Tag Archives: teaching

Chronicle III: January to March 2016

I’m sorry there was no blog last weekend. Frustratingly, the thing I spent that time on now isn’t going to work out, so I’m determined to make sure there is a post this weekend, and the post that is due is the next round-up of my academic life, which has now reached 2016. It has been five months since I posted the last of these three-month slices, and the only real consolation there is that it took me less time to get through those three months of blog content than it did the previous one, but we will hopefully still see further gains made as marking ebbs and the summer shapes up. Can but hope, eh? But meanwhile, here’s how it looked at the beginning of 2016 for your humble blogger.

Teaching

It’s not just tradition but also a reflection of the real state of life that the first item on the bill is always teaching. Actually, in the first half of 2016 I had a lower teaching load than I have had since or likely ever will at Leeds, given what they need me to cover; I was running one module, albeit a big one, and contributing bits to a couple of others. That said, the beginning of the semester was still a fairly steep learning curve, as the module I was running was an inherited first-year course called Empire and Aftermath: The Mediterranean World from the Second to the Eighth Centuries, and even my undergraduate study experience only previously went back to AD 284; I’d never done the second or third centuries before in any context, let alone one where I needed to show expertise. Thankfully I had the help of two postgraduates who’d taught the module before and that made everything easier, although I did also have to second-mark and observe those postgraduates so they were not solely a labour relief. It was all a fair bit of work, and it coincided with the early part of the excellent but intensive Palaeography: Reading Medieval Manuscripts that we put our MA students through, which has continuous assessment. Furthermore, Leeds has examinations on the first semester’s modules as soon as the students get back in January, so I was reading up for the new stuff and choosing manuscript images for palæography at the same time as marking these exam scripts, and by the time I was done with those the first palæography assignments were in, and they were only just back to the students by the time the first-years’ formative essays came in, alongside the second palæography assignments… and in general it seemed a long time before the marking stopped.

Wolfenbüttel MS Codex Guelfybertiani 13, fo. 6v

One that was set; can you read this? Come to Leeds and we’ll teach you! But if you want to know more independently, it is Wolfenbüttel MS Codex Guelfybertiani 13, folio 6 verso, and you can find out more via the link through the image

In between these I fitted a couple of workshops for an Institute for Medieval Studies module, Medieval Narratives on the Modern World, on European national origin myths and on the so-called Reconquista, but those were fun and much less work. And there were also personal tutorials to be fitted in, to which only half the students turn up but of course you must book the time anyway, and feedback meetings, and also joint care of a visiting Chinese Ph. D. student. I felt fairly busy. Still, looking back, I was not carrying very much and the next year would have been much harder if I hadn’t had this run-up.

Extra Labours

That must also be how I had time for the other things I was doing. In particular, having found out that there was this coin collection in the bottom of the Library, I had resolved to make it part of my teaching, and so one of the few changes I did make to Empire and Aftermath was to turn one of the seminars into a coin-handling session to try and get people excited about the reality of the period in their hands. I’m not sure how well that worked, though commendably both my postgrad assistants leapt at the chance to be able to say they’d taught with coins and did some crash-course Roman numismatics with me, which made me feel useful. More prosaically, in the state of the collection there wasn’t really a way to find out what there was to teach with except to inventory it, so I put aside my Friday afternoons for most of this period to inventory the medieval, Byzantine and late Roman coins and got through a fair few. Some day soon I will get round to sorting out the photographs I took of the cool ones…

Copper-alloy 40-nummi of Emperor Constans II overstruck at Constantinople in 641-642 on a coin of Emperor Heraclius, DOC II Constans II 59c, Leeds, Brotherton Library, uncatalogued

Here is one that perhaps only I could think is cool, a horribly-made copper-alloy 40-nummi of Emperor Constans II overstruck at Constantinople in 641-642 on a coin of Emperor Heraclius, DOC II Constans II 59c, Leeds, Brotherton Library, uncatalogued

There was also other stuff involving coins. Back at the Barber Institute the process of replacing me had unfortunately crossed with their normal exhibition schedule, so my humble effort, Inheriting Rome, was extended for a few months to give the new curator a chance. I got to see my thus-prolonged exhibition again because there were still two more sessions of the now-legendary All That Glitters project to do, about which I will tell you shortly, and of course back at Leeds this was also the time in which I started the wheels turning on the project that would become Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet. My head of department was actually concerned that I was going to spend all my time doing late antique numismatics and not the research on whose basis I’d been hired, which I didn’t see as a serious worry because, at this point, there was still time and I used it on stuff that was interesting and useful for others as well as for me.

