Tag Archives: Fitzwilliam Museum

Medieval European Coinage update (Name in the Book Somewhere III)

I have time for only a short post this weekend, but happily, I was just asked a question here that can be answered in such a post, and which also fits into the pattern of alternating what we might call ‘historical’ content with a recounting of my various and dubious scholarly achievements. So, this post, let me bring you up to date with that well-known scholarly series, Medieval European Coinage!

Cambridge University Press leaflet advertising the Medieval European Coinage series

Cambridge University Press leaflet advertising the series

Now even my part in this could be a long story, but at least a short version of the full story is worth telling. It begins with the late Professor Philip Grierson, who somewhere towards the last third of his long career decided it would be a good idea to pubish a monographic series of accounts of the coinage of the European Middle Ages, using his own excellent collection as the illustrative basis. Originally, supposedly, he reckoned to write them all himself, figuring that one every two years would keep him busy till retirement, but predictably, it turned out to be a bigger project than that, and before long he had enlisted co-authors for several of the volumes, then assigned several of them to other people entirely, and eventually it was a whole British Academy-funded project which could afford a small staff. The first actual volume, covering the whole of the continent from the fifth to the tenth century, was co-written by Professor Grierson and his Research Assistant, Mark Blackburn, then freshly poached from the legal profession by the museums world and eventually, of course to be my boss.1

Cover of Philip Grierson and Mark Blackburn, Medieval European Coinage 1: the Earlier Middle Ages (5th-10th centuries) (Cambridge 1986)

Before that time, the team had squeezed out a second volume, co-written by Professor Grierson and Lucia Travaini, and covering Southern Italy from the tenth to fifteenth centuries, but since the first had come out in 1986 and it was now 1998, it was clear that this was all taking longer than initially planned.2 The next volume was supposed to be that on the Iberian Peninsula, and it was because the team needed a copy-editor who knew some peninsular history that I first got into the Fitzwilliam. It’s hard to emphasise now how important that job was for me. Not only did it basically keep me alive during three quite difficult months, but it made me a lot of friends in the department, established in Mark Blackburn’s mind that I could work databases, and thus set me up for what would turn out to be five years’ paid employment, several virtual exhibitions you can still see (and some you can’t), my first numismatic publications and some quite important personal ramifications to boot; I am still reaping the benefit of getting involved with the project, and indeed I still sit on its committee. But when I left the employment of the Fitzwilliam in 2010, the Iberian Peninsula volume was still not yet published, and I have to admit, it was not quite clear then if it would be.

Cover of Miquel Crusafont, Anna Balaguer and Philip Grierson, Medieval European Coinage 6: The Iberian Peninsula (Cambridge 2013)

Now, that story I’ve told elsewhere and obviously it did emerge, finally, in 2013.3 That was a great achievement, celebrated in two countries indeed, but it left open the question of which volume would emerge next; we had several under work, and obstacles in the way of them all. As with the legendary London bus, however, you wait four years for one and then two turn up at once, or nearly. The volume covering Northern Italy, by William R. Day Junior, Andrea Sacocci and Michael Matzke, which we were already celebrating at Taormina as described, finally left the presses in November 2016, and very shortly afterwards, in April 2017, it was joined by Rory Naismith’s volume on Britain and Ireland 400-1066, covering some ground already covered by the Earlier Middle Ages volume again simply because the finds pattern has changed our understanding of the way money was being used in early medieval Britain so radically in the, well, thirty years since the project had last offered any thoughts on it.4 And I’m happy to celebrate this as in some small way my achievement as in 2008 to 2009 I copy-edited as much of the Northern Italy volume as then existed, and though I’ve no idea how much of my work remains visible in the finished volume—I certainly don’t have the files against which to check—nonetheless, this is something I had a hand in and now it exists where people can use it, so I’m happy.

