Tag Archives: public

Society for the Medieval Mediterranean 2015 (in Lincoln), parts 2 & 3

[Context: this post was half-written before I ground to a complete halt in hiatus last year. It’s clear that I can’t continue this scale of write-up, but because it was part-done, and because it involves the recently-lamented Simon Barton, I want to do this last one as it was meant to be done. I am, however, combining what would originally have been two posts, because this is an indulgence I can’t go on permitting myself. After this, we can talk about what happens next but I am hoping, hoping that this is the cough of the blogger’s virtual throat being cleared before saying something in a more regular fashion. We’ll see, but I have hopes and reasons to do it and that’s a powerful combination. This post’s still a composite hodge-podge, though, so I’ve added headings to show where its layers separate.]

The Voice of October 2016

This is, as grimly predicted, the busiest term ever in my life so far, and at some point in it I’m moving house! Yay! Before that point, I can at least crunch out a few more posts, though, I hope [Edit: ha!], and the next in the queue is a report on the second day of the conference of the Society for the Medieval Mediterranean, which as you will recall was in Lincoln in mid-July 2015. This post deals with the papers and so on from the 14th July, and then we’ll talk about something completely different before returning for the third and final day. [Edit: no we won’t, it’s all happening here.]

Brayford Campus of the University of Lincoln

The Brayford Campus of Lincoln University, just for context

There were up to five parallel sessions running at all times except during the keynotes in this conference and so there was always plenty to choose from, including plenty of early medieval. As it happens, I underestimated the time it would take me to get from my (rather good) bed and breakfast to the university and so missed the first paper I’d chosen to see, which was a shame but at least, as its presenter told me, it was substantially the paper I’d seen him give in Leeds. Nonetheless, the questions seemed to reach to different things and I was sorry I hadn’t seen this version. The session as it happened, even where I didn’t see, was like this.

Law in the Post-Roman West

  • Graham Barrett, “Legislation and Codification after Rome”
  • Michael Kelly, “Transhistoricality in Early Medieval Hispania: Law as Narrative and Cultural Episteme”
  • Thomas Gobbitt, “Framing the Laws: prologues, epilogues and peritext. The Liber Leges Langobardorum in the Eleventh and Twelfth Century”
  • So as said, I missed Graham pronouncing his wisdom, but it got a better hearing here than it had at the slightly odd session in which it had been aired at Leeds, and his paper dominated discussion, so it’s worth reprising its central point, that law after the end of Empire in the West was probably mostly used in small bits, which were occasionally recombined into codes but used quite differently in the field (or in court). Questions focused on issues of formality of, well, issue, and the audiences for the different sorts of law people were detecting bundled into codes like the Salic Law, and this discussion also included Graham asking what the difference is between a ‘capitulary’ and a ‘novel’, a question that could only matter to a legal historian you’d think but has everything to do with our confused relationship with the Roman Empire, both imitative and successive.

    I didn’t really understand Michael Kelly’s paper, I will confess. It may, from my notes, have been intended to argue that all our sources were constructed by their authors to convey a particular version of the past, not reality, and that our sources therefore are really only sources for their context, the Visigothic Law being no exception and very full of contemporary bias that belies its deliberate impression of antiquity, in which case OK, but phrases like, “transhistoricality must be a purely discursive phenomenon,” meant that I’m not sure.

    Lastly Dr Gobbitt gave us a spirited run-through of the survival of Lombard laws in the eleventh century in the form of a text known as the Liber leges langobardorum [sic], which gathered up the Edict of Rothari and various other bits of genuinely Lombardic legislation along with some laws of Charlemagne and a reasonable salting of historical material (much of it already travelling with Rothari), apparently all for study at or around Pavia in a kind of pre-Bologna legal college. He too emphasised variation: no two of the seven eleventh-century manuscripts gather quite the same materials or lay them out in the same way. This stuff was of interest to a range of people but their purposes were not all the same. Quite what those purposes were was work still to be done but the evidence base seemed well established.

