Friday, November 16, 2012

Latin revival and a little hope for the humanities

Given the generally gloomy (if not downright apocalyptic) tone of much recent discourse about the humanities specifically, and higher education more generally, this Inside Higher Ed piece on the burgeoning demand for Latin in Australian universities came as a heartening respite. What was even more surprising to me than the demand from arts and language students was the fact that students from the sciences actually narrowly outnumber their humanities fellows in some of the courses (and these are big courses, too – 100+ students).

According to IHE: 
 At the University of Western Australia, where [Rachel] Currie is taking a double major in biomedical science, introductory Latin this year has 129 students, an increase of 150 percent. Currie prizes Latin as a kind of master key of language that unlocks scientific terminology and opens up insights into English grammar as well as Romance tongues for travel in Europe.
But sheer fun can't be overlooked, and the textbook Lingua Latina, with its Roman family saga, helps teachers deliver. "Marcus beats up his sister, one of the uncles joins the army -- it's exactly like a Roman soap opera," Currie says.
(A Roman soap opera like this one, perhaps...)

Amusing comments about Harry Potter’s spells giving Latin a new mystique aside, this actually makes a lot of sense once you think about it. I’m reminded of the discussions that occurred during the interdisciplinary research workshop I blogged about recently, where we talked a lot about having to somehow map modern disciplines to often-noncommensurate disciplines in the past. In other words, in order to study medieval or early modern scientia, you first need to understand it on its own terms and in its own language. It seems that the same questions are occurring to a number of the science students interviewed in the IHE article.  After all, how better to really grasp the principals of physics and natural philosophy expounded in Newton’s Principia Mathematica, or the structuring of biological taxonomy first established in Carolus Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae?

Australia’s ‘Latin revival’ reminded me of a recent initiative here in New Zealand to teach philosophy to high school students. Not ‘pop philosophy’ either, but the real deal, like Aquinas, Boethius and Descartes. (Okay, it is more than possible that there is also a bit of Alain de Botton in there...) Naturally, the ‘education should be about teaching skills to get a job/make money’ crowd have got their knickers in an enormous twist over this one, but the students themselves are wise enough to recognise that the skills they are learning in logic, critical thinking, and reasoned debate will stand them in good stead regardless of future employment or career trajectories. In what may come as a shock to hardcore educational utilitarians, the programme is also supported by the Employers and Manufacturers Association.

[EMA] Chief executive Kim Campbell said if he found a job applicant with philosophy skills he would grab them. “Finally I might have someone who probably has an interest in what is going on around them as a human being. We're hiring a living breathing person, not a qualification. Someone who is thinking about who and what they are, why they are justifying taking up space on earth - we're hiring people's values and attitudes.”
Here at the frontlines of humanities education, the news these days often seems rather dark. These two stories brought me just a little glimmer of light and, dare I say it, hope.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


It has to be said that, while I’ve run quite a few half marathons and even a marathon in my time, there are occasions when I have quite the affinity for Newton’s First Law. Today was one of those days. When I got home, I collapsed on the couch with no intention of further movement. I had overdressed for work (merino dress and boots) because it was freezing and grim this morning. Then the office was too damned hot and the weather improved, so by the time I got home I was feeling all headachey and stuffy. The temptation was to stay right where I was on the couch and take a nap, but I’m proud to say I levered myself off it and went for an evening walk.
Mahoe - the wax-eyes and kereru go crazy for the berries!
No matter how many times I fight inertia and win, it always surprises me how much of a reboot a decent walk gives me. It was a perfect spring evening. The sun had come out and the air was cool but not cold, with just the tiniest breeze. I went up the bush track that starts at the end of my street where it winds to a dead end. The mahoe and kawakawa are going crazy with spring growth at the moment and the kiokio and spleenwort are dripping with new, bright green fronds. The track winds back and forth on itself up the hillside and between the trees the earth is studded with great granite boulders that give the whole thing a very sculptural look. At various spots along the track, people have built dolmens and little rock seats where you can sit and look out across the valley at the ridgeline opposite. 

We don’t have any chateaux or palaces in this country, but my track still has a few things to recommend it for a history buff. On the front side of the hill, facing the harbour, there are the remains of a quarry where, back in the nineteenth century, Maori labourers hacked out the rock used to construct some of the neo-Gothic monuments of colonial government. Slightly off to the side of another, less frequented, track, is a somewhat mysterious tunnel dug partway into the hill. This was thought to have been dug in an attempt at  gold mining, but an explosion killed one of the miners and it was abandoned. It’s said to be haunted by the worker’s ghost. I love a good spook story but I did manage to freak myself out a bit last winter when I was up there during a storm and decided to go and have a look inside it. It was only midday but the clouds were hunkered right down on the hillside (it sits at about 400m) and the mizzling rain made it look like a scene from an antipodean Hound of the Baskervilles. As a friend of mine once told me, I’m the only person who can scare myself witless with something I’ve made up! (Ask me about Pigman…)

Anyway, I’m glad I actually made the effort to get off my bum because I feel loads better now. I’m in the thick of a bunch of research/writing projects at the moment (PhD proposal, article revisions, conference paper…) and I sometimes end up sitting at this desk for hours at a stretch without even realising it. I’m really trying to get a bit more balance and get outside a few times a day, either for a long walk like tonight’s one or even just into the garden for 15 or 20 minutes of weed-whacking and tree-wrangling. I keep a list in a desktop calendar of all the things I want to get done on each of these projects each week (paper calendar – Moleskin actually, with a week per two pages) and then keep track of the time spent in half hourly blocks. To my generally somewhat chaotic self, this seems frighteningly well organised but so far it is working to keep  all my projects moving along at a steady rate (avoiding the temptation to spend all my time on the easy/enjoyable tasks and avoid the crappy ones).  It also helps me to see that even during weeks when I think I’ve done squat, I’ve actually accomplished some things. I’ve now added exercise to the list, mostly walking at the moment but trying to work in running a few days a week as well. (My days of running six days a week are behind me, though!) From what I can gather, this problem of balancing intensive reading/writing/desk work with the need to move seems to be pretty common amongst grad students and academics. 

