Tag Archives: teaching

Teaching scholarship, MOOCs and the digital pivot

This is a post whose original core idea has aged badly since its stubbing nearly four years ago, but looking at it, I thought the total rewrite it now needed was actually indicative of something worth saying. So I hope you’ll forgive me if I lead you through some old thinking before I take stock of where we now seem to be. The subject is the digital transformation of university teaching, and specifically that demon of internet commentary circa 2015, the Massive Open Online Course or MOOC.

'MOOC: every letter is negotiable', by Mathieu Plourde

‘MOOC: every letter is negotiable’, by Mathieu Plourde (Mathplourde on Flickr) – https://www.flickr.com/photos/mathplourde/8620174342/sizes/o/in/photostream/ File:MOOC-Poster.png, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

It is one of my contracted professional obligations in my current job to keep abreast of trends in the scholarship of education itself, as well as my mainline academic field or fields. This makes sense in as much as teaching is most of what, professionally, I do, but it is not without its frustrations, as that scholarship is prolific and I don’t think it’s controversial to say that it has yet really to establish clear standards of quality control. There certainly are serious, large-cohort or long-running studies of techniques or teaching environments and so on that make full use of the potential of the classroom (or rather, lots of classrooms in collaboration) as a laboratory for educational strategy and technique.1 The trouble for the people who put that kind of experimental planning and effort into their pedagogical scholarship is that they seem to stand as much chance of getting published as, and to share more or less equal standing in publication and citation when they do with, studies whose experimental basis is more like ‘I’ve been teaching small groups in the same small instititution to the same general demographic for thirty years now and though I don’t have records or anything, here’s what seems to work.’2 And I have to say, I have probably learnt at least as much about teaching from some of the latter as I have from the former, which might unkindly be seen mainly to provide data that shows what we mostly already suspected.3

But there is another trend in this scholarship, anyway, which is prognostication. I could list you scads of articles that exist only to say, “we predict that everything is going to change in the next few years in such-and-such a direction”, and they would probably almost all fall into three groups, being about either the ‘flipped classroom‘, ‘blended learning‘ or MOOCs. Of these, the most accurate looks like the ‘flipped classroom’ group, arguing with often-sound data for the improvement in learning and retention that happens if you use your classroom time for interaction and discussion rather than for lecturing, and instead have the information acquisition set as preparation and use the classroom time to work with that information and make sure it’s understood at the level where the students can do stuff with it.4 The only thing that annoys me about that scholarship is how they manage to keep selling as new methods that represent how the humanities, at least, has largely been taught for decades. Asking students to read in advance and come to class prepared to discuss, or even already having written something about, it is how I was taught and, I think I could safely say, how my father was taught either side of the Second World War, so how this keeps being published as a new idea beats me.5 Of course, it blurs into the second category, blended learning, when the prep work is digital content rather than just reading or a physical-space lecture, but the actual structure of the learning is not different. Anyway, this is not actually my subject for the day, just a frustration.

Diagram of flipped vs. traditional classroom learning

You see, in what discipline or subject area has the right-hand method been ‘traditional’ inside this century? And could whoever they are please catch up with the humanities so that we don’t keep getting buffeted in the bow wave of your reform efforts? Image from the UK’s Learning Foundation, linked through; I claim fair use because commentary…

So instead my target is the scholarship or commentary which, in 2017, was saying that the future was either partly-online or partly-digital education, i. e. blended learning, which has been going on for a while, or else fully-online and centralised in the form of the MOOC. I was actually signed up to a MOOC for 2015-16—is it ironic that it was about blended learning? I’ll let you decide—as training for an administrative role I then held and so I got some idea not just of how they were supposed to work but how they actually do, or don’t. (Of course, this is the same sample-of-one no-control anecdotal standard of scholarship I was just separating from stuff with any wider basis, but this is why it’s a blog post not a journal article, isn’t it?) But even as I was doing this, the generally hyperbolic level of excitement about them had struck me as weird. I think it was a recurrent thread on a blog I wish I still had time to read, Not of General Interest, that alerted me to this, but then I started collecting references, and some example titles would be, ‘MOOCs: another weapon in the outreach armoury’, ‘MOOCs are Coming’, and my two favourites, ‘This Could Be Huge’ and ‘An Avalanche is Coming: Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead’.6 It’s probably worth noting that none of these were peer-reviewed work, although the third is good journalism and I cite it often below; but it’s almost as if genuine educators didn’t find all this plausible… And indeed, as Undine’s posts already linked show, it wasn’t hard at the time to find push-back and criticism as well, but we seemed to be pushing against a technology-evangelical wall.

I say ‘we’ because I had definitely settled against the whole MOOC idea by the time I originally stubbed this post. This was not because I thought they were dreadful ways to learn, as such, but I did think that they were somewhat missold, and most of all that there was a bait-and-switch going on from their evangelists about the economics involved. The rhetoric that all the literature I could find, and the teaching I received, was to the effect that you, the educator, can now access this mass of pre-prepared digital content and incorporate it into your own courses/modules/whatever, thus saving you valuable time and enlivening your material for your students!7 And call me a cynic, but my reaction was, “that sounds a lot like, ‘your content is boring because it’s not modern and digital; someone else is already doing what we want from you better than you are; if we can just replace all your stuff with content we bodge in from elsewhere, or even just record your content, we can get rid of you, save your wage and just pay teaching assistants to do seminars on the recorded content, because hey man, it’s history, it’s literally all in the past, not like it’s gonna change amirite?'” Using MOOCs was pretty clearly out-sourcing, and one only ever does that to save labour costs. In other words, I saw MOOCs pretty squarely as a resource to which cash-poor universities could resort to cut teachers, and which cash-rich universities who didn’t need to cut teachers could create to sell to the cash-poor ones. That was more or less explicitly Harvard’s rationale for starting to generate them, and I’m sure there were other universities whose digital learning teams had similar glinty-eyed aspirations.8 But to me it seemed obvious that we should neither use nor make these things because by doing do we would, somewhere or other, be making a colleague and maybe eventually ourselves redundant.

Graphic of the digital pivot

I include this just because it is so impressively meaningless; it is supposedly a representation of the ‘digital pivot’ from a story in the MIT Technology Review from last year (linked through), which was sponsored by Hitachi but seems mainly to be about Walmart.

