Tag Archives: The Academy

Periodical Coincidences

Here’s something a bit more light-hearted this week, or if you prefer, trivial. This builds on a very old realisation of mine of something basically meaningless, when during building up a list of things I hoped to read for my MA dissertation I clocked that the journals Viator and Britannia started in the same year, with their first issue in 1970.1 Both Latin titles, too, but different sides of the Atlantic and basically different, though overlapping, period focuses, so it’s hard to do anything with that fact other than notice it. And there that idea rested until some way into my doctoral research, which I approached fresh from employment which had given me the dangerous idea that you could solve almost any information management problem with an Access database, as long as you didn’t mind solving it badly. And we have already seen since long ago that my instincts in these directions are rarely sanely guided

So, what I wanted was a database into which I could transcribe my old paper lists of things I hope to read (present tense because by and large I still do hope to…) along with the somewhat crazy system I had devised of clocking their apparent importance and the number of times I’d seen them cited (which is also a measure of importance, however bad), basically an accumulating set of marginal sigla.2 Well, that could be turned into a numerical score and apart from the fact that this system inevitably privileged stuff that was ancient, it was a functional way of building reading lists as far as it went. That wasn’t very far, though, really, because my old paper lists, in an effort to keep things one line long only, had only ever recorded the volume-level location of articles and chapters, not their actual titles, which might have been invaluable as keyword. Without them, however, I just new that, for example, there were lots of things I apparently needed to read in the 1986 volume of Annales but without raw memory or going and looking at it, I’d no idea what they were.3 Not my best piece of diversionary work, all told, but there we go; you don’t go building bibliographical databases by yourself in every developer’s least favourite database software if you’re a completely sensible person, do you?

Screenshot of Jonathan Jarrett's custom bibliographical database

Screenshot of the madness

Anyway, all this does have a point, honest. Because I didn’t have article and chapter titles in the database, when I came across what might be a new journal article, the easiest way for me to find if I had it recorded was not to search for the author’s name or the journal’s title, but to search for the combination of volume and year, which in theory should be close-to-unique. So, for that issue of Annales I’d have searched for ’41 (1986)’. But doing so reveals that also in their 41st volume that year were, probably among others, the Deutsches Archiv of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica and the Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie.4 Now, obviously, this isn’t really surprising: there’s hundreds and thousands of academic journals, even just in the arts and humanities, and only a couple of hundred years of journal-issuing academia in which for them all to have existed. Most of them will be crowding the newer end of that timeframe, too.5 Coincidences are obviously inevitable. But there are an awful lot, once you start noticing them.

Now, I am a pattern-spotting animal and, like man as a species, perhaps so evolved for it that I spot patterns that aren’t really there too easily. This leads one to start asking those always-dangerous questions that begin, “Can it be a coincidence that… ?” For example, Cambridge’s Anglo-Saxon England (not then meant to be controversial…) and the Deutsche historische Institut in Paris’s Francia (perhaps never to be controversial) both seeing first light in 1972 could be coincidence, but could also be certain constituencies of academia all feeling that their interests, perhaps looking a bit fringe in the wake of Vietnam, the hippy movement and its disintegration (remember all those campus occupations…), needed a new forum for their mutual recognition. Was there a cross-channel medievalist moment happening there?6 Or am I spinning hay?

Anyway, whether or not this is crazy pattern spotting, I notice two really boom years, in which I don’t see what any plausible connection could be across so wide a range of journals but something feels like it was going on. The weaker of these is 1975, in which year it seems clear that several academic networks had decided that existing fora for their kind of work were inadequate, as a result of which in one year you get Birmingham’s Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, the Jahrbuch für westdeutsche Landesgeschichte and things like Islamochristiana, Critical Inquiry, Journal of Historical Geography and Journal of Medieval History, as well as the Royal Numismatic Society’s briefly separate list of Coin Hoards. One can work towards reasons for some of these: there’s a Marxist thread linking some of those journals, and if I dug enough into their histories and first editorial boards I might find people who had bounced ideas off each other, but while you might adduce something about the general state of growth of, especially, UK academia in the 1970s, it’s hard to explain why 1975 rather than 1974 or 1976, and of course if I were interested in different journals or different fields perhaps those years would show up instead…

Still. We already drew attention to the student riots and general academic upheaval of 1968, and I can’t help wondering if something really did rattle a lot of cages at that point because the real bumper year shown up by this utterly unscientific and useless sampling method is 1970, when as well as Britannia and Viator already mentioned, the academic world was given, in no particular order:

I can’t help but feel that something was going on, and of course, something had been. Almost certainly it is only coincidence, of course. But let me ask you: can all these coincidences really just be coincidence… ?

1. The former for Herwig Wolfram, “The Shaping of the Early Medieval Kingdom” in Viator Vol. 1 (Berkeley CA 1970) pp. 11-20; the latter, apparently, for A. L. F. Rivet and Kenneth Jackson, “The British Section of the Antonine Itinerary” in Britannia Vol. 1 (London 1970) pp. 34-82 and Anne Robertson, “Roman Finds from Non-Roman Sites in Scotland: More Roman ‘Drift’ in Caledonia”, ibid. pp. 198-226.

2. Ironically, partly because I now actually do use better software, I can now easily produce citations on how useless citation counting is, such as Michelle L. Dion, Jane Lawrence Sumner and Sara McLaughlin Mitchell, “Gendered Citation Patterns across Political Science and Social Science Methodology Fields” in Political Analysis Vol. 26 (Cambridge 2018), pp. 312–327, DOI: 10.1017/pan.2018.12; Eric A. Fong and Allen W. Wilhite, “Authorship and citation manipulation in academic research”, ed. Lutz Bornmann in Public Library of Science One Vol. 12 (San Francisco CA 2017), e0187394, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0187394; or Jack Grove, “Quarter of citations in top journals ‘wrong or misleading'” in Times Higher Education, 16th October 2020, online here.

3. Actually, they were Dominique Iogna-Prat, “Le « baptême » du schéma des trois ordres fonctionnels : L’apport de l’école d’Auxerre dans la seconde moitié du IXe siècle” in Annales : Économies, sociétés, civilisations Vol. 41 (Paris 1986), pp. 101-126; Michel Rouche, “La crise de l’Europe au cours de la deuxièèe moitié du VIIe siècle et la naissance des régionalismes”, ibid. pp. 347-360; Stéphane Lebecq, “Dans l’Europe du Nord des VIIe-IXe siècles : commerce frison ou commerce franco-frison?”, ibid. pp. 361-377; Bailey K. Young, “Exemple aristocratique et mode funéraire dans la Gaule mérovingienne”, ibid. pp. 379-407; Patrick Geary, “Vivre en conflit dans une France sans État : typologie des mécanismes de règlement des conflits (1050-1200)”, trans. Jacqueline Falquvert, ibid. pp. 1107-1133 and Robert Bartlett, “Technique militaire et pouvoir politique, 900-1300”, trans. Falquevert, ibid. pp. 1135-1159. Crikey, when Annales still meant something…

4. For, respectively: Hartmut Hoffmann, “Kirche und Sklaverei im frühen Mittelalter” in Deutsches Archiv für Erforschung des Mittelalters Vol. 42 (oops)(Hannover 1986), pp. 1-24, and Kenneth H. Jackson, “The date of the Tripartite Life of St. Patrick” in Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie Vol. 41 (Amsterdam 1986), pp. 5-45.

