Tag Archives: Covid-19

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) – https://www.flickr.com/photos/mathplourde/8620174342/sizes/o/in/photostream/ 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.

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.

Reporting on the International Medieval Congress of 2017

I’m sorry for another long absence. Teaching in the time of Covid is just doing me in, and largely for reasons of our beloved government. History at Leeds are currently teaching online, to which we switched at pretty much the last minute possible. Prior to that we had been getting ready for mixed face-to-face and online teaching, because the Office for Students had indicated that they might support fees refunds for students offered only online teaching. However, we obviously knew that we’d have some students who could not come in, because of being infected or shielding or whatever, and so there had to be online provision as well, which had to be as good as the face-to-face in some unmeasurable way that, if we didn’t manage it, could also result in fees refunds. So at least we had it ready, if some of us more than others, but in addition to this we simultaneously had new legislation that is nothing to do with the pandemic, about making digital resources maximally accessible to the disabled, according to the W3C’s rules; that’s now English law, and again if we don’t do it we can expect fines, at least in theory. What this all means in practical terms is that quite a lot of the last week has gone on correcting closed captions for my and other people’s pre-recorded or live-recorded lectures, and this has been a relatively good week, or I wouldn’t be writing at all; the last three were worse… So here we are.

Leeds IMC 2017 banner image

So, for all those reasons I can’t do my normal scale of justice to a report of a conference from three years ago, even though it was a good and big one. Indeed, the idea of being among that many fellow academics with something worthwhile to say seems almost impossibly distant right now, and indeed my own involvement in it was unusually small, suggesting that I was short of time to organise something decent. I certainly can’t do my usual list of papers attended. But I will try and address the conference’s main theme a bit, because a number of people did make me think differently about it with their contributions; I will also light on four sessions in particular that I thought were notable for one reason or another; and I will give a few snippets of reflection on other single papers, and hopefully then there’ll be something interesting to read even if the whole conference can’t be here.

Otherness

The conference theme was Otherness. As usual, many papers continued as normal without paying much attention to that, but there were certainly plenty that did pay attention, some (as the academic media made abundantly clear for the next few days) with less care than others. A rapid trawl through my notes looking for the asterisks that mean something struck me at the time note a couple of things here, about how the category of Other is philosophically constructed and about how it is then put to social use. The idea that a community or interest group establishes its identity by means of identifying something that it is not and then defining against it is now a pretty established one in sociology and history has not been as slow as it often is to borrow this bit of theory, but as so often when you use theory to reflect on the past it bounces back looking different…

Two sharp points about this came out of two of the keynote lectures on the first day, for me, which is as it should be I suppose, but they were these. Firstly, Felicitas Schmieder, talking about “The Other Part of the World for Late Medieval Latin Christendom”, made the point that invocation of ‘the Other’ is inherently a binary system that can support only two categories: there’s Them, and there’s Us, and no room for anyone not to be either. Earlier in the day Nikolas Jaspert, talking about “The Mediterranean Other and the Other Mediterranean: perspectives of alterity in the Middle Ages”, had made a similar point, which I think is about scale (as so many things are); invoking competing mercantile élites as a case, he pointed out that, for example, the Venetians and Genoese might well have been each other’s ‘other’ at times but when a Muslim city (or indeed Constantinople) rose against Italian merchants, they were the same from the mob’s point of view and indeed right then probably each other’s; so both perspective and size of the lens matter a lot when we make these categorisations from where we now stand with respect to the medieval (or any) past. Much later in the conference, Rebecca Darley, in a response to a session about ‘Writing the Other in the Middle Ages, III: discovering new knowledge of the world‘, pointed out that for some medieval people everything was inside the group, her example being the unknown author of the Christian Topography, a sixth-century author determined to prove theologically that the Earth was flat in surface and constructed in the image of the Biblical Tabernacle, and who therefore has to encompass everyone on it as part of God’s scheme, even the Persians for whom he plainly had little but disdain. Detecting othering may sometimes therefore miss the point…

The world map from the Christian Topography of Cosmas

The world map from the Christian Topography of Cosmas. “WorldMapCosmasIndicopleustes” by Cosmas Indicopleustes, 6th century – “Les Sciences au Moyen-Age”, “Pour la Science”. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

