Thursday, December 31, 2009

Summer of research progress report

Exhibit A: The learned Miss Jones, one of the two kittens we adopted for Christmas. Her brother is a cat-man of more plebeian tastes and prefers to spend his time rolling around under the sports section of the newspaper.

Exhibit B (located beneath Exhibit A): A sampling of the books I’ve read so far in my summer of research. I’ve only skimmed to the good bits in the chronicles at this point, but I’ll be going back for close reading later (and probably more than once).

The weather has been conducive to long uninterrupted spells of reading in the garden, so I’ve also managed to plough through quite a bit of other material, amongst which:

  • Michael Bennett’s Richard II and the Revolution of 1399 (which is still irritating me with its referencing, or lack thereof, but this post by Gesta on writing book reviews makes me realise I was probably unfair in blaming Bennett instead of his publisher.)
  • Nigel Saul’s Richard II and his EHR article “Richard II and the vocabulary of kingship”. I was surprised to find Saul’s 1997 book is the first scholarly bio of Richard II since Anthony Steel’s 1962 outing.
  • Lynn Staley’s Languages of Power in the Age of Richard II. I found this a richly detailed interdisciplinary study of the social and political contexts of works by Chaucer, Gower, the Gawain poet and other 14thC texts. It also offers some valuable insights that I haven't come across elsewhere (yet) into Charles V of France's influence on Richard II's court and the connections between literary patronage and ideas about kingship.
  • Jeffrey J. Cohen and Bonnie Wheeler’s Becoming Male in the Middle Ages
  • Paul Strohm’s Hochon’s Arrow: The Social Imagination of Fourteenth-Century Texts
  • Carolyn Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval
  • Karma Lochrie et al., Constructing Medieval Sexuality. I read Mark Jordan’s chapter, “Homosexuality, luxuria and textual abuse”, on the bus. That got me some odd looks.
  • Assorted articles on feminist and queer theory

In addition, I’ve re-read Christopher Fletcher’s useful article “Manhood and politics in the reign of Richard II”. I wasn’t able to track down a copy of Fletcher’s 2008 book on the same subject through my library system, so I ended up ordering it from Amazon. It’s hardcover and a bit pricey (though way cheaper than the list price in pounds), but with the NZ dollar being so strong against the US dollar at the moment and it being Christmas and all, I was able to talk myself into it. From what I can gather from the reviews, Fletcher achieves an innovative gender-based reading of the sources on Richard II’s kingship, but he also gets called out for skating over some major issues. One reviewer also calls Fletcher’s assessments of other scholars’ work “uncharitably critical”. Sounds like it should be a lively read if nothing else.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve also developed a much more refined picture in my mind of the approach I want to take to this research project and of the specific questions I’m going to be working to answer. Thanks to some unexpected connections the background reading has been sparking, my ideas have changed a fair amount since their initial incarnation. I expect they’ll morph quite a bit more in the coming months but at least now I feel like I have a clear direction and some markers to follow. (This is just as well, because it won’t be long before I need to front up to the Postgraduate Research Committee with the formal research proposal.)

I’ve been relieved to find that, as I suspected, I’m going to be covering some solid new ground and my advisor is pretty excited about it. I went through these weird phases of anxiety at first, swinging between ‘wow, I can’t believe no one has thought about this topic in this way before,’ and ‘crap, maybe no one has done this before for a good reason’. Now that my project has been approved in principle by both my advisor and the postgrad research co-ordinator (thus validating it is indeed worth pursuing), I’ve settled into a sort of steady state where I crack open each new book or article alternately hoping to find something along my lines that will be useful, and fearing that I’ll find my great original idea isn’t so original after all.

Here’s a question for all you scholarly and creative types, though. I’m really excited about this project and want to prattle on about it to anyone who will listen. But at the same time, I’m instinctively wary about putting too much detail about it on the public interwebs, given those cases we all hear about of academic plagiarism and people having their ideas nicked before they can take credit for them. In fact, I haven’t mentioned a couple of the books/articles I’ve read, as I feel like the titles alone could give away a bit too much about the way I’m thinking (this is, of course, assuming anyone but me even gives a damn). Is this just paranoia? Am I being overly cautious? Do you talk about your original ideas and research in any specificity online before you present or publish in a more formal context? If so, have you ever had an ‘oh crap’ moment, where you suspect someone else has pinched your work?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Disrupting the otherness of the medieval past

It gives me a certain amount of satisfaction to read this article on the Victoria & Albert Museum’s new Medieval and Renaissance galleries. The museum’s decision to present these collections in a single contiguous space works to destabilise the conventional narrative of historical progress from the ‘dark ages’ to a nascent ‘age of reason’ (or, literally, ‘rebirth’). According to the article:

"The V&A is managing to display some brutishly large cojones. This is not just an excellent museum addition. It is also a particularly brave one.

