Tag Archives: historians and politics

Debunking History: book review

Cover of Ed Rayner and Ron Stapley, Debunking History

Cover of Ed Rayner and Ron Stapley, Debunking History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Randall Munroe, “Wikipedian Protestor”, XKCD, July 2007, http://xkcd.com/285/

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

Anglo-Saxon England and the European Union

It is a time of weighty decisions in this part of the world right now. I don’t just mean in the Academy, although today and tomorrow much of the UK one is on strike because of pay that has not kept pace with inflation for some years and personally I am in the middle of quite a lot of marking, some of which will affect people’s fates in ways I can’t foresee but can still worry about. No, I mean that on June 23rd the UK will be turning out to express its opinion about whether it should be in the European Union any longer, even on the rather specialised terms we currently enjoy. As with every political issue these days this has become a matter of men in suits insulting each other and making up random stuff to frighten their electorates, and in some cases other people’s electorates: the President of the USA and the Prime Minister of Canada have both weighed in effectively to threaten Britain, apparently not realising how much of the ‘Leave’ campaign is being driven exactly by a resentment at other countries seemingly intervening in Britain’s decisions. Perhaps they’re actually trying to make sure the ‘Leave’ vote wins. In any case, it all has me wondering what perspective a historian can take on it all. Sheffield’s excellent History Matters blog has a Brexit category but so far only one post under it, and I feel as if more can be said.

Map of the Carolingian Empire under Charlemagne

Map of the Carolingian Empire under Charlemagne

It seems to me that this is one of the rare episodes where the most relevant parallels are from the early Middle Ages, because there is really only one point prior to the twentieth century when Europe could be considered a single political entity and, importantly, its ruler had not declared an intent to add the British Isles to that (as in the times of Carausius, Napoleon or the guy with the moustache and the painting qualification). That time is the period of the Carolingian Empire, albeit with some pre-echoes under the Carolingians’ Merovingian predecessors, and actually there are some thought-provoking parallels. There’s nothing really new in what follows except its application to now, but I still think that’s worth doing.1

A silver penny of King Offa

Obverse of a silver penny of King Offa of Mercia, struck in London by Ethelwald around 785

For a start, we can look at English-European relations in a time of breakdown here and see what happened. In around 796 Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Lombards and Patrician of the Romans, had a letter sent to King Offa of Mercia.2 At this point in time Offa was pretty much number one king in England; not only did his Midland kingdom stretch from the Welsh border and the Hwicce (around Gloucestershire) to Lindsey (modern Lincolnshire) but he also held control over Essex, East Anglia (just about), the south-eastern Home Counties and the city of London and had marriage alliances with both King Beorhtric of Wessex and King Æthelred of Northumbria.3 This put him in charge of quite a chunk of the Channel coast and its ports, and whether either side liked it or not that put him in contact with Charlemagne.

A Mayen quernstone

A Mayen quernstone, of the sort that Charlemagne probably refers to in his letter to Offa

In that letter Charlemagne was responding to one of Offa’s that we no longer have, and had a number of queries to answer. The letter is thus very revealing about the kind of things that kings dealt with in this era: the free movement of pilgrims from England through Francia, and how to distinguish them from merchants who disguised themselves as pilgrims to escape paying toll; the proper treatment of merchants who admitted as much, and should be protected by the Frankish king according to an old agreement; a renegade priest whom Offa feared had come to Charlemagne to spread accusations about Offa at the Frankish court, but whom Charlemagne had sent on to the pope at Rome; and black quernstones which had until recently been imported into England and which would now be again, as long as Offa would make sure that those exporting English wool cloaks to Francia made them at the old, full length rather than a new shorter one that the Franks didn’t like.4 Charlemagne also sent ceremonial clothing to both Offa and Æthelred with which their churchmen could hold memorial services for the recently-deceased Pope Hadrian I, whose death had, we know, grieved Charlemagne deeply.5

Charlemagne's epitaph for Pope Hadrian I, on display in San Pietro di Roma

More black stone, Charlemagne’s epitaph for Pope Hadrian I, still on display in San Pietro di Roma