Other people’s work

I was also at this point still managing to travel for seminars a bit, and I have a lot of notes from this period that I’m not really going to say much more about. The itinerary looked like this, though:

  • Katherine Cross, Dominic Dalglish and Robert Bracey, “Images, Relics and Altars: comparing material religion on the first millennium”, Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, 20th January 2016, to which I went mainly because Robert is an All That Glitters collaborator, but at this stage he was also busy with a project called Empires of Faith, which was doing the kind of cross-cultural comparison implied by their title here, with Katy Cross bringing early English Christian monuments like the Gosforth Cross to the table, Dominic Dalglish coming from the ancient Mediterranean world and Robert from Kushan India, but here talking as much about what made for valid comparison in this set-up as the actual objects. This was interesting but the results of the project can now be investigated on the web, so I’ll leave this one aside and move on to…
  • Hugh Kennedy, “ISIS and the Early Caliphate”, Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages Annual Public Lecture, University of Birmingham, 27th January 2016, to which I travelled down and which I thoroughly enjoyed, but which needs treatment together with…
  • Julia McClure, “A New Politics of the Middle Ages: a global Middle Ages for a global modernity”, Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, 3rd February 2016, also substantially about the way people were reading the Middle Ages into the situation in the Middle East at that time, but approaching it from a very different direction. So I’ll do a post about those two together.
  • I also made it down to London for Alex Rodríguez Suárez, “The Komnenian Emperors: a Latinophone dynasty”, Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, 11th February 2016, about the extent of the changes brought about in Byzantine court ceremonial under, especially, Manuel I Komnenos that would be attributed to Latin influence, which Dr Rodríguez wanted, I think rightly, to read as appropriation of ways to assert dominance over the new Latin lords in the Middle East, not an aping of their flashy chivalric habits as they have often carelessly been read. That seemed convincing to me but I don’t have much more to say about it, so on to a clutch of things back at Leeds, as follows:
  • Pat Cullum, “‘Looking the Part’: presentation and representation of clerical masculinity in late medieval England”, Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, 24th February 2016;
  • Esther Eidinow, “Seeing into the Future? Oracles and the Ancient Greeks”, Classics Seminar, University of Leeds, 25th February 2016, about ancient Greek stories in which oracles were tested before being consulted for real, pushing at the edges of our categories of rational and irrational, interesting and my first step in a plan to make friends with my counterparts in Classics and Ancient History;
  • Natalie Anderson, “Tournament Trappings: Textiles and Armour Working Together in the Late Medieval Joust”, Medieval Group Seminar, University of Leeds, 7th March 2016, the culminating presentation by one of our Ph.D. students then about to finish and very much a mature piece of work about the ways in which combatants in late medieval tournaments displayed and distinguished themselves, which was as much or more a matter of fabric as the armour that more often now remains to us.
  • Then, back to London again to see a big name, Philippe Buc, “Eschatology, War and Peace: of Christ’s Armies, Antichrist and the End of Times between ca. 1095 and ca. 1170″, Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, 10th March 2016, arguing for a change in the way that medieval people thought about the oncoming end of the world that occurred with Crusading, in which it becoming OK to kill for God was itself a sign of the end times, but one that could last for quite a long while, setting up the fight that would now go on until everyone was Christian and the End finally came. I remember this being fun and extremely erudite, but looking back over my notes I’m not sure what I have to add to that summary, so it’s back to Leeds for two more to close the season, the relevant items being:
  • Travelling the World: from Apuleius to the Icelandic Sagas, from the picaresque novel to travel literature, a more substantial seminar in Classics whose separate components were:
    • Regine May, “Travelling to the Land of Witches: Apuleius’s Golden Ass“, about Thessaly’s Classical reputation as a hotbed of magic and sorcery and how travel might thus lead you out of the known world in several dimensions, and
    • Ros Brown-Grant, “Encounters between the East and West in Fifteenth-Century Manuscript Cultures”, on pictures of Westerners meeting Easterners either in West of East as imagined by Western manuscript artists, usually for tales of betrayal where Greeks were concerned or conversion where Muslims were, sort of inevitably.
  • and finally, Ross Balzaretti, “Early Medieval Charters as Evidence for Land Management Practices”, Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, 16th March 2016, to which I would have gone even had it been further afield since Ross has been a supporter of mine for a long time and I am very interested in his work, but precisely because it’s quite similar to my own, I’m not going to do a detailed write-up here because it would look a lot like, “Ross’s charters say things like mine do!” It was good, but you can already read the same sort of thing here.