5. If the whole format of the academic journal is a bit strange to you at this point, here’s a confirmation that you’re not daft, it is strange, at least now: Jo Guldi, “Reinventing the Academic Journal” in Daniel J. Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt (edd.), Hacking the academy: new approaches to scholarship and teaching from digital humanities (Ann Arbor MI 2013), pp. 19–24, online here. However, it is arguable that it did make sense once: see for a lightweight intro Bonnie Swoger, “The (mostly true) origins of the scientific journal” in Scientific American 27th July 2012, online here.

6. I’m conscious that I tend to tell the history of culture in the 1960s and 1970s largely on the basis of my music collection, but I could also cite Jeff Nuttall, Bomb Culture (London 1968) as an intimately involved primary source.

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.

Rites de passage: judging a doctorate for the first time

As said last post, as 2017, when the world was quite different, rolled around, I began the year by examining my first doctorate. Pretty much as soon as the public transport started working again, in fact, I was on my way to Cambridge. Now, in fact, the thesis was fine; I’ve not yet been placed in the position of examining a thesis that wasn’t more or less OK, thankfully, and if and when I am I doubt I’ll write about it here.1 When I say it was fine, I mean our biggest objection as examiners was that there was more in it about elephants than was strictly speaking required by the topic, but I want to reflect on the actual process a bit, just because it is a set of rituals not shared everywhere and merits reflection.

Sam Ottewill-Soulsby speaking to the Medieval History Seminar, University of Cambridge

Sam Ottewill-Soulsby, discoursing on ‘”Useless Peace”: Carolingian-Umayyad Diplomacy, 810-820’, for the University of Cambridge in 2014; click through to find it as a podcast…

In the first place, my involvement in this was very much being stepped back into old networks. The person being examined was Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, seen above, whom I had met at seminars at the Institute of Historical Research and who had also helped put on a conference three years before at which I presented. I was co-examining with someone I’d known for much longer, Dr Marios Costambeys, of the University of Liverpool but who, because of holding his doctorate from Cambridge, allowed to function as internal examiner there. Meanwhile I was the external, who has the easier job (as I now know): all the external has to do is read the thesis, write a report, sit in a room with the candidate for a couple of hours talking about their thesis, decide the judgement with the internal examiner, inform the candidate and then write up actions for the candidate if necessary, and then hand the rest over to the internal examiner for dealing with, take one’s honorarium and go home. Given the timing, I was reading Sam’s thesis over the Christmas holiday and New Year, but I have had worse tasks to take away to relatives to pore over while everyone else is celebrating the change of the calendar, and this task got much easier once it became clear that the thesis was going to be perfectly possible to pass.

Hall Court, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, from Wikimedia Commons

Hall Court, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, photograph by Ardfernown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, naturally enough we had arguments and quibbles here and there. Sam’s topic was ‘Carolingian Diplomacy with the Islamic World’, which necessitated at least some examination of early medieval elephants in order to understand what would, at the time, have been understood by it when Caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd, of Arabian Nights fame, sent Charlemagne a lone bull elephant whose name was Abul ‘Abbas, this being a historical thing that actually happened between the real historical persons of those names in the late ninth century.2 It just, maybe, didn’t need quite as much about elephants as Sam had put in. We advised him to cut that back and pour out his elephantine concerns in a separate article.3 I was interested in deconstructing a distinction Sam was making between diplomacy of necessity (intended to produce an outcome between the two parties) and diplomacy of prestige (intended to impress and make you look splendid but not necessarily to change anything), on the grounds that some embassies could do both; as Sam pointed out, the other option is deliberate disengagement, which can also be pursued for different reasons. Marios was interested in what Sam thought he was adding to our overall picture of the Carolingian world, to which Sam’s answer was that Charlemagne and his court were much more capable of handling contradictions in their attitudes and philosophy than our own tradition of analysis by logic and categories makes easy for us to understand; that seemed to me and still seems to me a big point, which if we could grasp properly would help us understand these worlds better. In general, to whatever we asked, Sam had good answers, which is roughly what is supposed to happen in this exercise, and we were able to pass his thesis with only a few recommended corrections, which he completed in pretty short order and thereafter, once the University bureaucracy had processed Marios’s acknowledgement of that fact, he was and is entitled to call himself Dr Ottewill-Soulsby, and richly and rightly deserved too.

The School of History, University College London

The School of History, University College London

Still, it is strange to reflect upon. In 2006, in a room in University College London, I went through this same process as examinee, with quite a similar outcome (and I then got on a train to Brighton to see Clutch play with Stinking Lizaveta in support, got more than a little drunk and finally collapsed happily in what I then thought was the best company in the world, and it was really a very good day in my life).4 Then I went back to working in a museum for nearly five years, at last got an academic job, briefly went back into museums and then got my job at Leeds, and that last, along with having got through the process myself, now qualified me to judge whether someone else should be allowed to set out on this somewhat shaky bridge into academia, if they want to. My having some knowledge of Sam’s field was obviously also important, but it’s not the only qualification required. Consider also that, if they’ve done it right, the person being examined knows a lot more about the topic than the persons examining do; part of the job of the viva is almost to make sure of that. At the same time, it is ‘only’ an examination of a piece of written work done for a degree qualification, not a golden key to academic employment or anything. The fact that this process is the only summative assessment of a multi-year project means that the sunk costs and aspirations in it are huge but don’t change what it actually is. But nonetheless, it can mean somebody’s world. I’m very glad that the first one I was asked to do was possible to pass so uncontentiously. Thanks, Sam; you were not the only one performing a rite de passage in that room, and you made it a lot easier for both of us than it might have been…

1. I’m now up to four, because that’s what this blog’s backlog looks like. Each will be told a little of in its due season, though, because all their respective victors deserve their time on the podium.

2. On which, apart of course from Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, “Carolingian Diplomacy with the Islamic World” (Ph.D. thesis, Cambridge University, 2017), pp. 83-92, you could profitably see Leslie Brubaker, “The Elephant and the Ark: Cultural and Material Interchange across the Mediterranean in the Eighth and Ninth Centuries” in Dumbarton Oaks Papers Vol. 58 (Washington DC 2004), pp. 175–195, or more broadly Paul Edward Dutton, Charlemagne’s Mustache and Other Cultural Clusters of a Dark Age (New York City 2004), pp. 43-68.

3. It must be said that no elephantine article has yet come forth, but what has is Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, “The Camels of Charles the Bald” in Medieval Encounters Vol. 25 (Leiden 2019), pp. 263–292, if that’s any use to you instead…

4. The matter of that day then being Jonathan Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia” (Ph.D. thesis, University of London, 2005), online here, as well of course as Clutch, Robot Hive / Exodus (DRT Entertainment 2005) and Stinking Lizaveta, Caught Between Worlds (At A Loss 2004), among others of their works.

Is Victorian the New Feudal?

University and College Union pickets outside the University of Leeds on 9th March 2020

University and College Union pickets outside the University of Leeds on Monday

Since we are back on strike this week and I can blog unpaid if I want, let me bounce an idea off you all. I’m not sure how strongly I hold to this, but I found myself reflecting on it after going to the paper by another colleague of mine, Dr Elisabeth Leake, that I mentioned a few posts back. It is this: that whereas for many years, nay, centuries, the medieval past has been the one that modernity sets itself against, with especial reference to the word ‘feudal’, we are now moving into an age where that thing we do not wish to be is Victorian. Obviously, in saying such a thing I need to define ‘Victorian’ and more particularly I need to define ‘we’, given how much some people do in fact want to be Victorian in at least some ways. I probably mean ‘nineteenth-century’ more than ‘Victorian’, in fact, since I want to think more broadly here than Britain (so often the best plan). Still, I think there is something here to chew on, which I’ll try and set out a bit more.