A lot of this doesn’t seem too far from the modern day, suggesting that some issues keep coming up: we have a kind of Schengen Agreement for certain kinds of travellers, but not those with goods to declare; a certain sort of acceptance of responsibility for foreign nationals; some controversy over appeals to the European court system (here manifest as the king and the pope, but still); and fine-detailed specifications of goods with which, just like the fabled EU regulations on the curvature of certain vegetables, one is surprised and even dismayed to see the European world’s top legislators wasting their time when warfare, migrants and agricultural crisis all needed dealing with.6 We know from other letters that Offa and Charlemagne had at one point been sufficiently at odds for Charlemagne actually to close the Frankish Channel ports to traders from Offa’s territories, which will hopefully remain unparalleled whatever happens but reminds us that access is not guaranteed, and Offa was also persistently bothered about Charlemagne playing host to powerful exiles from England, either from Kent or from Northumbria (where King Æthelred would be killed later in 796, making Charlemagne extremely cross with the Northumbrians).7 Offa himself would die later that year, indeed, which reminds us that the people who make such treaties tend not to last as long as the consequences, but if you remember the furore about Julian Assange taking refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London you can probably understand that people being protected from vengeance by foreign powers is not a phenomenon that’s stopped nowadays.

Map of England in the time of Offa's rule, c. 795

Map of England in the time of Offa’s rule, c. 795; I think we could argue about Sussex, but it gives you the idea…

There are also plenty of things that damage the comparison, of course. One of the other things that Offa and Charlemagne seem to have argued about was a possible marriage pact between their children, in which the problem was which side got the other’s daughter for their son.8 The UK still has its royalty, of course, but if one of them married into a European royal line (if they could find one with whom they aren’t already consanguineous) it would no longer make a massive difference to the UK’s relations with Europe. That should serve to remind us that whatever the things the early medieval situation shares with the current one, democracy was not one of them; not only would Offa and Charlemagne both have been bewildered by the concept of a referendum, but once you’d explained it they would have thought it subversive and dangerous, and maybe even illegal, and there the modern parallel is really elsewhere in Europe. There’s also important differences in the scale of trade revenue involved, which for our kings might have been significant but was still only a tiny part of their kingdoms’ economy.9 And finally, of course, among many other objections that could be raised, the England of Offa was a patchwork of uncomfortably allied rival kingdoms of varying size and strength, all of whom could negotiate with the Franks separately as our letters show, and so is almost more like the European Union of now in structure than like the unified, monarchic and hardly-devolved kingdom of Charlemagne, despite the rough territorial match.

So does the parallel I’ve set up actually tell us anything about the current situation? I think that it does, at least, bring some particular aspects of the situation out that are perhaps not as obvious as they should be. The first of these has already been mentioned, that whatever the outcome is on June 23rd it’s hard to believe the arrangement it sets up will last for long before being modified; all the people who made it will be out of power before very long, and the new lot will have a choice about how much continuity they want. The UK has tinkered with its relationship to Europe every few years for as long as I can remember, after all. The second thing we might take from all this is the reminder that even if the UK does leave the EU, relations with Europe will not just stop dead; the migrant crisis, the continuing importance of NATO, and the simple fact of Europe’s being right there and linked to the UK by a tunnel and high-speed rail link all mean that some kind of relationship between the UK and most of the Continental European states must continue. The referendum will help decide what kind of relationship that will be, but it won’t end it any more than Charlemagne closing the Channel ports ended trade relations between the two powers. That did, however, apparently make quernstones impossible to get for a few years and some parallel to that is very easy to imagine. What European foods do you currently eat you’d be sorry to go without?

Buffalo mozzarella cheese

My personal candidate: looks horrible, tastes magnificent. By Luigi VersaggiFlickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=397091.

But the last thing we might not think of without this prompt is the rôle of Northumbria. Obviously, now that’s part of England, but Scotland is not, and while in Charlemagne’s time the Picts were a whole separate quantity (albeit also in contact with the Continent) now we might be reminded by Offa’s rival kings that Scotland may yet be in a position to reach its own agreements with Europe, when the current alliance falls apart as did that between Mercia and Northumbria and the campaign for secession heats up again.10 What would that mean? When Scotland looked like devolving properly last time many people talked about moving there to benefit from various more friendly aspects of its fiscal system and so on; if the UK left the EU and then a subsequently separated Scotland rejoined, I think a lot of businesses might look to relocate, and Scotland’s economic case for devolution start to look a lot more survivable. I can’t quite imagine it doing to England what Wessex eventually did to Mercia, but this, and the other points above, might all serve to remind the uncertain voter that there are more voices in this dispute than just UK voters and Brussels.11 Whatever your own priorities are, it might be worth thinking before you vote about Offa, Charlemagne, pilgrims, exiles and even quernstones, and considering just which bits of history we’re about to repeat.