My Own Research?

So that brings us to the end of the timespan, and I have only promised three extra posts out of it this time, though actually there are also one news and two tourism posts that should also be fitted in there. But what is as ever missing is my own research. What was I working on in this period, looking back? Well, for one thing I was finishing revisions on the conference paper that nearly wasn’t, “A Problem of Concavity”; the final version of that was fired off into what became a suspicious silence in the middle of February 2016. After that I seem to have turned to the reading to support the revision of my venerable paper on early medieval crop yields, of which I’d done the bulk while still at Birmingham, and I had a new draft of that done in March, although, it would seem, not one I thought submissible; that was still a way off, and I now don’t recall why. But beyond that it’s hard to see what I was doing, and the conclusion has to be, I think, that despite the apparently light load I was struggling. I would build up academic muscle from here, and reluctantly trim back a lot of the activity above to make other things possible, but at this stage I was still enjoying being an established academic as I’d imagined it and seen it done by others, as well as reading a lot for teaching, and perhaps not getting that balance entirely right, in retrospect. I think, also, I still hadn’t actually worked out how to schedule research in a job that finally actually included that as a duty, but had structured time only for other activities. Actually accepting that it was a legitimate use of my employers’ time to read a book, after years governed by the next deadline, was still proving weirdly hard for me… Of course, I still was governed by the next deadline, functionally, but I was only letting others set them, wherein a mistake with future complications. Anyway, this story will be continued! But for now there’s enough queued up to write about, and this has already been a long post, so I’ll wrap it here and thank you for reading.

He’s a jolly good Fellow

This is, for now, the last of the posts about my great achievements; I have so much stuff in publication queues that another can’t, hopefully, be too far away, but for now this is the last one. (Then we can get to really clearing backlog… !) I already mentioned these two things in passing, but in the last couple of years I have achieved a certain level of professional recognition that lets me start adding more letters after my name when I really want to show off. In late 2016, I managed to achieve election as a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. Then, in August 2017 I also attained Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy. These two things are quite different in both process and signification so I thought I’d say something briefly about both.

New Royal Historical Society logo as of 2018

The Royal Historical Society is a 150-year-old learned society in the traditional mould, which it is now working to break down a bit as it generates important work about how that ‘traditional’ mould has restricted career progress for anyone who’s not male and white.1 (I was born lucky in this respect, of course.) The way you get to be a Fellow of it is that you make a case to them that your work is a significant achievement in the field, get someone else who already is a Fellow to write agreeing with that, and then they decide. In my case, I had a slight starting advantage in that the book of my thesis was published through the Royal Historical Society and they nearly (alas, only nearly) gave it a prize, so I was pretty sure it was OK in their eyes, and I made it the cornerstone of my case. I took a long time doing this, however, and I will admit that what made me actually apply in the end was a combination of going to hear Katy Cubitt talk at the Society and there being names announced of new fellows whom I thought of as much younger than me (because they are) and became outraged that I hadn’t already achieved this before them—which was my own fault of course—and of trying to achieve some sense of recognition in my new job. But once the application was in it was easy, I was elected and since then it’s just been a matter of remembering to pay my society fees.