Star performers at the 2013 Llandrindod Wells Victorian Festival

Star performers at the 2013 Llandrindod Wells Victorian Festival, image Crown Copyright and used under Open Government License

You would have to have been reading here for a very long time, or else have got here after avid pursuit of reviews in Early Medieval Europe, to remember that in 2010 I reviewed for that august journal a book by Kathleen Davis called Periodization and Sovereignty.1 Looking back now, and knowing how much I have continued to cite that book since then, I should have been nicer about it; I still think it is really two ideas extended to book length by considerable repetition, and it’s not really about the Middle Ages, but those two ideas are quite important. Specifically, one of them is that the pejorative sense of the word ‘feudal’ goes back to seventeenth-century discourses of modernity in which it came to typify the outdated aristocratically dominated social structures against which both the Jacobean kingdom, to an extent, and the new Parliamentary movement to a different and greater one, now set themselves. As Davis argues, here (and everywhere?) periodization is an act of power and differentiation; by saying that there is a division between ‘now’ and ‘then’ you mark yourself off as having left the ‘then’ behind.2 Whether or not you think that medievalists should use the ‘f-word’ to describe their societies of study, this helps understand how everyone else is using it and is arguably another reason to be careful.3

Cover of Kathleen Davis, Periodization & Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism & Secularization Govern the Politics of Time

Cover of Kathleen Davis, Periodization & Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism & Secularization Govern the Politics of Time (Philadelphia, PA, 2008)

However, it’s now possible to find people trying to argue away the term ‘modern’ in much the same way as Brown and Reynolds want to get rid of ‘feudal’, albeit not for the same reasons. Indeed, their reasons are not the same as Davis’s, and I think it’s something more Davis-like that we’re watching. Of course, we have arguably never been modern, or equally arguably never haven’t, and paradoxically for medieval people ‘modern’ would have been the bad word with which to define that which was wrong, because their acts of power by periodization most often worked in the other direction; we are not ‘novel’ but still hold to the ancient ways…4 But, dear reader, I digress; this post, like Davis’s book, isn’t really about the Middle Ages. What I’m getting at is that we now most definitely have the word ‘postmodern’, which is another periodization term and therefore, per Davis though she doesn’t say it, another act of power by disassociation: modernity? We’re beyond that now.5 So where did it stop?

I can see two obvious answers here, and they’re both World Wars, although I think one could definitely add the financial crash of 2008 in the role of the buffers that finally stopped the intellectual train of modernity from rolling. At each stage things gave way: in particular, though not uniquely, in the Great War, among so much else, such as the last medieval empires, the idea of social progress by industrialisation, squashed into the corpse-filled mud of the trenches; in the Second World War one might single out colonialism, the price charged by the colonised for the survival of the colonial powers turning out to be decolonisation; and in 2008 it was the self-assurance of global capitalism, which had until then managed to maintain its own progress narrative and globalisation operations but now found itself faltering.

Julian Berthier's 'Love Love' on display at Canary Wharf, London, UK

Hereby hangs a separate tale. For a short while in 2008, you could see this in the small dock that is what remains of the original Canary Wharf, London, surrounded by the banking and finance megalopolis that now occupies the rest of the site. At the time my anthropologist of resort was working nearby and later lamented that they had not photographed it and labelled it ‘Capitalism’ for dissemination by Internet, but it turns out to be weirder than that, because the boat was not sinking. It has in fact been modified to float and indeed sail like that as a piece of art by one Julien Berthier called ‘Love Love’. That briefly raised the possibility that M. Berthier or his patrons (Lehman Bros, ironically!) had themselves hit on the very same satire as T’anta Wawa, but actually it had been arranged nearly two years before the crash. I’m no longer sure what the moral of the tale should be, therefore…

Now, I’m well out of my area of expertise here and a suitably-equipped modernist or cultural studies specialist can probably shoot me down in flames. But I reached this argumentative position by considering the things that the Western academy currently disparages: the most obvious, and for me quite rightly, is colonialism, as we try to decolonise the curriculum and address the structural whiteness of the profession and indeed the attainment gap between white and non-white students—which, ironically, seems actually to be generating more work on colonialism rather than on non-Europeans when they were not subject to colonial rule (or even recognising colonisation within Europe, where traditional medievalists could, if they chose, get involved…)6.

That would probably make the starting point of the new dispensation circa 1948, which fits with Elizabeth’s work indeed, and that in turn would make the disparaged past the wartime Europe of fascism and empire.7 (Of course, Europe maintained quite a bit of fascism thereafter, as another of my colleagues, Professor Peter Anderson, works to remind us…) But from a medievalist perspective, the roots go back further. Of course they do, right? Medieval studies has come lately and somewhat violently to the idea that colonialism affects it at all, but we have been deconstructing some older ideas for quite a while, sometimes with modernists’ help and sometimes coming up with things that the modernists might profit from learning. In the former category I think of the idea that nations existed before the modern nation-state, whose weakening hasn’t exactly reduced the volume of medievalist scholarship in search of national origins but has at least moved it forward to points where those origins could be the work of government rather than the inborn ethic of an inexplicably coherent people.8 Associatedly, in the latter, I think of all the post-war work that has been done to dilute and question the idea of steady and reliable ethnicity. It would not be unfair to say that, like at least modern-day geneticists, early medievalists now either don’t think about ethnic identity very hard or, if they do, don’t believe in it as a stable category; even if one doesn’t accept that an early medieval individual might have been able to self-determine in ethnic terms, I think we would pretty much all accept that ethnicity could change across one or two generations, rather than being something you were stuck with that travelled in your blood and never diluted out.9 Of course, most of that work is about people who were, functionally, white, which does potentially distance it from the problems we now see ourselves facing; there is of course now quite a lot of work on the almost contradictory attitudes of various medieval writers to issues of race that did map onto skin colour, which could certainly be negative, even when the people in question probably weren’t actually black (I’m thinking here of Berbers in al-Andalus), but also apparently perfectly accepting (as with the black bishop in my previous post).10 Nonetheless, the separation of ‘identity’ from ‘race’ within ‘ethnicity’ and the idea that identity must be both expressed and accepted to do its social work remain, I think, some of our big teaching points.

Lombard belt fittings, from Wikimedia Commons

“Lombard belt buckles”, says Wikipedia, to which one might reasonably ask, “How do we know who wore them and whether they claimed to be or thought they were Lombards? Maybe these were just cool. Wearing Levis doesn’t make us all American…” Image by Sailko, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Now, the ideas that this work attacks are nineteenth-century ones. And when you start looking around, there are other nineteenth-century ideas dying on the spears of postmodernism: the idea that there is necessarily such a thing as a fixed definitive archetype of a text, rather than whatever we have that the author left which maybe he or she wanted to change, or had already circulated in other versions, or in charter terms, the idea that there is an ‘original’; the idea that trade is necessarily a benefit to the societies involved, perhaps, although the current global trend isn’t listening to the post-colonial scholarship about how empires used trade to dominate weaker partners here as it might; and there are probably others.11 I think that there are probably many more, and that it’s not just the medievalists who now find themselves wanting no longer to be the heirs of their nineteenth-century forebears. Of course, it’s ironic that we set about doing this while our own dying empires return to protectionism and the restriction of movement, defensive measures that make perfect political sense when you’re in a weaker position with respect to your opposing quantities but sit badly with postmodern, post-state, post-capitalist ethics, not least because they only make sense in terms of those same nineteenth-century stable national identities. We’ve either got something important to tell the political world here or we’re badly out of step with change—perhaps both—but as ever, we are struggling to convince the world, or indeed our employers, to listen to us.