1. There are two obvious books that cover this theme, Wilhelm Levison, England and the Continent in the Eighth Century: the Ford Lectures, 1943 (Oxford 1946) and Joanna Story, Carolingian Connections: Anglo-Saxon England and Carolingian Francia, c. 750-870 (Aldershot 2003); both of them offer much more context for all of what follows than I can give here.

2. The letter was probably written by the Northumbrian cleric and teacher Alcuin, since it survives in collections of his other letters, but it went out in Charlemagne’s name. It is printed in Ernst Dümmler (ed.), “Alcuini sive Albini Epistolae” in Dümmler (ed.), Epistolae Ævi Karolini II, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Epistolae in quarto) IV (Berlin 1895, repr. Hannover 1994), online here, pp. 1-481 at no. 100, and translated in Steven Allott (transl.), Alcuin of York, c. A. D. 732 to 804: his life and letters (York 1974), ep. 100, and in Dorothy Whitelock (transl.), English Historical Documents, vol. 1: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), doc. no. 197.

3. For background on Offa see most quickly Simon Keynes, “The kingdom of the Mercians in the eighth century” in David Hill & Margaret Worthington (edd.), Aethelbald and Offa: two eighth-century kings of Mercia. Papers from a conference held in Manchester in 2000, Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon studies, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 383 (Oxford 2005), pp. 1-26.

4. On the black stones, see Meinrad Pohl, “Quern-Stones and Tuff as Indicators of Medieval European Trade Patterns” in Papers from the Institute of Archaeology Vol. 20 (London 2010), pp. 148-153, DOI: 10.5334/pia.348, whence the illustration (fig. 1).

5. Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard tells us of the king’s grief at this event in his Vita Karoli, ed. Oswald Holder-Egger as Einhardi Vita Karoli Magni, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores Rerum Germanicarum in usum scholarum separatim editi) XXV (Hannover 1911, repr. 1965), online here, trans. David Ganz in idem (ed.), Two Lives of Charlemagne: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer (London 2009), pp. 17-44, III.19. I’m not sure where the memorial is edited, but it is translated in Paul Edward Dutton (transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader, 2nd edn. (Peterborough ON 2005), no. 9.4.

6. Admittedly, the obvious migrants, the Vikings, hadn’t really started migrating as yet, though as we have seen here they were a danger; as to the agricultural crisis, 792 and 793 had been famine years in the Carolingian Empire, as is recorded in the Royal Frankish Annals, printed as Friedrich Kurze (ed.), Annales regni Francorum inde ab a. 741 usque ad a. 829, qui dicuntur Annales Laurissenses maiores et Einhardi, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores Rerum Germanicum) VI (Hannover 1895; repr. 1950), online here, transl. in Bernard Scholz & Barbara Rogers (transl.), Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories (Michigan 1972), online here, pp. 35-125, with commentary pp. 2-21, s. aa 792 & 793.

7. In addition to the works in n. 1 above see here Janet L. Nelson, “Carolingian Contacts” in Michelle P. Brown and Carol Ann Farr (edd.), Mercia: an Anglo-Saxon kingdom in Europe (London 2001), pp. 126-143.

8. The source here is the Gesta Abbatum Fontellanensium, printed as Fernand Lohier & Jean Laporte (edd.), Gesta sanctorum patrum Fontanellensis coenobii (Rouen 1936), but I don’t have a detailed cite, only the knowledge that the relevant extract is translated in Whitelock, English Historical Documents doc. no. 20.

9. Opinions differ here, of course: see Chris Wickham, “Overview: production, distribution and demand” in Inge Lyse Hansen & Wickham (edd.), The Long Eighth Century: production, distribution and demand, The Transformation of the Roman World 11 (Leiden 2000), pp. 345-377.

10. On Scotland’s connections to Europe in this era see Patrick Wormald, “The emergence of the ‘Regnum Scottorum’: a Carolingian hegemony?” in Barbara Crawford (ed.), Scotland in Dark Age Britain: the proceedings of a day conference held on 18 February 1995, St John’s House Papers 5 (St Andrews 1996), pp. 131-160; Edward James, “The Continental Context” in Sally M. Foster (ed.), The St. Andrews sarcophagus: a Pictish masterpiece and its international connections (Dublin 1998), pp. 240-249.