Now, that was the point of the original post, but the thing is, from four years on, it’s obvious that the promised revolution hasn’t happened, isn’t it? This was already becoming evident even as I stubbed the post; only a few days before major MOOC provider Udacity had decided to stop generating new courses and declared MOOCs ‘dead’, and by 2019 the subsidence of the phenomenon had been noted even in Science.9 But then came the Great Digital Pivot of 2020, which you might have thought was the tidal wave that should reverse the fortune of this dying tool, the point where everyone had to go not even blended but full-online. But it seems to have made no difference. Coursera, FutureLearn, EdX and a few other firms continue to offer such courses, but we have seen neither of the outcomes once predicted, where cheap online learning replaces universities or where universities start using extensive external content instead of their own staff (though if some of the staff cuts currently being fought in the UK go ahead, I guess that could still change).

So why not? Why didn’t the pandemic save the MOOC and why was it so ill in the first place? I think there are two big reasons. Firstly, as was being observed even in 2012, no-one was quite sure how to make them pay. The point of them was to be open access, after all, so you couldn’t charge up-front. The way Coursera used to work, and may still, is that you could do the whole course for free but had to pay a small amount to get certification that you had done so; I guess that the logic was that those who had actually completed the course would want to be able to prove it, and with literally millions of learners, even if conversion rates were terrible, you should still see enough of those payments to cover creation or licensing of content and running costs of the IT infrastructure, and even minimal ongoing staff time; a teacher-pupil ratio of 1:21,000 (as instanced below) should make that possible… But it seems that drop-out rates were even more terrible than that, and that actually you can just about keep going on that model but not make the forecasted mint. So only the biggest offerers have survived and very few universities have built MOOCs to try and make money; a few embraced them for a while as advertising for full degree courses, but I’ve seen nothing to suggest that that seems to work either.10 So reason one: a massive misjudgement of the world population’s willingess to pay for this kind of product.

I would like to think that reason two was that the turkeys who would have had to generate this content saw the wisdom in not voting for Christmas, but I’m pretty sure that in this employment climate you can pay would-be academics to teach pretty much anything, however much it may be against their long-term interests. So reason two might instead be a thing which the pandemic has very clearly exposed, which is that whether it’s because they think it results in better learning or because it forms part of the much-championed but little-specified ‘university experience’, people doing degree-level education actually want to receive it direct from people they think are experts, and have the chance to interact with those strange beasts in real time. In theory, that was possible in MOOCs, if you signed up to them when they were new and kept up with their schedules; the designers and instructors would be around and responding to comments as far as they could. But with 38,000 people signed up to a course, many contributing several times weekly, and probably two staff members running it in only some of their time, you can see how much chance there is of reaction from the instructor really happening for most students.11 If you were well behind on the content, then you probably didn’t even have the benefit of peer discussion and learning; there just wouldn’t be enough people on the same unit as you at the same time to sustain a conversation. This was certainly my experience, and I suppose illustratively, I never actually finished the course myself. An Edinburgh study in 2013 made the problems even more clear, however: they found that a MOOC took eight hours a week to set up and sixteen hours a week to run, for only one of the two staff involved; only 2,000 of 42,000 students enrolled actually completed it; the students expected instructors to be more present than was actually possible; those who fell behind didn’t find it desirable to catch back up (as I also found); and, as one of their students (identified as “Bertin”) put it on their blog, “the overall effect for me was knowing that I don’t want to do an e-learning course they run that I had previously been interested in taking”.12 Oops!

What this means is that making these things work is actually very hard, but even when they do there’s really very little difference, other then the endurance required to finish a MOOC, between it and any other online training course like the ones they give university staff on heavy lifting or fire safety or gender and race equality, all useful within limits, but basically canned content with zero interaction with the supposed teacher. And it seems clear that, even though often enough when you have students in a classroom with you it seems like interacting with you is absolutely the last thing they want to do, when the alternative is no interaction at all, it’s worse, and they’ll pay to avoid it, or at least accumulate fairly abstract debt (in England and Wales, anyway; I realise that student debt has more serious implications where the Student Loans Company doesn’t periodically go bankrupt from shortage of repayments). And MOOCs, it seems, were and are that alternative. Perhaps they could be made to run better, with more student-teacher interaction and more live content; but it would send their costs up, reduce their universal accessibility (because live means in a fixed time and place) and probably therefore make their margins worse not better. So I cautiously think that university teachers might now be safe from this revolution, at least. The blended learning evangelists look like being a lot closer to the future, and indeed the present really, but that would be another post. Let me mature that one a few years too before trying it, eh?


1. I hope I can be forgiven no more than one example per generalisation, even though by so doing I am myself normalising bad scientific practice; sorry. But: the biggest large-cohort highly-designed meta-study I know is Elif Kara, Mirco Tonin and Michael Vlassopoulos, ‘Class size effects in higher education: Differences across STEM and non-STEM fields’ in Economics of Education Review Vol. 82 (Amsterdam 2021), 102104, DOI: 10.1016/j.econedurev.2021.102104.

2. For example, the perfectly worthy but not really scientific Anne Firor Scott, “Why I Teach By Discussion” in A. Leigh Deneef and Craufurd D. Goodwin (edd.), The Academic’s Handbook, 3rd ed. (Durham NC 2007), pp. 212–216, on JSTOR here. A charming example I also have to cite is Harry Brighouse, “Becoming a Better College Teacher (If You’re Lucky)” in Daedalus Vol. 148 (2019), pp. 14–28, DOI: 10.1162/daed_a_01758.

3. A really good anecdotal practice paper is Brett Lunceford, “There Are No Girls in My Classroom: A Pedagogical Note” in ETC: A Review of General Semantics Vol. 68 (New York City NY 2001), pp. 63–67, which I don’t know how you’d find without being told. A somewhat unsurprising large-scale study is Louis Deslauriers, Logan S. McCarty, Kelly Miller, Kristina Callaghan and Greg Kestin, “Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Vol. 116 (Washington DC 2019), 19251, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1821936116, which laboriously shows that on the whole students prefer it when they don’t have to work as hard to grasp what’s being taught even if it teaches them better to do so.

4. There is an incredible amount of work trialling flipped-classroom approaches or resisting them. A very recent and huge meta-study, which ought to lay the matter to rest but probably won’t, is Khe Foon Hew, Shurui Bai, Weijao Huang, Phillip Dawson, Jiahui Du, Guoyuhui Huang, Chengyuan Jia & Khongjan Thankrit, “On the use of flipped classroom across various disciplines: Insights from a second-order meta-analysis” in Australasian Journal of Educational Technology Vol. 37 (Tugun 2021), pp. 132–151, DOI: 10.14742/ajet.6475. Some suggestions that the effects might be socially variable in Elizabeth Setren, Kyle Greenberg, Oliver Moore & Michael Yankovich, Effects of the Flipped Classroom: Evidence from a Randomized Trial, discussion paper #2019.07 (Cambridge MA 2019), online here.