Justice and Judicial Practices in Early Medieval North-Western Iberia (II): punishment and justice in Castile and León

  • Julio Escalona, “Follow the Money? Justice and Authority in the Sanction Clauses of Tenth-Century Castilian Charters”
  • Álvaro Carvajal Castro, “Authority and Liability in Ninth- and Tenth-Century North-Western Iberia: the evidence from the sanction clauses”
  • Igor Santos Salazar, “Rule Through Courts: the settlement of disputes in Castile and Tuscany during the tenth-century”
  • It would probably be hard to pick three Iberian-peninsula scholars who have worked harder to link up with other areas and fields, and especially the English-speaking world, than these three, but because of the occasion they had a substantially Iberian-peninsula audience too and this was probably as close as I shall get to attending a seminar in Spain until I can take a year out to improve my spoken languages or something, which is to say, valuable. Not least, of course, because this was effectively a charters session! Julio’s was illuminating: doing more or less the exercise I had done the previous year with Vic’s charters by going through the clauses in which they lay down what will happen to those who infringe the charter’s provisions, he noted that alongside the threats of excommunication, less common in sales than in donations as I too had found, there are many fines, levied largely in the name of the king. This being tenth-century Castile, however, the king was far away, and the count doesn’t turn up as much as you’d expect and was not clearly a royal delegate for these purposes. Instead, the money seems to have gone to local lords whom we otherwise struggle to identify, those much-vaunted ‘local élites’, domini, whom Julio argued should be the focus of our questions about community formation in these areas rather than the traditional village grouping of the alfoz. This paper had some seriously subversive connotations bubbling up out of those sanction clauses.

    Álvaro had meanwhile done something similar with charters from further west, in Asturias-León, and found a judicial system anchored in the same ideas but based very much on guarantee and surety, whether explicit or implicit; instructions on who was to pay if something went wrong show no particular regularity over whether actor or recipient, or either of their families, was expected to be liable. Instead, we have to assume that these situations were being judged, negotiated and arranged according to how people felt the various options which the traditional legal library gave them were best deployed in each case. Igor, meanwhile, lacking a precisely comparable charter base in Tuscany, looked instead at the actual trials there and in Castile, which was valuable because unlike in Julio’s documents, the counts of Castile rarely appear in actual court cases; instead, again, their roles were delegated down to locals, this presumably being one way in which the counts attached themselves to such communities via the local headmen whose station they thus enhanced.

I am absolutely fine with this, but what was interesting was the comparison with Italy, where Igor saw the same trick being played with a different deck of cards, a working system of public courts becoming less effective in the face of decentralising power and being met with a recentralisation via an overhaul of that system that linked local ‘judges’ to the kingship. There is here a bigger dynamic about what failing states do to regain traction in their localities, I think, and it’s one we could probably do with taking out and showing people. The role of the king was quite different in the two cases, being distant in Asturias and active in Tuscany, but then, the kings in Italy were already a local response to detachment from the bigger system of the Carolingian Empire to which, in its Ottonian form, attachment would soon resume… I think it works! And I’m also not sure I realised this at the time… That may of course have been because I had other things on my mind right then, not just lunch though that did indeed come next, but my own paper, because I was in fact up next, in this august company.

Medieval Iberia

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Ceremonies of Property Transfer in Carolingian Catalonia: a model of documented transaction”
  • James d’Emilio, “The Formulaic Clauses of Charters: tradition, variation and originality”
  • Laura Cayrol Bernando, “« Hermana del emperador »: (re)constructing the memory of the Infanta Sancha Raimundez (d. 1159)”

The voice of January 2018 now takes up the story…

    Predictably, my own paper in this session is the hardest for me to remember because I wasn’t making notes, but I’ve just re-read it and gosh-darn if it isn’t actually one of my better ones and I should probably send it out. What I was doing was something I’ve stabbed at here already, gathering up all the various testimonies I know from Catalan documents to the phenomenon specialists call reparatio scripturae, the replacement of documents that had been lost, and arguing that there is here evidence that not just churches but lay people went to some effort to get their friends and neighbours to remember not just the existence of charters but their actual textual content, and wondering what those efforts might have looked like. Josep María Salrach has already thrown a sentence or two away on this, but in the words of the late Captain Beefheart, “there’s more.” As I say, I should do something with this. Any suggestions?

