Tag Archives: British Library


Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, and anyone who prefers not to align themselves with such categories, welcome! Welcome one and all to the August 2010 edition of Carnivalesque, every thinkin’ antiquarian’s choice of historical blog carnival, today with its ancient and medieval showin’. Yer host finds hisself somewhat in the Victorian mode as he sets about the confection of this display of learnin’, so fetch yerself some seats and prepare for stories of Discovery! strange Curiosities! lively Controversies! and Instances of Scholarly Resource and Sagacity! the like of which ye’ve never seen before, or at least, so I shall claim. And pride of place—wait a minute there, madam, please—pride of place goes to the two of you who submitted posts for the carnival, you can sit at the front in this pair of carven thrones I brought back from Niger on me grand tour, dontcherknow. And indeed, before I start, let me congratulate one of ’em doubly by sayin’, I’m never sure whether or not to include prehistoric matter in Carnivalesque, but on this occasion Judith Weingarten has saved me the bother by hostin’ the renowned Anthropology Carnival, Four Stone Hearth, over at Zenobia: Empress of the East, and by Jove, there’s a fair deal of medieval and ancient stuff there too, I declare, so if after the extravaganza below you find yerself unsated, get thee thither I tell you! So then!


George Scott in Burma

George Scott, explorer, administrator, photographer and introducer of football to Burma, who is completely unrelated to this blog but who will be the unofficial voice of this post all the same

Startin’, as a proper Victorian explorer should, in the bowels of a pyramid in the Nile Delta, what are these strange words inscribed at the end of an apparently dead-ended tunnel? Heather Pringle at the Last Word on Nothing quite literally has the inside information.

Back in old Albion, however, everything has been comin’ up Roman, be it literally thousands of silver coins in Frome as described here at Antiquarian’s Attic, or what may be the old home of the unfortunate fella who is best known to history as Emperor Pertinax (reigned 193 to, er, 193), described via Archaeology in Europe.1

Oddly, however, the medieval discovery of the month, in yer humble host’s still more humble imagination, comes not from Europe at all but from that lot over the water who gave us Benjamin Franklin and the Dukes of Hazzard, and who also, it would seem, preserve microfilms of otherwise-lost medieval Bibles, almost unbeknownst even to themselves. Whoever tells you there are no more medieval sources to be discovered, I tell you sir, that cad is a charlatan and a bounder, and furthermore wrong to boot. That somewhat controversial couple at Medievalists.net are still the only ones with the story, here.


International exhibition watercolour by Joseph Nash

Watercolour of the International Exhibition, London 1862, by Joseph Nash

Now, let’s turn our minds to the divertin’ and unusual. Back to the Romans again. You may never have wondered how on earth those cunning fellows went about keeping the legions on the Rhine fed, but Gabriele Campbell has, and characteristically has pictures of the boats used to do it, over at the Lost Fort. Then, if you prefer your history to be about the ladies as much or more than the gentlemen, you may wish to give an eye to to a rather surprisin’ instance of a Sassanian royal lady trying to be both: Queen Bōrān, King of Kings, whose story is told by Judith Weingarten once again at Zenobia: Empress of the East! Next, no medieval carnival is complete without those dastardly yet colourful Vikings. After all, they were responsible for the end of Pictland dontcherknow, or at least so Tim Clarkson argues at Senchus. But what on earth were they up to with these strange stones in their graves? Melissa Snell, About.com Guide to Medieval History, has some answers.

Now, it is said that politics makes strange bedfellows, but sometimes it’s dangerous even to leave the bed: the lately-rebloggified Richard Scott Nokes at the Unlocked Wordhoard has some surprises from the great unwritten book of Muslim political strategies that may make us all look askance at our family members, as long as our family happens to be a powerful one in twelfth-century Syria anyway. Which is, of course, not to say that politics was exactly safe at the same sort of time in the West, as the Headsman at Executed Today illustrates with a post on the dangers of speaking your mind during the Hundred Years War. Then, more peaceful but far less effective, a poignant tale of failed diplomacy when the nearly-last Byzantine Emperor visited the England of Henry IV is told by Tom Sawford at Byzantine Blog. Finally in this section, possibly early modern really but far too curious for a Victorian explorer not to pick up and take home on dubious terms, had you ever wondered what Henry VIII’s religion was like before England went Protestant? A recent acquisition by the British Library makes his younger piety look look positively medieval, and is described by that controversial couple again, this time at Early Modern England.