11. Simon Keynes, “Mercia and Wessex in the ninth century” in Brown & Farr, Mercia, pp. 310-328.

Collecting from Cliopatria

Screenshot of the History News Network magazine website

Screenshot of the History News Network magazine website

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

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

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

Actual Research Posts

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

Medievalism in the Modern World

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

The State of the Academy

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


“They have chosen ignorance”

I found this a year or so ago, but you might still want to look at it. It’s an open letter by a number of scientists protesting about the defunding of research in higher education contexts, with a number of significant institutions (especially Spanish ones, perhaps not surprisingly) supporting them, and they are (still) looking for signatures.


With a year’s perspective on this (and the all-important transition into an established post, no doubt) I find my views on this slightly less similar to theirs. I am still horrified at some inner level about the continuing pressure to cut and cut, but I understand where it’s coming from; we in the UK have been in an era where politicians see declaring actual policy as exposing vulnerability since about 1997, and since Blair at least that’s been not least, I think, because they know they don’t actually have any joined-up policy scheme. Making budgets balance, however, they understand as an aim (if not a skill) and believe the electorate will understand as well. In any case, no-one for ages has had a solution for where the money comes from for higher education that isn’t one way or another raising taxes, which no politician now has the courage to admit they need to do, so if it is solved it will be solved by stealth anyway. In recent months we seem at last to be moving into a position for UK higher education at least where the relevant bits of the state actually have something like an idea what they’d like to see, and I don’t like all of it but it’s not quite what the letter above is seeing. We’re still supposed to achieve excellence without money, of course, but the person in charge (an ex-historian, which I’d love to think helps) seems to understand that some kind of underlying structure is necessary to support that, even if it apparently has to run on less resource.* But there isn’t much less it can run on without losing either quantity or quality, given the decreasing rewards for students in terms of a graduate premium in salary, which means that making the voice of that letter louder may still do some good even if its detail doesn’t fit our particular case as well as it did when they wrote it and I saw it.

* I really would like sloganeers to look up the word ‘excellence’ at some point and realise that semantically it cannot apply to a majority. To excel is to be distinguished by quality; if everyone’s quality levels up, there is no distinction and therefore no excellence. This sounds like bad word choice, but I think it’s worse, it’s the hope that despite a general expressed wish to raise standards there will still be élite institutions, like those to which policy-makers largely go, that will remain worth more in social and career terms. You can aim for excellence, in other words, but their very use of the word shows that they hope most don’t attain it…

Seminar CCIX: difficulties of studying medieval Balkh

The backlog now advances to the autumn term of the academic year just gone, a mere ten months now, and finds me in the Medieval Seminar of the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages at Birmingham on 7th October 2014, when one of our resident scholars, Arezou Azad, was presenting with the title, “Balkh Art & Cultural Heritage Project: exploration, maps and Silk Road history from northern Afghanistan”. I should read Arezou’s book, because although Balkh is some way off my usual patch it’s really interesting, a real point where worlds met as the routes across the north of the Himalayas arrived at a junction heading both south to India and west to Persia, a major early Buddhist centre and that not the first or last faith to locate itself there, this also being the place of death of Zoroaster; under medieval Islam, likewise, it was a thriving university town that supplied many of the Caliphate’s leading scholars, and now somehow it’s a place almost no-one in the West has heard of.1 So I was eager to find out what I should already have read in the speaker’s book, which is always one gain of going to seminars, isn’t it?