    Monastery of San Julián de Samos

    It’s hard to think of images for a lot of these papers, given how much they were about concepts, but Professor D’Emilio’s one was at least partly located here at the monastery of San Julián de Samos, so here’s a picture! By José Antonio Gil Martínez from Vigo, GaliciaFlickr, CC BY 2.0, Link

    As to the other two speakers, James D’Emilio was on similar turf, but much later and in Castile; I was concerned about the apparent use of written formulae in my texts, but he can place some of his, from the Bible and Isidore of Seville. As that implies, his texts usually had grander aspirations and participants than mine, kings and bishops, but it’s still something to watch out for: who says charter formulae have to start in charters? Then Laura Cayrol Bernando looked at a different kind of creation of memory, using the vexed question of just what the infantado that royal heiresses in high medieval Castile held was, to expose quite late medieval processes of sanctification of female royal donors by their commemorating churches that have, basically, created the problems with that question. In the process, however, it showed how some family ties were remembered much longer than others because things like this hung upon them and so had active memorialisers. Because I was facing them, I don’t have much of a record of the questions from this session, and so without further ado I move on, as did we, to the second keynote address of the conference.

Keynote 2

Andrew Marsham, “Rituals of Accession in Early Islam: a comparative perspective”
With us all gathered in the same room again, Simon, may he rest well, introduced Andrew Marsham, who somewhat cautiously introduced his own attempt to imitate Jinty Nelson‘s early work on rituals of royal inauguration.1 Resting explicitly on that, he set out to try and compare her early medieval West to both Byzantium and Islam, using the moments at which a king, emperor or caliph assumed power to expose what people thought was most important about that office. He argued that all three political zones shared the Judæo-Christian inheritance of a conviction that power ultimately came from God, making the ruler in some way the representative of God on earth. In the West, this became a link that was mediated through the Church, by coronation and unction, even to the point where without the cooperation of churchmen kings could not in fact assume power sometimes; the same struggles do occur in Byzantium but the Church was never so clearly separate from the ruler’s control, and in Islam of course there is no Church, no liturgy as such, making other rituals like handclasping and popular acceptance much more significant, though they did operate in other areas too. Dr Marsham argued that what the caliphs lost, or saved themselves from, by not having that apparatus of religion to serve or obstruct them they however compensated for somewhat by also being the heirs of the Sasanian Persian monarchy, from which they could draw the representations of higher and divine power without which their office might have struggled to be free of direct interference from the ‘umma. I make this sound less tentative than I remember it being, but I didn’t think there was much wrong with it; Dr Marsham had been careful in stepping outside his own area and it was a thought-provoking lecture.

The Old Palace Hotel, Lincoln

The Old Palace Hotel, Lincoln

With that complete, we then wandered at varying length to the Old Palace, where a rather splendid dinner was set before us. I can remember thinking at point of registration that the cost of the dinner was fairly high, but the setting alone quickly explained why, and the food didn’t fall short either; looking back, I think that was probably money well spent. There were two sessions the next morning before we all dispersed, with hard choices to make about what to go to, but you’ll quickly see why I chose as I did. First up!