What about you? Do you have trouble striking a balance? How do you fit exercise into your daily routine? Share your wisdom before the couch beats me again!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Notes for a method of interdisciplinary research Part II

This is the second part of a two-part series summarising my notes and thoughts from a recent ANZAMEMS postgraduate workshop on interdisciplinary research. This part starts with some examples of areas/topics of study that cannot be approached without crossing disciplines (in terms of bodies of knowledge and/or specialist skillsets) and then lays out a practical six-stage heuristic for approaching interdisciplinary research. The first part of this series described the last two stages of this heuristic: Determining the parameters of your research project (disciplinary, temporal,  linguistic etc.) and determining the skillsets you need to do the research (and where you can tap into these if you don’t have or plan to acquire them yourself).

So, day two of the workshop opened with a session by Stephen Clucas of Birkbeck, University of London, who talked about his research on John Dee’s MathematicallPraeface as a way to explore the question of ‘whose disciplines are we between?’ He started by asking whether, when we identify a domain to study in the past (e.g. the history of science, in his case), we are sure we’re equipped to recognise it in order to study it. As he pointed out, disciplines and divisions of knowledge that we now consider to be entirely demarcated and separate were often completely intermingled in medieval and early modern contexts. For example, early modern writers used a mixture of theology, medical knowledge and natural philosophy to explain the ‘soul’, while religious beliefs and outlooks were constitutive of the of the natural philosophy of people like Dee. Even when working with medieval or early modern disciplines that seem to map quite neatly to modern disciplinary equivalents, one still needs to understand the different ends and objects of that discipline in the past. (One example of this that has applied in my own work is the need to understand the very different ends and objects of judicial punishment in the medieval past, even if it is being administered within a legal framework of common law that is broadly similar to the modern system.)

After the scene was set with Dr Clucas' paper, Peter Anstey of Otago University presented a framework and practical guidelines for approaching this sort of research. The notes I took were weighted towards my own interests as a historian but I think this framework would be applicable across many disciplines. As I’m in the process of writing my PhD proposal at the moment, I also found it quite valuable for structuring my thinking as I work through the questions of scope, theoretical/ explanatory frameworks, sources and the practicalities of doing my research etc.

A six-stage heuristic for interdisciplinary research

1. Frame the research problem/issue

This needs to be very succinct and as clear as possible. A good way to start can be to set up a hypothesis and then go about identifying the evidence needed to prove or disprove it. (This is quite common for historical research.) At this point, it is important to be clear about what question(s) you’re asking but be aware that your hypothesis/question will most likely change as you start to examine the evidence and the research progresses.

2. Determine your philosophy of history

This element generated quite a lot of discussion amongst the attendees. Some of us are novice researchers (e.g. first year doctoral students) while others were more experienced ‘early career’ researchers who already had their PhDs and were working on post-doc projects, books etc. At first, the expectation of having a ‘philosophy of history’ kind of spooked me a bit, but it was reassuring to have Peter point out that as new researchers, we are forging our personal philosophies as we go along and they are probably quite immature and fragmented at this point, which is perfectly okay. ‘Philosophy of history’ turns out to be a pretty broad concept in this context, and could include things like Marxist, feminist, or postcolonial approaches, progressive history (seeing history as linear progress/advance over time), microhistory, and narrative history.

This question of philosophy of history interacts with the next element -

3. Identify your historiographical framework

This stage is aimed at understanding how your problem/issue is generally understood and taught, in terms of the major explanatory frameworks. Once you know what these are, you can then determine (in part, based on your own philosophy) whether you are working with or against them. Peter pointed out that for PhD students, this stage is most likely to involve simply articulating what the historiographical framework is, rather than coming up with new paradigms.

4. Settle on the genre of the project

For example, are you creating a PhD thesis? An article? An edited text or translation? This will determine things like the length of the project/finished product, the audience, authorial voice etc. This aspect kind of seems like common sense to me, but I have heard stories of PhD candidates turning up for the final defence and being told they need to cut 30,000 words from their thesis, completely alter the writing style to suit their committee, put the whole document into a new format/citation style etc. So I guess the key message here is to be clear up front, before you even start the work, what it is that you need to have produced at the end of it. (For PhD students, this would include things like studying your university’s regulations very closely to see exactly what is required of you, down to such minutiae as document margins and line spacing. Also, make sure you are clear on the citation style you need to use and use it from the start. It is way easier and less stressful to set that stuff up in your documents at the very beginning of the process than to have to change it at the end.)

Stages five and six were to set the project’s parameters (disciplinary, geographical, temporal, linguistic etc.) and to determine the skills set you require (either skills you need to have/acquire yourself, such as languages, or skills you need to tap into from other disciplines/departments). These two stages are quite detailed and were covered separately in part one of this series.

Thus endeth the lesson. I hope some of you find this useful!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Notes for a method of interdisciplinary research Part I

A couple of months ago, I attended a two-day postgraduate workshop on interdisciplinary research in medieval/early modern studies. The workshop was convened by Peter Anstey of the University of Otago and included sessions by Stephen Clucas of Birkbeck College, London, Peter Marshall of the University of Warwick, and John Sutton of Macquarie University in Sydney. If you check out the staff pages I've linked here, you'll see that these people (and the other workshop presenters) represent a variety of disciplines from within and beyond the traditional 'humanities'. Hence the purpose of the workshop: It provided a practical framework for pursuing research that incorporate methodologies, theoretical frameworks etc. from outside your own discipline.  Practical sessions on scoping and planning an interdisciplinary project were interspersed with papers where these researchers discussed their own experiences and application of interdisciplinary methods (including active collaboration with researchers outside their own fields).