Cover of William R. Day Jr, Andrea Sacocci and Michael Matzke, Medieval European Coinage 12: Northern Italy (I) (Cambridge 2017)

So that is where we are, but where are we about to be? Well, obviously, given our pedigree, absolutely the last thing I should do is offer any predictions, and indeed I might seriously offend some of our authors if I were to guess here who will publish next! What I can do is tell you what is currently under work. The volumes actively under work are those on Germany, by Peter Ilisch, on the Low Countries, by Philip Grierson, Peter Spufford, Serge Boffa and now Marcus Phillips and Sue Tyler-Smith, on the British Isles 1066-1279, by Martin Allen, on ‘the Nordic Countries’ by Jørgen Steen Jensen and Elina Screen, on Central and Eastern Europe, by Boris Paskiewicz, and on the Latin East and Crusader States, by Julian Baker, Richard Kelleher and Robert Kool. Other volumes are also under work, but I think it is probably OK to say that they are currently moving more slowly. It will also probably not have escaped the keenly numismatic audience that the Low Countries volumes have also lost two of their authors and gained some others, and indeed when the first of them (Philip) died it was still being conceived of as only one volume, so a lot has happened there but it has not necessarily advanced that much closer to its finish line. I honestly wouldn’t like to guess which of these is closest to the finish line, but if I were to predict anything at all, it would be that although we can’t hope to maintain the current one-volume-a-year output, it should not be, say, 2021 before another volume has emerged, and by then again quite probably two. I’m just not sure which or when…


1. Philip Grierson and Mark Blackburn, Medieval European Coinage, with a Catalogue of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, volume 1: the Earlier Middle Ages (5th-10th centuries) (Cambridge 1986).

2. Philip Grierson and Lucia Travaini, Medieval European Coinage, with a Catalogue of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, volume 14: Southern Italy (Cambridge 1998).

3. Miquel Crusafont, Anna Balaguer and Philip Grierson, Medieval European Coinage, with a Catalogue of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, volume 6: the Iberian Peninsula (Cambridge 2013).

4. William R. Day Jr, Andrea Sacocci and Michael Matzke, Medieval European Coinage, with a Catalogue of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, volume 12: Northern Italy (Cambridge 2016); Rory Naismith, Medieval European Coinage, with a Catalogue of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, volume 8: Britain and Ireland, c. 400-1066 (Cambridge 2017).

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I built a resources page

But you already have one of those, you may say, and indeed a whole ragbag of links on the sidebar here that you should really organise so that people may know why they could be useful. All true, but this one I built for my previous job, for the Birmingham graduate course Research Skills in Medieval Studies which I then convened, and since I no longer have access to the virtual learning environment where it resides, I thought almost as soon as I created it that it would be worth stashing the code and later copying it here also. I’ve stripped out the institutional-only bits and updated a bit of text, replaced dead links and so on. Hopefully you may find it interesting or useful…


phdcomicsheader

Digital Resources

Sources of data

Object databases

Images and Maps

As far as images goes, one obvious resource that avoids problems with copyright restrictions is Wikimedia Commons, from which Wikipedia’s images all come; most of these are licensed for re-use and the metadata is usually helpful. The museum catalogues above, especially the British Museum and the Walters, also provide images of many significant objects and manuscripts. (We also deal with dedicated manuscript resources below.) Other image resources on the open web of interest to medievalists include the REALonline image server (whose sophisticated search however requires a certain amount of German), the Web Gallery of Art, and the site of Genevra Kornbluth, a medievalist art historian and photographer who is slowly digitising her photo collection.

For maps, the most obvious resource, being worldwide, sophisticated and free, is Google Earth, but of course this is not historical information. The University of Edinburgh runs a historical map archive as part of its much larger Edina service which covers the UK. Further afield can be at least partly covered by the various historical maps offered by the commercial concern Euratlas.

Manuscripts

One of the most exciting applications of digital resources for medievalists has been the sudden and still-expanding accessibility of our original source material, manuscript books and single-sheets, in digital form. The following are only a few of what is now too substantial a set of initiatives of which to keep track. It is by now always worth seeing if the manuscript you need has been digitised by its owners. (As an example, the Vatican project listed below was brought to the editor’s attention by a friend while he was actually in the act of writing this bit of the webpage.)

Full-Text Databases

There are an ever-growing number of these. The one you will probably be most used to is Google Books, but Google’s adherence to US copyright law makes its availability outside the USA vexingly partial.