Justice and Judicial Practices in Early Medieval North-Western Iberia

  • Iñaki Martín Viso, “Authority and Justice in the Shaping of Asturleonese Monarchy”
  • Robert Portass, “Levels of Justice in Tenth-Century Northern Spain”
  • Fernando Luis-Corral & María Pérez Rodríguez, “Local Communities and the Uses of Justice in the Kingdom of León”
  • These are, as you can tell, my kind of questions and being asked of my period in a neighbouring area by some of the hot names in the field, so my choice was clear. Iñaki was looking at Asturias in its ninth-century expansion, and observing that while the kings are a big part of that so are counts and other nobles; he saw a difference between them in that the kings were always the highest court of judicial appeal, and managed often to claim overall hegemony in areas of new settlement even if they didn’t orchestrate it, but that even out there there were still areas where the kings held and could grant no lands because a count or a bishop had got there first; he pointed at Astorga and Coimbra for this. The following, and interesting, process, would thus be the one by which the various non-royal officers of justice in these areas were brought to recognise the king as their superior… Rob then brought out the judicial hearings from his pet area of Liébana, and argued that although office-holders like counts were visible in them they were often not the ones holding the court, which could be done by various individuals who had no ‘official’ right we can recognise except that they owned a lot of the local land; the local monastery was only one of these. Categories like ‘public’ and ‘private’ are really no use here, therefore. The paper involved a guy called Bagauda about whom I’ve written here before; I then thought that the obvious explanation of his position was that he owned the land the victims lived on, but Rob says that ain’t necessarily so. I need to read his book!2 And the last paper was a study of the enigmatic figures known as ‘worthy men’, boni homines, in the Iberian Peninsula’s charters, asking whether they were the tools of local communities or the means by which aristocrats asserted power over those communities. They concluded the latter, but without much attention to who the people in question actually were and how their position was manifested, and I felt quietly that if the speaker and his co-author had read, well, me, they’d have a more useful way of approaching this question.3

But the real worth of this session was the discussion, which was lengthy and erudite. I started by raising the point that power in Rob’s area need not have been solely economic, which Rob answered with a reflection about what actually made power here, and whether the ability to coordinate process or the ability to defy it was more ‘powerful’. I don’t think question an answer linked but both were good points if I do say so myself. Igor Santos asked if the fact that the winners write history means that we can’t see the weak in these trials, only the strong, but Iñaki asked if the Church, which is our source of record, must always be the strong party, and here again (as you may know) I agree. There then followed a lengthy tangle over what constituted the ‘public sphere’ in this area in this period, and specifically how the written law fitted into this, which was certainly not everywhere, and whether there was one ‘public sphere’ or many local senses of public practice, both questions raised by Julio Escalona. I suggested, as had Graham Barrett earlier, that law and custom were not necessarily separate either; the written law could be invoked as custom. But especially, because at this point I was still tangling with the questions about how someone powerful on the outside manoeuvered themselves into a local position of power in the frontier zones here at which I wrote at such length here a few years ago, I was interested in who set the limits of public office, and here Iñaki made a useful differentiation between sorts of royal property and rights that got me thinking, which Julio followed with the idea that kings and counts together tended to limit the number of people who could claim comital status. In both cases, it seemed to me (and seems) the crucial operation is to get other people recognising the rights you claim in your office. Afterwards, over coffee, Julio, Rob and I all agreed that this can be seen as convincing people that the public sphere you claim is the same one that they recognise. This is what the Asturian kings, and also the counts of Barcelona, achieved in the ninth and tenth centuries and I still want to know how. Then, onwards to the last session!

‘Del tuerto al dretto’: bridging the gap between lawcodes and society in the medieval Mediterranean world

  • Jeffrey Bowman, “Women Administering Justice in the High Middle Ages: a divergence of rule and practice”
  • Rodrigo García-Velasco, “Municipal Law at the Iberian frontier: the evidence of the fueros and cartas de población during the Iberian Reconquista, c. 1050-c.&nbsp:1150″
  • Belen Vicens, “Infançones, franchos, and Wannabees: rethinking status and identity in late medieval Aragón”
  • Here, of course, I had to be because I have learnt a lot from one of the participants, taught another and knew nothing of the third, all good reasons and the more so once combined. Professor Bowman was pointing out an obvious but neglected thing, that though as far as most of the rules on the subject we have from the Middle Ages say that women could not sit in judgement over men, they did nevertheless sometimes do so in the persons of countesses and viscountesses and probably more. Sometimes people argued about this: a legal specialist dealing with Matilda of Canossa wisely decided that her office carried the jurisdiction but in a case involving Ermengarde of Narbonne it went all the way to the king of France, who used it as a way to claim Narbonne as part of the French crown! There was, basically, usually a way to make it work whatever the rules said and fighting it as illegitimate doesn’t usually seem to have worked, which is worth keeping around to think with.