Given my interests, I’m reasonably familiar with incorporating approaches and ideas from the allied humanities/social sciences fields that medieval historians frequently draw on – for example, literary studies, anthropology, sociology, art history, and archaeology. However, I was pretty interested to hear about some of the collaborations between humanities disciplines and the sciences. Peter Anstey, whose field is early modern philosophy, discussed his own collaboration with the botanist/plant scientist Stephen Harris to research John Locke’s seed catalogues. There was also a fascinating example of collaboration between a specialist in Shakespeare and a specialist in cognitive neuroscience for work looking into questions of individual and social memory in the early modern theatre. As one of the PhD students in attendance later framed it in a post on the Early Modern Experimental Philosophy blog:

The workshop made it clear that crossing the boundaries of a particular discipline is not only fruitful but even necessary when engaged in early modern research. Given that there is a natural characteristic of interdisciplinarity to the early modern period we must leave the comfort zone of our own discipline if we want to carry out our research projects properly. Most of us have actually done this without noticing that we are engaged in interdisciplinary research. The workshop brought this to my attention and I started thinking about the many ways in which my research would have been improved if I had consciously made an effort to enrich my understanding of any given topic by allowing myself to explore what other disciplines have to offer.

(Clearly, the same thing about blurred disciplinary boundaries – for example, between ‘natural philosophy’, ‘medicine’, and ‘theology’ – can be said of research into medieval cultures.)

This set the scene for a couple of extended practical sessions on approaching interdisciplinary research as a PhD student. Here and in a planned follow up post (Part II), I’ll summarise my own notes from these sessions to preserve the information for my future reference and to make it available to others who may find it useful. What I have noted here is what is most useful to me and I should emphasise that there were likely other aspects of this workshop that other students would have found more relevant to their own work. There was some discussion at the end of the two days about how the organisers can make this methodology more widely available (e.g. via a website or publication) so if you're interested, you can keep an eye on Otago’s Early Modern Experimental Philosophy blog for any updates.  

Part I – Determining the research project parameters

This forms a subset of a six-stage heuristic. I’ll write up my notes on the full framework and how this bit fits into it in Part II.

1) Set your temporal parameters

a) Choose the historical period(s) you’re planning to work in
b) Identify chronological overlaps and connections between periods
c) Identify the challenges posed by the chosen chronological period(s)

Challenges could include the need to master different languages, the need to get past barriers of terminology in order to accurately understand key concepts (for example, the term ‘science’ or scientia meant something quite different to people in 1412 than it does to us in 2012), lack of evidence etc. In my case, I’m dealing with a period and place where at least four languages (Middle English, Anglo-French, ‘French of Paris, and Latin) are in regular use in my documentary sources. As I’m interested in political uses of language – not just specific words or discourses but also the language strategically chosen to express them – I also need to come to terms with how I am going to treat after-the-fact written accounts of oral/aural speech acts (something I blogged about recently). Another thing to consider is how the historical period you chose defines to an extent your key terms and concepts. For example, as a well-known historian of chivalry has pointed out to me, if I chose a chronological timeframe defined by the reigns of certain kings, then I am implicitly approaching the concept of knighthood/chivalry in a top-down way, in terms of the way kings/princes defined and used it – an important and powerful conceptualisation of knighthood but certainly not the only one.

2) Set your disciplinary parameters

a) Select the historical disciplines you’re looking at – e.g. natural philosophy, theology, rhetoric etc.
b) Select the contemporary disciplines you’ll be drawing on to help interpret and understand those historical disciplines. For example, if you’re looking at early modern alchemy you may also be drawing on the modern science of chemistry.
c) Regulate any mismatches and determine how you are going to deal with them. 

The alchemy-chemistry example is a good one in this context, as early modern alchemy incorporates elements of mysticism, theology etc. that are utterly foreign to the modern lab science of chemistry.

3) Set your linguistic parameters

a) The historical languages of your sources
b) Contemporary languages - for example, I need to incorporate modern scholarship on my topic that is published in German, French etc. Depending on their topics, others might need to learn the disciplinary ‘languages’ of chemistry (periodic table, chemical formulas...), mathematics etc.
c) Identify potential issues and problems so you can figure out how you are going to deal with them. This could be anything from learning a new language to putting aside funds to hire translators or engaging in strategic collaboration with someone that does understand the ‘language’ (a mathematician, a botanist, a theologian etc. etc.)

4) Set the technological parameters

a) Identify any historic technologies or processes you need to understand – e.g. printing or book-making, manuscript production, alchemical equipment, medical equipment etc.
b) Identify any contemporary technologies that you need to use – xray, carbon dating, photography etc.

5) Set any other parameters, including e.g.

  1. geographical,
  2. thematic (‘skills and practical knowledge’, ‘material culture’ etc.),
  3. institutional (church? universities? medical professions? etc.)
  4. social –  is your research focused on elites/nobility? merchants? artisans? etc. To an extent, this also determines the next parameter, which is –
  5. sources - archival records, books, material culture, landscape etc.

6) Determine your requisite skill set

Given all of the above, what do you as a researcher need to be able to do or understand in order to complete your project? Obvious skills for historians include languages (modern and historical), archival research skills, palaeography, codicology etc. Someone studying historical boat-building, manuscript illumination, or alchemy (amongst other things) might also learn a good deal from some hands-on experience in the practical aspects, tools etc. There was a historian of early music at the workshop who told us they didn’t fully grasp the logic behind a particular musical notation system until they built a copy of the relevant historical instrument and tried it out themselves. An important point made at this juncture was that you don’t necessarily need to learn all these skills yourself but learn how to find and draw on the knowledge and skills of specialists.