What is being challenged? Everything. The complete caboodle. Before we even set foot inside this theatre of delights, its title warns us of a revolution ahead. Medieval and Renaissance are, after all, two slabs of civilisation that we generally keep well apart. These two epochs are usually understood as near opposites, driven by dramatically different world-views. The medieval age is felt to have been gloomy, backward and propelled by fiery belief, while the Renaissance was enlightened, progressive and propelled by reason."

This traditional framing of discrete periods in Western history persuades us to see the present moment in time as the apogee of a linear progression in which the Middle Ages (a problematic term in itself. The middle of what?) is the brutal and intellectually stunted precursor to the increasingly enlightened Early Modern/Renaissance and Modern. In this vision, the medieval past is indeed another country, populated by the utterly strange and the irrationally violent. It’s presented as a time and place hopelessly tainted by Catholic groupthink that was then surpassed by the ‘discovery of the individual’ who, at his/her (usually ‘his’) finest, is driven by reason rather than superstition. Much more like ‘us’ in the modern West, in fact.

I have a Google alert set up for ‘medieval history’ and it’s quite depressing to see the number of links it produces with a first sentence along the lines of ‘the medieval period was a very serious, dark period of time’ or talking about ‘the savage unrestrained medieval times’. (Those are both real examples from the past week or so.) Contrived divisions between the medieval, the early modern and the modern are to some degree necessary to the discipline of history, as without any boundaries and the specialisation that goes with them, it would be virtually impossible to produce rich, accurate and detailed historical interpretations. But at the same time, when they are accepted without question as natural or logical, these standard periodisations become problematic because they help perpetuate the view of the medieval as utterly Other from the modern. This in turn underpins a teleology that says all history is a linear march of progress from a dark, barbaric and backwards past to enlightened, democratic (and implicitly westernised) modernity. The political uses of such a vision of history can be clearly discerned in those depictions of Islam and the Muslim world as ‘medieval’ that are all-too-common in the Western mainstream media at the moment.

This notion of the ‘othering’ of the medieval is something Magistra recently touched on in another excellent post in our on-going discussion about history writing, fiction and emotional engagement. Because I’m lazy, I’m going to paraphrase here something I wrote in the comments at Magistra’s blog -

We need to avoid romanticising the distant past while also resisting that still-compelling whiggish narrative of progress from the Dark Ages (or ‘medieval’ in its most pejorative sense) through Renaissance and Enlightenment to modernity, but that's a tricky path to navigate at times. That's partly why I try to avoid the standard periodisation labels when it comes to talking to people about what I'm doing (although I admit I don’t always succeed at this, because adopting the existing classifications makes things a whole lot simpler from a pragmatic perspective).

I want to disrupt and interrogate the divides that say you're either a medievalist or an early modernist/renaissance specialist or a modernist, based on a rather arbitrary imposition of dates that in itself implies a teleology of progress. The classic periodisation really only holds if you stick to a fairly narrow range of political/economic/socio-cultural indicators within quite discrete temporal and geographical limits. It starts to break down once you cross the traditional boundaries of 'England' or 'Western Europe', and when you start to look at themes like gender and sexuality, the history of non-elites and marginal groups, popular beliefs versus institutional religion and so on. That approach can reveal as many broad continuities and congruences between the medieval and the early modern or modern as it reveals big changes and ruptures. Feminist historians have been engaging with questions of periodisation since (at least) the 1970s, with work like Joan Kelly’s classic article “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” [1] providing significant new interpretations of received master narratives. More recently, feminist historian Judith Bennett’s History Matters [2] explored the question of change and continuity with her notion of patriarchal equilibrium, the merits and drawbacks of which were debated across a number of feminist history blogs earlier this year.

I find it an intellectual and emotional challenge to apply this thinking to my own historical research, because it’s tough to do without breaking all the rules about anachronism and sentimentalising, over-simplifying or distorting the past. I’m definitely one of those people who was originally drawn to medieval history precisely because I did perceive it as tantalisingly and exotically ‘other’. This process of exploring how the othering of the medieval shapes my own subjectivity at a specific moment in the historical present is an on-going one (and one that is much enriched by reading blogs like In the Middle and Modern Medieval, as well as those linked above).