5. Evangelism: Dan Berrett, ‘How “Flipping” the Classroom Can Improve the Traditional Lecture’ in Chronicle of Higher Education, 19th February 2012, online here; Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams, Flip your classroom: reach every student in every class every day (Eugene OR 2012); Jennifer Gavriel, “The flipped classroom” in Education for Primary Care Vol. 26 (Abingdon 2015), pp. 424–425, DOI: 10.1080/14739879.2015.1109809; or Betty Love, Angie Hodge, Cynthia Corritore and Dana C. Ernst, “Inquiry-Based Learning and the Flipped Classroom Model” in Problems, Resources, and Issues in Mathematics Undergraduate Studies Vol. 25 (Abingdon 2015), pp. 745–762, DOI: 10.1080/10511970.2015.1046005.

6. Respectively Chris Parr, “MOOCs: another weapon in the outreach armoury” in Times Higher Education, 11th July 2013, p. 11; David Williams, “MOOCs are coming”, AdvanceHE, n.d., online here; Zoë Corbyn, “This could be huge…” in Times Higher Education, 6th December 2012, pp. 34–39; and Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnelly & Saad Rizvi, An Avalanche is Coming: Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead (London 2013), online here. Corbyn says some academics were then forecasting a ‘Napster moment’ (p. 36), which seems unintentionally accurate given that in the end Napster perished and traditional recording labels somehow survive…

7. See even now Peter G. M. de Jong, James D. Pickering, Renée A. Hendriks, Bronwen J. Swinnerton, Fereshte Goshtasbpour and Marlies E. J. Reinders, “Twelve tips for integrating massive open online course content into classroom teaching” in Medical Teacher Vol. 42 (Abingdon 2020), pp. 393–397, DOI: 10.1080/0142159X.2019.1571569.

8. Harvard’s offering discussed in Corbyn, “This could be huge”, pp. 36 & 38.

9. Justin Reich and José A. Ruipérez-Valiente, “The MOOC pivot” in Science Vol. 363 (Washington DC 2019), pp. 130–131.

10. Corbyn, “This could be huge”, p. 38, where the example is the University of London, in one of its very rare corporate actions.

11. Numbers from the Stanford course around which Corbyn, “This could be huge”, is centred; see esp. pp. 36 & 38.

12. Reportage from Chris Parr, “Wisdom and Crowds” in Times Higher Education, 18th April 2013, pp. 24–25.

Gallery

Finding the Medieval in Rome IV: Teaching with the Crypta Balbi

This gallery contains 23 photos.

I mentioned a little while back that when I started in post at the University of Leeds I inherited a late antique survey module for first-year undergraduates which, indeed, I still run. That module has always ended with a class … Continue reading

Reporting on the International Medieval Congress of 2017

I’m sorry for another long absence. Teaching in the time of Covid is just doing me in, and largely for reasons of our beloved government. History at Leeds are currently teaching online, to which we switched at pretty much the last minute possible. Prior to that we had been getting ready for mixed face-to-face and online teaching, because the Office for Students had indicated that they might support fees refunds for students offered only online teaching. However, we obviously knew that we’d have some students who could not come in, because of being infected or shielding or whatever, and so there had to be online provision as well, which had to be as good as the face-to-face in some unmeasurable way that, if we didn’t manage it, could also result in fees refunds. So at least we had it ready, if some of us more than others, but in addition to this we simultaneously had new legislation that is nothing to do with the pandemic, about making digital resources maximally accessible to the disabled, according to the W3C’s rules; that’s now English law, and again if we don’t do it we can expect fines, at least in theory. What this all means in practical terms is that quite a lot of the last week has gone on correcting closed captions for my and other people’s pre-recorded or live-recorded lectures, and this has been a relatively good week, or I wouldn’t be writing at all; the last three were worse… So here we are.

Leeds IMC 2017 banner image

So, for all those reasons I can’t do my normal scale of justice to a report of a conference from three years ago, even though it was a good and big one. Indeed, the idea of being among that many fellow academics with something worthwhile to say seems almost impossibly distant right now, and indeed my own involvement in it was unusually small, suggesting that I was short of time to organise something decent. I certainly can’t do my usual list of papers attended. But I will try and address the conference’s main theme a bit, because a number of people did make me think differently about it with their contributions; I will also light on four sessions in particular that I thought were notable for one reason or another; and I will give a few snippets of reflection on other single papers, and hopefully then there’ll be something interesting to read even if the whole conference can’t be here.

Otherness

The conference theme was Otherness. As usual, many papers continued as normal without paying much attention to that, but there were certainly plenty that did pay attention, some (as the academic media made abundantly clear for the next few days) with less care than others. A rapid trawl through my notes looking for the asterisks that mean something struck me at the time note a couple of things here, about how the category of Other is philosophically constructed and about how it is then put to social use. The idea that a community or interest group establishes its identity by means of identifying something that it is not and then defining against it is now a pretty established one in sociology and history has not been as slow as it often is to borrow this bit of theory, but as so often when you use theory to reflect on the past it bounces back looking different…

Two sharp points about this came out of two of the keynote lectures on the first day, for me, which is as it should be I suppose, but they were these. Firstly, Felicitas Schmieder, talking about “The Other Part of the World for Late Medieval Latin Christendom”, made the point that invocation of ‘the Other’ is inherently a binary system that can support only two categories: there’s Them, and there’s Us, and no room for anyone not to be either. Earlier in the day Nikolas Jaspert, talking about “The Mediterranean Other and the Other Mediterranean: perspectives of alterity in the Middle Ages”, had made a similar point, which I think is about scale (as so many things are); invoking competing mercantile élites as a case, he pointed out that, for example, the Venetians and Genoese might well have been each other’s ‘other’ at times but when a Muslim city (or indeed Constantinople) rose against Italian merchants, they were the same from the mob’s point of view and indeed right then probably each other’s; so both perspective and size of the lens matter a lot when we make these categorisations from where we now stand with respect to the medieval (or any) past. Much later in the conference, Rebecca Darley, in a response to a session about ‘Writing the Other in the Middle Ages, III: discovering new knowledge of the world‘, pointed out that for some medieval people everything was inside the group, her example being the unknown author of the Christian Topography, a sixth-century author determined to prove theologically that the Earth was flat in surface and constructed in the image of the Biblical Tabernacle, and who therefore has to encompass everyone on it as part of God’s scheme, even the Persians for whom he plainly had little but disdain. Detecting othering may sometimes therefore miss the point…