Higher Education Academy banner

The Higher Education Academy no longer exists as such and was when I applied a youthful 14 years old. (It is now called Advance HE and is slightly differently constructed, but still awards the Fellowships.) Its focus is entirely on teaching quality. For a while the UK university sector proliferated teaching qualifications, ranging from the nationally-recognised Postgraduate Certificate in Education that schoolteachers take through to various bespoke university ones some of which weren’t recognised even throughout their own institutions, let alone more widely. The HEA Fellowship scheme was, as I understand it, a governmental intervention in that situation to provide a recognisable accreditation for university teachers, and it has become more and more popular, partly because of governmental use of it as a teaching quality benchmark but mainly, I think, because it has allowed universities to apply a universal standard of teaching qualification to the staff they take on. I, for example, hold a Certificate in University Teaching from Birkbeck College London. It was very useful to me, but no other institution could easily find out what it means in terms of training, not least because Birkbeck, University of London (as they now are) no longer offer it. But if you hire someone with an HEA Fellowship you know what they’ve done to get it. One can be a Junior Fellow, a straightforward Fellow or a Senior Fellow and what these more or less mean is “I have some recognised teaching training and experience and some idea that this is a subject of academic study in its own right”, “I am up to speed with modern requirements on university teachers, how we can teach and why the scholarship thinks we should do it so” and “I am all that, but have also made other people change how they teach”. I went for the middle one.

This was a lengthy process. Leeds supplies pretty extensive support, so there were training sessions, other people’s draft applications to read and so on, but it boils down to references from two people who’ve seen you teach, a log of one’s professional development over the previous year, a reflective account of one’s teaching practice with reference to the scholarship, and a form saying you’ve done all those things. The log was the most frustrating of these, and if I’d understood the process better I would have made a better job of it. As you may just remember me saying, on arrival at Leeds I threw myself into quite a lot of training, thinking I wouldn’t have as much of a chance later and conscious that it was one of my probationary requirements. But you may also remember me saying that while applying for Fellowship was also one of those requirements, the University had just, when I arrived, pulled its scheme for doing so, and the national one they were using as backup required you have a year of experience teaching in post first. So, by the time I could do my application, most of my training was already ageing out of relevance! Anyway, leaving that aside, the reflective log was also not something I enjoyed putting together. In the first place, it had to speak the right language, that of the UK Professional Standards Framework. That’s not actually hard to do, and there are worse jargon structures, but it does mean one starts to write in parrot form unless one’s careful, losing one’s own voice in the writing. In the second place, it means one has to at least show awareness of a lot of literature about university pedagogy and, while, there is much good stuff about that out there (I now know) there is also quite a lot of soapboxing or science-by-anecdote, and standards of proof are slippery in much of it. Some of it certainly did challenge me to improve my teaching. Nonetheless, I took a certain vicious pleasure, firstly in citing myself, and secondly in making sure that Hacking the Academy, and especially the chapter therein called “Lectures are Bullshit”, were in the Bibliography, as some kind of reward to myself for having perforce to cite this stuff without space for critique.2

Anyway, it all worked, I got the Fellowship and, eventually, cleared probation, though that is a longer and separate story that will not be told here. And I have to say, looking back over the reflective statement just now, there are things in there I had forgotten I’d done in a classroom, as well as many promises to do things I have yet to follow up. I could be a much better teacher if I followed my own advice… I have, accidentally, created a reflection that deserves further reflection, and in that respect, I have to admit that the process was and will continue to be more useful to me than it seemed at the time I was doing it. I should pay attention to that message! Such are the thoughts on this occasion of Dr Jonathan Jarrett, M. A., Ph. D., F. R. Hist. S., F. H. E. A.


1. See Gender Equality and Historians in UK Higher Education, The Royal Historical Society (London 2015), online here; Race, Ethnicity & Equality in UK History: A Report and Resource for Change, by Hannah Atkinson, Suzanne Bardgett, Adam Budd, Margot Finn, Christopher Kissane, Sadiah Qureshi, Jonathan Saha, John Siblon & Sujit Sivasundaram (London 2018), online here; Promoting Gender Equality in UK History: A Second Report and Recommendations for Good Practice, by Nicola Miller, Kenneth Fincham, Margot Finn, Sarah Holland, Christopher Kissane & Mary Vincent (London 2018), online here.