Uncle Wattleberry bounding and plunging, from the Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay

Antipodean scholarly disagreement circa 1918

Now, it is the nature of scholarship for men and women of strong opinions to demur from one another. Sometimes this is the product of earnest and well-founded differences of view, and sometimes, we fear, it is a battle of those who know somethin’ about a subject versus those who care to know nothin’ about it but wish to speak out anyway. Without specifyin’ which is which, may I humbly draw your attention to the worthy writings of the followin’:

Halfpenny token of the Society for the Suppression of the Slave Trade, late eighteenth century; Fitzwilliam Museum CM.TR.1442-R, part of the Trinity College Collection

Halfpenny token of the Society for the Suppression of the Slave Trade, late eighteenth century; Fitzwilliam Museum CM.TR.1442-R, part of the Trinity College Collection

On some matters of controversy, however, it doesn’t behove an Englishman to comment, still less one posing temporarily as a Victorian imperialist: we refer of course to the decision, bitterly protested in certain quarters, by the Medieval Academy of America not to move their annual meeting from Arizona despite its recent anti-immigration bills. On this a great deal has been written and I would refer you especially to posts in the following places:

Enough to make a chap glad to be living in the past, were the past only any less troubled of course, which I think we can safely say, given much of the above, it wasn’t. However, the task of discerning its nature becomes ever easier, or do I mean more complex, thanks to endeavours like those we shall now unfold!

Instances of Resource and Sagacity!

The Mariner in How the Whale Got His Throat, by Rudyard Kipling, as the protagonists meet

A fellow of famously-infinite resource and sagacity, about to meet a spot of bother

We note, for example, the availability of a new database of Ancient Greek epigraphic epigrams, greeted sardonically by Roger Pearse at his eponymous weblog (with a tip of the solar topee to Muhlberger’s World History).

Likewise sardonic is the take of relative newcomer but prolific bloggist Dr Beachcombing on recent research into the causes of death at Pompeii. Obvious, a chap might think, what with that volcano next door, but it is surprising how few medicos have stood around volcanic eruptions checking on how people die and so the Pompeii finds are actually advancing pathology. Is this mere quackery? Read Dr B and discern!

Similarly ingenious efforts with the dead have allowed some scientist wallahs in Bristol to determine the identity of a body in a royal Englishwoman’s grave in Magdeburg Cathedral, and Michelle of Heavenfield reckons up the score.

All this scholarship does us little good if no-one is readin’, of course, and so we can all be grateful for the blog of the so-called Medieval History Geek, who often seems to do nothin’ but! Here he begins to digest the most recent issue of Early Medieval Europe and ponders the question of how many great ladies of Carolingian Europe might have been able to read and write.

Almost lastly, it always does us good to reflect on how we go about our scholarship, and I might therefore point the finger of note at m’colleague Magistra et Mater, who has been wondering whether the current vogue for crowd-sourcing is ever likely to help the strugglin’ medievalist, and at Bavardess, who has been thrown bodily into a field of which she knew little, the oral history of her countrymen, and found some peculiar parallels of methodology; both of these are reflective but worthwhile readin’.

And finally, though our work is largely private, the real success is to get the government behind your work of course. The question is, who puts the government behind you? One answer is the United Nations, and very recently they have announced this year’s additions to the list of World Heritage sites, as well as some deletions, sad to tell; Dis Manibus has the full run-down at Votum Solvit, including not a little ancient and medieval both, and a whole range of places to consider for the next grand tour, though this time I must take those dem’ marbles out of my baggage before I pass through Customs, what?3 So, I hope you’ve had a diverting read, and you can find out where the next edition, modern style, will be at the usual address. And with that it only remains to say, pip pip!

1. I realise that though Archaeology in Europe is immensely useful, it is only repeating others’ content, but this blog has an old affection for Emperor Pertinax and I couldn’t let it go unsatisfied.

2. And, as you may have seen, the proposed mosque is not the silliest or most redundant thing anyone’s been proposing to build in the area… (h/t to Edge of the American West).

3. Didn’t bring any chalk, either, so I couldn’t get a game in any case.


Occasionally I work with manuscripts

I realise that all the cool kids are writing their Kalamazoo reports, and I will also get on to that some day soon. I wouldn’t be writing at all if I hadn’t put six hours in today, on jetlag amounts of sleep, on the notes of the book whilst being harassed by editors who’ve missed their deadlines. No, sorry: nothing beats the book at this stage. Except perhaps some blog. I had about seven posts I wanted to write as well as the K’zoo report and now as a result of web-crawling for footnotes I have another. So I will do the first, which is, coincidentally, about where chasing a footnote can take you.