  • The most important alternative, because publicly-funded and more fully available although still largely composed of old texts, is the Internet Archive, which includes as well as texts a vast archive of music and the Wayback Machine, an attempt to archive the actual Internet.
  • The Bibliothèque nationale de France has a similar server mounted at its Gallica site, which makes its copyright-free collections fully available.
  • Another such server is to be found courtesy of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, the Münchener Digitalisierungszentrum, which also makes available the periodicals published by the Sigmaringen publishing house and the Staatsbibliothek’s manuscript collections.
  • The Internet Medieval Sourcebook is a venerable but still invaluable collection of primary sources in translation.
  • It forms part of one of the oldest medievalist sites on the Internet, the Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies. This is a collection of material largely intended for teaching, mostly now some years old, but with some nuggets buried in it.

Many more could be added. There are also specific groups of texts of interest to medievalists that are now available in digital, and searchable, form. These include the Acta Sanctorum and the Patrologia Latina, both published by ProQuest, though these are subscription-only. The Monumenta Germaniae Historica, however, is online for free and now fully searchable.

A particular group of sites can be mentioned that collect periodical literature. These are all European, where the whole open-access question (see below) has largely been solved with state money as if there was no problem there.

  • Persée is the French one of these portals, collecting most French academic journals.
  • In Germany we have DigiZeitschriften, which does the same job there.
  • In Spain the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas maintain the latest five years of all their journals on the web for free.
  • In Catalonia (que no es Espanya!) almost all journals in current publication are available through Revistes amb ACcès Obert.

Data Archives

A cautionary tale is offered by the Arts and Humanities Data Service, whose surviving web presence is located here. The AHDS was set up by the Arts and Humanities Research Board (now Council) to ensure archiving of the digital outputs of researxch done under its auspices. An important part of this endeavour was permanence and ongoing attention to making data available in current formats, all requiring a continuing investment. Unfortunately for those goals, funding for the initiative was cancelled in 2008, after which its contents, frozen, were kept available by the Joint Information Services Committee (JISC), now a private company known only as Jisc. The only part of the old AHDS that still receives and archives information is the Archaeology Data Service, which is however an invaluable and highly searchable resource that contains, among other things, copies of all ‘grey literature’ from archaeological investigations done with state funding in England.

Other archives of scholarly data or source information (beyond manuscript archives, detailed above) include the National Archives at Kew, the French site ARCHIM, the Spanish one PARES and the wider-spread Europeana.

Bibliographical Databases

One of the most obvious ways in which digital resources assist historians of all stamps is in locating the work of other historians. Some tools like Google Scholar are pluridiscplinary, but the medievalist is favoured with several specialist databases.

  • The most well-known of these is the International Medieval Bibliography, published by Brepols. Until 1996 this was a print serial, then made available (and searchable) on CD-ROM, but now it exists only online through the Brepolis portal, again accessible only via subscription.
  • Much of the IMB’s content is, however, also available along with monographs (which the IMB does not index) via the OPAC server of the Regesta Imperii project at Mainz. This is a truly invaluable resource.
  • For those whose interests are focused on the British Isles, the Royal Historical Society maintains a similar but locally more comprehensive Bibliography of British and Irish History that can be found here.
  • Lastly (of more that could be named) the site Magazine Stacks aims to index most scholarly journals important in medieval studies.

Structured Data

Making data searchable by any means than free text, which is less and less useful the larger a sample gets, requires some form of structuring. All the catalogues and databases above obviously have some structure, but this section notes some resources that aim to give you processed information resulting from scholarly work, not the raw texts from which that work could be done. Many more of these tools exist than can be listed here, and creative web-searching is to be encouraged.