Finally, on the first day of the workshop there was a brief session on ‘mapping’ disciplines other than your own. I thought this would be particularly useful for anyone in a humanities discipline wanting to get to grips with a field quite a long way from their own – for example, historians wanting to understand cognitive neuroscience or chemistry. So to conclude Part I of this series:

Mapping disciplines other than your own

This was presented as a structured way to go about finding the important and useful ideas in a field and understanding the wider context they evolved in (including any disciplinary shit-fights and controversies you may be unknowingly wading into). You can start with popular works, especially in the sciences (e.g. Richard Dawkins, Stephen J. Gould) to get a sense of the overall field, but be aware that these people are often writing outside their own speciality in order to make their works accessible for a lay audience. You then need to get into the academic literature in order to understand how the bit you’re interested in fits into the larger field. Start by identifying the main journals in the field(s) (asking someone in the target discipline in your university can be a quick way to find out which are the journals that really ‘count’). Then, hit up the review / ‘state of the field’ articles to start getting to grips key concepts and theories, how they developed, dissensions/ debates, counter-arguments etc. You also need to figure out if the particular theory or finding you want to draw on is considered respectable or pretty leftfield/wacky. Citation counts on something like Google Scholar are one indicator of this but they can be misleading. (For example, the person could be getting cited a lot in articles criticising their work/findings.) Again, review articles and talking to people currently working in the discipline are a good way to get some fast feedback.

Okay, well that was pretty long but I hope some of you may find it useful. In the second part of this series (which I’ll aim to get up within the next week or so), I’ll describe the wider six-stage heuristic that this parameter-setting exercise fits into.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Renaissance architecture: France 1, England 0

Désolée, mes amis Anglais, but having conducted a completely biased and unscientific survey during my recent travels, I am hereby declaring Francois 1er the winner in the 'I’ve got a better chateau than you' stakes. Seriously, look at Chambord:
I mean, no wonder Henry VIII was jealous. Okay, so he had to boot Cardinal Wolsey out before he could pinch Hampton Court but even with his subsequent renovations, at the end of the day it's still a rather grim-looking brick pile:
Sure, there is a nice view from the walled rose garden of the wacky collection of Tudor chimney pots (and that's Henry VIII's chapel on the left, where he married Anne Boleyn) ...
but they aren't a patch on the Disney-esque fantasy that is the roof of Chambord. (Though I'm sure that actually living up there amongst the chimneys and pigeon poo, as the lower-ranking courtiers were expected to do, was less romantic and a damned site smellier than Sleeping Beauty ever experienced.)

Hampton Court has also suffered a bit from later episodes of the historical version of 60 Minute Makeover. Here is the rather awkward result of William III’s (William of Orange) attempt at modernisation, c/- one Sir Christopher Wren (who really should have known better):
Yes, they have simply cut through the old Tudor building halfway down the gallery (right through the windows, in fact!) and cobbled a baroque monstrosity onto the side of it. The half-assed look to this part of the palace was actually the result of that timeless enemy of home renovation projects everywhere: the vision was bigger than the budget and the money ran out. (What would Kevin McCloud say?!)

Friday, October 26, 2012

Carolingian and Ottonian manuscripts online

A quick post and run today, as I'm just taking a short break from writing. My study has been getting a paint job over the last week, so my work has been a bit disrupted. Now I need to do some catching up! (But I'm very happy with my light, bright and funky new working environment. It's made such a difference to me wanting to sit in here for hours every day!)
Anyway, for those of you in/near Germany or with an interest in Carolingian, Ottonian and Romanesque history (or who simply love beautiful manuscripts), this exhibition should be a cracker. There is also a website where you can access digital copies of all 75 manuscripts. It's great to see more and more of this type of material being made available over the web.
Magnificent Manuscripts - Treasures of Book Illumination from 780 through 1180
Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich
October 19, 2012 - January 13, 2013

Exhibition Website

With 72 extraordinary manuscripts from the collection of the Bavarian State Library, as well as three exceptional works from the Bamberg State Library, the Kunsthalle of the Hypo Cultural Foundation presents a wide overview of the earliest and most precious examples of German book illumination.These 75 magnificent volumes represent some of the greatest cultural and artistic achievements of the Carolingian, Ottonian and Romanesque eras. Within this library’s extensive collection, the Ottonian manuscripts in particular form a unique nucleus that is unsurpassed worldwide. Owing to their extraordinary fragility, these highly valuable works can hardly ever leave the library’s vault. This exhibition of original manuscripts therefore offers a unique opportunity to discover thousand-year-old testimonies to our cultural heritage. 

For more information about the exhibition:

For those unable to attend the exhibition, digital copies of all manuscripts on display at the exhibition can be accessed online here:

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Well, call me chuffed with these essays!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a person in possession of a stack of undergrad essays to mark is in want of a lot of red ink (with apologies to Jane Austen.) But...but...but... I've just completed marking a stack of such essays and I hereby declare myself pleasantly surprised. Sure, I had the usual quota of relatively pedestrian, 'too-much-description-not-enough-analysis', and 'wanders from the question in places' examples. But there was not a single one amongst the lot that was so full of spelling errors and crazy grammar that it was borderline unreadable (the enduring lament of teachers everywhere). Nor did I have any that didn't include any references, were based entirely on a the textbook, or (even better) where the argument was wholly constructed on the shaky edifice that is  History Channel documentaries. (Yes, I have had to have the conversation more than once that the History Channel is not an appropriate source for academic history essays. We give you a course bibliography for a reason, folks.)

I'm particularly chuffed because this was not an easy assignment and, I have to admit, I'd kind of prepared for the worst. Its for an upper level paper that requires the students to chose a group of primary sources from the course reader and write an essay that locates them in their specific cultural, social and political context. They also need to provide a critical analysis of the significance of their chosen documents, both in their contemporary medieval context and for we historians.  The sources they can pick from are organised thematically around broad topics such as lay piety, death and burial practices, guilds, regulation of prostitution etc. so there is plenty of scope for individual interpretive approaches but also, I feared, plenty of room to go wildly astray.