The world map from the Christian Topography of Cosmas

The world map from the Christian Topography of Cosmas. “WorldMapCosmasIndicopleustes” by Cosmas Indicopleustes, 6th century – “Les Sciences au Moyen-Age”, “Pour la Science”. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

There were also three sharply-pointed examples of othering being used as a political tactic; in fact, I’m sure there were more but these ones talked to me because of referencing contexts that I interest myself in. Firstly, in the second keynote of the conference, entitled “Drawing Boundaries: inclusion and exclusion in medieval islamic societies”, Eduardo Manzano Moreno posed that contentious document, the so-called Covenant of ‘Umar, as a marker of a change of direction within Islam, from a position that, like the Christian Topography‘s theology, could potentially include everyone in the world, to one which would actually prefer to slow assimilation to Islam, maintaining an Other so as to preserve the superior position of the in-group.1 Subsequently, Nik Matheou, speaking about “Armenians in East Roman Cappadocia, c. 900–1071: settlement, the state apparatus, and the material reproduction of ethnicity”, invoked James Scott’s idea of the Zomia to classify rural populations in Armenia during a phase of Byzantine control as being subjected, by the laying out of an administrative structure but also by church-building, to an ‘Armenian’ identity they might well not have felt had anything to do with them, since it was largely being imported by a foreign power; in that respect at least this version of ‘Armenian’ identity was an Other constructed around these people.2 I found the argument here possible but remembered the deliberate production of an Armenian identity in a foreign space less than a century later and wondered if, assuming those groups were in fact uncontrolled, the Byzantine construction of Armenian-ness was necessarily the first which had been imported there.

Obverse of a silver tram of King Levon I of Armenian Cilicia struck in 1198-1219, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/MED/AR/1

Obverse of a silver tram of King Levon I of Armenian Cilicia struck in 1198-1219, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/MED/AR/1, which you will notice if you look is lettered in Armenian and represents the king, somewhat Byzantine-like, but fundamentally on a throne made of lions, a bit of a unique iconographic departure…

Lastly, and furthest off my normal map, Reinier Langelaar, in a paper called “Tales of Foreign Descent in Tibetan Ruling House Genealogies”, made the point that in zones of particular cultural coherence—like medieval Tibet—a hint of difference might actually distinguish one usefully from ones’s competitors, which was, he thought, why so many would-be ruling families in the area attempted to claim some kind of outsider descent. Quite what the advantages of such distinction might be I needed more time to work out, but it was at least a positive spin on Otherness that some other papers were finding it harder to find.

Stand-Out Sessions

Not every session I might remark on here would stand out for good reasons, but quite a few did and it seems nicest to concentrate on those. Simplest to pick out was a round table on “An Other Middle Ages: What Can Europeanists Learn from Medieval Chinese History?” Naturally enough, this was essentially composed of some people who work on China who wanted the rest of us to realise that China is cool and useful to think with, and some people who thought that sounded great but had no idea how to start, especially if they don’t read Chinese as most scholars of the European Middle Ages don’t. (Wǒ huì shuō yīdiǎn, yīdiǎn zhōng wén… now, but I couldn’t then and I certainly can’t read it. Yet.) That was itself not too surprising – the language barriers exist and so does Otherness – but I don’t think I’ve ever been in a round table where so many people contributed, from all over the discipline, Sinologists, Byzantinists, late medieval Italianists, high medieval Germanists, high medieval Englishists (Anglologists?) and several more I couldn’t identify, all there because one way or another they did want to know more. I may later look back and see a sea change as having started here.

After that, and much much closer to my home interests, was a session entitled “10th-Century Uses of the Past, II“—I’d missed the first one—in which Simon Maclean, no less, managed persuasively to set the epic poem Waltharius into the context of the struggle between the last Carolingians and upcoming Ottonians in the middle tenth century, in which the dedicatee of the poem, Bishop Erchembold of Strasbourg was deeply involved; this did, as Simon said, explain why he might have laughed.3 Elina Screen then looked at the history of the monastery of Prüm, important to her as the burial place of her great subject, Emperor Lothar I (ruled 817-55, kind of) and best known to us through the Chronicle of one of its abbots, Regino (which indeed Simon has translated) and the monastery cartulary, the so-called Liber Aureus.4 Regino is famous for his gloomy opinion of the Carolingians, whose collapse of power he lived through, partly in exile; the Liber Aureus however makes a huge deal of them, and Elina suggested that a lot might be explained if we notice that Regino was apparently unable to extract any donations from the Carolingian kings and that his specific relationship with the royal family might have been one of the reasons his tenure as abbot didn’t work out, in which case we might want to be careful about generalising from him!

There were also two sessions on another bit of my tenth-century world, mainly Galicia, that overlapped a bit. The first, entitled “Ladies and Lords in 10th and 11th-Century Iberia: rivalries, factions, and networks“, featured Lucy K. Pick, in “The Queen, the Abbess, and the Saint’s Body: Faction and Network in 10th-Century Galicia”, recounting the use made by Queen Elvira of León of the body of Saint Pelagius, supposedly a boy martyr killed because he would not submit to the homosexual lusts of the future Caliph ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III. Although there certainly were some Christians put to death for denouncing the Prophet in tenth-century al-Andalus, this story is probably not true (despite what Wikipedia currently says); but it was put to serious work positioning the queen and her husband King Ramiro I as heads of the resistance to Islam in a Leonese court world then quite divided by faction.5 I’ve always wondered why that cult became such a big deal, given its likely fictionality, and some kind of home context for it—Pelagius was claimed as a local boy from Galicia—would certainly help with that.

The questions in the other session, “Iberian Monasticism, II: Early Middle Ages“, involved quite a discussion about Galicia, indeed, which another of the papers in the first one, by Rob Portass, had also featured. In this one, Rob resisted the idea that Galicia was a frontier, wanting I guess to frame it as a centre of its own, and Jorge López Quiroga and Artemio Manuel Martínez Tejera maintained that basically everything in the north of early medieval Iberia was a frontier space because of its vulnerability to attack from the south. The context was that Rob was contending for a movement of ideas rather than people to explain material-culture similarities between south and north, and the others were still basically looking for fugitive Mozarabs from the south with heads full of architecture they wanted to keep, and I don’t really know how we solve that.

