Tag Archives: students

A Collector’s Cabinet

Sorry for the gap in posting, as so often; marking and a professional need to finish up some publications have coincided in an awkward way. But another one is now off to readers so I can manage a quick post, and the one that is up next is the one where I explain what I did with the discovery mentioned a couple of posts ago that the University of Leeds has its own coin collection with which, when I arrived in post in late 2015, no-one was doing anything much. As explained there, for various reasons I couldn’t just start doing it myself, but I could try to get money for someone else to do it, and that is indeed what happened.

Obverse of a silver penny of King Harold II of England struck at Canterbury in 1066, SCBI 21 1105

One of the coins from the collection I’ve used, a silver penny of King Harold II of England struck at Canterbury in 1066 (as it would have to have been); here the obverse…

Reverse of a silver penny of King Harold II of England struck at Canterbury in 1066, SCBI 21 1105

… and here the reverse, hopefully but inaccurately proclaiming PAX, ‘peace’! The coin is published as SCBI 21 1105.1

There were various funding sources I considered for this, but the one that eventually looked like the best bet was a scheme that is now spread to quite a few universities, the Laidlaw Undergraduate Research and Leadership Scholarships. These are a bit more than your normal involve-the-undergraduates-in-a-research project affairs: though that is the core of them, they aim help people who otherwise could not get to the top of society, to create new educated critically-thinking leaders for the future from all levels of society. To that end, as well as the research project, there is also a whole set of leadership training activities designed to ensure that the lucky recipients would be able to take charge of any situation in which they should find themselves with all the wit and intelligence that the best undergraduate educations should imbue. It’s a powerful mission, and one which, in this iteration, involved a range of activities under the heading of ‘cultural capital’, visits to things like theatre, opera, wine-tastings and so on that were meant to equip the person who has never experienced those things with the familiarity that will prevent those who have, and think they’re important markers of education and distinction, from dismissing these new leaders; in short, to give them the tools to level with elitist snobs. I’m not sure whether this is to reinforce or to undermine the British class system, but as someone with many stories of such exclusion, some even my own, I see its power. It’s also fascinating that the language we have for it has to come from 1980s French anthropology, too; we ourselves couldn’t look at it that closely, it seems.2 Now, for better or for worse, that seems to have been dropped from these scholarships in favour of an international component, which may be better directed toward the future I suppose. But, dear reader, I digress.

The Winchester coin cabinet, in Special Collections, the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

The Winchester Cabinet, in the strongroom of the Brotherton Library, in all its slightly wonky eighteenth-century glory (the cabinet, not the strongroom)

Whatever the wider social intent of this scheme, then, the core of it is still a research project, on which it will pay a student to work for twelve weeks spread over two years. So, all the way back in January 2016, I looked at the coin collection, for something that was a self-contained unit that could fill that much work but still produce something, and I lit upon the Winchester Cabinet, which is a rather fancy thing to have in a collection. It is actually a single big coin cabinet, complete with about three thousand coins, which were amassed and put in this same cabinet by one William Eyre in the late eighteenth century. At his death the cabinet was bequeathed to Winchester Cathedral, where he had apparently been a lay canon; they tinkered only minimally with it for nearly two centuries and then in 1954 decided to sell it the University of Leeds.3 So we have not just the coins but a collection, self-contained and almost closed since 1780 or so, of known provenance and association, whose collector could himself be an intriguing subject of study. Knowing that collectors are the hot thing in museums at the moment, and putting aside for a moment my reservations about privileging more or less modern human beings and their interests over the actual historical things we physically immediately have and what they might tell us, I decided that this was our hook, and so I wrote a proposal for a project called “Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet” and sent it in to see who would bite. And it got selected, so quite quickly I wound up interviewing several eager students all of whom wanted in on this opportunity, all of which was quite flattering but rather unexpected.

Laidlaw Undergraduate Research Leadership Scholar Emma Herbert-Davies promoting the Winchester Cabinet project

Emma Herbert-Davies promoting the scheme with, as her Twitter feed explains, the aid of Emperor Antoninus Pius, and whose better could there be?

Well, the successful applicant was one Emma Herbert-Davies, who has been exactly the kind of star we rather expected she would be; she has put in far more work on this collection than we could ever have paid her for and become quite the face of the Leeds coin collection, leaving me as the kind of scheming Brian Wilson in the background (which is fine by me). She’s catalogued quite a chunk of the cabinet, including many different numismatic cultures and areas, and I don’t know how many papers she’s given on this now but I know that it’s more numismatics papers than I have. Emma is not the first person I’ve trained up from zero as a numismatist, and I bet she won’t be the last, but she’s certainly the one who’s so far become best known in numismatic circles and here, again, the student may well have outstripped the teacher. So, I will not steal her thunder here, I will just point you to her work, which is what all the money and study went towards. Firstly, there has been since October 2017, should you be in Leeds and willing to negotiate your way into the Brotherton Library, an actual physical display of some of the coins, mostly with Emma’s captions and selections but also with two of my own; I’ll post something else about this soon when I have better photos, but meanwhile here is one of Emma’s.

The Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet exhibition, curated by Emma Herbert-Davies and Jonathan Jarrett, in Special Collections, the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

The Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet exhibition, curated by Emma Herbert-Davies and your humble author, in Special Collections, the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

But, in case you are not in Leeds or have no such library card, there is also a virtual exhibition, with more material in it, which showcases not just Emma’s grasp of the general interest of the coins but also our Library’s rather good digitization; it looks pretty smart and you can zoom in to an almost silly degree. So if you have some time and like coins, do click through and give Emma your web-traffic! I am very pleased with what we have, and by that I mainly mean she, has been able to do here.