2. I got myself in there via talking about coins as a teaching tool (on which see Jonathan Jarrett, Coins in Collections: care and use. A Guide to Best Practice by the COINS Project (Cambridge 2009), if you can somehow find a copy). The other cite is of course Jeff Jarvis, “Lectures are Bullshit” in Daniel J. Cohen & Tom Scheinfeldt (edd.), Hacking the Academy: New Approaches to Scholarship and Teaching from Digital Humanities (Ann Arbor, MI, 2013), pp. 66-69. Of what I read without the intent to be smug, Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson, “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education” in American Association for Higher Education Bulletin (Denver, CO, 1987), pp. 3-6, repr. in Biochemical Education Vol. 17 (1989), pp. 140–141 inter alia, repr. separatim as Wingspread Journal Vol. 9 no. 2 (Racine, WI, 1989) and thence online here, Michael Jackson, “But Learners Learn More” in Higher Education Research & Development Vol. 16 (Abingdon 1997), pp. 101–109, DOI: 10.1080/0729436970160108 and Anoush Margaryan, Allison Littlejohn & Gabrielle Vojt, “Are Digital Natives a Myth or Reality? University Students’ Use of Digital Technologies” in Computers & Education Vol. 56 (New York City 2011), pp. 429–440, DOI: 10.1016/j.compedu.2010.09.004 might be my top three, and John B. Biggs and Catherine So-kum Tang, Teaching for Quality Learning at University: what the student does, 3rd edn. (Maidenhead 2007) would be an incredible resource if trying to implement it wouldn’t clearly kill you from overwork. Philip Race, The Lecturer’s Toolkit: A Practical Guide to Assessment, Learning and Teaching, 3rd edn. (London 2007) is probably the single one I found most practically useful. It’s tempting to give a list of ones I thought were terrible too but that would just make me into a bad person.

Chronicle II: October to December 2015

Somewhat to my surprise, I have now reached the second of the what-was-going-in-my-life round-ups I was promising to use as the anchor of the new blogging programme here at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe, back in, er, February. It wasn’t supposed to take eight months to record what had happened in three, but as you’ll have observed there was a fair bit of hiatus and strife in there, and I hope that we can pick things up a bit now. There’s only one way to find out, anyway, and thus we now reach the point where I try and give some impression of my first semester employed at the University of Leeds. The first thing that needs to be said about that is that my new colleagues were absolutely lovely, and guided me through new offices and routines with cheerful generosity; it all unrolled a great deal more easily than it could so easily have done while I found my feet. To try and explain what I was actually up to, however, probably needs breaking down into headings, and the obvious ones would be teaching, what we might generally class as extra labours, seminars and similar, research work and, lastly, life more widely; I’ll say the least about the last, but it holds the rest together. So here we go. Continue reading

Chronicle I: July, August and September 2015

I’m back in the UK, and even if you’re not, you may have gathered that quite a proportion of this country’s academics are currently on strike about proposed cuts to our pensions. In theory, therefore, I can do nothing like work today, but for various reasons I think blog can be allowed; after all, given that the main reason I haven’t been blogging regularly of late is my job, it seems all sorts of perverse if when the job halts I still can’t blog. So, without further ado, I’m going to test out the new format with a short account of the three months of my academic life following the last backlogged event I covered, a conference in Lincoln which you can go and read about if you so desire.

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

We begin here… The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

Now, I say my academic life but it’s even more difficult to separate that from the rest than usual for this particular patch of my existence, as in this time I was transferring that existence from Birmingham to Leeds. The two themes of my life in this period were therefore movement between cities, and counting coins. The latter was because one of the things the Barber Institute had hired me to do when I started there was an actual audit of the coin collection, whose records from the previous few years were sadly not all they should have been. In the event, it was only once I knew I was leaving that I really got started on that, becuase immediate priorities were all more, well, immediate. But now it had to be done, so I was spending most of any given working day in the coin room comparing trays to spreadsheets, and occasionally finding where someone had evidently dropped such a tray at some point then put things back in the wrong places. There were only a few of those but they really slowed things down… But it did, finally, happen and I wrote a big report which not only confirmed that the Barber was then in possession of 15,905 coins, 35 tokens, 22 medals, 165 seals, 42 weights and 10 other objects of paranumismatica, as well as collections not formally part of its holdings like the so-called ‘Heathrow Hoard’, but gave them something much more like a firm footing for future development of the collection. At the same time I was also setting up a lecture series for my exhibition, which I was now going to miss, processing uploads which you already heard about, and zapping coins with X-rays on occasion. It wasn’t a bad job, really. Oh yes, and I was also supervising two MA dissertations, one of which was on the Heathrow Hoard, indeed, so there was some teaching even though it was outside term.