  • The Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England gives biographical and source information on every identifiable person recorded in Anglo-Saxon source materials, and now also those in Domesday Book too.
  • Many other prosopographies exist: one that can be compared is People of Medieval Scotland 1093-1214, but it is worth searching for more.
  • Nomen et Gens is a similar project atbthe University of Tübingen that collects information covering the early medieval Frabkish kingdoms as part of a study of ethnicities.
  • Cathalaunia is proof that worthwhile projects of this kind can be done by one person, if that person has coding chops and a lot of spare time…
  • French-speaking areas have been especially forward-looking in the digitisation of medieval documentary materials. TELMA and Chartae Burgundiae Medii Ævi are two such databases that between them collect a good proportion of the early and high medieval charter evidence of modern France, the former among many other collections.
  • In England the Electronic Sawyer and various other resources available through the Kemble website offer similar possibilities for the much scanter Anglo-Saxon charter material.
  • As with the manuscript projects, the number of such initiatives now threatens to become untrackable; the editor could link to similar endeavours going on in Italy, Serbia, Russia and Germany with no trouble. MÕM (Monasterium.net) aims to unite these different projects into a single searchable database covering all medieval European charter evidence, and has not yet given up with 250,000-plus documents incorporated.
  • A perhaps unique way of accessing such information is offered by the site Regnum Francorum Online, which uses historical maps as a front-end for an index of prosopographical, bibliographical and archaeological information on the Frankish kingdoms of the early Middle Ages. This is hard to use but immensely informative when it can be made to work.
  • Another map-based project with more limited but no less impressive aims is ORBIS, based at Stanford University, which runs journey-planning software on a database built around the Roman road network!
  • Information from coins lends itself particularly well to this sort of treatment. The Early Medieval Corpus at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge collects all information published on coins from the British Isles of the period 380-1180, including both museum collections (the Sylloge of Coins of the British Isles) and archaeological finds (the EMC proper). (Full disclosure: Dr Jarrett used to maintain this.)

Digital interpretations of data

3D reconstructions

There are increasing numbers of these on the web. Some particularly illustrative ones are this amateur one of Ryd Abbey near Flensburg in Germany done in Blender 3D, which makes the construction stages of the model very clear or this one of the early Anglo-Saxon royal vill at Yeavering which is very true to the site. The one that perhaps most fully illustrates the potential of the medium, albeit not a medieval one, is this video showcasing a reconstructed seventeenth-century London on the eve of the Great Fire.

Software

  • We’ve already mentioned Blender 3D, a free 3D imaging programme; there are also Microsoft Photosynth, a cloud-based application requiring Windows, and the app Autodesk 123D
  • For graphical representations of complex data, the current popular choice seems to be Gephi, which can be found here.
  • All the above software is free and usually open-source.

The Digital Humanities debate

There is a recent and heated debate about whether digital humanities is its own field or merely a way of approaching questions belonging to other humanities disciplines. One way to answer this has been to suggest that the discipline or sub-discipline is concerned with ‘big data’, accumulations of information so huge that only computerised analysis can produce results from them; a counter-attack has been that such work has so far done little beyond assembling its data. One scholar who discusses such matters accessibly is Scott Kleinman, whose blog is here; another is Jack Dougherty, whose blog is here.

Such issues have also resulted in publications, however, as scholars try to acquire digital ‘chops’ to increase the relevance and possibility of their studies and computer specialists get interested in humanities questions their techniques may be able to approach. Very few of these latter studies are conducted with the cooperation of experts in the relevant subjects, which limits their usefulness. Within the humanities, however, positions range from the extreme one that the new digital era necessarily brings with it an entirely new set of models for scholarly practice – this is most stridently set out in the edited volume Hacking the Academy, which is online for free here – to the Luddite one that the whole field is only a fad that frequently offers no more than expensive ways to check what we already ‘knew’. A middle position, that digital resources vastly increase the ease and potential of our research, seems most reasonable to us, with the added potential that if humanities scholars acquire enough of an understanding of such fields they will in fact be able to take the lead in directing such endeavours toward genuinely new outcomes.

One very recent book that explores the new possibilities of the ‘digital age’ for historians is Writing History in the Digital Age, edited by Kristen Nawrotzki and Jack Dougherty, which is also online for free here and was itself experimental in construction, being edited openly online with comments from both solicited and unsolicited reviewers. A recent issue of the journal Literature Compass entitled ‘E-medieval: teaching, research and the ‘net’, even looks at such issues with a lens firmly on medieval studies. (Full disclosure: Dr Jarrett got into both these volumes, but the other essays are very good.)

Diversions?