    Cathedral of SS Just & Pastor, Narbonne

    I like this picture of Narbonne Cathedral so much that even this weak excuse will do to use it again. By Benh LIEU SONG (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

    Rodrigo was looking at the various concessions of rights and local jurisdiction by kings that we group as fueros, a term that has come simply to mean ‘laws’ so commonly were these issued, and asking where the balance of power lay between the locals whose rights were here asserted and the kings who apparently granted them. He argued, however, that the texts we have represent a step after the balance had been found and agreed, and that the real processes of power lay in the circumstances that had led to the text’s issue. Again, the question of how to convince a potential subject you and they shared a sphere of power arises, which is of course why I cite Rodrigo’s work sometimes, but there was argument in questions about whether the fueros were somehow a bridge between the two public spheres or just an incentive dangled before the ungoverned by those who would govern them.4 Then the last paper looked at an episode of 1248 in which a number of people claiming free status were reduced to serfdom by royal judgement; the speaker argued that this was an exercise of consolidation of definitions of freedom which had previously been vague, imposing rules which left some people on the wrong side, and that trying to read the rules back from such cases was a mistake. That was why there needed to be a hearing! Well, maybe, but it was a good place to end.

And since thereafter we all said our goodbyes and dispersed, me towards the rather splendid cathedral—possibly the most impressive in the UK, but I sadly without my camera—and then the railway station, it’s where I have to end too, closing an era of far-too-intensive reporting in the hope that you can see why I found it all worthwhile to do. Next post: the new régime!

West front of Lincoln Cathedral

Likewise this one! Lincoln Cathedral’s west front, by Anthony Shreeve public domain via Wikimedia Commons


1. Collected in Janet L. Nelson, Politics and Ritual in Early Medieval Europe (London 1986).

2. It being Robert Portass, The Village World of Early Medieval Northern Spain: local community and the land market, Royal Historical Society Studies in History: New Series (Woodbridge 2017). In fact, two different journals have asked me if I wanted to review this, and I said no, partly because I know Rob too well, partly because I didn’t have time and mainly because I had already got myself a copy when I finally got round to paying my first subscription to the Royal Historical Society, which published it. Of course that still doesn’t mean I’ve read it, but I do intend to!

3. Specifically, if they’d read Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power, Royal Historical Society Studies in History: New Series (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 35-36 & n. 55.

4. The work of Rodrigo’s that I cite is his “Legislation and Resistance: limitations of royal power on the Catalan and Aragonese frontiers, 986–1134”, M.St. dissertation (University of Oxford 2013), which I had the fun of supervising, but I think he would say that his thinking has moved on a bit now and I await the completion of his doctoral thesis keenly! No pressure, Rodrigo…

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Models for a public academy

Student protests in London 2011 behind book-cover shields

At least some people still believe the humanities can defend themselves…

This is another post that represents a long thought process, and not a very conclusive one. Towards the end of 2012 I was becoming gloomy about the state of the academy, probably not least because of grave doubts over my future place in it, but also because of the various UK government initiatives that seemed set to make life in it harder and less honest, about which there’s been better commentary than mine would be. In Oxford, where I then still was, this was for many taking the form of wondering if the university might be able to go it alone, partly out of frustration at what the pressure to meet and manage targets was doing to the size of the administrative establishment even as money for teaching and research was being cut, but also out of the ability of some commentators to come up with costings that made it look as if even Oxford was unlikely to get back in research money as determined by the REF what it had put in in staff time and effort and lost research time. And if not Oxford, then who? And so on. And it all had me thinking if there might be a way to envisage a future university which did not have the reins held by government money in this way.

I am now further out of this bubble than I was in December 2012, though you can see that even much later I was still smarting with this kind of logic, but back then I was reflecting on the double-edged sword of the problems history has generating the kind of ‘impact’ on public policy now demanded by the government for its money and the continually steady recruitment this supposedly useless degree manages in so many places. History is, as Magistra put it in a different context, a cash cow, even if it’s still probably not possible to teach it at university level as a money-making enterprise except to the very rich. Still, it is usually facilities-light (no labs) and student-heavy, and this tells us surely that we are not without impact, that people think history can be useful to them (for, for example, stopping people believing rubbish) or is just interesting, and this is also suggested by the fact that books on it sell, even books with footnotes. Book sales and student recruitment are of course not counted as measures of impact, which is vexing because it is the most obvious impact we have, on people’s minds and memories.