Portrait of Pope John X

Pope John X, from Wikimedia Commons (though where before that, I have no clue)

In the early Middle Ages, or indeed any of the other Middle Ages, communications were less than instant. Sometimes we have letters left to us that testify to this problem, reporting that information has reached the writer too late and now they want to change whatever they just said. Pope John X has one of my favourites, because it directly touches something I recently finished working on. I’ll translate:

Bishop John, servant of the servants of God, to Reginald of Béziers, Ariman of Toulouse, Riculf of Elna, Guimarà of Carcassonne, Guiu of Girona, Gerard of Agde, Teuderic of Lodève, Hubert of Nîmes, another Teuderic, of Barcelona, Jordi of Osona, Radulf of Urgell, most reverend and holy bishops of the Church of Christ. Receiving letters from your sanctity about your metropolitan, Agius, and the insidious frauds against him by the most nefarious Gerald, and acknowledging them we grieved greatly, and we faltered as if we felt the news in our body. Wherefore, we wished it to be known to your sanctity that the aforesaid falsehood-spinner Gerald, coming to this holy Roman and Apostolic Church that by God’s design we serve to rob us like an innocent, wanted the bishopric, and we, not recognising the cunning of his surpassing iniquity, wished to accommodate him, if there might be no canonical censure therefrom. He indeed, we have now found out from the truthful report of many, proferring under false pretences I know not what spurious letters purporting to bear our name, came and raided the bishopric of Narbonne in armed force on this basis, having captured the venerable metropolitan Agius by his fraud, and previously we had come to know very many other things about him through your letters. On account of which, we have sent to you through Archbishop Ermino our Apostolic letters, so that you shall not receive the selfsame oft-named Gerald, held a liar by all, among the bishops, and now moreover that we have discovered from your fraternity and fully recognise the malice and deceptions of his iniquity, we wish and we order by Apostolic authority that, just as we have already written to you and the sacred canons testify, you shall not have him among the bishops, as he was not requested by the clerics and the people of the city, nor was he ordained in the customary manner by you, his coprovincials. We have sent, as your concern sought, a privilege, a pallium and the use of the pallium to your metropolitan Agius so that we deny to no Church this that he justly sought. BENE VALETE!

[Edit: adjustments to the translation here after the typically learned suggestions of Clemens Radl in comments; anyone wanting to pick up this text for their own purposes should also check that comment for a bunch of useful references.]

In short, Gerald comes to Rome asking to be made Bishop of Narbonne; John is prepared to hear him kindly but the next thing he knows, he’s getting letters from the bishops of the Narbonensis saying that Gerald’s got letters from the pope that he’s using to throw Agius, whom they’ve already got, in jail and demand election and quite frankly Pope, WTS etc. John therefore expresses his frustration and distress via a mutually-trusted intermediary and sends Agius documentary and vestimentary confirmation of John’s backing for the rightful candidate, though you’ll notice that John apparently didn’t know this rightful candidate was in place before. This is in 914, should you be wondering.

A tenth-century illustration of Pope Gregory the Great wearing a pallium

A tenth-century illustration of Pope Gregory the Great wearing a pallium, from the Antiphonary of Hartker of St-Gall via Wikimedia Commons

This text is not new or unknown, but it’s only known from a fairly late preservation. Narbonne, which was once an incredible archive for all things historical and Pyrenean, lost its early documents only in the last few centuries, so the edition of this text with which I’m familiar was done from a 1664 edition from what we suppose to have been the original.1 However, there is also a manuscript copy of it in the British Library. Now, that copy was made in the eighteenth century, so it’s actually more recent than the oldest editions, but all the same, I thought I’d like to go and look, because it bothered me that the text should only be known via Narbonne and I wondered if this might be a different version. I don’t have a picture, because the BL doesn’t like cameras, and in any case it’s an eighteenth-century manuscript, it doesn’t look that old.2 But I have been and looked, and what do you know, it is different.