Last in this list of sessions that struck me was one of two whole sessions, quite early on, on the Alans, one of the more obscure but long-lived migratory peoples of the early Middle Ages, called “Bringing in the Alans, II: Society and Economy of Alania“. Apparently Turkic of language and best known around the Caspian Sea, some people so considered were already up on the Rhine by the early fifth century and some settled in Gaul, eventually to become the source of some really quite overstretched historiographical claims.6 Two of the papers in the session, “Alans in the North Caucasus: settlement and identity”, by Irina Arzhantseva, and “Population and Society in the Sarmatian and Early Alanic North Caucasus: the cemetery of Klin-Yar (near Kislovodsk, Russia)”, by Heinrich Härke, were mainly about identifying Alan settlement in one of the zones to which these people supposedly migrated, which was a bit pots-means-people to be honest, but the third one, Nicholas Evans‘s “Alans on the Move: a case study in the archaeology of mobility”, despite coming out of the the same project as Härke’s, stood out for mentioning the Alans who stayed behind, still to be a factor in Caspian-era politics in the ninth century and dealings with the Khazars, and apparently looking quite different in material-cultural terms. The fact that all these people were called Alans by outsiders really became the question that was getting begged for me here.

Individual notes

Also, two things that don’t really fit anywhere else. In a session I will actually write about separately, “The Transformation of the Carolingian World, III“, Charles West, in a paper he had written with Giorgia Vocino called “Why Shouldn’t Judges Get Married? An Ottonian Perspective”, noted in passing that Emperor Otto III owned a copy of a commentary on the Codex Justinianus, the sixth-century Roman lawcode that was supposedly forgotten in the West until the twelfth century but which, as we’ve seen here before, wasn’t, at least in Rome, where Otto III also hung out.

Then lastly, there was my paper. I might have organised more sessions on frontiers, but I had been hoping to do something with the proceedings from the previous year and hadn’t really felt I could ask people to contribute more things with which I could not promise to do anything. So I wound up accepting an invitation to participate in a session being run by a friend of a friend, entitled, “Writing the Other in the Middle Ages, I: Travellers and their Cultural Preconceptions“. This was, as is so often the case for me, the morning after the dance, and my paper was called “Hagrites, Hagarenes, Chaldeans and Saracens: Missing Muslims on the Spanish march, 800-1000”. This wasn’t really much to do with travellers, but picked up on the scholarship I’ve mentioned here once or twice on people with Arabic names in tenth-century León, the very people about whom that debate over cultural transfer or physical migration already mentioned mainly arises, and tried to replicate it for Catalonia.7 And what I basically found is that you can’t; despite a much denser sample of charter evidence, there are all of 13 such persons in the documents I could check, as opposed to maybe 300 in the Leonese stuff. It is possible that, not having access then to the documents from Barcelona, I was missing out the capital to which, as in León, such migrants might have flocked, but the order of difference is still significant, and furthermore, I do now have the Barcelona documents and on a very quick run through the indices just now I don’t think they would add more than three or four.8 So that is something which might need explaining, but I think it must show support for the idea of a very low level of Islamization or Arabicization during the eighty-odd years in which the future Catalonia was in fact Muslim-run, no matter what some people would have you believe.9

Books!

Oh, also, it would not be a Leeds IMC report if I didn’t also report on books. The world’s second-biggest medievalist bookfair is a dangerous thing when you are paid for being an academic, and I came away with this list:

  • Norman H. Baynes, Byzantine Studies and Other Essays (Westport 1974), I admit I’m now not sure why;
  • Neil Christie and Hajnalka Herold (eds), Fortified settlements in early medieval Europe: defended communities of the 8th-10th centuries (Oxford 2016), because by and containing friends and papers I’d been to in previous years;
  • Janina M. Safran, Defining Boundaries in al-Andalus: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Islamic Iberia (Ithaca 2015), largely because I had been telling students to read it without having done so myself and wanted to know why, having done so, they never seemed to cite it for anything;
  • Mark Whittow, The Making of Orthodox Byzantium, 600–1025 (Basingstoke 1996), because it’s great; and
  • Patrick J. Geary (ed.), Readings in Medieval History, 1st ed. (Peterborough 1991), because it’s the archetypal sourcebook except for all those other older ones and has a wider idea of what sources might be than they do.

Even this seems to speak somewhat of being subdued, doesn’t it? And of course, I haven’t read them, not so much as opened two of them except to get them into Zotero. Oh well… But I did have fun at the conference, even if I was exhausted for a lot of it. It just seems a very long time ago now!


1. It has been established since 1930 that the Covenant of ‘Umar probably does not date, as it seems to claim, from the reign of Caliph ‘Umar I (634-644 CE), but perhaps from that of ‘Umar II (717-720), for which see A. S. Tritton, The Caliphs and their Non-Muslim Subjects: A Critical Study of the Covenant of ‘Umar (London 1930), online here except in China, but the article in which I first read about it, Norman Daniel, “Spanish Christian Sources of Information about Islam (ninth-thirteenth centuries)” in al-Qanṭara Vol. 15 (Madrid 1994), pp. 365–384, raises doubts about even that, pointing out that no-one in al-Andalus ever seems to have been aware of it, which suggests that it should come from the ‘Abbāsid period of rule in the East, not the Umayyad one.

2. Scott’s relevant work is James C. Scott, The art of not being governed: an anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia (New Haven 2009), online here, but you can hear Nik’s application of it here if you like.

3. There is still no better account of that sporadic contest between a failing and a rising royal dynasty who shared claims on some territories than Rosamond McKitterick, The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians, 751-987 (London 1983), pp. 305-339; one day either I or Fraser McNair, or, most worryingly as a possibility, both of us, will have to write one…

4. For the Chronicle, therefore, see Simon MacLean (ed./transl.), History and Politics in Late Carolingian and Ottonian Europe: The Chronicle of Regino of Prüm and Adalbert of Metz (Manchester 2009); for the cartulary, you have to go to H. Beyer, L. Eltester & A. Goerz (ed.), Urkundenbuch zur Geschichte der Mittelrheinischen Territorien, band I: von den ältesten Zeiten bis zum Jahre 1169 (Koblenz 1860; reprinted Aalen 1974), which has most of the documents in.

5. On this story see Ann Christys, Christians in al-Andalus (711 – 1000) (Richmond 2002), pp. 88-101; there were certainly martyrs in the reign, as witness C. P. Melville and Aḥmad ‘Ubaydlī (edd.), Christians and Moors in Spain, Volume III: Arabic Sources (711–1501) (Warminster 1992), pp. 38-43, but perhaps not as many as have been claimed; see Christys, Christians in al-Andalus, pp. 80-88 and 101-107 for critical review.