Logo of the Societas Aperiendis Fontibus Rerum Germanicum Medii Aevi, which has edited the series Monumenta Germaniae Historica since 1819: 'Holy Love of the Fatherland Gives the Spirit'

Logo of the Societas Aperiendis Fontibus Rerum Germanicum Medii Aevi, which has edited the series Monumenta Germaniae Historica since 1819: ‘Holy Love of the Fatherland Gives the Spirit’, image from their site. This is the ethic that gave us medievalists so many of our core texts, almost all edited to produce that single Urtext that may never have existed. The thing I love about this as a teaching point is, of course, that its expression of German identity predates the German state by some way…

What that thing we have to tell and what the wider implications of this are, I haven’t got as far as working out—part of the problem with getting people to listen, of course—except maybe this one point. If, in fact, the medieval world is losing its relevance as the Great Other of Our Past to which both disparagement and fantasy resort, in exchange for factories, steam, brass, smoggy alleys and empire, then we may at least be a bit freer to decide what it should mean or tell people; but that elusive term ‘relevance’ is going to be harder and harder to claim, unless we work on two things. The first of these, more difficult, is medievalisms in the post-modern; I’m sure there are some, not least because even if the gaslamps might be encroaching there’s still a lot of market for medievalising fantasies at the moment. The second, though, and the one I’ve contended for for longer, is the value of the Middle Ages as a society that did things differently to us, which probably actually now grows more powerful, because if it also did things differently to the Bad Other, the reasonable use of it as an alternative perspective should become easier to promote. Since the Bad Other of this hypothesis was itself quite medievalising, though, and the Middle Ages did of course also have empires, slavery, and mass production even if not industry as the modernists would see it, that might require a level of special pleading and blinkers I’m not sure I personally can pull off…12

Silver dirham struck at Wasit in AD 734/735, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B73

Here is a mass-produced medieval item, a silver dirham struck at Wasit in AD 734/735, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B73. Florentine textile would be another obvious example; so would thirteenth-century Paris study Bibles… The production line is itself not a difficult idea to come up with, it was mechanised energy that made the difference.

Anyway, this is where my musings have led me. There is probably plenty wrong with the above and I offer it up only for testing, perhaps to destruction, but I wonder what people think?

1. Kathleen Davis, Periodization and sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time (Philadelphia PA 2008); Jonathan Jarrett, “Periodization and Sovereignty. How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time. By Kathleen Davis. The Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2008. viii + 189 pp. £28. ISBN 978 0 8122 4083 2” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 348–349.

2. Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty, pp. 23-50.

3. Old reasons to be careful to be found in Elizabeth A. R. Brown, “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe” in American Historical Review Vol. 79 (Washington DC 1974), pp. 1063–1088, DOI: 10.2307/1869563, or more extensively Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (Oxford 1996); for recent resistance, see Richard Abels, “The Historiography of a Construct: ‘Feudalism’ and the Medieval Historian” in History Compass Vol. 7 (Oxford 2009), pp. 1008–1031. I have never quite finished forming my own view.

4. ‘We have never been modern’ is easy to cite, because in French it was the title of an influential book by Bruno Latour, available in English as Latour, We have never been modern, transl. Catherine Porter (Cambridge MA 1993). “We have never not been modern” is harder. The earliest use of it I can quickly find as a reaction to Latour is in a 2004 blog post by Steven Shaviro, “Bruno Latour”, The Pinnochio Theory 18 February 2004, online here, but it was already being used as a phrase that needed quotation but no referencing in a much earlier article on a quite different subject, Donna J. Haraway, “The Virtual Speculum in the New World Order” in Feminist Review, Consuming Cultures, No. 55 (New York 1997, pp. 22–72, on JSTOR but not recommended reading with food or if squeamish. The quote was obviously already around but I can’t find out who first said it. Presumably it was a response to Latour… Anyone know? As for medieval reverse period snobbery, I immediately think of Hrabanus Maurus, and I probably do that because of listening to Mayke de Jong, who briefly dicusses that learned cleric’s studied avoidance of novelty in her “Monastic Writing and Carolingian Court Audiences: some evidence from Biblical commentary” in Flavia De Rubeis and Walter Pohl (edd.), Le scritture dai monasteri, Acta instituti Romani Finlandiae 29 (Roma 2003), pp. 179–195, online here, at pp. 189-190 with references.

5. For writing of this kind a good anthology is Joyce Appleby, Elizabeth Covington, David Hoyt, Michael Latham and Allison Sneider (edd.), Knowledge and postmodernism in historical perspective (New York City, NY, 1996), though a review of this and other works in the same vein by Patrick Karl O’Brien here shows that the victory of the postmodern is far from complete, and may even be heading for mainstreaming.

6. Two justifiably and simultaneous strident calls for this work in L. Le Grange, ‘Decolonising the University Curriculum’ in South African Journal of Higher Education Vol. 30 (Matieland 2016), pp. 1–12, online here, and Savo Heleta, “Decolonisation of higher education: Dismantling epistemic violence and Eurocentrism in South Africa” in Transformation in Higher Education 1 (Durbanville 2016), a9, online here, but it’s not just South Africa with this problem, as witness Hannah Atkinson, Suzanne Bardgett, Adam Budd, Margot Finn, Christopher Kisane, Sadia Kureshi, Jonathan Saha, John Siblon & Sujit Sivasundaram, Race, Ethnicity & Equality in UK History: A Report and Resource for Change (London 2018), online here, esp. pp. 63-64 but really passim. As for colonisation within Europe, I was thinking straightforwardly of R. R. Davies, The First English Empire: power and identities in the British Isles 1093-1343, Ford Lectures 1998 (Oxford 2000), which people seem slowly to be forgetting.

7. See Elisabeth Leake, “At the Nation-State’s Edge: Centre-Periphery Relations in post-1947 South Asia” in Historical Journal Vol. 59 (Cambridge 2016), pp. 509–539, and eadem, The Defiant Border: The Afghan-Pakistan Borderlands in the Era of Decolonization, 1936-65 (Cambridge 2017).

8. In this area we’re all more or less stepping in the path laid down by Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, 2nd edn. (London 2006), online here, which may not be a perfect book if you’re a medievalist but is a very good place to start, and means that for example we now have the assumptions behind George Molyneaux, The Formation of the English Kingdom in the Tenth Century (Oxford 2015) rather than those behind, say, William A. Chaney, The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England: the transition from paganism to Christianity (Manchester 1970).

9. The case for self-determination in Patrick Amory, People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489–554 (Cambridge 1997); my go-to reference for this concern is Walter Pohl, “Telling the Difference: Signs of Ethnic Identity” in idem and Helmut Reimitz (edd.), Strategies of Distinction: The Construction of the Ethnic Communities, 300–800, The Transformation of the Roman World 2 (Leiden 1998), pp. 17–69, with honourable mention to Florin Curta, “Some Remarks on Ethnicity in Medieval Archaeology” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 15 (Oxford 2007), pp. 159–185. Resistance in Heinrich Härke, “Anglo-Saxon Immigration and Ethnogenesis” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 55 (Abingdon 2011), pp. 1–28, online here, even though the same man can write “Archaeologists and Migrations: A Problem of Attitude?” in Current Anthropology Vol. 30 (Chicago IL 1998), pp. 19–46. For a geneticist’s statement of the irrelevance of race, see Andrea Manica, Franck Prugnolle and François Balloux, “Geography is a better determinant of human genetic differentiation than ethnicity” in Human Genetics Vol. 118 (New York City NY 2005), pp. 366–371, online here.