There were also three sharply-pointed examples of othering being used as a political tactic; in fact, I’m sure there were more but these ones talked to me because of referencing contexts that I interest myself in. Firstly, in the second keynote of the conference, entitled “Drawing Boundaries: inclusion and exclusion in medieval islamic societies”, Eduardo Manzano Moreno posed that contentious document, the so-called Covenant of ‘Umar, as a marker of a change of direction within Islam, from a position that, like the Christian Topography‘s theology, could potentially include everyone in the world, to one which would actually prefer to slow assimilation to Islam, maintaining an Other so as to preserve the superior position of the in-group.1 Subsequently, Nik Matheou, speaking about “Armenians in East Roman Cappadocia, c. 900–1071: settlement, the state apparatus, and the material reproduction of ethnicity”, invoked James Scott’s idea of the Zomia to classify rural populations in Armenia during a phase of Byzantine control as being subjected, by the laying out of an administrative structure but also by church-building, to an ‘Armenian’ identity they might well not have felt had anything to do with them, since it was largely being imported by a foreign power; in that respect at least this version of ‘Armenian’ identity was an Other constructed around these people.2 I found the argument here possible but remembered the deliberate production of an Armenian identity in a foreign space less than a century later and wondered if, assuming those groups were in fact uncontrolled, the Byzantine construction of Armenian-ness was necessarily the first which had been imported there.

Obverse of a silver tram of King Levon I of Armenian Cilicia struck in 1198-1219, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/MED/AR/1

Obverse of a silver tram of King Levon I of Armenian Cilicia struck in 1198-1219, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/MED/AR/1, which you will notice if you look is lettered in Armenian and represents the king, somewhat Byzantine-like, but fundamentally on a throne made of lions, a bit of a unique iconographic departure…

Lastly, and furthest off my normal map, Reinier Langelaar, in a paper called “Tales of Foreign Descent in Tibetan Ruling House Genealogies”, made the point that in zones of particular cultural coherence—like medieval Tibet—a hint of difference might actually distinguish one usefully from ones’s competitors, which was, he thought, why so many would-be ruling families in the area attempted to claim some kind of outsider descent. Quite what the advantages of such distinction might be I needed more time to work out, but it was at least a positive spin on Otherness that some other papers were finding it harder to find.

Stand-Out Sessions

Not every session I might remark on here would stand out for good reasons, but quite a few did and it seems nicest to concentrate on those. Simplest to pick out was a round table on “An Other Middle Ages: What Can Europeanists Learn from Medieval Chinese History?” Naturally enough, this was essentially composed of some people who work on China who wanted the rest of us to realise that China is cool and useful to think with, and some people who thought that sounded great but had no idea how to start, especially if they don’t read Chinese as most scholars of the European Middle Ages don’t. (Wǒ huì shuō yīdiǎn, yīdiǎn zhōng wén… now, but I couldn’t then and I certainly can’t read it. Yet.) That was itself not too surprising – the language barriers exist and so does Otherness – but I don’t think I’ve ever been in a round table where so many people contributed, from all over the discipline, Sinologists, Byzantinists, late medieval Italianists, high medieval Germanists, high medieval Englishists (Anglologists?) and several more I couldn’t identify, all there because one way or another they did want to know more. I may later look back and see a sea change as having started here.

After that, and much much closer to my home interests, was a session entitled “10th-Century Uses of the Past, II“—I’d missed the first one—in which Simon Maclean, no less, managed persuasively to set the epic poem Waltharius into the context of the struggle between the last Carolingians and upcoming Ottonians in the middle tenth century, in which the dedicatee of the poem, Bishop Erchembold of Strasbourg was deeply involved; this did, as Simon said, explain why he might have laughed.3 Elina Screen then looked at the history of the monastery of Prüm, important to her as the burial place of her great subject, Emperor Lothar I (ruled 817-55, kind of) and best known to us through the Chronicle of one of its abbots, Regino (which indeed Simon has translated) and the monastery cartulary, the so-called Liber Aureus.4 Regino is famous for his gloomy opinion of the Carolingians, whose collapse of power he lived through, partly in exile; the Liber Aureus however makes a huge deal of them, and Elina suggested that a lot might be explained if we notice that Regino was apparently unable to extract any donations from the Carolingian kings and that his specific relationship with the royal family might have been one of the reasons his tenure as abbot didn’t work out, in which case we might want to be careful about generalising from him!

There were also two sessions on another bit of my tenth-century world, mainly Galicia, that overlapped a bit. The first, entitled “Ladies and Lords in 10th and 11th-Century Iberia: rivalries, factions, and networks“, featured Lucy K. Pick, in “The Queen, the Abbess, and the Saint’s Body: Faction and Network in 10th-Century Galicia”, recounting the use made by Queen Elvira of León of the body of Saint Pelagius, supposedly a boy martyr killed because he would not submit to the homosexual lusts of the future Caliph ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III. Although there certainly were some Christians put to death for denouncing the Prophet in tenth-century al-Andalus, this story is probably not true (despite what Wikipedia currently says); but it was put to serious work positioning the queen and her husband King Ramiro I as heads of the resistance to Islam in a Leonese court world then quite divided by faction.5 I’ve always wondered why that cult became such a big deal, given its likely fictionality, and some kind of home context for it—Pelagius was claimed as a local boy from Galicia—would certainly help with that.