Grades in my department/school are scaled, although the range is fairly flexible. (For upper level papers, the number of A grades can be between 15-30% while the number of C grades is 25-50%. Anything below a C is a fail.) Normally, my grades tend to weigh towards the higher end of that range for Cs (maybe I am just a tough marker). But this time, I'm pleased to say that the majority of students fell solidly into the Bs (35 - 50%). As always, I also had a few real gems that earned As.

Incidentally, when it comes to typing up my comments for each student (I handwrite comments as I mark, but also attach a typed summary page), I always save the A essays for last because it leaves me feeling positive and happy. Anyone else do this?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Carnivalesque Ancient and Medieval now up

The latest ancient / medieval Carnivalesque is now up at Zenobia: Empress of the East. (In fact, it's been up for a week or so but I've been buried in teaching and essay marking, so not online much.) For those of you unfamiliar with the blog carnival format, each edition of Carnivalesque is hosted by a different blog and features the best of the last couple of months of posting on ancient and medieval topics. (There is also an early modern version.) It's a great way to get a taste of what's been happening in the world of ancient / medieval studies and check out some interesting new blogs.

This edition features posts on Jesus' wife, reverse circumcision, and gladiator sweat (along with lots of cool images). On the medieval side, there's Lady Godiva, Edward the Confessor's troubled childhood, and my recent musings on linguistic acrobatics in medieval texts.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

RIP Maurice Keen

I was a bit sad to find out this week that Maurice Keen had recently died. Anyone studying the broad topics of knighthood, nobility, and warfare in the later Middle Ages will no doubt be familiar with his large and influential body of work. His 1984 book Chivalry remains a seminal text on, well, chivalry, and he was one of the first historians to consider chivalric ideals and practices as core elements in later medieval political culture, rather than seeing chivalry as a rather romantic and frivolous adjunct to the real business of government, war, and diplomacy.

As you might expect of a work first published in 1984, there are certainly things he didn’t cover. Given my research interests, one lacuna in Keen's work was the omission of any analysis of gender and the dynamics involved in the construction of noble masculinity and the idealised male body of the knight. Nevertheless, a dog-eared and well-marked-up copy of the 2005 edition of this classic text remains close at hand on my bookshelf and I still find myself referring to it regularly.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Writing group: Week 2 and all's well

Well, week one of Dame Eleanor Hull's writing group has come and gone, and it turned out to be just the kick in the pants I needed. I got off to a bit of a slow start, but the knowledge I had to front up to the group with a progress report meant that by the weekend, I'd managed to pull my finger out and get some things done. So, here is a quick update and some new goals for this week.

Last week's goals were to:
- Review article draft for overall argument
- Come up with an outline for my proposal and figure out a basic structure/key themes for the historiography section

What I achieved:
I managed to get both of these done. Once I went back and reviewed the notes I've got so far on the secondary literature, I realised I already had a pretty good structure for the historiography section and just needed to do a bit of refining of key themes. I've also set up an outline for the whole proposal in Scrivener (this application is a godsend for anyone who doesn't write in a linear way). I'd been putting this task off because I didn't feel like I was ready yet to 'commit' to any particular approach. This changed once I accepted that the proposal is a work in progress, it won't be perfect first-up, and I can (and most probably will) keep changing it as I go through the writing/re-writing process. At least now I've got somewhere to start.

I seriously dragged my heels reviewing the article. I don't know why. I think I'm just kind of sick of it at this point! A glass of wine and a rugby test on the telly in the background (All Blacks v. Pumas) finally made the job palatable.

Lightbulb moments:
The very act of joining the writing group and formally setting weekly goals has made me a bit more self-aware about my writing process and work habits. This week, I had a couple of days where I wasted a lot of time dithering first thing in the morning because I couldn't decide what to work on first. I think this is just another form of creative procrastination but it's one that I find particularly aggravating because generally, I really hate indecisiveness and find it emotionally draining. So, over the last few days I've started experimenting with finishing the day by consciously leaving myself a specific task to start with the next day. I've tried a few different things so far, from the relatively easy (take notes on a secondary source) to the somewhat more intellectually challenging (freewrite for 15 - 30 minutes on a question/quote/conceptual idea related to my project), and I'm still not quite sure which works best. It seems to depend on what kind of mood I wake up in and what sort of dreams I've had. Some days I dream very productively - or rather, I have a very productive little drift through that dozy zone between being asleep and being awake, wherein all my disparate thoughts seem rather magically to coalesce. On days like that, all I have to do is jump out of bed and start writing. (I'm not sure what gets me into this zone, but damn, when I figure it out I'm going to bottle it!) However, I now know that if I don't actually have to expend energy deciding what to do first, I can get going faster and maintain better momentum throughout the morning.

This week's goals:
- Tidy up the draft and send it to supervisor/ co-supervisor for review. This means no more tinkering with the text but simply making it readable by putting in paragraph breaks, removing my in-text notes to myself etc.
- Complete one thematic chunk of my historiography section
- Draft the section covering definition of terms (This may turn out to be more involved that I originally anticipated, as it is taking me back into the theory stuff.)

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Interpreting medieval sources: Orality, aurality, and textuality

Treason trial, King's Bench 1477-8. The National Archives, Kew.
 I’m in quite a productive flow state at the moment with the research for my PhD proposal, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the methodology I'm going to use for interpreting my primary sources. I’ve already talked a bit about the political uses of language and what it might mean when a writer uses French or English in a culture where being English was increasingly being defined against French difference, but where the records of law and government nevertheless remained multilingual. Another question that is occupying me is how best to deal with the complex, multilayered nature of these types of sources that were circulated for political purposes. By this I mean that texts like the letter of the Lords Appellant to the citizens of London (as discussed in this post) were initially created as written documents, but they also circulated orally (read out in public) and so were received in aural form. In some cases, such as that of statutes, the written text was in French but was circulated in English through being orally translated as part of the process of public proclamation. Such texts might then go through another iteration of translation and circulation as they were copied into chronicles or into the rolls of parliament.