10. My references for the work that’s gone on demonstrating that the Western Middle Ages were not completely lacking people of colour are sadly thin; I need to collect more, but at the moment the best thing for it I own is Pamela A. Patton (ed.), Envisioning Others: Race, Color, and the Visual in Iberia and Latin America, The Medieval and Early Modern Iberian World 62 (Leiden 2016), and I’m more aware of work that wants to stress that there was also racism in the Middle Ages, such as Debra Higgs Strickland, Saracens, Demons & Jews: making Monsters in Medieval Art (Princeton NJ 2003), Sara Lipton, Dark Mirror: the medieval origins of anti-Jewish iconography (New York City NY 2014), or Geraldine Heng, The invention of race in the European Middle Ages (New York City NY 2018). We might also ask why all this work is by women and why there are no equally obvious male contributions, but that would be a different post, by somebody else!

11. While I know that I’ve read short punchy proclamations of the death of the single original Urtext in scholarly editing, trying to find any of them on the web drowns you in Biblical scholarship that is predictably uninterested in the idea of plural originals, so right now the best I can find is the first part of John Bryant, The fluid text: a theory of revision and editing for book and screen (Ann Arbor MI 2002). On the same problems in charter studies I tend to cite Jonathan Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished Ph.D. thesis (University of London 2005), online here, pp. 38-48, which some day I will write up into a proper methodological article. As for exploitative trade, the most obvious example available right now to me is probably Erika Rappaport, A thirst for empire: how tea shaped the modern world (Princeton NJ 2017), which should probably make me feel guilty rather than thirsty but sadly doesn’t.

12. On Victorian medievalising the best thing I’ve found is Marcus Bull, Thinking medieval: an introduction to the study of the Middle Ages (Basingstoke 2005), pp. 7-41.

Links of hopefully-still relevant interest

Way back when I was a more diligent blogger and used to read other people’s stuff too, I used occasionally to gather up possible links of interest, most obviously for the rotating festival of such links that was Carnivalesque, which I now find is defunct; I guess a lot of us have suffered as I have with shortage of time, but I also suppose that such news goes round by Twitter now. Well, I am not a Twitteratus and will not be, so every now and then I still stash links in case someone reading would be interested, and in my massive backlog I now reach one such stash of material. Of course, these are all years old now, but as fellow blogger Saesferd (used to?) put it, “it’s mostly old news” in the first place, and maybe not all of it was on your radars when it was new… I’ll attempt some headings.

Discoveries in the West

Billon coins from the Cluny hoard

Billoin coins from the Cluny hoard, described below

Viking sword fragments from an Estonian hoard

Fragments from the Estonian hoard

Discoveries beyond the West

I owe notice of all these to Georgia Michael, to whom many thanks; this section is all her work, really.

A small hoard of Byzantine coins discovered down a well in Israel

Possibly actual dicovery photo, but either way, the small Byzantine hoard described below

Lastly, things people have put on the Internet

Photograph of medieval buildings in Mardin, Syria, from Dick Osseman's collection

Photograph of medieval buildings in Mardin, Syria, from Dick Osseman’s collection linked below

With several of the blog’s themes thus covered, I leave it for the weekend, hoping that some of you at least hadn’t already heard at least some of this… I think I am now through all the content I promised out of the last Chronicle post, so the next post, tomorrow unless strikes end very sharply indeed, will be the next one of those, covering July to September 2016. See you then maybe!

Chronicle IV: April to June 2016

I am, slowly, increasing the speed at which I move through my backlog on this blog, but I’m still not quite at real-time speed… Still, the perspective of retrospection is often valuable and I make sure you hear about up-to-the-minute stuff one way or another, right? So I now reach the fourth quarter of my reports of what was going on my life academic as I acclimatised to that elusive permanent employment I now have. This picks up in the Easter vacation of 2016, and I’ll break it down into the now-usual headings.


The academic calendar is semestral at the University of Leeds where I work, so you might think that teaching was done by Easter vacation, but it’s more complicated than that. Leeds has examinations after each semester, you see, and because there’s no space for exams after an eleven-week semester before Christmas on a UK timetable, the exams are held in the first two weeks of the following semester. We then have a week to get them marked, and then teaching starts again, but we can’t be through all eleven weeks before Easter falls, so the semester breaks over that, with two or three teaching weeks that come once term is resumed after the vacation. Then we examine again, this time for six weeks, then mark for two, then finally it’s the end. Complicated enough? I won’t tell you when I discovered this, but it was well after I’d started work at Leeds and I had to amend a lot of materials…

Cover of my module handbook from HIST1045 Empire and Aftermath for 2015-16

It’s hard to know what to illustrate this section of the post with, so here’s some documentation, the cover of my module handbook for the module I now go onto talk about, HIST1045 Empire and Aftermath

So anyway, that means that term restarted with a jolt for me in the middle of April, though as you may recall this could have been worse, since I was at that point only running one module, the late antique survey I’d inherited on arrival. I was still new to more of it than I would have liked, but it went OK. I had had to envisage a final-year two-semester special subject enough to pitch for it at a module fair we run to compete for students with our colleagues, but that was obviously a lot less work than actually having to teach it (though I did in fact get four pupils so had to run it next year). Apart from that and joint care of a visiting Chinese doctoral student, though, my load was really pretty light this term, for the last time too really.

Other Efforts

On the other hand I was keeping busy in other ways! For a start I was, now that I look back over my calendar, doing quite a lot with coins, including going to meet the University’s principal donor of them, who was (and is) a very interesting fellow. He gave us some more, so I guess it went well? I also took up inventorying the University’s collection again over the summer, which has stood me in good stead ever since, and as you’ll shortly see I also did a short introduction session to the collection for my colleagues, although I’m not sure I persuaded any of the unconverted of their teaching utility…

Obverse of copper-alloy 40-nummi of Emperor Justin II struck at Nicomedia in 574-575, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, Thackray Collection, CC-TH-BYZ-227

Here’s one of them, here the obverse of a copper-alloy 40-nummi of Emperor Justin II struck at Nicomedia in 574-575, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, Thackray Collection, CC-TH-BYZ-227…

Reverse of copper-alloy 40-nummi of Emperor Justin II struck at Nicomedia in 574-575, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, Thackray Collection, CC-TH-BYZ-227

… and here its reverse

I was also mentoring four doctoral students I didn’t supervise; I went to Birmingham for an exhibition opening I told you about at the time, was back there again to give a guest lecture I’ll tell you about in its turn as well, and in between those things, believe it or not, was in Princeton to speak at a conference that the XRF numismatics work had got me invited to, about which I’ll also write separately. Then there was the Staffordshire hoard exhibiton here in Leeds, and of course exam marking, a departmental research away day, and a doctoral transfer for someone I’d later, for reasons of staff change, wind up supervising, so that also stood me in good stead for later. I don’t mean to pretend that this is a lot, but I think I was being a good colleague wherever the chance arose, and getting engaged in the local academic community as well as holding my ties to my old ones where possible, which is generally how I like to play it.