The questions in the other session, “Iberian Monasticism, II: Early Middle Ages“, involved quite a discussion about Galicia, indeed, which another of the papers in the first one, by Rob Portass, had also featured. In this one, Rob resisted the idea that Galicia was a frontier, wanting I guess to frame it as a centre of its own, and Jorge López Quiroga and Artemio Manuel Martínez Tejera maintained that basically everything in the north of early medieval Iberia was a frontier space because of its vulnerability to attack from the south. The context was that Rob was contending for a movement of ideas rather than people to explain material-culture similarities between south and north, and the others were still basically looking for fugitive Mozarabs from the south with heads full of architecture they wanted to keep, and I don’t really know how we solve that.

Last in this list of sessions that struck me was one of two whole sessions, quite early on, on the Alans, one of the more obscure but long-lived migratory peoples of the early Middle Ages, called “Bringing in the Alans, II: Society and Economy of Alania“. Apparently Turkic of language and best known around the Caspian Sea, some people so considered were already up on the Rhine by the early fifth century and some settled in Gaul, eventually to become the source of some really quite overstretched historiographical claims.6 Two of the papers in the session, “Alans in the North Caucasus: settlement and identity”, by Irina Arzhantseva, and “Population and Society in the Sarmatian and Early Alanic North Caucasus: the cemetery of Klin-Yar (near Kislovodsk, Russia)”, by Heinrich Härke, were mainly about identifying Alan settlement in one of the zones to which these people supposedly migrated, which was a bit pots-means-people to be honest, but the third one, Nicholas Evans‘s “Alans on the Move: a case study in the archaeology of mobility”, despite coming out of the the same project as Härke’s, stood out for mentioning the Alans who stayed behind, still to be a factor in Caspian-era politics in the ninth century and dealings with the Khazars, and apparently looking quite different in material-cultural terms. The fact that all these people were called Alans by outsiders really became the question that was getting begged for me here.

Individual notes

Also, two things that don’t really fit anywhere else. In a session I will actually write about separately, “The Transformation of the Carolingian World, III“, Charles West, in a paper he had written with Giorgia Vocino called “Why Shouldn’t Judges Get Married? An Ottonian Perspective”, noted in passing that Emperor Otto III owned a copy of a commentary on the Codex Justinianus, the sixth-century Roman lawcode that was supposedly forgotten in the West until the twelfth century but which, as we’ve seen here before, wasn’t, at least in Rome, where Otto III also hung out.

Then lastly, there was my paper. I might have organised more sessions on frontiers, but I had been hoping to do something with the proceedings from the previous year and hadn’t really felt I could ask people to contribute more things with which I could not promise to do anything. So I wound up accepting an invitation to participate in a session being run by a friend of a friend, entitled, “Writing the Other in the Middle Ages, I: Travellers and their Cultural Preconceptions“. This was, as is so often the case for me, the morning after the dance, and my paper was called “Hagrites, Hagarenes, Chaldeans and Saracens: Missing Muslims on the Spanish march, 800-1000”. This wasn’t really much to do with travellers, but picked up on the scholarship I’ve mentioned here once or twice on people with Arabic names in tenth-century León, the very people about whom that debate over cultural transfer or physical migration already mentioned mainly arises, and tried to replicate it for Catalonia.7 And what I basically found is that you can’t; despite a much denser sample of charter evidence, there are all of 13 such persons in the documents I could check, as opposed to maybe 300 in the Leonese stuff. It is possible that, not having access then to the documents from Barcelona, I was missing out the capital to which, as in León, such migrants might have flocked, but the order of difference is still significant, and furthermore, I do now have the Barcelona documents and on a very quick run through the indices just now I don’t think they would add more than three or four.8 So that is something which might need explaining, but I think it must show support for the idea of a very low level of Islamization or Arabicization during the eighty-odd years in which the future Catalonia was in fact Muslim-run, no matter what some people would have you believe.9

Books!

Oh, also, it would not be a Leeds IMC report if I didn’t also report on books. The world’s second-biggest medievalist bookfair is a dangerous thing when you are paid for being an academic, and I came away with this list:

  • Norman H. Baynes, Byzantine Studies and Other Essays (Westport 1974), I admit I’m now not sure why;
  • Neil Christie and Hajnalka Herold (eds), Fortified settlements in early medieval Europe: defended communities of the 8th-10th centuries (Oxford 2016), because by and containing friends and papers I’d been to in previous years;
  • Janina M. Safran, Defining Boundaries in al-Andalus: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Islamic Iberia (Ithaca 2015), largely because I had been telling students to read it without having done so myself and wanted to know why, having done so, they never seemed to cite it for anything;
  • Mark Whittow, The Making of Orthodox Byzantium, 600–1025 (Basingstoke 1996), because it’s great; and
  • Patrick J. Geary (ed.), Readings in Medieval History, 1st ed. (Peterborough 1991), because it’s the archetypal sourcebook except for all those other older ones and has a wider idea of what sources might be than they do.