The obvious conclusion I was being led to in December 2012 was that it might be possible, then, to operate academic history research on some kind of broad-based public subscription model. Kickstarter had just started operating in the UK, too, so some kind of model for how it might be done now existed: a plea passed around blogs and Twitter, per project. You’d have to be good at explaining why it was interesting and what your project would find out, and you’d hope to get conventional publication out of it (of which free copies would need to be available for some of the subscribers I guess), but the primary communication of progress and results would be online, with people who genuinely cared and had the best reason so to do. It might be really quite energising, if also probably exhausting, and it would escape the national constraints of so much current funding.

But after a while I realised that what it could not be is big. It would have to meet the salary and travel costs of each researcher; a year’s work probably costs £40,000, then, living fairly cheaply (because of course, unless this is still happening inside the university, you have a lot of costs for access to published materials, for the reasons we’ve just discussed). Kickstarter currently has about £190,000,000 pledged to it (says Wikipedia as of today, with conversion from dollars by UCC), and while that’s obviously not the same as money actually paid, let’s just assume for a second that that is a reasonable sum to think this initiative could raise, after the same sort of growth period. That is a university sector, a whole international university sector, sciences and all, of 4,750 researchers. The UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency says that there are currently 185,535 academics employed in the UK alone, and while I’ve no idea whom they count in or out, it is still two orders of magnitude bigger than all that Kickstarter money could fund.

In any case, Kickstarter’s median funding level is in the four figures of dollars (says Wikipedia again), so pursuing that analogy means that we’re looking at maybe funding two months’ of work, not a year’s. That means six times as many individual projects but the £190,000,000 was Kickstarter’s sum for the year, not two months, so that’s the same people doing six projects a year to stay afloat. There are all kinds of bits of this comparison that don’t join up but it’s not at all encouraging. It seems more than likely that any academy that operated thus, in direct service of public pockets, would have to be dramatically smaller than the one we currently possess, or else funded substantially by commercial interests. So we are not going to get free this way.

This was my conclusion when I happened across one of Eileen Joy’s many manifestos for the university outside the university that she has herself started creating. Because of her willingness to put her lack of money where her mouth is in this respect, I take Eileen’s vision seriously: if she can live by it, so may others be able to. Despite this, she and I have never seen eye-to-eye about the scalability of such alternatives, and finding myself at the end of the same thread of apparently-inexorable arithmetic, I wrote a long comment. It was so long that I decided it was in fact part of this post, and so here it is:

“The numbers game is the problem, of course. In at least one Utopia the university is a social and economic organisation that permits scholars to focus on the production of, well, let’s not say knowledge but insight, without having to hustle for a living first and foremost. I’m going to claim that teaching is part of that process, too, though it mires us in awkward ethical positions about trying to reproduce ourselves or create structures that make our education ‘vocational’ by making spaces for our pupils, many of whom are as worthy of them as we are. When the numbers don’t add up any more to make the ideal possible, though (and to be honest I’m not clear how they ever did, or how any government ever accepted the Haldane Principle), that lack of trammeling of our work and thought is first to go, of course. At that point, and especially at this point, abandoning the structure looks like the useful and ethical thing to do. But we will still have to hustle to pay to do our work on the outside. Even if we run as vagabond scholars living on publishing and generosity, we are still selling to live and that means someone is buyer. Who’s free to think, then?”

What a cheerful man, eh? And this is all damn discouraging, but what I have also been noticing is that not everyone is being discouraged even so. Eileen is obviously the most encouraged and encouraging, but the search for direct access to the public purse to solve the problems of dealing with its appointed guardians has still been happening. The first link I had for this is now half-invisible behind a paywall, so I can no longer see what the exact basis for the headline “Crowdsourcing the search for some missing royalty” is, and I think it may be labour rather than funding. Still, it’s a way, and it seems to have done fairly well for what is now the Irish Archaeology field School. And then there was this:

Section of the PHD Comics cartoon for 6th May 2013

Section of a PHD Comics cartoon on just this issue

Again, that’s science, but in the public marketplace the two cultures punch much more equally, I think. And yet all the same the numbers are what the numbers are and I don’t feel that I’ve given up hope prematurely. This may be the way a small bit of the sector now goes. It may at least prevent us from returning to a Victorian academy where privately-funded scholars do most of the interesting, but often problematic because unchecked, work and propagate it via learned societies, but the academy it enables will still be very painfully shrunk. And yet larger alternatives still fail to be imagined

Mission statements 1: artistic licence

This happens a fair bit, but I have just seen it happen again: someone is asking, from the inside, what the point in being a historian is. I mean, that’s what the post is really about, but because we all really know that—viz, that it floats our personal intellectual boats to find stuff out that was once known and is now recoverable only by an exercise of skill that makes us feel smug as well as enlightened—the question is more how to justify doing that to the general public, especially when the question of HE funding and their tax bill comes to the fore. In other words, how do we answer the question, what have the historians ever done for us?

Well, I have heard various answers and liked none of them. The first one is that which we all fear: that actually, in a market-dominated age, you can’t justify the study of the past, especially the medieval past. Modern history might have something to teach you about the world now but the Middle Ages are pretty much about how it got that way, if that, and things were just too different then for it be relevant. At least so “they” say.

Against this there are two defences. The first and better is that the study of history teaches a critical faculty, allows one to assess the possibility that the sources are lying or misinformed, and if you’re lucky also provides you with informative and interesting parallels to your own experience while you’re at it. But this doesn’t answer the question of why medieval history: in fact, the more sources the better, really, so modern history would be more justifiable with this than medieval.

Also, it doesn’t work so well for higher education as it does for history in schools. By the time they leave school our pupils would ideally already have the critical faculty, in the same way as university maths departments protest when a new intake lack basic arithmetical skills. I always felt, when I was an undergraduate, that I’d learnt all that really needed learning in English Literature when I was at school, because now I had enough skills and mental tools to take apart a text myself to the limits of what could be known about it. I suppose I should have taken note of the fact that I never believed the same about texts in history, but then there’s the increased (supposedly) interface with the actual lived past to account for. English Lit. is about getting to the heart of a text; history is about getting to its heart and going through to the world beyond, which presumes that the real world is reflected in the text in a way with which a literary text would not be concerned. I don’t know how safe a presumption that is, in fact, but certainly few of us would favour a source we thought to be fictional over one we thought to be sincere, yes? So even if the edges of this division are fuzzy, finding clearly defined space is easy enough.

Anyway. At that rate, the only point in historical research would be the progressive problematisation of our source material. If we ever achieved understanding and orthodoxy we’d cancel out the gain from criticism. So although I cling to it as a hope of something I may achieve in the classroom, I don’t think it explains why Joe Taxpayer should feel he’s doing something useful when he learns that the British Academy give me research money. (You never know, it’s happened before.)

So the alternative defence is that it leads to a greater understanding of what it means to be human. That is, it’s like literature, the study of the people of the past opens a window on the human condition. Or, better, because then you can claim to be a social science, it’s like anthropology, the customs and practices of the study group of past populations, as obtained through the particular practice that is historical study, contribute to a grand picture of what humans are and do in society. Only, even anthropologists don’t believe that’s what they’re doing any more do they? There was no Ursociety to be reflected in modern survival populations, and thus neither in past ones. And such anthropologists as I know and talk to have trouble crediting historians with anything like the scientific aims that some claim to have.

PhD Comics strip for 3rd September 2007

Well, fair enough I say. We’re not scientists, at least I’m not. I use science, I have methods that owe a lot to science, I build and fill databases fer losh sakes and so on, but any definition of science that allows what I do to count—with no control groups, no ways to conclusively test theories except whether they fit the (statistically insignificant) data well enough to get away with it—is no kind of science I want to be part of. A bit Groucho Marx but you get my point: this is an arts subject. And what’s the point of art? To make people feel better. There is no other. It can all be put to a purpose, but it doesn’t inherently have one and often such a purpose will distort the purity of the art in question (although I freely admit, sometimes that distortion is an enhancement).