Other People’s Research

On that subject, I was also still going to seminars, though this was kind of a quiet period for them anywhere outside Leeds, and even there a lot of it was internal stuff like work-in-progress meetings I don’t plan to talk about here. Running through my notes files, I find these:

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Medieval Coins for Beginners: a Workshop”, Medieval Group Seminar, University of Leeds, which I’ve already mentioned and will describe briefly in due course;
  • Joanna Phillips, “The Sick Crusader and the Crusader Sick: A ‘Sufferers’ History of the Crusades’, Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, one of our own then-postgraduates here showing that she could compete with her graduated colleagues on a perfectly equal footing, in a careful and entertaining talk that crossed the history of medicine and philological text critique in a really good showcase of how our department’s strengths could combine;
  • Coins, Minting, and the Economy in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy Conference, Princeton University, already mentioned and definitely deserving its own post;
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “The Marriage of History and Science: Testing the Purity of Byzantine Gold Coinage”, Guest Lecture at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, likewise already mentioned and worth at least a quick note, I feel, given that this is my blog;
  • Caroline Wilkinson, “Depicting the Dead”, Digital Humanities Workshop, University of Leeds, probably worth its own post too as the issue interests me;
  • Mark Humphries, “‘Partes imperii’: East and West in the fifth century”, Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, a detailed study of recognition of emperors in the western half of the empire by the eastern ones and indeed vice versa, neither of which were as simple or common as one might expect in the tangly history of the fifth century and the sources for which each have problems not always appreciated;
  • Philip Kitcher, “Progress in the Sciences and in the Arts”, Leeds Humanities Research Institute Seminar, which I was going to blog about separately as it definitely provoked me to argument in my notes, but I now discover that the speaker was giving this all over the place at this point, so you can see it for yourself, I have a lot to write up already and my views aren’t necessarily the same in 2019 as they were in 2016, so I shan’t, leaving it to you to decide what you think if you like:
  • Andrew Prescott, “New Materialities”, Cultures of the Book Seminar, University of Leeds, a visit to the Brotherton Library by a man I knew well to be an Anglo-Saxon manuscripts specialist, who was as the title suggests talking mainly about digitisation but emphasising the sometimes unappreciated physicality of the digital medium—you work it by touch—and the changing rôle of the library—perhaps only some libraries—from being literacy stores to being special archives, as well as the persistent worth of many old technologies (such as, you know, the book).

And that, I think, gets us to the end of the list for that quarter, and my main impression looking back is that there really was a lot going on in Leeds! It definitely helped me feel that I’d wound up in a good place, even if, as mentioned at the time, outside events were threatening to crumble some of my plans for it.

My Own Research

I was almost dreading writing up this part of this post until I went briefly through my files. I’ve no clear recollection of what I was working on this long ago and I was very afraid I would turn out still to have been in the kind of vague fugue I mentioned in one of the earlier ones of these posts. But not so! With the weight of teaching mostly off me, apparently despite all the other things I was up to I was also getting some work done. Not only were there those three papers I mentioned, but on inspection I find that I also turned round a new draft of that article on Carolingian crop yields that has now come out; that in this period I also reworked and sent out again my ill-fated article from Networks and Neighbours, though you’ve heard how that turned out; I must also have been reading Jesús Lorenzo Jiménez’s excellent then-new book on those Andalusi frontier warlords par excellence, the Banū Qāsī, because I was slated to speak about them at the fast-approaching International Medieval Congress, and was because of this able to do so; and I was also writing pretty decent chunks of what was then supposed to be my second book, on Borrell II.1 All of this, of course, took some time thereafter to come to fruition, where it has at all, but at least I was doing it then!

So yes: I think I was having a good time in these three months, looking back. There were certain other griefs that must have damped that impression at the time—my partner and I had decided we needed to move out of the area we were in, which did not like us, and so were doing a lot of house-hunting in this period, for one thing—but writing it up, from the academic side, at least, I wish it was always like that! And I shall move on now to telling you more about some of the interesting bits…

Kirklees Hall

This, sadly, was not where we wound up, although it is extremely suitable for medievalists and was on sale while we were looking… but for rather more than we could afford! But it has a crypt bathroom and a neo-medieval hall and went for less than a million…

1. The book I mention here is Jesús Lorenzo Jiménez, La dawla de los Banū Qasī: origen, auge y caída de una dinastía muladí en la frontera superior de al-Andalus, Estudios Árabes e Islámicos: Monografías 17 (Madrid 2010).

What’s (Been) Going On

I stubbed this post in April last year, meaning then to tell you at least in outline what was happening in my life and with this blog. As the fact that it’s now most of a year on from that and that this post is being written in Turkey, you will guess that actually things are not much quieter, but they are better than they have been and I do have hopes that some kind of blogging can resume here. So this post is about what that might look like, and says something about how things got this way.

The path to this point (has not all been easy)

So. Obviously we all know that in October 2015 I got a job as Lecturer in Early Medieval History at Leeds, and at that point the blog was a little bit more than a year behind. Now, because I had not been around to advertise my new modules because I was then still working somewhere else, two of them did not recruit enough students to run, so in my first year in post I was teaching less than I expected. That said, I was still teaching on, er, two large-scale first-year courses, one second-year one I’d built myself and two graduate skills courses, plus a couple of guest appearances, all of which was new prep, and I put, um, 4 grant applications in in that time as well (of which I got 2, one of which is why I am right now in Turkey and the other of which saw me co-curating a numismatic exhibition at the end of the next year—plus ça change…). For a while I was also, of all things, enrolled on a MOOC by way of learning my way round an admin role which I subsequently demitted, so I was busy enough. But I was still blogging and still reading a bit. Nonetheless, I am told by my partner that in the second semester all this plus marking turned me into a grey joyless sink of exhaustion, in part presumably because I’d had minor surgery just before Christmas 2015 and was still recovering; one of our cats getting run over also didn’t help.

The Parkinson Building, University of Leeds

The office building where this story mainly takes place, the Parkinson Building, University of Leeds, its grandeur equalled only by the unpredictability of its upstairs water supply. By Tim Green from Bradford [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Now, come October 2016, I had been able to advertise my own courses, so the two that were dormant had recruited and now had to run for the first time. In addition to that, I co-led an overhaul of our medieval survey course, which is taught to the whole cohort, and I also co-convened our intensive palæography course. What this all meant was that, more or less by accident, I was now teaching across 10 modules and running 6, only 2 of which were repeating in the same form as the previous year and 2 of which were entirely new, one involving collaboration with our Library’s (brilliant) Special Collections team and the other, a full-year module, involving lots of translation of primary material on what quickly became a week-to-week basis. I also put in 3 more grant applications and got 2, and was of course now also dealing with the work coming from the previous ones… I was also now studying for and putting in for Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy, which I got, and Fellowship of the Royal Historical Society, which I also got. I mentioned the numismatic exhibition already. Oh yeah, and I bought a new house and moved halfway through all of this! The new house is much much better and a great delight, but the commute is longer and of course moving is never easy, especially when you’re buying in a chain.

Study right at Exley Hall

The other place this was all (by now) happening, my half of our study at home, complete with me at work in it and the (new) junior cat trying to work out why

In the classroom, again, the second semester was heavier than the first. By the middle of it, unable to progress anything outside teaching and working more hours than I ever have to keep that going, I had to tell my press that I could no longer deliver my next book in the foreseeable future, and shortly after that I hit a crisis point that meant that something had to be done. My bosses were personally sympathetic and quick to act, and I also owe thanks to my union representative and Chris Wickham, who were both vital support. Anyway, the main positive result of all this (apart from the successful funding bids) was that an application I’d made for a semester of study leave was approved; the secondary positive result was that despite everything I got a teaching commendation, for which I must mainly thank my students, and I suppose the third one was the HEA Fellowship. For the study leave I had targets that amounted to finishing an article-length piece of work every month—which I did do—so blogging time was still hard to find. And now study leave is over, I’m still on probation and I’m back to teaching, with what is for now a lighter teaching load, but still enough to mean that a short-lived attempt at weekly blogging has stumbled. Obviously (obviously!) the blog is not my first priority, but it is a priority, so what can happen with it?