What better image to borrow than the project website’s masthead, not least because it’s quite impressive…

The project about which Arezou set out to teach us is indeed an ambitious one: there have been eleven people involved both on site and spread across the scholarly globe, as the website says: “a team of experts with specialist knowledge on Afghan archaeology, coins, ceramics, and Persian and Arabic texts”, and more besides given that some of the documents from the area are in Bactrian, a language that really very few people in the world now read (which is frustrating to me, as these documents are obviously charters and I want to know how they compare…). They have aimed to look at settlement patterns, resource use, connections and conversion, fortification (the city walls seem to have been almost gone between the tenth and fifteenth centuries, but there is some suggestion that a new circuit was put up to encircle the whole oasis, a 72 km effort that it would be marvellous actually to prove), administration, religious building and a few other things besides including editions of the few surviving texts from the city. These include the Bactrian charters, which are apparently largely one family’s archive (which is perhaps even more intriguing than a civic one would be), and a fifteenth-century history of the city called the Fada’il-i Balkh, surviving in a Persian translation of its Arabic original and providing biographical notes about seventy generations of city luminaries, including a couple of notable queens and some learned women about whom Arezou has already written.2

Inside a post-Timurid shrine in Balkh, photo by Arezou Azad

Inside a post-Timurid shrine in Balkh, photo by Arezou Azad

All of this is however complicated by the fact that the project is trying to study a place now in Afghanistan, which is not currently perfectly accessible… Balkh is largely clear of warzone but local security is still quite tight, not least because that actually puts it very close to the border with Uzbekistan. That also has the complication that sites in the city’s old territory are now in fact across the border, meaning that they have to have a team member working with old Soviet archæological reports on finds that they can’t get at. The finds that they can get at, meanwhile, are in Kabul, were mostly excavated by French teams in the 1970s and were found in storage of the most dreadful kind, rooms full of uncatalogued potsherds and coins carefully stored in airtight plastic bags with perhaps just a little bit of moisture along with them that consequently provided perfect conditions for thriving populations of mould to grow on them then die in the bag.3 Even once conserved, the original records of these coins’ discovery context has been lost, and the situation is little better for many of the other finds, but what little is known suggests that they are only from two or three areas of the city, so that a great deal remains archæologically blank.

A coin of al-Mubarak (Balkh)

A coin of al-Mubarak, which is to say Balkh, cleaned and conserved; I can’t tell you metal or date but it’s one of the finds!

The team can’t afford to maintain an actual presence in either Balkh or Kabul except for local interns, who have been having to work largely unsupervised and unpaid with what help the Délégation archéologique française en Afghanistan is able to offer. This seems not to have stopped them making great efforts, but it’s obviously not ideal and putting their findings to work is very difficult. Indeed, at the time Arezou was speaking, the whole team had only been able to meet twice since they began the project in late 2011, although there was to be a conference in January 2015, which seems to have been the last time the project website was updated. The publication of those papers is obviously a desideratum, but at the end of Arezou’s paper my hopes for what they may contain were, I have to admit, considerably dampened.4 It seems as if new primary material is going to be very hard to add into any new synthesis, so the best we can hope for may be the refinement and greater accessibility of earlier syntheses. There are some places—and many worse than this, right now—which we just can’t study properly!

Professor Hugh Kennedy in discussion with Dr Mark Whittow at the BACH conference, Oxford 2015

The conference looks as if it may have been fun, though! Here the pictures from it show Professor Hugh Kennedy in discussion with Dr Mark Whittow.

1. That book being A. Azad, Sacred Landscape in Medieval Afghanistan: Revisiting the Faḍāʾil-i Balkh (Oxford 2013).

2. A. Azad, “Female Mystics in Medieval Islam: The Quiet Legacy” in Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient Vol. 56 (Leiden 2013), pp. 53–88, DOI: 10.1163/15685209-12341277. The Bactrian documents have been being published for some years now as Nicholas Sims-Williams (ed.), Bactrian Documents from Northern Afghanistan, Vol I: Legal and Economic Documents (Oxford 2001), idem, Bactrian documents from Northern Afghanistan, Vol. 2: Letters and Buddhist texts (London 2007) and Bactrian Documents from Northern Afghanistan III: Plates (Oxford 2013), which must have been a trial judging by the three different publishers. The Fada’il-i Balkh has been edited before, as Shaykh al-Islām al-Wā’iz & ‘Abd Allāh al-Husaynī (edd.), Fadā’il-i Balkh (Tehran 1350 [1971]), but this is apparently “inadequate” (Azad, Sacred Landscapes, p. 22 n. 2), and a new one by project member by Ali Mir Ansari, which will then be translated by Arezou and Edmund Herzig, apparently as Azad, Ansari & Herzig (transl.), Faḍāʾil-i Balkh (London forthcoming), is in progress still.