At which rate, is not the actual point is that combination of smugness and enlightenment I mentioned that we get when we come closer to what we think is a truth about how things were? You can explain it many ways—hearing a voice from the past, touching someone’s life long gone, or even finding something recognisable in an alien culture, but you know what I mean. The buzz. And we teach others how to get it.

So where does that leave Joe, and is there a point for research in this construction? Well, yes. What distinguishes history from literature at that rate is that we think we’re accessing a truth. I realise that this is contentious, that some current theory would rather stress that because our knowledge is imperfect we shouldn’t fool ourselves we’re in with a chance of reaching any actual facts, if there are even such a thing. I continue to insist that that’s what we’re trying to do.

(And I think there are some facts, or at least things that we can treat as such. Only missing-years theorists would say that Charlemagne was not crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope on Christmas Day 800, for example. We can argue endlessly about what those things all mean but we could agree on that much. At my end of the scale, when Sarra of Gurb is recorded in a charter selling land that neighboured on some belonging to an heir of hers, I don’t see any point questioning that she and her heir both existed, as she turns up in other documents, although I admit that without perfect evidence I don’t know for sure that she had any right to the land, or that the land transfer she makes in the charter was ever actually carried out.)

So we hunt the truth, and we feel good about finding it. Jeff Sypeck feels he’s achieved something getting closer to Charlemagne, I put together the surviving pieces of the career of an insignificant landowner called Adalbert of Taradell, and in him I have exhumed someone from of the records and stood him up, and even if it’s only a cardboard cutout that partly reflects one face of who he was, what he did and where he did it, and how he set up to face death, I think I’ve found some truth that we didn’t have before. We’re after the truth. It even makes it sound like a noble pursuit again, doesn’t it?

But, the big question. Our truth is not very useful. (Jeff’s is more useful than mine though.) Why should it matter to good ol’ Joe? Apart from, perhaps, the somewhat weak argument I use on my webpages, that people are per se interesting and this way we find extra ones, and (what I don’t say there) usually in the past the data is so limited that it’s easy to know all that is possible to know about them, which you can never manage with the living. What if Joe has enough people, and no time to read about more? What, apart from breeding competition for my own job (ha!) and lowering the market value of a degree, am I doing?

The only way we get round this is outreach. I once said that I had to go into medieval research, because otherwise I just ranted at people in pubs about stuff, and this way at least I kept it safely in tutorials or conferences. But the pub ranting is important. When Dan Brown writes a book, and it’s historically rubbish, we are expected to be able to say something about it; people do actually want to know. How many times have you, if you’re a medievalist, been asked for example, whether Arthur existed, how much truth lies behind the Robin Hood legends, whether King John was really as bad as that, what Magna Carta actually is, whether the Crusaders weren’t really just in it for the money, or equivalent non-English things? (Not counting “where was Carolingia anyway?” which I’ve had a few times too often.) I mean, people want to know. And because they want to know, they want us to know. But we have to be ready to tell them. We have to be available, not just to students and people paying, but to the people who maybe contributed a few pence in taxes to our education, or who just keep up my place of work‘s visitor numbers and thus help keep it going. Their payback is our knowledge. So we have to put it on the web, explain things at parties, the same questions over and over; it is how we give back for being allowed to spend our time doing something that, even though people like to know it, has no authentic use whatsoever. (And this also entails trying not to have to give the answer, “it’s not really my period”, however true that is. Is that how people should think of historians, people with fields so narrow you can’t find them in conversation? I hope not.)

It comes down to this. Knowing stuff is fun; pass it on. And I’m sure we most of us are. But sometimes, a post like the one I started by referencing tries to ask a bigger question, about a purpose in society or whatever. Well, OK, sure, we have at least one; but it’s the same one as novelists, artists, musicians and sculptors. We have access to stuff that people like to feed their brains with. Less, in some ways, than the authentically creative; but more, because we draw on so much past creativity and effort. We like to think it’s the truth, and perhaps it often is, but that’s just what we have to sell; a particularly rarefied form of entertainment and enlightenment. The thing I’m trying to say is that selling it puts us into the market, and we can’t make it there. To transcend the question of what history’s worth, we have to be all about giving it for free. Or so I think, anyway. Whether you agree or not, the bloggings will continue until morale improves.