The state of the blog, present and future

Well, if we take a look at the blog as it currently sits, it is upwards of 700 posts going back more than a decade, and its sheer mass on the web means that it continues to draw at least some traffic even if I do nothing with it, which is quite gratifying. I have at least been able to keep up with comments and I think some kind of community remains aware when I post, and to you folks also I am very grateful. But we have this silly double structure of ‘sticky’ front-page posts that I wanted you to know about straight away, as opposed to the regular posts emerging blinking from the backlog, and I have literally sixty more stubbed, and in some cases part- or all-written, from up to three years ago, which I was determined to post in order between my normal seminar reporting. Even with as little detachment as I can manage, this has become a structure of lunacy that can’t be maintained. On the other hand, I really miss the interaction and sense of having a public, and the constructive and amusing response to half-formed ideas I could get here; as a sandbox, as well as a public face, blogging has seemed a worthwhile exercise to me ever since I worked out what I really thought it was for, and I want to get it going again and keep it there. I have also, I admit, used the fact that I have a blog on which to publicise my endeavours in a couple of my funding bids, and it’s probably not wholly honest if I can’t shout about my successes here as well as via Leeds press releases.

So, most obviously, the seminar and conference reporting cannot continue as it once did. That may prove something of a relief to those who were covered, though I know some people liked it, but it just took so long, and in any case I’m now outside the so-called Golden Triangle so can’t report on it to those likewise outside as I used to. On the other hand, I don’t want just to jump-cut three years of my life, especially since as the narrative above tells you, they have been busy and full of things and successes on which I would ideally have reported with glee. And there are all these posts stubbed which belong in that time. So, I have a plan and it looks like this:

  1. The ‘sticky’ posts will all be unstuck when I next post, and return to their places in the stream; there should be no more of them.
  2. I will start a new series of posts called ‘Chronicle’ or something like that, in which I just record what was going on in my life academic in chunks of a month or two at a time, in as summary a form as I can manage, mainly to give chronology to the whole effort but also by way of presenting some kind of a record of what the transition into full-time long-term academia, with which I know I’m not the only one who has struggled, looked like (and looks like) from here. That will continue till I reach the present day, and I’ll adapt the size of them so that I am gaining on that goal each time I post.
  3. In between those posts I will insert shorter focused pieces on the things in each chronicle chunk that merit their own reporting, or which were stubbed at that sort of point, and so there’ll still be something here other than me trying to make my diary entertaining.

And maybe that will work! I hope that I can post most weeks, probably on Sundays, and that that ought actually to work down the backlog. I guess we’ll see how it goes? I’m very conscious that my previous promises of a return to blogging have, like prophecies of the end of the world, all so far proved false, but hopefully this is easier to bring about than Apocalypse. Assuming the horsemen don’t arrive, therefore, see you soon! And thanks for continuing to hang round A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe!

Kalamazoo 2015, Part 2

The second day of the 2015 International Congress on Medieval Studies—which is where my reporting backlog currently sits, alas—began reflectively…

226. The Nature of the Middle Ages: a Problem for Historians? (A Roundtable)

I went along to this mainly for reasons of celebrity-spotting, but it’s also often interesting to hear veterans of the field talk about what the field actually is, and to set it against one’s own perspectives. There are dynamics here about how elevated you get before your bird’s eye view becomes cloud-cuckoo land, but equally ones about being so close to the ground that you define the whole world by your local topography, and so on. All of this was given extra meat by this ICMS being the 50th, provoking reflection on the ICMS itself as much as anything. The scheduled presenters each picked their own targets for their muses, as follows:

  • Robin Fleming, “What Material Turn?”
  • Marcus Bull, “The Study of the Middle Ages and the Dread Word ‘Relevance'”
  • Ruth Mazo Karras, “Not Quite Fifty Years of Women’s History at Kalamazoo”
  • Paul Freedman, “Changing Subjects in Medieval History”
  • Nancy Partner, “Medieval ‘People’: Psyche?/Self?/Emotions?”
  • Some of these were complaints, and some reflections. Professor Fleming told everyone else that we don’t use objects enough in our history, and the conference programme certainly gave her a basis for the stance. Professor Mazo Karras charted the growth of the history of women from the archive of ICMS programmes—the first session on women at the ICMS was (only?) eight years coming but the take-off point for her was when societies started to form to do the work elsewhere. Professor Freedman, who was one of the first people to realise how great Vic is as a place to work on and whom I was glad to meet at last, had done similar analysis and noted, among other things, that at the second ever ICMS there had been seven women presenting, four of whom were nuns, but also that English literature and English history still dominate the programme, but that the rest has diversified hugely since 1965. Professor Partner spoke mainly of periodization and the problem of difference, between us and our subjects, which she argued could only be approached by deliberately seeking the ‘interiority’ of our sources, a kind of ‘depth psychology’.

    Medieval manuscript illumination of King Arthur's court and the Round Table

    Of course, it now strikes me that the very word ’roundtable’ is a medievalism, not something that any of the participants mentioned, but the site I got this image from epitomises the medievalism pretty well…

    This opened up the question of the session title perhaps more than the others had, and discussion went two ways, one following this, asking what we could do to avoid the problems of the terms ‘Middle Ages’ and ‘medieval’, which have myriad difficulties because of being defined only by whatever lies outside them and not having clear ends. Professor Partner had argued half-jokingly for ‘really early modern’, but David Perry, one of the organisers, argued that it means more to people outside the Academy than it does to us, and Steven Muhlberger continued that by saying that the emptiness of the category actually serves us by allowing us to fill it with whatever suits us. True, useful, but hard to make into a clear mission statement, I think…

    Faulty slide purporting to set out differences between women's situation in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance

    Periodization and women’s history: what we’re up against, grabbed just now from the web

    This desire for a mission statement was what had occupied Professor Bull’s contribution, which I haven’t yet discussed. This is because it seemed to me a much more UK-focused perspective than the others and to sit oddly with them. His was a pitch familiar to me from my years in Oxford, in fact, roughly that that we should stop paying attention to governments and managerial bodies who want us to justify our subject, especially in terms of its relevance to the era in which we live, not least because we medievalists will always lose to the modernists in such a contest but also because modern-day relevance must by its nature shift all the time so can’t be a foundation. I accept the logic of this but it seems to me that this is only a fortification that can morally be erected by those who have no outside paymasters. Oxford had been mostly aggrieved that those of its paymasters whom it had trained didn’t seem inclined to respect that privilege, and obviously that someone pays some of your money doesn’t mean that they should get to set all of your agenda, but to argue that they can set none of it because what we do is just worthy of support, whatever it is, is, I fear, unlikely ever to convince those with nationally-accountable beans to count.