We are talking about here

It’s tempting to transcribe, but this is long enough already. Suffice to say that most of the personal names are spelt differently, Riculpho not Riculfo, Gimara for Guimara and so on, and that although some of its variants are tending to gibberish (“acknowledging in the side”) some actually make more sense (“wept greatly” instead of “faltered”, defleuimus not defecimus). At the very least it becomes clear that Catel, who edited the 1664 text, modernised the spelling in a fair few places, and may have misread it in others, though the copyist here also mangled a few things. Anyway, up to this point they could be working from the same text. But actually the manuscript omits the “Bene Valete” and goes off on a whole new tangent. There is in fact a better edition that used this manuscript too, and it registers the variants that I noticed and agrees that some of them are good;3 but even that doesn’t include the following bit, which is to my mind almost as interesting, because it tells us what Agius did next. The copyist doesn’t seem to been following his text, at some remove or other, because with no break it just runs straight on as follows:

Venerabilis Agamberto, nec non et Elefonso Epsicopis. Agio Narbonæ sedis Episcopus multimodas orationes. Audiuimus quod vos curtim pergere his diebus debetis. Idcirco ad deprecandum comites nostros perreximus. Ermengaudem et Raymundum quatinus vos deprecarent, ut præceptum apud Regem impetrare nobis non dedignemini. Itaque nos præcamur et supplicamus, ut relatum quod superius scriptum est sic apud Regem impetrare non vos pigeat, bene valete [ruche]

Or, in English, more or less:

To the venerable bishops Agambert and also Eldefonsus, Agius bishop of the see of Narbonne, many sorts of prayer. We have heard that you ought some day soon to be attending court. On that account we have managed to beg our counts Ermengaud and Raymond that they would beseech you so that you will not decline to get a precept from the king for us. We therefore pray and beg that it may fail you not to obtain the account that is written above thus from the king, go you well [signature]

So look, if this is a copy of what Catel was using, that wasn’t a papal document, it’s not John’s letter, even though that’s what he represented it as. The whole thing is actually a letter from Agius, asking his colleagues with business at court to get a letter to this effect from the king, and enclosing the text of a papal letter to explain what’s been going down in Narbonne and to serve as template. This is important for two reasons at least, and maybe more. Firstly, it means that we have no good proof that this actually came from the pope, though it would be a bit cheeky for a false letter from the pope itself to reference the possibility of people bearing false letters from the pope, and it doesn’t reflect well on anyone telling this story so I’m not that worried about it. All the same, this is the sort of thing I was wondering when I realised that the preservation was all via Narbonne. We have some evidence for this rival Gerald elsewhere at least, but all that really tells us is that there’s a dispute into which a papal bull, especially one that could be used to get a royal precept, would fit nicely.

A Romantic depiction of Charles the Simple borrowed from Wikipedia

And that’s the other thing. What does a bishop of Narbonne do in strife, even in 915? He writes to the king! Yes, the pope, all very well, but Agius didn’t write to him, his suffragans did; Agius wants a document from the king. This whole area of the West Frankish kingdom is supposed to have fallen off by now, you realise, no Carolingian king has been this far south for seventy years, and Charles the Simple (for it is he on the throne in 915) is, as we’ve said although I now realise that others would argue otherwise, the king under whom it all really goes to pot for the Carolingians. But in time of trouble, who rules and protects the Church? It’s not the pope… (That said, it’s worth noting that Charles actually appointed one of the bishops who write to the pope, Guiu of Girona, so Agius’s sense of the political weather is obviously not universally shared.) And since all of this work ultimately comes to nothing more than a footnote in a paper of which the final copy went off just before I flew America-wards, and which ought to be out in December,4 I thought it could go here in case anyone else can use it. I have reason to suspect there are those reading who can…

1. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1998), doc. no. 139.

2. London, British Library, MS Harley 3570 (1), “Bulls relating to the Archbishopric of Narbonne etc.”, fos 12v-13v (N. B. the document is part of a separate binding within the manuscript and with far older parchment covers I didn’t have time to parse, Gothic; this section is also independently foliated and in its own terms the foliation of this document is fos 7v-8v.)

3. Harald Zimmermann (ed.), Papsturkunden 896-1046. Erster Band: 896-996, Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, philosophisch-historische Klasse, Denkschriften 174, Veröffentlichungen der Historischen Kommission III (Wien 1984), doc. no. 39.

4. Jonathan Jarrett, “Archbishop Ató of Osona: False Metropolitans on the Marca Hispanica” in Archiv für Diplomatik Vol. 56 (München forthcoming).