This quite complicated process of multilingual, multimedia circulation and reception generated some stimulating discussion at a lecture on politics and government that I taught last week as part of a course on late medieval England. I don’t like to talk at the students for too long, so I usually break up the lecture component with discussion of relevant primary sources as we go. In this lecture, we were talking about contemporary views of what makes for ‘good governance’ and what avenues for protest were available if people didn’t think they were getting it. One of the sources we discussed was a text that has come to be known as the ‘manifesto’ of Archbishop Scrope. Briefly, by 1405, Henry IV’s honeymoon as the new king of England was over and a group amongst the nobility (centred mainly in the north of England) was agitating for reform.[1] They had drafted up a set of articles demanding that the king take a series of measures for the restoration of ‘good governance’. To me, one of the most intriguing aspects of this uprising (which ended with the Archbishop of York Richard Scrope and the Earl Marshal Thomas Mowbray being executed for treason) was the way the leaders used the circulation of texts to engage armed support for their cause amongst the people of York and its surrounding districts. Here is how events were captured by Thomas Walsingham, the author of the St Albans Chronicle[2]:
When the archbishop saw that he was surrounded by many who were willing to fight, he had the … articles written down, published in the highways and byways of the city of York, and publicly fastened to the doors of monasteries, so that any person who wished could ascertain the nature of his case. [The archbishop also had the articles preached by parish priests.]
These are the articles intended to achieve correction and restoration so as to avoid dissent and disagreement, which are likely to occur in the kingdom because of a lack of justice, unless it please God of his grace and the estates of the realm to give help in these matters.

First of all, the bad governance in the kingdom must be corrected in accordance with truth and justice, and be so ordered as to deal with the insupportable burdens which affect all grades of the clergy, to make amends for injustices and calumny committed against the estates, both spiritual and temporal, for the preservation and liberty of holy Church…

Secondly, to order remedial action to be taken about subjection and annulments which lords are very likely to suffer to the prejudice of both their own persons and their inheritances, contrary to their station enjoyed by right of birth and the laws employed and made on behalf of their predecessors.

Thirdly, to order the correction of harsh regulations and insupportable taxes and aids, extortionate and oppressive demands, which rule the lives of nobles, merchants, and the commons of the realm, bringing ultimate impoverishment and ruin upon those who would be bound to be true supporters of all the estates, both spiritual and temporal, if they were well and properly governed. Further, to punish willful squandering of funds, namely expenses claimed for private individual advancement from the considerable possessions and wealth of the aforementioned nobles, merchants, and commons, and to ensure the restoration of those possessions for the good of the realm.
 Walsingham then adds:
These were the articles that were written in English, whose sense I have translated almost word for word, and have inserted them here as they were expressed, without any bias. [In other words, he has translated them from English into Latin because…] This seemed necessary to me because of the plainness and inelegance of the language, which is not easily rendered in elegant style, if the sense of the original is to be preserved.
Now, the themes of complaint represented here are rather standard for the time but there are a couple of interesting features about this text. First, it was written in English and copies nailed up around the city of York, implying that at least a decent chunk of its intended audience was presumed to be literate and they, no doubt, were then expected to read it out to their non-literate fellows. The second point is that by circulating the text in English, the archbishop and his noble supporters seem to be tapping into a rather dangerous precedent set by the 'peasant' rebels of 1381, whose supposedly seditious texts were also circulated in English.[3] It has to be said that by 1405, although England was still multilingual, there were a growing number of literary works being written in English (Chaucer, Gower etc.) and a number of these contained both veiled and explicit complaints about governance. English texts – particularly the Bible in English – were also associated with the so-called Lollard heresy, which advocated that the faithful should read scripture directly rather than receiving it through preaching. Mark Ormrod has suggested that literary and poetic works in English may not have been perceived as politically threatening in the same ways that a written English Bible was in part because they were generally circulated by being read out – that is, their orality/aurality neutralised an implicit threat perceived to reside in a written English text.[4] If this is true, then the written circulation of Scrope’s manifesto in English seems to be a deliberately provocative political move as well as having more pragmatic purposes given its intended readership.

Finally, it's noteworthy that the monastic chronicler Thomas Walsingham finds it necessary to translate the articles into Latin before copying them into his chronicle. As a conservative churchman, he may well have found the English language not only ‘inelegant’ but also theologically and politically dangerous because of its association with heresy during this period. Or, although I have not a skerrick of proof for this, I suppose it is also possible that as a cleric he was much more comfortable and fluent working in Latin than in English.

So where does this leave me with interpreting these kinds of political texts? Good question, and one to which I certainly don't have an answer yet. As a historian, the written texts are all I have left to work with and - as is clear from Walsingham's tinkering - surviving copies may have strayed far from their originals through the processes of translation and transcription. Within these texts, there may be hints of how they were heard and interpreted at the time and of what actions they precipitated, but there is really no way for me to know definitively how they were received. However, as I'm interested in understanding how these these texts shaped political struggles between living human beings, I need to figure out some way to negotiate their complicated intertwinings of orality, aurality, and textuality.