6. Meaning Bernard S. Bachrach, A History of the Alans in the West (Minneapolis 1973) and his pathfinder work for that book, idem, “The Alans in Gaul” in Traditio Vol. 23 (Fordham 1967), pp.476-489, reprinted in idem, Armies and Politics in the Early Medieval West, Collected Studies 405 (Aldershot 1993), chapter III.

7. Such work being mainly Victoria Aguilar Sebastián and Fernando Rodríguez Mediano, “Antroponimia de origen árabe en la documentación leonesa (siglos VIII-XIII)” in El reino de León en la alta edad media VI, Fuentes de Estudios de Historia Leonesa 53 (León 1994), pp. 497–633, Sebastián, “Onomástica de origen árabe en el Reino de León (siglo X)” in al-Qanṭara Vol. 15 (Madrid 1994), pp. 351–364 and Rodríguez, “Acerca de la población arabizada del reino de León (siglos X y XI)”, ibid. pp. 465–472, now added to by Richard Hitchcock, Mozarabs in Medieval and Early Modern Spain: identities and influences (Aldershot 2008), pp. 53-74.

8. They now being published as Ignasi J. Baiges i Jardí and Pere Puig i Ustrell (eds), Catalunya carolíngia volum VII: el Comtat de Barcelona, Memòries de la Secció Històrica-Arqueològica 110 (Barcelona 2019), 3 vols, my copies of which I owe to the great generosity of Professor Josep María Salrach.

9. Most recently, Ramón Martí, “De la conquesta d’al-Andalus a la majoria musulmana: el cas dels territoris de Catalunya (segles VIII-X)’ in Pilar Giráldez and Màrius Vendrell Saz (edd.), L’empremta de l’Islam a Catalunya: materials, tècniques i cultura (Barcelona 2013), pp. 11–35.

Aside

It has been more than a month since I last put text to blog, and though I’m sure this isn’t a complete surprise given what the world and its people, and universities specifically, are up against just now, it might … Continue reading

How Soon is ‘Too Soon’?

My apologies for the lack of a post last week; a combination of dispiritment at the state of the world and a lot to do on the Monday that wasn’t possible to get ready except at the weekend are my excuses. Let me make up for it somewhat with something hopefully a bit more thought-provoking, which I stubbed to think about in April 2017 but still seems worth exploring a bit. It sort of starts here.

LEGO Vikings rowing the LEGO Viking ship

LEGO Vikings rowing the LEGO Viking ship that you can buy and assemble

I come not to criticise LEGO‘s historicity, you understand; we could go a long way into the difference between the mythic and the historical image of the Viking before we got to a conclusion about whether it is OK that those helmets are horned. But they exemplify something that came to my mind after, in April 2017, my department had an external review, during which one of the reviewers talked about using LEGO as a teaching aid.1 At the time, I confess to thinking this a bit infantile; since then, I must say, I have seen it done well and been converted. A class of first-years in groups each given a small bundle of LEGO pieces and told to build something in ten minutes that expressed chivalry brought out a good few knights on horseback, yes, but also, because of people wanting to use all the pieces or acknowledge that not everyone in the age of chivalry actually was a knight, some quite multi-layered symbolism piled up on those models. In general, it got them putting stuff they’d read into action in a way I don’t think talking would have done by itself, and I only wish I’d had the idea myself.2 So I’m not against the technique, just to make that clear, but a colleague who works on much more modern violence, racism and atrocity felt then that it would be really tasteless and impolitic to try and model anything they taught in LEGO, and it got me thinking.

The thought was, is there a line in history on one side of which this kind of modelling becomes inappropriate or insensitive? When I was a child, this wasn’t a question one would have had to ask, because LEGO basically didn’t do violence: I, a Star Wars fan of early vintage, was always a bit disappointed that their various spaceships and moon exploration sets, fancy or functional, did not feature laser guns. But even then, they did knights and castles sets (though right now they do not, as the last range apparently didn’t sell…), and as we see above it wasn’t long before they embarked on pirates. Again, I am not out to critique LEGO’s choices here, not even the fact that since then they have also done ninja and Viking ranges. But I wonder if we have a cut-off? As far as I can see, pirates is about as modern as they get with anything that’s not current film or TV properties like superheroes, and pirates are almost timeless in the popular imagination anyway, though very much a live concern that happens to people in some seas even so. Obviously there are some non-LEGO toy ranges that come closer to the modern violent than this: Action Man is the most obvious survivor from my childhood, but when I was a child I had (in fact, have recently had to reclaim from my mother’s attic, so now have again, I admit) a lot of farm toys made by a company called Britains who also did toy soldiers. The two aspects of the company now seem to have diverged and split across the Atlantic, but I notice that neither is doing one thing they used to do, cowboys and Indians. So perhaps that has become unacceptable (though somewhat to my horror, the toy soldier section of the company now also has a Vikings range…).

Advertising diorama from the W. Britain toy range Wrath of the Northmen

Advertising diorama from the W. Britain toy range Wrath of the Northmen

So OK, pirates in popular culture are basically ahistorical, fine, and I suppose one could make the same kind of argument for Vikings, and at least with the Vikings we have contemporary literature of that culture which suggests that many Vikings would have been more or less fine with the idea that their exploits of seafaring, skulduggery (and skull-drinkery) and superviolence would be re-enacted by children with a variety of toys nine to eleven centuries after they were committed.3 Perhaps that’s even true of Western European knights to an extent: the Chanson de Roland and Bertran de Born could be enlisted to support it.4 But I don’t imagine any of these companies are going to start making toys of seventh-century Arab soldiers just because there’s some really powerful early Arabic war poetry; that would be a bit too close to the bone still somehow, wouldn’t it? Likewise, discussions here long past suggest that the fact that New Zealand’s rugby team still do a haka before their matches would not make it OK, or even successful, to produce a range of figures from the Maori wars for children to play with.5

So where’s the threshold? It’s evidently not about time: it’s about relevance. But to whom? Lindesfarne was sacked in 793, as long-term readers of this blog will remember all too well, and apparently England is over that. But we’ve had angry comments on this blog before now about the Battle of Yarmuk a century and a half before, Battle of Manzikert, only three centuries later, and about Byzantine campaigns against the Bulgars and the attitude of the historiography surrounding them to the Bulgarians, and I almost don’t like to remember what else. A lot of this stuff still matters to people in relevant places. How do the average Kalinago person, or any of the people who haven’t made it on a voyage through the Gulf of Aden in recent years, feel about LEGO pirate sets? Slaughters of the past still matter in many peoples’ presents, and I wonder what it says about the European West that it has managed so cheerfully to internalise its medieval ones. Perhaps it’s another case of Kathleen Davis’s arguments in Periodization and Sovereignty, in which we have set such a big barrier between ‘We, the Moderns’, and the past we drag round with us, that everyone on the other side can be reduced to caricatures and mini-figures.6

But they weren’t, you know; for some people that still matters, and I’m not sure the reasons it doesn’t for others are good ones.