Better imaging at the BL

Times they have changed in the field of digital reproduction. I remember when I first started going to the British Library at St Pancras, the photocopy equipment was some fairly modern but beastly black-and-white machines whose quality was legible but no more. There were fears that better quality would encourage copyright theft, indeed. Now, they have high-quality colour copiers, and today I went in to try and get some scans made for the Leeds paper, and find they have a public-use scanner. I tell you, this is not the same institution. Heritage Lottery funding made them change an awful lot of this keep-the-learning-old-style-and-exclusive attitude they seemed once to have. I don’t particularly enjoy the gauntlet of headphone-plugged laptop-gazing latte-sippin’ dogs users in comfy chairs between the cloakrooms and the reading rooms, or the habitual (but almost always wrong) signs saying that the rooms are full, but I do like to see the greater welcome to the actual public and think the slight inconveniences are worth paying for that.

This scanner is a peculiar beast, though, and really a camera, I’m fairly sure. There is a platform on which the book is laid, whose two halves can be raised or lowered to meet comfortably the position in which the particular point of opening has left the book’s spine. Then, with the pages held open with the book-snakes provided, you press some guides sunk into the platform, and the machine takes a picture with a lens positioned above the platform. It gives you a preview, what makes it clear that it auto-detects the book and zooms in to remove the platform around the edge, and then if you press `save’ dumps its final version to whatever USB stick you have plugged in. (There are two ports. What happens if you have something in both?) At the moment, this all takes a bit of figuring as the step-by-step instructions only cover part of the process, and figuring that you have to log in (rather than present a key-card as the display actually requests) and plug in a stick is not trivial, but since they use your existing reader’s account as a print credit one, it’s reasonably painless once you have the idea. (Better instructions will make this a much better system than the one now in use at Cambridge UL where you actually have to have two accounts, one for the UL itself and one for its computer systems, to photocopy. It used to be that the entry card was also a photocopy card and for my money that’s the way it should have stayed. Anyway.)

The other thing that really isn’t clear is what you will actually find on your USB stick when you get it out (which is something you have to decide about yourself; no `safe to remove’ dialogue). So, I have now checked this and find that I have three full-page spreads tinted noticeably but not horribly sepia (perhaps just because of ambient light leaking in, in fact) and watermarked with the British Library’s name. This makes sense, but it’s ghosted grey for legibility over the scanned text, so it completely disappears in any kind of image, which is good for some reasons (mine) and bad for others (theirs, as copying a stand-alone image stands outside of their terms of fair use). And these spreads are at 270 dpi and JPEG format, which is a further indication that a camera not a scanner is involved, as that’s no sensible number and a scanner really ought to default to a lossless format. My guess is that the whole platform is positioned to give 6400 by 4800 pixels or similar, and then cropped in software to the `interest zone’ that’s actually got book in it. So a tiny book will give you a tiny image, though with that many pixels to crop from it’s a long way from being unusable. Anyway, with some decent instructions this would be a brilliant facility and I’m already very happy with it. It can’t have been cheap, but at 30 pence a scan and eight or fourteen pounds for USB sticks that retail elsewhere at five or ten, they’ll claw it back slowly. So I thought this was worth mentioning, since some regular readers are on their way to use the BL soon, and just generally as an example of good practice.

The Google Generation debunked II: Grauniad catches up

I have said this before, I do not get you, readership. I’ve been quite busy the last few days, and have been neglecting you. So I logged in guiltily on Wednesday, knowing that I’d not posted anything for you all, and there’d been double the number of readers from the previous day, quite close to my best day ever. Then I come in today and discover that yesterday, when the drought continued, there were almost as many again. It’s tempting to leave it and see how much longer this trend goes on for; I bet if I actually post something you’ll all disappear again… All the same, if you’re reading presumably you want writing, and I seem to have some, so…

Back in February, you may remember, I drew the readership’s attention to a report that the British Library were circulating about the so-called Google Generation and modern habits of research and information access. The British daily newspaper The Guardian, affectionately known as The Grauniad because of a legendary propensity to typoes,1 was apparently aware of that report, and on 20th April came out with an eight-page supplement called “Libraries Unleashed”, reporting on it, responding to it and getting other responses from various academic libraries. Those of you who were interested in my post may want to explore this further.