    Cover of Simon Doubleday & David Coleman (edd.), In the Light of Medieval Spain: Islam, the West and the Relevance of the Past (London 2014)

    But why should we stop now, when we’re beginning to get books out of it, I am tempted to ask? Cover of Simon Doubleday & David Coleman (edd.), In the Light of Medieval Spain: Islam, the West and the Relevance of the Past (London 2014)…

    The people who picked up on this in discussion seemed mostly to argue that our use to the wider world is not to show how the Middle Ages is like whatever is now happening, but to show when other people who are saying that are wrong. I feel the push to do that very strongly myself, as you may be aware, and have long argued that to use history is almost always to misuse it, but behind this is an idea of a ‘correct’, empirical and detached vision of the Middle Ages whose perfect fruition would be that no-one outside the Academy ever derived any benefit from the study of the past at all except in a pure æsthetic form; if they discovered anything that was ‘relevant’ it would have almost to be suppressed before it got into others’ hands. It seems to me that people are always going to have reasons why they find this stuff interesting and the best we can do is to train them to find it interesting enough to be careful with it. You can tell, anyway, that this interests me as a subject of discussion, but I still wish we could have the discussion with the economics in. As an earlier defender of this view said, “money doesn’t stink”. You’d think we couldn’t strike for more of it without considering where it comes to us from, but it seems not so. So anyway, from here to coffee and calmer waters…

248. The Venerable Bede: Issues and Controversies I

  • Thomas Rochester, “The Place of Luke and Acts in Constructing Bede’s Ecclesiastical History
  • Morn Capper, “Bede and the Making of ‘Mercian Supremacy’: Challenging the Construct”
  • Sarah McCann, “Nodes of Influence: Networks, People, and the Writing of History”
  • It is of course impossible entirely to avoid Bede or Beowulf at the ICMS, but in this instance I would of course have gone anyway because of the presence of Morn Capper, long-standing friend of both this blog and your blogger. Morn’s paper argued that the groundwork for the period of the eighth century in which the kingdom of Mercia dominated England was largely laid in the seventh century, when Bede was in some sense watching, and yet he tells us very little about how it was done: for him, Mercia under the famous King Penda only shows up when it was on the warpath, whereas our sources for his successors Wulfhere and Æthelred emphasise negotiation, alliance and sometimes infrastructure. As Morn said, all of these rulers must have done all of these things but Bede is mainly interested in how far they supported the Church and so the version of Mercia we get from him is very partial indeed. As for the other two, both were at a very preliminary stage, Mr Rochester to establish Biblical models for Bede’s structuring of the Ecclesiastical History and Miss McCann to build a network model of the History using Gephi, and it doesn’t seem kind to mount a critique of their work here.

315. Fluctuating Networks: the Constructive Role of Broken Bonds in the Medieval Mediterranean and Beyond

  • Robert Portass, “The Peasant Parvenu: Social Climbing in Tenth-Century Spain”
  • Petra Melichar, “Noble Women and Their (Broken) Allegiances in Late Byzantium”
  • Arthur Westwell, “Studios: a Network of Alternative Power in Ninth-Century Constantinople”
  • Here, likewise, I had mainly come because of the presence of a colleague of yore, Rob Portass, but his paper sat rather oddly in the session as it was principally about bonds formed, not broken, between local transactors in Galicia, which is after all kind of Rob’s stuff.1 He was arguing that confrontation with the actual documents, mainly here those of Santo Toribio de Liébana, showed you peasants making deals with each other and advancing relative to each other, rather than the narrative of the historiography of the area which shows you landlords beating down on peasant necks.2 Well, not here, says Rob. Meanwhile, the other two had picked up on the theme a bit more. Ms Melichar looked at the different ties late Byzantine noblewomen could break, with family, Orthodoxy, political networks and so on, usually to stay connected to one of the other of these sets, but as she pointed out, never as far as we can see to advance their own positions, rather than those of the networks within which they worked. Lastly, Mr Westwell set out a case for the monastery of St John the Forerunner of Stoudios as a long-lived ‘safe’ focus for opposition to imperial religious policies in eighth- and ninth-century Constantinople, although the high point of that was the Abbot Theodore, who set himself and his monks to guard what they saw as orthodoxy through a series of theological disputes and mounted that defence not least by many many letters to people at court, ex-monks who had gone on to serve elsewhere, friendly church officials and noblemen and women, not just mobilising support but giving backing to those people’s own opposition. This was a whole world of source material I’d had no idea about and for me one of the eye-openers of the conference.

That was the end of the academic programme for me on this day. If I remember rightly we now met back up with Morn and set out to walk to the legendary Bilbo’s, a required rite de pizza for the medievalist visiting Kalamazoo. We had no driver so set out to walk it, which is perfectly doable as long as you can work out which way to head, and that I eventually did after being 180° wrong to start with. That was worth it for the guy we checked directions with, however, who despite being of apparently normal build and health counselled us to get a cab: “It’s a hell of a walk. Gotta be half a mile at least.” We assured him that in Britain that is OK to walk and enjoyed our pizza and beer all the more for the adventure, and that was how we wrapped up day two of Kalamazoo 2015.

1. As witness Robert Portass, “Rethinking the «Small Worlds» of Tenth-Century Galicia” in Studia Historica: Historia Medieval Vol. 31 (Salamanca 2013), pp. 83-103.

2. Classically presented in Reyna Pastor, Resistencias y luchas campesinas en la época del crecimiento y consolidación de la formación feudal: Castilla y León, siglos X-XIII (Madrid 1980).

Metablog XI: link clear-out

As is now normal, alas, I have to apologise for the gap in posting; there have been exam marks to finalise and then, heavens help me, I actually took some time off to do non-medieval things. But now I am back and I’m trying to work towards the point where I’m not just up to date with my own stuff but also with at least some other people’s. That’s still a long way off but as a first effort I have taken a long haul through the links in my sidebar, taking out those that no longer existed or are inactive, updating those that had moved and fixing some typos in what survived. Now, everything I’m linking to should be some kind of relevant and active.

There’s room in such an exercise for reflection, of course. It’s noticeable, for example, that most of what I had to prune was in the Resources section; I had to take out far fewer blogs even though my criteria for them are more stringent (viz., they have to have medieval content less than a quarter old on the front page). It seems that a one-person operation with commercial hosting is more practical to maintain than a static institutional website, who knew? Well, we all knew it probably, but it shouldn’t really be that way should it? Digital continuity is for some reason something the Academy can’t manage as well as WordPress. Then again, it may be the one-person thing. When it can be someone else’s fault if something isn’t done, it’s easier for everyone to ignore it maybe? Certainly, group blogs seemed to have survived less well than single-author ones, though obviously this is not real statistics given it’s a selective sample of a tiny size.

A conceptualisation of the blogosphere by analogy to the Earth's atmosphere

A conceptualisation of the blogosphere by analogy to the Earth’s atmosphere, located and explained at Perishable Press (linked through)

Then there’s nostalgia (which is, as we know, not what it used to be). It’s not just me that’s had trouble keeping up with updating; some of the most venerable medievalist blogs, the ones who were an encouragement to me that other people did this thing when I was starting and who have been written about as bloggers, are now silent or dormant. In some cases there were real, sometimes fairly awful reasons; in some cases like mine it’s just acute time shortage; but I guess that it’s also that for a lot of now-silent bloggers online interaction has moved, to Facebook or Twitter. I don’t use those (because as Stuart Airlie once insightfully told me, it’s all about control) but no less a figure than Geoffrey Chaucer shows how this can happen. It’s not that blogs are dead, despite worries to that effect for many years now. There are also several fairly new blogs on the roll, but they are more noticeably academic publicity operations and less anonymised relations of the life academic than was once the case. The medium continues, but it’s now being used for different things, indeed roughly the things I set out to use it for when I started, although I slipped towards the middle of that continuum fairly rapidly. I doubt I started the trend, I think it was the pressure for impact and relevance that did that, but it is still noticeable. There’s still masses to keep up with, of course, and as yet I can’t, but I do hope to again some day. Now, at least the list of what I can’t keep up with is up to date again…

Collecting from Cliopatria

Screenshot of the History News Network magazine website

Screenshot of the History News Network magazine website

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

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

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

Actual Research Posts

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

Medievalism in the Modern World

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

The State of the Academy

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