1. I should explain that in the UK English I know LEGO is a brand name and the bits they make are LEGO bricks or pieces. LEGOs meaning the bricks is perhaps an Americanism? and has spread, but I, stuck in my childish ways, resist it, so it won’t be appearing elsewhere in this post.

2. Given the which, I should give credit where it is due and it is due to Dr Claudia Rogers, of my current local parish, and from watching whose teaching I have evidently learnt something for my own.

3. Try, for example, the Saga of Burnt Njal, which you can get in Penguin as Robert Cook (transl.), Njal’s Saga (London 2001) or online in an older translation here. It is not shy about bloodshed!

4. Glyn Burgess (transl.), The Song of Roland (London 1990), in Penguin, or again an older translation online, John O’Hagan (transl.), The Song of Roland, translated into English verse (London 1880), online here. There doesn’t seem to be a current English translation of Bertran de Born’s works, but you can find a couple, including the most relevant, on De Re Militari here.

5. I admit that I am rather horrified to find that W. Britain, the original and continuing model soldier side of the Britains business, still make an Anglo-Zulu war range, including a set called ‘Clearing the Yard’ including redcoats carrying away dead Zulu warriors. There are matching ones of redcoats falling under Zulu attack, Zulus looting British bodies and indeed of Zulus attacking a field ambulance, so it’s not as if the violence or indeed the victory is all one way, though the balance of depiction could be interrogated, but aside from that and a smaller range from the Anglo-Egyptian Wars, they seem to have given up on colonial-era figures. Anyway, I digress but I am very surprised to see this still on sale at the same time as we are being so urgently reminded that black lives matter, and it makes me feel a bit queasy about my old toy tractors.7

6. Kathleen Davis, Periodization and sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time (Philadelphia PA 2008), which every time I cite I am stuck afresh with regret about the lousy review I gave it a decade ago.

7. Addendum: it turns out that hiding under the name ‘Clash of Empires’ is in fact a range that includes Native Americans and settlers, though more eighteenth-century than nineteenth- and not featuring cowboys. “The historical appearance of European soldiers and settlers and the native people are accurately rendered in every detail.” Now, at $72 a pop, these are not children’s toys any more. People are presumably modelling this stuff, at really quite considerable cost. What leads one to do that, do you suppose?

Chronicle VIII: April to June 2017

With the last component of the previously-described three month slice of my life academic now blogged, it’s time to set up the next slice, which was April, May and June of 2017. I tried writing this up the way I have done the others and then realised that, because it largely covers a vacation, it could in fact be done shorter, so here is the absolute minimalist version of my academic life in those three months, by way of signalling roughly what was going on and what the next few posts may cover!

  1. Because Leeds splits its second semester either side of Easter, I’ve already told you about the modules I was teaching at this point, and there were only two weeks of them to wrap up after the Easter vacation. Furthermore, by this stage my first-year survey had someone else doing the tutorials and my second-year option had a reading week in one of the two weeks remaining, so it was down to five or six contact hours a week on average, nothing like where it had been. There was a taster lecture for an admissions open day the Saturday after teaching had stopped for everyone else, and I had to be in at 9 o’clock on a subsequent Saturday morning after the vacation to see one of my exams started, but I have to admit that that situation was worse for the students…
  2. In other on-campus activity, I finally stopped doing coin cataloguing in this period. I don’t think I meant to but I just didn’t arrange going back in and then kept not doing that. Instead, my diary suggests, I was mainly in meetings or training: it has at least three times the time blocked out for such things over the period of this post as it does for teaching, though of course the teaching was packed into two weeks and the rest was not. In one of these meetings we determined that my probation would have to be extended, largely because of the disappearance of my book contract and, if only for a while as we now know, one of my articles. That at least solved something; some of the other meetings were less useful, mainly because they did not enable communication with the people that had called them. This seemed so especially when I was representing my department against library budget cuts during this period. This was in a university already embroiled in industrial dispute and building up to full-on strike action, so I guess it was symptomatic that official channels of communication were somewhat blocked. The attempt at least taught me to look for ways around them, and wider circumstances eventually saved most of the library budget, at least for a while. And of course I was working towards my teaching qualification and some of the meetings were to support that and it’s not that I think all meetings are useless. I just remember the useless ones more clearly than I do the ones that had results, apparently…
  3. However, some of the meetings did have good outcomes, because they were to do with projects I was running! In the first place there was the Undergraduate Research Leadership Scheme on which I had a student working on the coin collection, and in the second place were Leeds visits that were part of the Medieval Islands project I had running with Luca Zavagno of Bilkent Universitesi. Both of these I wrote more about at the time (as just linked), so I’ll just refer you there, but they were going on in this period, it was a pleasure having Luca around for a week and that stimulated a lot of further plans, whose fruition will also be told in due season.1
  4. One thing I wasn’t doing was going to seminars, however: other than two internal work-in-progress ones, the only paper I saw given by itself was Rebecca Darley of whom we were only just speaking, who addressed the Medieval Group at Leeds on 24th April under the title ‘Seen from Across the Sea: India in the Byzantine World View’. I would never usually pass up the chance to plug a friend’s work here, but in this instance we have just been talking about it, and it was so close after the Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies where we were doing that that there was inevitable overlap, so I won’t tell it twice.2
  5. However, I did make up for that by going to conferences. In fact, I went to two, one in the USA and one in China! The USA trip, squeezed into the first week of our exam season, was to the 51st International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, as part of a Leeds posse, so that will have to be reported; there are good stories to be told. Meanwhile, the China conference is a story in itself and likewise very much worth the telling. Between the two there was also an internal workshop which I also want to talk about, because I was in it but also because it was another of those showcases of my department that seem worth sharing. And of course, though I’d have told you at the time I was unable to do any, for each of these papers I had to find time to do at least some research, so that was also beginning to happen again. One could see this brief period as the long-awaited spring after a really hard winter, perhaps. I don’t think I felt that at the time, but that’s perspective for you, isn’t it?