3. Kids, a curator’s advice to you: if you have old coins in a sealable plastic receptacle, like a zip-lock bag or something, poke a pinhole in that plastic or you too may face this problem after 35 years…

4. Arezou’s Birmingham webpage does mention as forthcoming something that looks as if it might be that publication, A. Azad, Edmund Herzig & Paul Wordsworth (edd.), Early Islamic Balkh: History, Landscape and Material Culture of a Central Asian City (forthcoming), but that’s the only trace I can find so far.

Seminar CCII: the modern decline of Charlemagne

My progress through my ridiculous seminar report backlog now picks up in the summer of this year with none other than old acquaintance and collaborator Charles West, who on 6th May 2014 found himself in Birmingham addressing a new seminar of the Institute of German Studies, the Not the First World War Centenary Seminar, which was concentrating on alternative anniversaries to the one that we aren’t allowed to miss this year. Therefore Charles was brought in to address us on the topic, “Charlemagne and the Future of the European Past”. Now, as it happens, of recent years Charles has ventured onto the Internet himself along with a cadre of colleagues from Sheffield who contribute to their History Matters blog, which I recommend, and thus it is that you don’t have to take my word for it what Charles thinks about this issue, because he had already written something about it here. So I’ll be brief here and refer you over there if you want to debate things.

A perfectly-arranged photograph by Andreas Herrmann of the statue of Charlemagne outside the Rathaus in Aachen

A perfectly-arranged photograph by Andreas Herrmann of the statue of Charlemagne outside the Rathaus in Aachen

The short and essential pitch of what Charles had to say is that Europe used to be a lot more fussed about Charlemagne as a figure of importance than it has now become. Whereas he was the point of origin for the Holy Roman Empire and the man whose achievement in bringing a swathe of Occidental territory under one rule both Napoleon and Hitler expressed an intent to beat, and even after the war still the figurehead of various prizes and speeches intended to foster European unity, this has fallen off of late. In this, the 12th centenary of his death, which has sparked a number of exhibitions and celebrations around the Continent, that at Aachen was expecting only a third as many people as attended a similar exhibition at Paderborn in 1999 (and I’ve no idea how many it in fact got).

Poster for the triple exhibition at Aachen, Karlder Grosse: Macht, Kunst, Schätze

Poster for the triple exhibition at Aachen

Charles put this down to two related things: in the first place, the early European Union was surprisingly close in extent to the territories ruled by Charlemagne (including the British Isles obviously attached but clinging to ideas of sovereignty anyway); Spain, Portugal and Greece kind of sneaked in, Scandinavia in general has some explaining to do but the lines east and south were otherwise close, whereas now that we count Eastern Europe in full and the Baltic States and are dithering over Turkey, the old model no longer fits even slightly. This larger Europe also has no collective history together: this group of countries have never been a unit, even Rome never ruled them all, so appeals to our great common history and its unifying figureheads (of whom, after all, there are few enough if that’s your aim) cease to have anything like as much traction. The whole paper thus served as another reminder that whatever we think we’re doing as historians, our work is put to use by people with political agendas that determine why people are interested, and when those agendas don’t need our work they instead put it out to grass. Charles concluded that the best way we can proceed is to tell the story we have and let it find its own audience, but of course we would also usually like it to find financial support and, well, there has ever been the rub…

Open Access done wrong

Some of the posts I have queued up from last year are now looking sort of irrelevant. I’m not sure this isn’t one of them, because as I will conclude the debate is now moving on, and because it represents a reply I wrote in May 2013 to a blog post written in February 2013 responding to various other documents and reports from earlier that year, but still, the debate is active, and I hope to catch up on it soon, and meanwhile my starting position might as well go on record, I guess? The basic position to which I seem to be developing is, the Anglophone world doesn’t know how to do open access, and until it does pursuing that agenda may serve some ugly outcomes.

Open Access seal

It’s a good graphic, but does it really tell us that this debate is going to be pursued solely by rational evaluation of outcomes?