1. Joan Kelly, "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" in Women, History and Theory: The Essays of Joan Kelly, Chicago University Press, 1984.

2. Judith M. Bennett, History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Flames of justice

Occasionally (very occasionally), the contract corporate communications work I do part-time intersects with my true love, which is of course studying history. Such a serendipitous cross-over happened just recently, as I’ve been writing some case studies for a company involved in upgrading the technology in a number of New Zealand’s historic courtrooms.

I was tracking down some background on the Old High Court building, which has now been incorporated into a brand spanking new Supreme Court complex, when I came across this little gem from the Supreme Court’s Conservation Report. It’s the tale of one Sir Hubert Ostler, a future Crown Solicitor and Crown Prosecutor. In 1910, Sir Hubert was a new appointee to the Crown Law Office and worked in a room above the court, but his career could well have been snuffed out by this little misjudgment:

“My desk was near the window and I generally worked with the window open. One day I was concentrating on some work and as I read I lit my pipe, shook the match and thinking it was out, dropped it into the wastepaper basket, which happened to be fairly full. But the match had not been extinguished, and presently I heard a noise and on looking round found a merry fire, the paper being well alight.

I promptly picked up the basket and dropped it out of the window and on looking out to watch the result I saw it descend on the head of Mr Justice Cooper, who had just emerged from the door. There was no time to warn him. It landed on his hat and blazing papers were shot out and showered around him like a Greek fire. He let out a yell and jumped liked a frightened horse…” [1]

The archaeologists have done some major excavating work on the construction site for the new Supreme Court, which lies next to the Old High Court building. This land was originally part of the harbour but was reclaimed in stages from the 1850s to provide some much-needed flat building space between the water and the steep, bush-covered hills. Archaeological finds on the Supreme Court site have encompassed both indigenous artefacts such as Maori kete (baskets, which were possibly used for bringing goods to trade with the colonists) and the prosaic leavings of daily life in the European settler community. The latter includes china fragments, wine goblets, gin and beer bottles, pharmaceutical bottles, and a rather beautiful Belle Epoque-style cold cream container.

Below is a Wellington City Council map showing the harbour reclamations and their dates superimposed on modern Wellington. Much of what is now the CBD is within the green area of reclaimed land. This is an interesting prospect considering this city is smack in the middle of the Pacific Ring of Fire, a zone at high risk of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis. I try very hard not to think about that - and about the fact that the scientists keep warning us we’re well overdue for ‘the big one’ - when I’m up on the 25th floor of some waterside high rise and a tremor hits.

Writing about the court’s conservation reports has reminded me I must track down a friendly local archaeologist to help me identify a few bits and pieces that were unearthed under our 1890s cottage when the drains were replaced recently. They include a couple of lead soldiers (?? - I think they’d be lead, if they are indeed from around the turn of last century) and some interesting old glass bottles.

1. The full story is published in R. Cooke (Ed.), Portrait of a Profession: The Centennial Book of the New Zealand Law Society, Reed, 1969.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Beaver, or a little mystery solved

Ah, I love it when I find the answer to one of the mysteries of modern life in the Middle Ages.

This happened to me recently in relation to an ad from this series for a new brand of tampons. It shows a young woman spending the day with a cute furry beaver, buying it treats and, presumably, sharing girly secrets. The punch line is “You only have one, so look after it.” I was watching a movie with some friends when the ad ran, and it sparked a lively debate over where and how the word ‘beaver’ as a synonym for vagina could possibly have originated*. Theories ran from the mundane (“Um, they’re both furry?”) to the more bizarre. (I wondered if there might be some connection between the beaver’s giant teeth and the mythical vagina dentata, but clearly I watch too many B-grade horror flicks.)

A few days later I was reading Louise Fradenburg and Carla Freccero’s Premodern Sexualities (at the hairdressers. Hint: If you are one of those people who would rather read than make banal chitchat with the hairdresser, take something like this along with you. I promise you will not get asked any more than a single question about it.) Anyway, I was up to Elizabeth Pittenger’s chapter “Explicit Ink”, which examines the connections between sexuality and Latin grammar in Alain de Lille’s twelfth century classic De planctu Naturae (The Complaint of Nature), and I experienced a little thrill of discovery when I came across this passage:

Apocope [a Latin term meaning to lop off the end of words] serves as a figure…more curiously, for the beaver’s habit of chewing off its own genitals (Pr. 1, 103). The image is generated from the pun of the signifier “castor,” “beaver,” and its proximity to castration.” (p. 234).