That volume contains an essay written in entirely digital collaboration by Dr Jarrett on the scholarly value of blogging, which is something about which he has views. As this implies, he has a long-running academic blog, A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe, which links to many other worthy medievalist blogs and a range of further resources. You may like it.

And lastly and perhaps most importantly, even if the comic PHD: Piled Higher and Deeper doesn’t seem relevant at this stage of your studies, it will!

Name in the Book Somewhere II

[This is a repost of a piece of one of the sticky news posts above, now unstuck and free to assume in its rightful place in the chronological scheme. I repost this bit because I have just got to the point in the backlog where it would originally have occurred and it still seems worth celebrating! There are some light edits to supply larger context.]

In May 2013, there was also a rather large chicken finally come home to roost, to wit Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, Anna M. Balaguer & Philip Grierson, Medieval European Coinage, with a Catalogue of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, 6: the Iberian Peninsula (Cambridge 2013). There’s no secret here about the labour I’ve poured into this; it was in fact the thing I subsisted on after finishing the Lay Archives work previously referred to, and it was mostly wrapped up and ready to go in 2006 when I got the full-time job at the Fitzwilliam that would, in the end, keep me going for four and a half years. When explaining to people some of the reasons why the volume still then took seven years to appear, I have taken to starting with, “Well, the two surviving authors…” Death, life-threatening illness and then death, divorce, pregnancy, unannounced changes of contact details, unemployment and over-employment (especially this last) have all played their part in delaying the work of the various parties involved, even to the very last minute—a launch party had to be cancelled because of the aforementioned illness, but unbeknownst to authors or editors the book was already on sale anyway—and I think the most amazing thing is that all parties involved have always been reasonable and pleasant to deal with, whatever the new problem was that had arisen. Anyway, it exists, and this is a great comfort to me, as not only do I actually have my name over two small parts of it (well, one small one and the Bibliography, which I think I contributed about a tenth of) but at some point or other in my role as copy-editor and then series editor I’ve probably changed or moved almost every word in it. It’s not my work, but it has been one of my labours, for sure.

Those curious about such matters will probably also want to know how things stand with the rest of the series, and to that I can say from the inside, with suitable caution, that volume 12, which covers Northern Italy and is by Andrea Saccocci, Michael Matzke and William Day Jr, is scheduled to be next and is in its final stages now, and that volume 10, on Scandinavia, by Jørgen Steen Jensen, has been making reliable and steady progress for years and will also soon be finished, we hope, after which it becomes a contest between Britain and the Low Countries to be next. What’s the timescale, you no doubt ask, and fair enough, but you understand that in 2006, there was no way, it was quite frankly impossible to conceive that MEC 6 was seven years away from publication. What could possibly go that far wrong? If I had not lived and worked through those seven years, I would now say: there is no way the next volume can be more than a year away. But I did, so I won’t, because if I do it probably can… [And that paragraph, sadly, I didn’t have to edit at all…]

Carolingian things afoot in Cambridge

Reverse of a silver denier of Charlemagne struck at Dorestad now on display in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Reverse of a silver denier of Charlemagne struck at Dorestad now on display in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

May I just break the backlog-filling for a second to bring your attention to two things happening in Cambridge relating to no-one less than Charles the Great, King of the Franks, King of the Lombards, Patrician of the Romans and finally Holy Roman Emperor, already? You know the one. The first of these, because it’s already happening, though I’ve yet to see it, is an exhibition at my old place of work, the Fitzwilliam Museum, called Building an Empire: Money, trade and power in the age of Charlemagne. As you can see from that web-page, “A selection of the finest medieval coins from the Fitzwilliam Museum’s own collection (Frankish, Anglo-Saxon, Viking, Byzantine and Islamic) will be on show to illustrate the complex political, economic and cultural ties of the period.” The Fitzwilliam has a really pretty good selection of such things, so it should be worth a look. Furthermore, if you were to go over the weekend of the 4th-6th July, you could combine it with this:

Cover of the programme of the conference "The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours", 4th-6th July 2014, Cambridge

Cover of the programme of the conference “The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours”, 4th-6th July 2014, Cambridge

“While recent scholarship has done much to illuminate early medieval frontiers, the relationship between the Carolingian frontier and its neighbouring societies has yet to be the focus of sustained, comparative discussion. This conference aims to initiate a dialogue between scholars of the Carolingian frontier and those of the societies it bordered, and in so doing to reach a better understanding of the nature and extent of contacts in frontier regions and the various manners in which these contacts – not to mention frontier regions themselves – were conceptualized. Moreover, it will explore the interplay between various types of contact – whether military, political, economic, social, or religious – and the various ways in which these contacts could underpin, or undermine, existing relationships, both between the local societies themselves and between political centres.”