Even this seems to speak somewhat of being subdued, doesn’t it? And of course, I haven’t read them, not so much as opened two of them except to get them into Zotero. Oh well… But I did have fun at the conference, even if I was exhausted for a lot of it. It just seems a very long time ago now!


1. It has been established since 1930 that the Covenant of ‘Umar probably does not date, as it seems to claim, from the reign of Caliph ‘Umar I (634-644 CE), but perhaps from that of ‘Umar II (717-720), for which see A. S. Tritton, The Caliphs and their Non-Muslim Subjects: A Critical Study of the Covenant of ‘Umar (London 1930), online here except in China, but the article in which I first read about it, Norman Daniel, “Spanish Christian Sources of Information about Islam (ninth-thirteenth centuries)” in al-Qanṭara Vol. 15 (Madrid 1994), pp. 365–384, raises doubts about even that, pointing out that no-one in al-Andalus ever seems to have been aware of it, which suggests that it should come from the ‘Abbāsid period of rule in the East, not the Umayyad one.

2. Scott’s relevant work is James C. Scott, The art of not being governed: an anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia (New Haven 2009), online here, but you can hear Nik’s application of it here if you like.

3. There is still no better account of that sporadic contest between a failing and a rising royal dynasty who shared claims on some territories than Rosamond McKitterick, The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians, 751-987 (London 1983), pp. 305-339; one day either I or Fraser McNair, or, most worryingly as a possibility, both of us, will have to write one…

4. For the Chronicle, therefore, see Simon MacLean (ed./transl.), History and Politics in Late Carolingian and Ottonian Europe: The Chronicle of Regino of Prüm and Adalbert of Metz (Manchester 2009); for the cartulary, you have to go to H. Beyer, L. Eltester & A. Goerz (ed.), Urkundenbuch zur Geschichte der Mittelrheinischen Territorien, band I: von den ältesten Zeiten bis zum Jahre 1169 (Koblenz 1860; reprinted Aalen 1974), which has most of the documents in.

5. On this story see Ann Christys, Christians in al-Andalus (711 – 1000) (Richmond 2002), pp. 88-101; there were certainly martyrs in the reign, as witness C. P. Melville and Aḥmad ‘Ubaydlī (edd.), Christians and Moors in Spain, Volume III: Arabic Sources (711–1501) (Warminster 1992), pp. 38-43, but perhaps not as many as have been claimed; see Christys, Christians in al-Andalus, pp. 80-88 and 101-107 for critical review.

6. Meaning Bernard S. Bachrach, A History of the Alans in the West (Minneapolis 1973) and his pathfinder work for that book, idem, “The Alans in Gaul” in Traditio Vol. 23 (Fordham 1967), pp.476-489, reprinted in idem, Armies and Politics in the Early Medieval West, Collected Studies 405 (Aldershot 1993), chapter III.

7. Such work being mainly Victoria Aguilar Sebastián and Fernando Rodríguez Mediano, “Antroponimia de origen árabe en la documentación leonesa (siglos VIII-XIII)” in El reino de León en la alta edad media VI, Fuentes de Estudios de Historia Leonesa 53 (León 1994), pp. 497–633, Sebastián, “Onomástica de origen árabe en el Reino de León (siglo X)” in al-Qanṭara Vol. 15 (Madrid 1994), pp. 351–364 and Rodríguez, “Acerca de la población arabizada del reino de León (siglos X y XI)”, ibid. pp. 465–472, now added to by Richard Hitchcock, Mozarabs in Medieval and Early Modern Spain: identities and influences (Aldershot 2008), pp. 53-74.

8. They now being published as Ignasi J. Baiges i Jardí and Pere Puig i Ustrell (eds), Catalunya carolíngia volum VII: el Comtat de Barcelona, Memòries de la Secció Històrica-Arqueològica 110 (Barcelona 2019), 3 vols, my copies of which I owe to the great generosity of Professor Josep María Salrach.

9. Most recently, Ramón Martí, “De la conquesta d’al-Andalus a la majoria musulmana: el cas dels territoris de Catalunya (segles VIII-X)’ in Pilar Giráldez and Màrius Vendrell Saz (edd.), L’empremta de l’Islam a Catalunya: materials, tècniques i cultura (Barcelona 2013), pp. 11–35.