Apparently, this whole ‘beaver = castration’ pun was considered the height of wit amongst later medieval Latinists, and what could be more symbolic of the feminine than losing your balls? I have no idea whether this really is the derivation of our modern slang term, but it’s better than any of the ideas my friends and I came up with. If you have a more convincing explanation, I’d like to hear it. (Really, I would! I’ve always been fascinated by the history of slang terms and argot.)

Always reliable on subjects like this, Got Medieval has more bizarre medieval beaver lore here.

* Is this a UK/Australian/New Zealand term? Or do North Americans use it too?

Image: A beaver castrating itself, from a mid-10th century Byzantine materia medica (Pierpont Morgan Library MS M.652).

(Also, apologies for the disconcerting change of font styles in this post. Obviously, Blogger is not liking me at the moment but I am in no mood to wrestle with the stupid HTML tags.)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Who'da thunk it?

So apparently, I’m “literati”. Yes, that is according to an email I received recently informing me that I’ve been included on this list of the “100 best blogs for the literati”. And they weren’t even asking me for my bank account details (though to be fair, the message was sandwiched between two emails from a very nice person in Nigeria.)

The site says -

“If you feel that you’re destined to be an intellectual long after you graduate from college, you’re going to have to work a little harder to keep up with high brow culture and scholarly debates on your own. These 100 blogs will help you jump in on the discussions influencing the art, literature, political and culture worlds, even without the support of your professors and fellow classmates.”

I have just two things to say about this:

1. I’m in good company. The other blogs in the History section include the excellent book history blogs Wynken de Worde and Bookn3rd, both favourites of mine. Check them out if you haven’t already.

2. High brow culture?? Wait till they see what I’ve got in store for you next week…

Saturday, December 5, 2009

History, politics and scholarly subjectivity

Magistra et Mater and I, along with assorted commentators, have recently been engaging in a wide-ranging discussion on historical fiction and the writing of history. (See here, here and here.) In Magistra’s latest contribution, Emotional engagement and historians’ values, she makes the point that while it may be valid for historians to use their academic work to support their social activism, they still have to adhere to the core values of honesty and accuracy. Otherwise, they’re engaging in writing fiction or propaganda, not history. In other words, historians can’t just jettison or manipulate the evidence if it doesn’t fit their particular view of the world.

Damned straight, I say. However, the deep, persistent and often problematic connections between the worlds of professional history and politics can make the noble values of ‘honesty’ and ‘accuracy’ much more difficult to pin down in practice than in theory. ‘Honest’ according to whom? (Let’s face it - we humans sometimes have trouble even being honest with ourselves.) ‘Accurate’ by what measures? These are questions I started to engage with at a theoretical level in undergrad classes in historiography, during which we discussed (sometimes heatedly) historical debates such as Australia’s so-called History Wars. The issue is becoming more immediate to me as a postgraduate student because I’m engaging in original research, actually putting something new out there with my name on it and in which I have to present my evidence and argue a position. It’s forcing me to become more self-reflexive and to grapple with questions of my own scholarly subjectivity. How does my subjectivity shape the questions I choose to ask and the ways that I present my evidence (right down to picking images to accompany the text)? Can I even be fully aware of my own subjectivity and if so, am I a fully autonomous subject?

That’s a high-falutin' philosophical tangent that I won’t pursue any further here, except to say that I don’t believe any historian can be truly objective in the purist scientific sense because our own subjectivity is always going to colour the kinds of questions we ask of the evidence - and even what we consider as evidence. For example, some historians might only see official documents - such as judicial or administrative records or state papers - as real evidence, whereas others will find literary sources or material culture (buildings, household utensils etc.) equally valid. Some scholars might read those official records purely to glean the facts (names, dates, places etc.), whereas others will apply readings more informed by literary theory to dig deeper into how and why a particular text came to take the form it did. They will look as much to what isn’t said - to the gaps, silences and absences - and to meanings that are conveyed unintentionally, in order to extend interpretation beyond the limits of the original author’s purpose (stated or implicit).

This is the point at which many historians trained in the strictly empirical traditions of ‘scientific’ history become very anxious about people manipulating the evidence to fit a theory or a particular political agenda. Certainly, this does happen, and when it does, it’s bad history. But the fetishisation of archive sources as objective evidence of the past can equally blind us to the reality that those dryly-official documents and records are still created, authored texts. As the French historian Roger Chartier said, ‘no text, even…the most “objective” (for example, a statistical table drawn up by a government agency), maintains a transparent relationship with the reality that it apprehends.’