So it says here. Now, this is obviously pretty close to my interests, and so it may not surprise you completely that I am in fact speaking at it, with the title, “‘Completely detached from the kingdom of the Franks’? Political identity in Catalonia in the very late Carolingian era”. But that’s very first thing on Saturday morning, I shan’t be offended if you miss it. Do, however, come for the other speakers, who include people not just from far abroad (Granada, Madrid, Lyon, Warsaw, Prague, Copenhagen, Frankfurt and Berkeley) but also Oxford, would you believe, as well as a clutch of local stars, including the organisers, Fraser McNair, Ingrid Rembold and Sam Ottewill-Soulsby (and maybe others?), who are bright sparks all and keen to get the word out to people. I was convinced to come by, well, mainly my own certainty that I needed to be in on something like this but also because also presenting is Eduardo Manzano Moreno, whose fault my work partly is, and I want to hear what he has to say. But it all looks very good, and so if you’re interested, as the programme says, “Places are limited! Please return a completed registration form with payment early to avoid disappointment.”

Oh, and by the way, fittingly enough, this is post no. 800 on the blog. I did not do this deliberately…

Name in prints II & VI part two: where to buy my works

Yesterday, because of various bad travel choices I won’t burden you with, was one of the most exhausting days I’ve had in a long time and today I am surviving only on coffee, for which I must principally thank a learned colleague; also, too many books currently on my reading piles have chapters of over a hundred pages in and only a few can possibly justify this. What all this means is that I have no time to write substance for you today, and instead I’m just going to resort to blatant advertising. Of recent weeks it has become possible to buy more of my work online than was previously the case, so, here’s the details.

Cover of Jonathan Jarrett, Coins in Collections: Care and Use

Cover of Jonathan Jarrett, Coins in Collections: Care and Use

In late September 2009 I published a little booklet on coin collections and the looking-after thereof. This gives me some sadness just now as Mark Blackburn wrote a good third of it and insisted he should not be credited, but, be that as it may, actually a number of people have been after knowing where to buy it. I am happy to tell those people that it is now available postage-free for £7.99 from the Fitzwilliam Museum’s online shop here, and if that link doesn’t work, a search for “Jarrett” in their search box will turn it up. I hope that’s useful and I’m sorry it took so long.

Cover of Deyermond & Ryan, Early medieval Spain: a symposium

Cover of Deyermond & Ryan, Early medieval Spain: a symposium

Then more recently and more on my actual topic of study, in late 2010 a volume I’d been awaiting eagerly came out, that being no. 63 of the Queen Mary University of London series Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar. This too is tinged with sadness in as much as it bears the name of another dead scholar we have good reason to miss, but, it is a thing of joy in itself, containing as well as myself waxing lyrical about the weirdnesses of the uncontrolled frontier beyond early medieval Catalonia, Jinty Nelson wisely setting early medieval Spain in a European context (which is very rarely done), Ralph Penny asking how many languages early medieval Iberia had, Wendy Davies being sage and clear about counter-gifts and Rose Walker making sense of some of the manuscripts of Beatus’s Commentary on the Apocalypse, as well as much more, of which quite a lot by Andrew Fear. I think it is a jolly useful little volume and it will set you back a mere £16·15. Further details and a purchase link can be found here. So there you have it, commercial over and I will return in the next day or two with more thoroughly academic content.