As you can tell from their title, the Guardian‘s spin of the report is more optimistic than mine was. Though everyone consulted and writing seems to agree that there is a basic lack of critical faculty among their students and userbase, and that that is the real problem, people not reading deeply enough, they seem contrariwise relatively optimistic about them actually reading. I remember the report‘s conclusions rather differently, and see the sort of whole-essay-question search queries that referred to every day; it has made me think that if I get hold of some students at a basic level again one of the things I am going to have to teach them is how a search engine actually works, viz. on keywords. But the Guardian is spinning the upside, about the undeniable benefits of the wealth of information that is online, and the opportunity that libraries have to enlarge their newly exciting rôle in bringing that information to the user.

They have a number of success stories from libraries already facing these issues. I can’t help noticing that the ones best placed are those whose institutions have sunk an awful lot of money into redeveloping the actual environment of the library so as to make it a place people come because it’s pleasant to work there. That seems like a really obvious thing looking back, but perhaps we have been dominated by the need to store books at maximum effectiveness. The University of Warwick’s Learning Grid (pictured above) is perhaps the best example; most other places just try and make sure there are desks and computers near the books somewhere (but never seem to give you enough space to have a book at your computer, have you noticed?), but here the book storage, while close by, is second in priority to the working space. Once the students are there in the first place, you see… and that seems to work. But if you’ve got no money to entirely redevelop your library, you have to put the money into IT provision and staff training to help people use it correctly, it seems, and that tends in the opposite direction, more and more content online, fewer and fewer students actually present in the library. And a viciously tempting circle of buying fewer actual books, which cost space and time to store, and more e-books, thus reducing further the utility of the actual physical space of the library. These two trends seem to me to lead in exactly opposite directions, but I know which I like better. And fewer buyers means higher per-unit publication costs and therefore more expensive books. Mind you, too many books are published, but still.

Once you have your resource, of course, you have to ensure it will still be there in ten years. The Internet Archive is trying to expand to meet this rôle, but it’s not what it was originally intended for; instead, the Guardian draws attention to an initiative called LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe) which is trying to ensure at least six copies of various academic subscription packages are kept on disk somewhere against the day that the publisher goes bankrupt and their web service ceases to exist, at which point an e-journal might just disappear in the way that a print one never could.

Another theme that they barely touch on, but which also needs considering is, it’s all very well digitising vast swathes of stuff, especially when as in the case that they highlight, the British Library’s sound archives, the machinery to access them is getting hard to find or keep going. But firstly you then have to store it, and keep updating its format to keep it readable (plain text is all very well but there is no standard format for sound), and then you have to have people know what’s there. Catalogue interfaces and indexes need a lot more thinking about. People aren’t going to go and hit up individual library pages in the hope that they have something relevant; they’re going to expect that the FWSE du jour turns this stuff up. So website design and catalogue servability is an issue we need to spend more time on perhaps.

I say `we’, and of course here I write as someone who regularly spends his working days up to his virtual elbows inside a catalogue database that goes to the web. As academics, we might think this is other people’s work. But if you’re teaching, and your library has these resources, you want your students to know. You also want them not to use stuff that’s really dodgy when there is the good stuff out there. One of the other things that the librarians in the articles are to be found saying is that they can’t be expected to teach the students critical reading of sources themselves; the faculty staff have to help. And of course we do, because we have to, but what’s going on here? I learnt my source criticism studying the Peasant’s Revolt at A-Level. Who can’t get the idea of source bias when comparing Henry of Huntingdon to Thomas of Walsingham? and the British curriculum is still stressing this with those materials. So why aren’t the students coming up to university with all this familiar? Why do we still have to tell them “the Church was not a unit and not everyone in it was biased about the same things”? Why do we still have to say, not everything on the Internet is true? Is that the result of the web flattening everything out? Because this is all stuff I thought I knew when I was 18, but it’s hard hard work getting it into the heads of the young now. Did I just have good (and cynical) teachers? Well, I certainly did, but they didn’t make me read very much, because I hardly needed to (sorry—I was a smug A-Level pupil). The whole deep reading thing came at University, but because I knew that the sources were all crook. I hadn’t really internalised it but I knew to keep it in mind. So was I just lucky, or is the real danger in this report’s findings that the web has helped to erode that by making authority so much easier to assert, and even to find? I don’t know the answers to anything in this paragraph, but it’s where I think the real problems are, and what we maybe need to act on soonest.