Chartier’s argument has been resonating with me during the last couple of weeks as I’ve been reading some recent historical studies of Richard II’s reign. Historians of this period generally draw on the many surviving contemporary or near-contemporary chronicles as well as on official records and it’s quite revealing to see the different ways they treat the two types of sources. A citation from a chronicle is almost always accompanied by an attempt to corroborate the information from another source and is frequently also qualified by discussion of the chronicle writer’s known political and/or religious biases. That approach is perfectly sound, as later medieval chroniclers were generally writing in the service of patrons and they sometimes shaped and re-worked their texts quite extensively to meet the exigencies of changing political situations.

What interests me, though, is that the same qualifications are much less frequently applied to the ‘official’ sources. Instead, these are generally treated as accurate, reliable and unproblematic accounts of events as they actually happened. Nigel Saul offers one of the rare exceptions when he points out, “The parliament roll suffers from all the usual weaknesses of that source: it is highly edited; it is composed mainly of memoranda and petitions to which the king gave his reply; and it contains few reports of speeches or discussions.” [2]

Social activism and emotional engagement

I want to come back now to another aspect of Magistra’s latest post, namely the connection of history and social activism. She notes the two historians that I named as being particularly good at emotionally engaging their readers (Marcus Rediker and Judith Walkowitz) are modernists working on the 18th and 19th centuries. Thinking about this some more, I wondered if for that reason, readers could more easily make a connection between these writers’ historical subjects - broadly speaking, victims of the Atlantic slave trade and working-class women in Victorian England - and their own direct experiences of 20th century social justice movements such as civil rights and feminism.

For someone like me, with leftwing progressive political sympathies, it’s true that the history of marginal groups readily engages both my intellectual interest and my empathy as a human being. However, this is certainly not the case for many other people who study history. I’m reminded of an undergraduate paper I did on the Napoleonic Wars, when the students included both history majors and Bachelor of Defence Studies majors (all serving military). As you would expect, the course covered the military, political and economic aspects of war and empire, but it also explored broader social and cultural themes. The BDS guys were mostly either perplexed or annoyed at having to consider how war and the economic measures needed to support it affected civilian populations. For them, the life-altering impact of Napoleon’s wars on peasant communities or women or the clergy - the facet of the course that held the most appeal for me - was just not relevant, let along interesting or emotionally engaging.

I guess this comes back to a very personal question: why do history? Why does spending our lives in libraries and archives, puzzling over artefacts left by those long dead, have such appeal? (It certainly ain’t for the money.) I would argue that without some aspiration beyond simply uncovering and assembling an accurate collection of facts, we’re nothing more than modern antiquarians. For my own part, I’m driven not simply by curiosity or the accumulation of knowledge for its own sake, but by a desire to understand patterns and connections in the past that also speak to the present. On this, I’m with Michel Foucault, who believed the point of history is “to show how that-which-is has not always been,” and so to show “why and how that-which-is might no longer be that-which-is.” [3]

That’s idealistic, I know. Maybe it’s even a little bit utopian. But that’s the way I roll.

1. Roger Chartier, Cultural History: Between Practices and Representations, p. 43.
2. Nigel Saul, Richard II, p. 222
3. Quoted in Joan W. Scott’s article 'Back to the Future' in History & Theory 47, no. 2 (2008), p. 284.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Fourteen centuries of excruciating composition (and counting...)

I feel like I’ve been banging on a bit lately about my perception that the quality of writing amongst otherwise well-educated and articulate people has been going to hell in a hand basket. And it seems I’m not the only one to think this, as these representative samples from Clio Bluestocking Tales and Dame Eleanor Hull testify.

Regardless of whether I’m right or wrong, this particular gripe usually makes me feel just a wee bit curmudgeonly. I start to suspect the real problem may lay somewhere in the intersection between my advancing age and retreating patience, rather than in any objective decline in standards. This charming little post by Alice Rio (from Jonathan Jarrett’s back catalogue at A Corner of Tenth Century Europe) tends to confirm my suspicions. I hope he doesn’t mind me quoting the relevant chunk here, because it is just so apt. It’s from a seventh century manuscript that appears to have been written by a rather grumpy monk:

“Another text, addressed to young men who do not know how to write. I wonder that, after such a long time, my speech has in no way been followed on the page, and the borrowed writing tablets which you bring back soiled with your text, as if from dictation, are filled with the wrong words.”

I bet that after writing that, our monk got together with his mates over a pint of ale to moan about how “novices these days wouldn’t know what to do with a semicolon if it came up and bit them on the arse!”

Image: A novice monk being punished for misusing the possessive apostrophe.