Mark Blackburn

This, this was not the kind of funerary inscription I meant but as with the last time I had to bump a post for this reason, the reason cannot be brooked. Mark Blackburn, Keeper of Coins and Medals at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Fellow of Gonville & Caius College Cambridge and half-a-dozen other rôles and dignities, also my erstwhile boss, died of cancer on Thursday morning, this 1st of September. To some this is going to be a nasty shock; others closer will know that Mark had had a running battle with melanoma for the last twenty-two years, and that two years ago when the latest lump appeared on his skin the doctors examined him, found more and told him that he probably had only a year to live. Mark, with the help of the tremendous oncology department at Addenbrookes Hospital whose research case he willingly became, went on to stretch that prediction by 100%, which is about right: Mark was a 100% kind of guy. In the intervening time he was awarded several prizes and medals, saw a volume of his collected papers and two of the department’s outstanding publications to press and was still available to write references, answer e-mail and so on as far as his circumstances would permit. Meanwhile, almost the first thing he did when he got the terminal prognosis was to go on holiday with his children. This will surprise no-one who knew him and will hopefully give those who didn’t some idea what he was like.

Mark Blackburn receiving a cake bearing the cover of his new volume of collected essays

Mark Blackburn receiving a cake bearing the cover of his new volume of collected essays; my apologies to my erstwhile colleague Rory Naismith, whom I've rudely disembodied, but I wanted Mark to get centre stage here. The bow tie was customary.

I think this is the worst news, personally, I’ve ever put on the blog, but when I justify that by saying that Mark was a mentor and teacher to me, an involved and trusting boss, a ready source of academic help and advice and a patron without who I could not have generated the career profile I have or indeed got the job I now have, for which he cheerfully wrote me a reference, I am keenly aware that I can think of four or five people straight away who could say as much, perhaps twice that again with a bit more thought and that there must be many many more I don’t know about; there are probably a hundred people with as much reason to grieve that he’s dead as I have, because he was genial, helpful and supportive to so many people. Compared to many of them, not least his family who were so important to him, I’m distant and though obviously I’m upset it’s not going to slow me down or prevent me driving on with the projects I was doing for him which will still, dammit, be done. It had become clear in recent weeks that he wouldn’t see them completed and I was already expecting the phone-call when finally it came, as I think were most of those in the Department and close by, but the projects were important for more reasons than his involvement and we will get them done for him and for those he intended them to be for.

He was mostly unconscious in his last few days, apparently, but did rouse enough to assent to having some tea when asked, the day before he died. On getting it, too, he managed to get it understood that he wanted a different, better, tea, and that (“Dimbula“) was pretty much his last intelligible word. Now, there are an awful lot of things one could have learnt from Mark, and not just about numismatics although there were few people indeed from whom you could have learnt so much about coins so easily as from Mark. He was a colossus of productivity, even if one didn’t always see that when one only knew about parts of what he was working on; there was so much that only he knew about it all. But he was also a great example of how to enjoy yourself; he had friends right round the globe from collaborations and research trips, he’d been to a great many places and while I worked with him I was many times impressed by how much guiltless fun this top academic managed to get out of his holidays, his job, meeting people, eating and drinking and of course his research; he really did make the absolute most of his life, though I know he would have been pretty happy to make more of it also. So, though his scholarship will stand unsurpassed for a good long time and it’s a crying shame there won’t be more of it, even those who are not bothered with coins can learn a few things from Mark, lessons to take to heart, and the ones I’m trying to take are: (i) do what’s important, do it now and don’t fret about the rest while you’re doing it; (ii) make sure and enjoy what life gives you, especially if you made it yourself, and (iii) if all else fails, demand really high-quality tea in your final hours. I salute you, Mark, you were one of a kind and one of the best, and you fought on for longer than anyone should have to against an adversary who couldn’t stop you having fun.

Mark Blackburn showing Queen Elizabeth II around the coins displays in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Mark Blackburn showing Queen Elizabeth II around the coins displays in the Fitzwilliam Museum

(I have funeral details if anyone reading needs them and hasn’t got them; e-mail me quickly if so. It will be a full church.)

“Studying history stops people believing rubbish”, and other Internet gems

I’m actually catching up on backlog here, assisted by the fact that both Oxford Medieval History seminar and Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages seminar have had to cancel their first week’s event this term. There is of course the little matter of imminent Kalamazoo and a few other more local deadlines, so things are still a bit pressed. In that spirit, I hope you won’t mind if once more I link you to a bunch of things that other people have written while I get on with mine.