But still; even with the various bits of medieval tourist photography I’m going to squeeze between them, that isn’t that many posts promised. Maybe I’m getting the hang of this structure at last; maybe not. We will see! But tune in again next post for some Yorkshire medievalism and we’ll see how it goes from there.


1. Of course, the most immediate result was our issue of al-Masāq (Vol. 31 no. 2, The World of Medieval Islands (July 2019)) but results will also be some day soon be visible in Luca’s resultant book, Beyond the Periphery: The Byzantine Insular World between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (ca. 600-850) (Amsterdam forthcoming).

2. Again, it seems worth mentioning that parts of this research at least are now (openly) available to the world as Rebecca Darley, “The Tale of the Theban Scholastikos, or Journeys in a Disconnected Sea” in Journal of Late Antiquity Vol. 12 (Baltimore ML 2019), pp. 488–518, online here, with more coming.

Chronicle VII: January-March 2017

We continue to live in upset times, which make the events of a few years back seem even less relevant than they might have been before. Plus which, these posts aren’t actually much fun to write, and this one was set to be fairly grim anyway, which current circumstances set in proportion somewhat; I may not have been having a great time, but look at the world now, right? So I’ll observe chronology and do it, but be more schematic and briefer than usual, so I can move on quickly. In case you prefer to move on even quicker, I’ll put the rest below a cut… Continue reading

Surely you’re mistaken I

Happy 2020 to all my readers! By way of light relief from my old holiday pictures, here is something I’ve had in store until it was safe to use, another small stash of ‘classic’ student answers to questions of great weight, from years back. There’s one superstar here, but the supporting cast also contributed a great deal. I didn’t check who these students were until after I’d marked these things and by now I have no idea; they will, however, all have safely graduated by now, hopefully after having left this period behind for one they were happier in. Enjoy!

I know what they meant, but…

“With the emergence of Mohammed, Islam exploded in popularity and in influence.”

It had been struggling before, I seem to recall…

“Constantius was an Aryan emperor and when he came to power he attempted to make Aryan the official religion of the Empire.”

There’s probably no safe joke to make about this.

Latin with unexpected results

The fourth century as seen by Goscinny

“[Constantine’s conversion] led to the edict of Milan in AD 313 in which Constantine and Licentius legalised Christianity and other religions.”

Unintended satire

“Firstly, Emperors of the time were considered as ‘Profitis Maximus’ which means ‘the head of religion’.”

Just not sure what happened here

“Justinian took succession of North Africa in the Vanadic War as well as moving out the Frankish and Swedish.”

Reference to a hitherto undocumented migrant crisis?

And most difficult of all, Christianity

Several important contributions by that unknown guest star, to whom both word choice and understanding Christianity seem to have been more challenging than perhaps they realised.

Word choice is important

“The infamous Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, still one of the most famous religious buildings to this day…”

I think you can only have one of those adjectives, sorry.

Religion is confusing

“During the thirteenth century the Pope wanted the masses to believe in the all-powerful superior civil leader God….”

Previously someone less all-powerful had been in charge so the popes were less clear about their wishes, I guess.

“The Greek church had laws for the archbishoprics, bishoprics and the intermediate class, their laws were directed at everybody and everyone was on the same level. Each person was an equal. Compared to the Latin church which was very top heavy, mainly aimed at archbishoprics and bishoprics and that was it.”

Besides which, with all those bishoprics on trial the courts were very full anyway.

“Which ended up spuring on Greek nationalism to such an extent that there was no going back, so in Constantinople they tried to get Hagia Sophia on the throne.”

Perhaps in the form of one of those models emperors carry around in mosaics? Otherwise I’m not sure how this happened either…

Anyway, I try to keep glorious moments like these when they occur; they make the marking easier… Hopefully these have either been a diversion, or, if you’re a student, a warning, and either way may it start off a happy New Year for you and me both!

Mistakes not to make

Teaching resumed on Monday, and who knows how long I can keep up blogging under one of my heavier loads so far in this post? But I have one post ready, which I put into draft in the beginning of April 2016, when I was clearing messages off an old phone. Some of the messages came from a period when I was marking exam scripts by first-year undergraduates completely new to medieval history—not at my current institution I should point out, but long in the past—and as anonymous to me then as they are to you now. I evidently had to share the pain with someone, and now it seems wrong not to disperse it more fully before they pass into oblivion. I mean, each one is a gem in its way. I have grouped them by their particular sort of failing. All spellings were authentic and hopefully still are. I hope I didn’t teach any of them and wish them all well in their current lives.

Sadly not really getting it

These are probably our fault as teachers, really, but we certainly had help.

“Christainity often faced mass persecution in early medieval era. In 64 AD the first account of Christain persecution took place as Christains were blamed for the Great Fire of Rome.”

“Without the Silk Roads, the development of the world may not have been so fast.”

Words that sound about right

“There is evidence of this available from primary sources such as Byzantium coins being found in areas of China during the Confucian dynasty…”

Yes, Confucian is what this smells of to me too.

Unhelpful caution

I don’t think these were our fault, though, I think these were students being afraid of us marking them wrong.

“The emergence of Christianity would have been a great change as many places had been pagan prior to their conversion.”

Almost all, really!

Of Muhammad:

“… arguably the most important prophet of Islam…”

It’s hard to think of one more so!

“It is possible that in the eighth century there was a different view on what was true.”

That is indeed a problem we face.

Not what you meant

Here, if anyone is to blame, it’s whoever taught the writers writing.

“Muslim women had a great hurdle in overcoming their participation in the intellectual and political institutions of Islam…”

Some of them, indeed, never managed it. And this one is my favourite of all.

“Buddhists were not large enough to cause mass conversions.”

No comment needed.

What do you mean?

“The advent of Muslim women’s success in overcoming their challenges was hindered at the advent of Prostitution and that it was widespread in Provincal cities that had monitered brothels.”

I understand most of where this came from, except how the Muslims got back to Provence so quietly, but I don’t understand where it was trying to go.

“With a long-lasting peak of 1600 years, the Silk Routes, or Silk Roads, are heavily attributed for their ability to connect the unknown world.”

Good to know. I think.

Over time, I have developed a reputation as a tough marker. I offer these, then, as partial explanation of how I might have got that way and ask for the ones that weren’t funny enough to quote also to be taken into consideration…

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.