives on, whatever may the ‘unseen enemy’ that seems to threaten thair sanctified vision of themselves.”

Now this is not history-writing; it’s not even journalism. It’s just defamation, and directed against an individual it would be actionable. What is it doing between covers of a book written by people who believe they are correcting misapprehensions with empirical expertise, and who can write in that same book (p. xi):

“… the borderline between error and deliberate misrepresentation is uncertain and often blurred. Sometimes what originated as a simple error has achieved a certain permanence in people’s minds because it seems appropriate – a myth perhaps even more appropriate than the truth…”?

One wants to use phrases involving words like “mote” and “beam” here, but perhaps the good old Wikimedian protest is still the best one:

Randall Munroe, “Wikipedian Protestor”, XKCD, July 2007,

1. The book’s cover and online blurb both say, “Ed Rayner and Ron Stapley are history professors and authors of history textbooks.” The latter is easy to substantiate, but I can’t get anything out of the web to show the former. Odd?


Ein schlechter Tag für Europa


Leaving my own politics out of it, I wake this morning to the likelihoods that two funding bids I’m involved in will now collapse, that all our current European doctoral students are now going to have to rush to finish before the conditions of their residency in the UK change in unpredictable fashion, that working in Catalonia, Spain or France is shortly to get more expensive and hostile and that my chosen sector of employment will now see yet another shrinkage of income, with presumably resultant cuts in jobs. I am also going to have completely respin the next lecture I give on Charlemagne. The longer-term consequences… who knows?

Collecting from Cliopatria

Screenshot of the History News Network magazine website

Screenshot of the History News Network magazine website

Long-term readers may know that I used to be a contributor to a group blog at the Humanities News Network site, which was called Cliopatria. Cliopatria was kind of a lead singer and his backing band; Ralph Luker, the editor, did most of the posting and various other people chimed in every now and then, and from 2009 to the blog’s closure in 2012 I was one of those people. I always found Cliopatria a difficult audience to pitch for; I had been asked to contribute as a medievalist, but despite my efforts and those of the two East Asian studies people also contributing the bulk of both posting and commenting was modern-US-centric. I therefore wound up focusing my activity there either on things about scholarship on the Middle Ages I thought would interest other fields or, and here I had company, on the state of the Academy. Some of that material also appeared here, and I generally mentioned here when I’d got something up there, but I did try and make sure that I was writing distinctly for each blog.

Despite that, in general my posts went uncommented and in fact, it was then usual for me to get more comments and feedback here than anyone ever got on Cliopatria, so I posted there only rarely. Then, somewhere in 2011 I think, HNN had a redesign that changed their stylesheet and effectively wrecked anything that anyone had previously done with HTML tags; quotations ceased to be distinguishable from paragraph text, for example, and hyperlinked text appeared three point sizes smaller than that around it. Much of my existing content now looked stupid or wrong and it was hard to work in the new template; links inside the blog stopped working and posting, not just mine but everybody’s but Ralph’s, dropped right off. It struggled on a little longer and then Ralph finally closed the blog in early 2012. It remains readable, but I learn in writing this that Ralph himself died in August 2015, which I am saddened by. May he rest easily.

Since then, anyway, I’ve occasionally had reason to go back to my Cliopatria posts for something, and they are really hard to find. The site has been redesigned again since Cliopatria closed and things now look better, though not as good as they did before the first redesign; but the links to individual authors’ works have gone, as have all the comments, and its internal search is lousy. My name doesn’t appear over all my posts, and neither my own list of links or Google can bring back everything I wrote there. So for some time I’ve been meaning to put together a list of my posts, for my own reference as much as anything, and this is that list. In compiling it, I’ve discovered quite a number of things I had completely forgotten writing, and I fear that there may still be more I haven’t found. What I have, I’ve broken down by categories and arranged by date within them, and if you wanted to go and read any of them that would be lovely, though I’ve also indicated where they also appear here at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe because those are easier reading still. When it drops off the front page I’ll set this post up as its own page. In the meantime, this is what I did for Cliopatria.

Actual Research Posts

These were generally poorly-judged for Cliopatria and usually also appeared here. After a while I stopped doing them except out of guilt at having not posted for ages.

Medievalism in the Modern World

A long-term strand of my blogging, this, but all the more important where medievalists would not normally tread but modernists are still reading it. These are probably the posts I’m proudest of writing at Cliopatria, I think they were useful and good publicity for why having experts on this stuff is sometimes helpful.

The State of the Academy

I’m much less sure about these posts, as a rule. In particular, they mostly come from the point when the Conservative Party under David Cameron was just beginning to muck about with UK higher education funding; a lot of people were self-righteously angry and it was easy to get on that bandwagon without necessarily thinking too hard. After all, the government was directing baton charges against schoolchildren protesting about tuition fees; if you weren’t angry, you arguably weren’t paying attention. Also, though, for much of my time on Cliopatria I was at Oxford, which the more I look back on it (or read my leftover issues of The Oxford Magazine) looks like a bubble of small-c conservative privilege I wasn’t then fully able to see out of. The people writing in the Magazine clearly don’t represent their colleagues very widely—Oxford has not gone private, banned tourists from the Bodleian Library, legislated to remove authority from its own Council or cut back the university administration, or any of the other things for which they regularly campaigned, for a start—but Oxford also doesn’t represent the rest of UK HE very well, and I honestly just didn’t realise how true that was till I got out. So these posts come from an odd, and rather blinkered, place, and occasionally I got pulled up for that. Still, there are some good rants there and a few things I’d still stand by.