  • First up, I was genuinely delighted to see that someone (who has so far remained anonymous) has done a wonderful and sympathetic photo-tour of my old workplace, the Department of Coins and Medals in the Fitzwilliam Museum. He has captured both its industry and its habitual near-chaos, and it probably also qualifies as bookshelf porn; do have a look, it’s great, and cheered me a great deal as I did and do like the place. (A tip of the hat goes to my erstwhile colleague Andy Woods, who mentioned this on Academia.edu.)
  • Secondly, do you remember Francis Fukuyama, the man who declared that history was basically coming to a kind of entropic close as liberal democracy won out everywhere? I could sort of understand his point of view when I first met this, as I live in an allegedly-liberal democracy myself and didn’t get out of it much then, but you might have expected him to backpedal a bit these days. Instead, he now has a book called The Origins of Political Order in which, if this review and interview in the New York Times is a fair account, he basically goes straight from tribalism to feudalism without pause or consideration. “He explicitly assumes that human social nature is universal and is built around certain evolved behaviors like favoring relatives, reciprocal altruism, creating and following rules, and a propensity for warfare”, says the reviewer, which will give you an idea. There is much praise quoted from political scientists, but dear gods, this is no kind of `science’ I wish to recognise, and I think it will make most historians feel slightly ill. Consider yourself warned for when your students have read it…
  • More authentically medieval, you may have met in old work on medieval Europe, occasionally still parroted in textbooks, the idea that the transition in Europe from post-Roman to high medieval society was based, among other things, around the recovery of the ability to make and use the `heavy plough‘, a wheeled plural-beast-drawn thing capable of turning thick, clayey, fertile soils, with consequent benefits in crop yield, harvest size, surplus and bang! feudal transformation! etc. Since the Romans had heavy ploughs, and they’re not exactly mystical high-tech., this has always looked like rubbish to some people, or at least, more to do with social choice and structure than with the actual technology, and occasionally we find bits of the things that help fill in the picture. The latest of these is also, I think, the furthest west anything like this early, and has come out of the very interesting excavations at Lyminge led by Dr Gabor Thomas that I’ve mentioned here before. It is inarguably seventh-century and should hopefully bury this ghost of technological determinism plus Dark-Age benightedness in the hole whence it came. (I learn this from David Beard’s Anglo-Saxon Archaeology blog, to which a hat tip.)
  • Borrowed from the webcomic Least I Could Do

    But the cream of the crop is indubitably the one I’ve borrowed for the title, which may become my new motto, and which comes from a report in The Guardian, itself reporting on a report by the English school inspectorate, OFSTED, which, ah, reports that in too many schools, pupils are not being taught to go beyond the textbooks, which are often themselves constructed for the A-Level examinations and not beyond, resulting in a `stultification’ of history and children not being prepared for further study in the subject. Well, yes, we have many of us met stuff that looks as if this could be its explanation, I’m sure. But the interesting bit is where OFSTED set out their stall for what they’d hope the teaching of history in schools would achieve. Although this refers to and sits alongside the current government’s insistence on a connected narrative, rather than an episodic drop-in on supposedly-important eras (and the article is accordingly headed with an icon of the government’s current history god Simon Schama), it carefully ignores the bit that comes with that about an excessive emphasis on skills.

    Instead they conclude that: “… history is well placed to enhance pupils’ sense of social responsibility, teaching about diversity, migration and national identity”. And when they say, “teaching about,” they seem to mean “teaching to question,” as they quote an unnamed pupil (unnamed even in the actual report, not that the Guardian links to it of course, but it’s easy enough to find here) who said, as per the title, “Studying history stops people believing rubbish“. That’s it! I mean, damn, print the t-shirt, start the marches! The trouble is, I grow to suspect more and more, is that the powers-that-be would rather have voting populations who do believe rubbish, and I don’t know how we win that fight (though some thoughts will eventually emerge here in the next few weeks). This one I also got via David Beard, this time at his Archaeology on Europe blog, so a hat tip there. And that’s it for now, see you shortly!