[1] General studies of this rebellion include W. Mark Ormrod, ‘The Rebellion of Archbishop Scrope’ in Gwilym Dodd & Douglas Biggs (eds.), The Reign of Henry IV: Rebellion andSurvival, 1403 – 1413 (Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2008), pp.162-179; Douglas Biggs, ‘Archbishop Scrope's Manifesto of 1405: “Naive Nonsense” or Reflections of Political Reality?’, Journal of Medieval History 33, no. 4 (2007), pp.358-71; Simon Walker, ‘Rumour, Sedition and Popular Protest in the Reign of Henry IV’, Past & Present, no. 166 (2000), pp.31-65.
[2] John Taylor, Wendy R. Childs, and Leslie Watkiss (eds.), The St Albans Chronicle: The Chronica Maiora of Thomas Walsingham II. 1394-1422, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, pp.442-5.

[3] The texts included letters and poems purported to be by the rebel leaders. On this topic, see Steven Justice, Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381 (Berkeley, CA., 1994).
[4] W. M. Ormrod, 'The Use of English: Language, Law, and Political Culture in Fourteenth-Century England,' Speculum 78, no. 3 (July 1, 2003): 750–787, at 783-4.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Writing group kick-in-the-pants: Week 1

If you've been reading here lately, you'll know I've been engaging in one of my periodic tussles with writing. I managed to get the structure of my pesky article sorted out and in the process, I got some good advice in the comments that can be summed up as 'just send the damned thing out for review, already'. Rationally, I think it's in pretty good shape, but emotionally I'm having a little trouble letting it go. (This I put down to a combination of perfectionism and the occasional crazed fear that the whole thing really is a load of pants.)

So, in the interests of moving this sucker along and getting on with a few other pressing projects (my PhD proposal not the least amongst them), I have committed myself to Dame Eleanor Hull's virtual writing group between now and December. To keep myself accountable, I'll also be posting updates and (hopefully!) progress here.

My stated goals for the 15 week writing cycle are:
1. Complete and submit the article I've been working on, which is based on part of my MA thesis and a conference paper I gave at Leeds this year
2. Complete a solid first draft of my PhD proposal (10,000 words)
3. Write the first draft of a conference paper for the ANZAMEMS 2013 conference being held in Melbourne next February. (This will be coming out of work I'm doing for my proposal.)

My goals for this week are:
1. Article - print out the current draft and review it to make sure all my tinkering over the last few weeks hasn't totally destroyed the central argument
2. Proposal - settle on an outline for the overall structure, review my main bodies of secondary literature and sketch out the historigraphical framework

Aaaand - here's what I've done so far (uh oh...)
1. Printed out a full draft of the article as it stands at the  moment (don't discount the progress this represents, given the paper-munting proclivities of my antiquated printer)
2. Started tinkering with/ re-writing yet another section of the article (but I re-read a primary source to check a detail and suddenly saw some more juicy points to be made with it)
3. Sat down to review my notes on the secondary lit but ended up watching a marathon of 'The Hills'  instead (damn you, shiny American youth and your trivial but oh-so-compelling personal dramas!)
3. Checked out beachy holiday spots to visit after the February conference (this constitutes 'research', right?)*

Okay, not the most productive start but I have until Sunday to make course corrections and check-in.

* By the way, any suggestions from locals or those familiar with Melbourne are welcome. Partner is thinking about coming with me and if he does, we will stay on for a week or so after the conference. Not sure whether to base ourselves somewhere like St Kilda or to hire a car and drive down/up the coast. I've heard the Great Ocean Road makes for a pretty amazing journey.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Time out

I’ve only been at this PhD thing for a few months so far, but based on the self-knowledge I gained through doing my MA and on advice from those wiser and more experienced than myself, I have learned that even in these early days it’s important to maintain a reasonably disciplined (though not exactly *strict*) work schedule. So, on my ‘work’ days, I try to spend seven or eight hours applying myself, either in reading/note-taking on secondary sources, freewriting on ideas and questions around my topic, or doing those annoying yet necessary admin tasks like keeping my working bibliography up to date (I’m using Zotero for this - so much better than crappy EndNote!).

I’m a bit off-kilter this week, having spent two days attending a postgraduate workshop on doing interdisciplinary research at the University of Otago – full-on but incredibly useful – and then a day on campus teaching. (I'll write more on this workshop soon, once I've had a chance to review my notes and fully digest it all.) These activities were extremely enjoyable but as a natural introvert, I find that after spending so much time talking to other people, I need to go into social hibernation for a bit to recharge. It’s not that I’m antisocial - quite the opposite, in fact. I loved getting the chance to talk to other postgrads about their projects and to find that even though our topics are incredibly varied, we are all sharing some of the same challenges. And while I’m pretty new to teaching, I enjoy the interactivity of the classroom. We spend a good chunk of time reading/discussing primary source documents, so it’s not just me talking at the poor students. It's more that some people need social interaction in order to become energised, whereas I am energised/re-energised by time spent on my own. (What can I say? I make great conversation with myself!)

Anyway, after all that excitement, Friday evening saw me retire to a bubble bath fortified with a glass of wine and Hilary Mantel's stunning follow-up to Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies. This woman is such an incredible writer, I have to keep reminding myself I am not *actually* living inside Thomas Cromwell's head. She has a kind of spooky ability to invoke ghosts, and you really feel that after these oh-500-odd years, you are finally getting the inside story on Anne Boleyn’s unlikely rise and horrific fall. The visceral immediacy of Mantel’s writing is at times surprisingly terrifying. I leave you with this scene, capturing the moment when Anne knows things are about to go seriously pear-shaped for her, but she is still boldly preparing to display herself in the royal pageantry of the jousts at Greenwich (pp.287-8):

Now Anne Boleyn calls for her glass. She sees herself: her jaundiced skin, lean throat, collarbones like twin blades.

1 May 1536: this, surely, is the last day of knighthood. What happens after this - and such pageants will continue - will be no more than a dead parade with banners, a contest of corpses. The king will leave the field. The day will end, snapped like a shinbone, spat out like smashed teeth.'