The starting point for me here was a post at Historian on the Edge, here, itself expanding on a comment on a post at Modern Medieval where I also commented, so you can see where I was starting from there if you like. At that point Historian on the Edge had lately been locked down to allow comments only from Google accounts, and I didn’t want to get one just to chime in there, so I stubbed my draft comment here as a post and expected it to be up rather soon than this! The Historian on the Edge post had done a sharp job pointing out the damage that author-pays models of open access publishing might do to the careers of new or less established scholars, and pointed everybody to a then-recent open letter by the President of the Royal Historical Society on the issue which made some of the same points. (And that in turn links to many other documents including one from the American Historical Association also reckoning that the model looks bad for history, and which also seems canny to me.) Anyway, to his points I then wanted to add this:

“I’m glad to see this issue getting a higher profile, and even gladder to see the RHS actually doing something, even if it is essentially to look out for its own activities. All the same, I find it exasperating that what they call for is a ‘debate’, and a debate to be conducted almost entirely between ourselves. Surely the correct response is a stand against the idea, given that many of its qualities as proposed are so pernicious? Is there much to debate? (I think that in this respect the Open Access agenda is the cloth over the conjuror’s hand.) This has so far happened with almost all the government’s proposed reforms, but the appropriate response to this kind of thing is surely not, ‘Let’s all talk amongst ourselves about how we can compromise with the government,’ it’s ‘This is awful and it should not stand‘. The issue that should be making us all jump, as you correctly say, is: ‘Where’s the money going to come from for us to do this?’ The answer appears to be: ‘Why, from you yourselves! We will not be giving any extra money for this.’ Indeed, I can’t see any reply to that question that would make more sense than, ‘Since you will be buying far fewer expensive journals you can all cut your library’s subscription budgets and use it to fund self-publication!’ Firstly, and weakest, that’s unlikely to happen: the library budgets may be cut but the savings won’t make it to academics. Secondly, of course, what you also touch on, this assumes that we never need to read anything by people from countries who still publish with publishers, which is not how research works; perhaps Willetts & co. still think that all work worth reading on any academic field comes from the Empire? And, thirdly, peer review doesn’t like self-publication and I can’t see how it ever will. But is there any other way in which going to an APR model is actually going to be cheaper for institutions and, more especially, for those without institutional support for their work?

Open Access debate graphic

It’s great that there’s an international movement to make top-quality knowledge fully accessible, don’t get me wrong, but it will have to be answered nationally, not internationally

“I’m still not sure that this government actually has a higher education policy, and it gets clearer and clearer that the coalition aspect of it is preventing them actually forming policy, but if there is one, I think it might best be seen as privatisation by strangulation, by raising the costs of public funding so high that eventually universities decide to do without. Since the managerial class of most universities see size, turnover and income as more important than viability, however, that particular decision will be very far off for most of them. None of it looks as if they think it might be important to have expertise on things somewhere in the country.”

There are a lot of things there that I think I would now put differently, especially in the last paragraph and not least because of a lot of time spent debating such issues with the authors of a new and recent publication on these issues done for the British Academy (who have got involved at last) that I have yet to read fully.* When I have I hope to write more on this, but that delay means there’s time for exactly the kind of debate I was disparaging a year ago! I suppose the key issues I still see as worth pursuing in that comment are not so much about open access as about publishing and the academy, and they are these:

  1. Peer review costs a lot in terms of time but is terribly remunerated; we cannot easily make it more expensive but neither can we do without it. It seems to me that since the only part of the mechanism into which money systematically goes is the publishing industry, it is them we should be looking at to bear those costs.
  2. Academic research is an international operation, as are most of the biggest publishers interested in it, but its components are nationally funded and vulnerable to political concerns of an entirely uninterested kind, as we see here; the main agenda here is that the Tories would like to be paying a lot less government money for the university system they want, as far as I can see, rather than any clear ideas of what that system should be or how to achieve that.
  3. This is the issue it is not least because the UK academy has no adequate means of resistance or debate to such policies, since its representative bodies like Universities UK are too entrenched in competition for the increasingly limited public money there is to be able to band together to find alternative ways to support academic research, giving them neither interest nor ability to lobby the government with better ways to build excellence in intellectual endeavours.
  4. Given all these factors, I think that the current shift towards open access, while laudable in motivation and intent, is one of the forces that’s going to break the current model of the academy, academic careers and academic publication and I really think therefore that we should have some kind of alternatives ready before we give in to it!

On that last, I have more old thoughts to be updated which will follow in a couple of posts’ time. On the others though, I am very much open to debate. What are your thoughts?

* Rebecca Darley, Daniel Reynolds & Chris Wickham, Open Access Journals in Humanities and Social Science (London 2014), following up on Nigel Vincent & Chris Wickham (edd.), Debating Open Access (London 2013).