A friend of mine in astrophysics has a talk online called “Saturn Tricked Us All With Magnets”. Maybe all of our courses should open, year 1 session 1, with a class called “They’re all lying even if they don’t know it: searching for truth in history”. If you kept it to one session, you might be able to stop it going all post-modern and just leave them with a basic ringing warning to consider the author. But I fear not.

1. A reputation that, I’m glad to say, they manage to defend by repeating a word on the front page of the paper version right in the middle of talking about the lack of critical reading among the young. Always best to typo stupidly when you’re calling others thick, isn’t it? Gaw bless you Grauniad, long may you rein.

The so-called Google Generation debunked: libraries better worry

The British Library buildings at St Pancras

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

The cursed book of Francesc Monsalvatje

Cover of a Monsalvatje family history
In 1889 a Catalan historian by the name of Francesc Monsalvatje y Fossas (if you’re spelling in Castilian, as was then still de rigueur) published a two-volume work about his local county of Besalú in Old Catalonia, in a tiny town there called Olot where his family is still important, subtitled Noticias Históricas. He was a keen medievalist, and this was an era when such enthusiasts more or less built their own fields. The works met with sufficient success in subscriptions that he turned to such things full-time and by its end, with four volumes published after his death in 1917 by his son Xavier, the series had run to twenty-eight volumes.

These are very hard books to get details on, at least in the UK. No library here has the full set; even the British Library only has twenty-three and nowhere else more than one or two. Citation tends not to help, as only the first few volumes actually name the series in which they’re numbered, so although historians using it tend to cite them as “NH [no.]” as if they were a single set, after the first two they don’t actually carry the words “Noticias Históricas” on them anywhere except sometimes the endpapers, so that tends not to be in their catalogue entries. The B. L., meanwhile, catalogues them all as a periodical under a title that none of them bear (have checked etc.) They’re really a credibly wide-ranging set of separate works. Most of them centre on Besalú, but not all, and for several monasteries and a large body of charters Monsalvatje’s volumes were all that existed until the twin projects Catalunya Romànica and Catalunya Carolíngia slowly supplanted them with new local studies and better editions of the charters. Monsalvatje’s editions, done in haste and with a habit of ellipsing out tedious details (like the names of witnesses – that’s me scuppered then), are often not exactly what one would wish but until the last three years, and beyond the year 1000 still, they have been all that there is and often include stuff whose location is now at best obscure. So it’s not a bad effort, even if it’s not quite the Pat. Lat.

For this reason I went through what the B. L. has quite carefully while I was working on Borrell II, and this means that as far as I know the only even-partway complete bibliography of the series online is buried in my notes files pages, where I mainly put it so as not to have to look them up again… But to err is human (though, as a friend of mine once put it, to really mess things up you need a computer). So it has been that I’ve been trying once more to get hold of Vol. XX, El Monasterio de San Pedro de Casseras, to check some stuff about that Catalan monastery, in which I’ve recently become quite interested, and also confirm one of Monsalvatje’s readings of a document that really says something quite different. It was easy enough to get the first time, when I didn’t take enough notes…

Monastery of Sant Pere de Casserres, Osona, Catalunya

The volume is technically in the B. L., and that’s where I first found it in 2005. But the first time I tried to order it up last month, the catalogue system threw a fit and ordered up the first six volumes of the series instead, and my corrected order didn’t come up before I had to leave. It does seem that the book was there then, though, because when I next went in a fortnight later and ordered it again I was told I couldn’t have it because it was still on its way back to the shelf from then. And the same four days later, despite my brandishing a piece of card that I’d been told meant they would check the shelf for me if it still wasn’t back. The day after next I went in again with time to spare to chase it down, and found that in the intervening time I’d lost my library pass. I’d ordered the book up by phone, but couldn’t get in to see if it was actually there, it was maddening. It was at this point that I became certain that the dratted volume was cursed, and toying with me. It’d been all right the first time I’d used it, because it had concealed from me the extra bits I needed to check, but now that I knew that, it was working extra time to keep me away, including causing awful wallet-handling errors that lost me two library passes.

When I subsequently got my pass replaced and went in, however, it was still on its way back to the shelf from the first time. Four tries over a month ought to be enough, didn’t it. I don’t suppose they have actually lost it, but wherever it is I feel that it’s laughing at me. Well, I’m now going into town to find out whether I can see it this time, or whether I have to start writing them notes in green biro and frothing until they go and look so as to quiet down the crazy man at the counter. I’ll let you know how I get on.