1. Which, for those of you not fluent in UK numismatist, is Elizabeth Pirie (ed.), Coins in Yorkshire Collections: Part I, Coins from Northumbrian Mints, c. 895–1279; Part II, Ancient British Issues and Later Coins from other English, Irish, and Scottish Mints to 1279, Sylloge of Coins of the British Isles 21 (London 1975), no. 1105.

2. The originator being Pierre Bourdieu, as in his “Ökonomisches Kapital, kulturelles Kapital, soziales Kapital” in Reinhard Kreckel (ed.), Soziale Ungleichheiten, Soziale Welt Sonderheft 2 (Göttingen 1983), pp. 183-198, trans. Richard Nice as “The Forms of Capital” in John G. Richardson (ed.), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (New York City NY 1986), pp. 241–258, whence online here.

3. We have (and again I mainly mean Emma Herbert-Davies has) found out quite a lot about the cabinet, its original owner and its subsequent history, but I have to admit that why this happened no-one has been able to tell us.

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Available for supervision

It’s the start of term and I have been away and everything is frantic, there is scarcely time even for a short post. But I have been meaning to post this for quite a while, and this doesn’t seem like a bad time. I have, of course, supervised student research, a number of undergraduate dissertations and a slightly larger number of Master’s theses, two of which, I’m glad to say, produced potentially publishable material. I have also had part-care of a few other people’s doctoral students, but up till now, with the years in this post hopefully stretching out ahead of me, I have never been able to offer full supervision of a doctoral thesis. But now I can!

Declaration of supervision interests: "I can offer supervision in most areas of research covering early and central medieval Europe in the West and the Byzantine Empire, and am slowly trying to close the gap. I am particularly interested in research questions involving frontiers, the Iberian Peninsula, the Carolingian Empire, coinage or charters or any combination of the above!"

Screenshotted just now from my Leeds profile page, linked through

A long time ago there used to be postgraduate students who read this blog, there may be yet. If you’re interested in what I’m interested in and want to take that interest further, consider the University of Leeds and its Institute of Medieval Studies, and get in touch if you want to know more…

Link

An insider’s view of Lichfield cathedral

Special Subject Field Trip to Lichfield Cathedral, 19th March 2014: Swords, Hoards and Overlords: Anglo-Saxon England and its Neighbours in the Age of Bede

One of the two courses I ran at Birmingham last year was a two-term option on early Anglo-Saxon England, taken up to more or less the death of Bede. I got handed that remit as part of my contract negotiations and if it had not already been advertised, I think I’d have stretched it to reach King Alfred, but it was still fun, I had an excellent group for it who remained interested throughout, and the person who had designed the initial offering, none other than Peter Darby, had built in two slots for field trips. The first of those was to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery to get up close to the Staffordshire Hoard, but the other had not been fixed, so I cast about and thought of Lichfield Cathedral. This was a splendid idea: the chapter did a great job with us, including not just making sure we saw more bits of the Hoard, the St Chad’s Gospels and the Lichfield Angel, but letting us in places others might not get to go. And, since we had been awarded money to cover the travel, the School of History and Cultures demanded a student report on it that they could use for publicity on a specially-created blog, and one of my students, Alex Tweddle, bravely stepped up to write it around my photographs. It took a little while to go online: I didn’t help by thinking it would be best to send the relevant person actual HTML and a ZIP folder of image files, in whose use I then had to train them… It still shows the signs, alas. But since April it’s been up!

Dilbert cartoon for 9th November 1995

I always think of this cartoon in such moments, but had forgotten its medievalist reference point…

Alex’s text is almost embarrassingly fulsome but I’m quite pleased with the photos (one choice one set as header), and it was a marvellous opportunity, so perhaps you’d like to go and have a look?

A threat to learning that we rarely consider

Old Scary-Go-Round `Bears Will Eat You' t-shirt artwork

I have some sort of rule about not featuring my students on this blog, as you may have observed. It’s not fair on them to be identifiable in such a fashion, I figure, and looks unprofessional and gossipy. Sometimes, however, just sometimes, the exigencies of due credit require a breach of this rule. I cannot, cannot pass up the chance to blog this gem that one of my students the term before last found in the reading, and since I hadn’t seen it myself I think she deserves credit. I have checked with her and she’s cool with that so all due praise to her and on we go. I quote no-one less than Giles Constable:

… there was an active exchange of manuscripts among religious houses in the twelfth century. Peter the Venerable wrote to the Carthusians in 1136/7 asking for a volume of the letters of St Augustine ‘because by accident a bear ate a large part of ours in one of our dependencies’.69



69 Peter the Venerable, Ep. 25, ed. Constable, I, 47; see the notes in II, 112.

This only goes to prove that Carl was right, as so often, to warn us all from Got Medieval: “When you least expect it… expect BEARS!!!” Though how one got a taste for Augustine, I guess that Peter sadly felt it unedifying to explain…


The quote from Giles Constable, The Reformation of the Twelfth Century, Trevelyan Lectures 1985 (Cambridge 1996), p. 222, cit. Jane Cahill, “Why did the monastic ideal exercise such a potent influence upon both clergy and laity before c. 1200?”, unpublished essay for the course ‘General History II: the formation of medieval Christendom, 1000-1300‘, 1st November 2011; Constable’s reference is to Constable (ed.), The Letters of Peter the Venerable, Harvard Historical Studies 78 (Cambridge 1967), 2 vols.

The so-called Google Generation debunked: libraries better worry

The British Library buildings at St Pancras

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