A tray full of pale gold and billon coins of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5704-B5735

A tray full of pale gold and billon coins of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5704-B5735, which did not get dropped

So all that was busy enough, but in August my old diaries and e-mails betray a slow shift: correspondence about workshops I would be doing in Leeds, moving company quotes, a farewell party at the Barber (bless them) and eventually the actual close of play. Somewhere in there, of course, was also happening the slow packing-up of stuff and eventually it all going into a Pickfords lorry, in coordination with my partner’s stuff coming up from London to be so shipped as well, and finally our actual installation into what we then thought would be our new home for the foreseeable future. I also did a medievalist tour of Dudley with a couple of friends, and I will post about that separately, with photographs, because there is actually medieval stuff to photograph there. But it’s September where the itinerary just gets crazy: from Leeds to Birmingham on the 8th, crashing for one last night in my now-empty previous home to hand over white goods and keys the next day, and then back to Leeds; to London and then Harpenden, of all places, at the weekend for a gig, then back to London and back to Leeds; and back down to Birmingham again on the 15th, for reasons I’ll say more about in a moment, and back up to Leeds again on the 16th; and then on the 20th I flew to Sicily, where I was for the following 6 days for reasons I’ll likewise mention below. And the day after I got back, we had to start having our house hot-water system replaced and I started teaching in my new job, opening up my career there with a lecture on Charlemagne and the Carolingians, all fairly fitting I think. Up to that point I’d been on campus quite a lot anyway, for induction and training, and also organising next year’s frontiers sessions for the International Medieval Congress, but now it had really started.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Justinian I struck at Cyzicus in 543&ndash544, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0692

Can it be that we have got so far through this post without an actual coin? Here’s a good big ugly one to make up for that, a copper-alloy follis of Emperor Justinian I struck at Cyzicus in 543&ndash544, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0692

I’m still quite smug about the second Birmingham trip, just because it involved seeing an opportunity coming from a long way off at a time when I was otherwise completely lost in the weeds of the job. As I mentioned, there were a set of lectures intended to support my exhibition at the Barber. For various reasons they took a long time to organise, and I was having trouble finding suitable guest speakers. But as the date slipped back and the new job became clear, I suddenly realised: by the time they happened, I could myself be a guest speaker, because I would no longer work there! So that’s what I did, giving my successor in the post the job of introducing me for a lecture I’d set up. Perhaps it shouldn’t seem like a triumph, but it did. After all, if you want something done, do it yourself… The lecture was called “Small Change and Big Changes: minting and money after the Fall of Rome”, and it basically went through the changes that the imperial coinage system underwent as large parts of the Roman Empire fell into the control of non-Roman rulers, using Barber coins as illustrations throughout; the background idea was that of the exhibition, that we are still the heirs to Rome’s monetary and iconographic vocabulary of power, but the foreground was much more me working out ideas that I intended to take into the classroom; the lecture title is, after all, suspiciously similar to that of one of my current modules

The Parkinson Building, University of Leeds

Which means we are now here, the Parkinson Building, University of Leeds,once again. Photo by Tim Green from Bradford [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

So, what haven’t we covered? Well, one thing that this new post format means sacrificing is the old write-up of trips, papers and conferences. I should still mention what they were, however, I think, so this is the list such as it was:

  • 3rd August: the medievalist outing to Dudley and Claverley, of which there will be separate photo posts;
  • 12th August: Eleanor Blakelock, “Secrets of the Anglo-Saxon Goldsmiths: underlying truth of the Staffordshire Hoard”, a seminar in the Department of Physics at the University of Birmingham whose details have now gone from the web, but a very useful contact with someone who genuinely knows about metallic analysis of early medieval gold, which resulted in an exchange of references as well as some useful knowledge about how Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths seem to have made their work look shinier;
  • 23rd August: an actual visit to the then-new display of the Staffordshire Hoard in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, which was good but probably isn’t worth recording separately for you all at this long remove given how much coverage the Hoard has already had here;
  • 21st–25th September: the XVth International Numismatic Congress in Taormina, Sicily. This needs a post of its own, and I’m not quite sure how I’ll keep it to one, but I am determined; it was a good but intense experience and I’m still trying to find out if my paper at it will be published. As you might imagine, I also managed to fit in some medievalist tourism here and there will be photos of that too.
  • 29th September: David Hinton, “Personal Possessions in Medieval England: archaeology and written evidence”, Institute for Medieval Studies Public Lecture, University of Leeds: my first academic event at my new job put one of the great figures of Anglo-Saxon archaeology before me and he was, of course, interesting; he emphasised the great spread of standards of living and wealth that Anglo-Saxon and medieval English material culture covered, from subsistence farming with almost nothing incidental owned (or at least lost) up to hoards of treasure such as have already been mentioned. Nonetheless, probably more people than that implies had precious items, however paltry; these were kept for lifetimes, which can make dating them from context difficult to do, but were also often metal and therefore recyclable, so the evidence all needs careful interpretation. Of course it does! But here was someone very used to doing that who made it sound manageable.

So, firstly that sort of summarises two and a half of the busiest months of my life until last year, but secondly I seem already to have promised five more posts of various kinds, mainly photos. I’d better therefore leave this one here and thus properly establish the new state of the blog! More will follow! After all, we haven’t got our pensions back as yet…

Seminar CCXXII: counterfactuals and computer games

There were more seminar series at Birmingham than I could easily keep track of, and less well advertised than would have made it easy, but I was delighted nonetheless to see the name of old acquaintance and general nice guy Robert Houghton, now of Winchester, on a poster at some point in late 2014 and made a point of making it to the paper on 11th December 2014 even though I had no real idea what the seminar, the History and Cultures Workshop, was. It transpired to be one of the many postgraduate-run events and I think I surprised them by being a staff member (just about) there at all, but perhaps they were no more surprised at me than I was at Rob’s title, which was “Modelling the Middle Ages in grand strategy computer games”.

Game start screen for Charlemagne in Crusader Kings II

Not my screen, I don’t play, but this seems to be game-start condition for Charlemagne and you know, it could be a lot less accurate…

It transpired that Rob had, while teaching at St Andrews, also managed to find some extra work advising the makers of the grand strategy game Crusader Kings II—so if you play it and have been favourably impressed by its apparent accuracy that may be his fault—and the coincidence of his two rôles had made him start to think about how such games might be used as teaching tools, and whom that would reach, and he had started doing some very informal research among his teaching groups. After all, if it can work then games are an interactive and exploratory tool that are quite unparalleled by anything we can offer by more conventional means; I remember an admissions interview at Oxford in which the candidate was courageous enough to say that there was probably no better way of getting a sense of what it was like to walk around medieval Florence than playing Assassins Creed, and although I’m pretty sure it should be easier to kill yourself falling off the Duomo than it seems to be, I got and get their point.

Of course we are not complete strangers to walk-around visualisations in historical teaching, but it's obviously not as interactive as a game environment and you can hardly climb anything

Rob’s findings, anyway, with a very small cohort as he freely admitted, were more or less that most people don’t get their medievalism this way but for those that do it may actually influence their understanding very deeply. In that case it may matter what they are playing, because what’s available gives a rather Eurocentric, ultra-violent, male-dominated picture (although this is not unique to computer games, of course). However, there are limits on what can be done and still have a playable game. Particularly with grand strategy games the player has a level of abstraction, information and control that no medieval ruler ever did, but the gradation from there to single-handed sword swinger is very shallow. Also, the computer can’t create the environment without solid parameters. Where you don’t know something, you can’t just leave it blank; that pixel, that bit, must be present. There were other issues usefully pointed out too, both by Rob and the others present, but I got particularly engaged with the issue of counterfactuals.

The pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee burning off Montevideo, 17th December 1939

The pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee burning off Montevideo, 17th December 1939

Again I should preface this with a tale of an Oxbridge admissions interview but this time it’s my own. You see, at school, for the sins I mostly had yet to commit, I ran a paper-based wargame of my own invention for a year or so. I more or less stole the combat system from Fighting Fantasy and made it work for World War II and imagined-World-War-III air and sea combat. Because my path was probably already clear, I got interested in trying to recreate certain battles as tests of the game system, and especially the above, the Battle of the River Plate. I got it to the point where I could, with all kinds of reservation, make River Plate come out about right two-thirds of the time. Now, I must have mentioned this in my application form as most of what I remember about my Cambridge interviews is the late lamented Clive Trebilcock pushing me for five minutes or so on whether I thought such things could be used as tests for counterfactuals; if I could make River Plate come out right two-thirds of the time, for example, did that mean that this gave some basis for saying that the odds were genuinely against the Germans despite appearances? And I gave no ground: no, I said, because firstly I know the desired outcome and so can make player decisions that are likely to create it; also, because I can’t test for how important chance ought to be. I have set the parameters of the system—damage delivered by weapons, ability to minimise and inflict it, resilience of ships and crews—to give what seem to be like the ‘right’ outcomes, but the more accurate I get with that the less of a rôle chance has, and the more it slides from being a test of alternatives to just a recreation with dice. On the other hand, the more room for actual play there is, the less testably accurate it will get. I probably didn’t put it as eloquently even as that while 18 and nervous as hell, and there are ways I can now see to refine it—retests varying single factors, for example—but I still think it wouldn’t work.

Screenshot of a Crusader Kings II game

Not quite Rob’s example, but a situation in which something alternative has quite clearly and thoroughly happened whose story would be quite fun to know

More to the point, though, it wouldn’t be much fun if you could make it into a useful predictor system. And here Rob was on the same page. He had a marvellous Crusader Kings II screenshot in which someone playing as the ‘Duke of Alba’ had managed to conquer or otherwise gain control of basically all of north-eastern Europe and the Baltic. Now, I can just about think of ways something like that could be set up in fiction—royal Scottish exile during a succession crisis who has a monastic conversion and joins the Teutonic Knights, rises to be Grand Master and then gets recalled to the throne and, like Ramiro II of Aragón marries, for the sake of the dynasty, an heiress to Brandenburg whose brother dies soon after…—but it really is fiction, this could never have happened (even if ‘Duke of Alba’ were a real title). But should the game exclude it? Many reasons why not come to mind, not least trying to program for all such eventualities, but most obviously that one of the ways people treat computer games is to try and bring about heroically unlikely outcomes, winning through with the least likely playable character or from the weakest starting position and so on, and that this is one of the things that makes such games fun, because you can win against great odds. In Assassins Creed, I don’t believe it helps you particularly but you can climb the Duomo.

Screenshot of an attempt to climb the Duomo in Florence in Assassin's Creed

Go on…

Now, obviously sometimes in history people did win through against what seem to have been great odds, but as far as we are concerned as historians there was actually only one possible outcome of all the actual variables in play, and part of what we’re doing is trying to account for what seems to have been unlikely by identifying the significant variable. But even at age 18 I could see some reasons why a game will probably never be a tool for testing such outcomes; too much must be preset by assumptions about the outcomes. In some ways it might be better for teaching them, because then the presets are actually part of what we want to teach, but if the Duke of Alba can’t wind up ruling the entire southern Baltic coast or the Aztecs somehow reverse-conquer the Spanish Empire, then I’m still not sure I wanna play…


My only halfway reputable cite for using counterfactuals in medieval history is Jes Wienberg, “Europeanisation around the Baltic Sea: a counterfactual perspective” in Jörn Staecker (ed.), The Reception of Medieval Europe in the Baltic Sea Region: papers of the XIIth Visby Symposium held at Gotland University, Visby, Acta Visbyensia XII (Visby 2009), pp. 421-429, but that has a good go at defending the practice.

I built a resources page

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


phdcomicsheader

Digital Resources

Sources of data

Object databases

Images and Maps

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

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

Manuscripts

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

Full-Text Databases

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

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

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

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

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

Data Archives

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

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

Bibliographical Databases

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

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

Structured Data

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

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

Digital interpretations of data

3D reconstructions

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

Software

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

The Digital Humanities debate

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

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

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

Diversions?

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

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

Aside

Foreground, right to left: laptop displaying mark scheme; notepad and red marking biro; unmarked exam script, obscuring mark-sheet; mug of strong Kenya tea; typewriter with hard-copy comment sheet wound in.1 Rear of table: exam paper, atop one of three packets … Continue reading