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Self-representation and identity in medieval letters

So, one of the themes that is beginning to emerge in my research is that of self-representation and identity as it is constructed through letters. Letters are not really a type of primary source that I’ve systematically looked at before, but it is becoming clear to me that they are going to be an important source for me as this project develops. I’m not talking about one-on-one personal letters here, but letters that were intended to communicate with a wider reading/listening public (though that distinction is actually rather blurred, as will become clear from the discussion below). Broadly speaking, I’m interested in the political phenomenon of treason (as opposed to the theme of treason as it appears in theological, ecclesiastical and literary contexts, although of course all these different spheres interact and influence each other) in England and in English Gascony over a period covering the early 1300s through to about the 1470s. If you’re familiar with English or French history, you’ll know that this timeframe brackets the on-again off-again conflict now known as the Hundred Years War (a name that was coined in the nineteenth century). 

It is a truism of histories of the Hundred Years War that it saw the emergence of a sense of distinct English national identity, constructed in particular against the French and expressed in anxieties about both military and cultural conquest. For me, one of the interesting aspects of this process is the use of publicly circulated letters to spread news in England of the war effort in France and ginger up support for that effort in the way of money, men and arms. In 1346, for example, a letter from Edward III was read out to the English parliament in which it was claimed that the French king Philippe VI was plotting ‘to destroy and ruin the whole English nation and language’.[1] Letters were also used as a form of public propaganda in political conflicts at home, such as when the Lords Appellant sent a missive to ‘the mayor, sheriffs, aldermen, citizens, and all the good commons of London’ to try to secure their support against Richard II’s hated favourites (a number of whom were executed as traitors in 1388’s Merciless Parliament)[2]. After declaring themselves the king’s obedient and faithful lieges, the Appellants charged that the favourites:

‘Faithless and treacherous all, and each of them traitor to the king and the realm, who falsely and traitorously have carried off the king, and by their tendentious advice and contrivance have led his honourable person into divers parts remote from his council, to the disparagement of the king and of his kingdom, and have falsely advised him against his oath to do various things to the disheritance [sic] and dismemberment of his crown, to the point of losing his inheritance overseas [i.e. to France] to the great shame and destruction of the whole realm, and have falsely caused various dissensions between our said lord the king and the lords of his council, so that some of them were in fear and peril of their lives.’[3]
Thinking about Edward III’s earlier political posturing over the French threat to the English language and realm, I’m interested in how letters like that of the Appellants construct loyal subjecthood – their own and others - and whether they consciously deploy language as one element of that identity. While the Appellants’ themselves, being of the high nobility, spoke French as their ‘first’ or conversational language, their letter was written to an urban community who were Anglophone by this period. Their letter was written in French but it was most likely read aloud in a variety of public places, translated into English on-the-fly. This was the process that was commonly used in this period to circulate new statutes, which were still written in French. It was probably also the way that newsletters on the progress of the war in Gascony were widely communicated to the English ‘public’ (though this is a topic on which I need to do more research).

I’ve just read a terrific article, "The Use of English" by Mark Ormrod (full cite below), on this whole question of the use of English and French in fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century England.[4] His starting point is 1362's Statute of Pleading (36 Edw. III c.15), which mandated that English rather than French should be the language used for oral pleading in English courts (excepting ecclesiastical courts). Ormrod contends this has been widely misinterpreted either to support an argument for the ‘triumph of English’ by the late 1300s or conversely, for the continued dominance of French, and argues instead for a much less black-and-white interpretation of England’s multilingualism in this period. He provides pretty convincing evidence from judicial and administrative sources to back this up and also makes some crucial points about the need to distinguish between written and spoken language. From my perspective, the most interesting aspect of the article was a discussion about how kings like Edward III and Henry V used language, and particularly their strategic deployment of English versus French in specific diplomatic and political circumstances. This brings me back to the question of letters as a form of self-representation and as a way of constructing identity. As Ormrod points out, while late medieval kings may have used the English language to score political points, their personal letters (e.g. those written under the signet) were still being written in French well into the fifteenth century. 

My own interest is chiefly in this theme of language or ‘tongue’ as it appears in various forms in treason cases over the later medieval period. There is seemingly a rather obvious relationship between supporting or aiding the French and being an enemy of the English tongue, but given the multilingual political culture of late medieval England, I think this relationship needs to be examined much more closely and picked apart to see exactly how it ticks. I’m also intrigued by a number of confessional letters written to kings by accused traitors. Take this case, for example. A king is consolidating his reign and emphasising his legitimacy by fighting a war with France. On the eve of his departure on campaign, one of his most-favoured nobles is accused of conspiring with the French against him and is sentenced to execution by hanging, drawing and quartering (gruesome). If this noble – who, under normal circumstances, would probably converse with and write to the king in French – writes his letter of confession and plea for mercy in English, how might we interpret that? Can his choice of English be seen as deliberate? If so, is the choice made with the intention or desire to represent himself as a loyal English subject by tapping into that whole discourse that is constructing English language and national identity against French difference? And who is he primarily ‘talking’ to? The king? The council of peers and nobles hastily assembled to try the case? The wider urban audience who would witness his public execution and dismemberment?

Working with letters to explore questions about identity and reception is a pretty new area for me, so I’d appreciate any pointers anyone out there can offer to useful interpretive frameworks and approaches. I’ve found a fair amount of material on early modern epistolary culture, but not so much at this stage on the later medieval period (particularly in a secular as opposed to clerical/monastic context). There is obviously a fair bit of crossover with the field of diplomacy, but things get a bit less clear when I’m looking at more personal (yet still political) contexts, like the letters of confession.

Next week, I’m off to attend a two-day postgrad workshop/seminar on interdisciplinarity in medieval and early modern research (thanks, ANZAMEMS!). I hope this will give me the opportunity to ask these questions of some senior scholars in the field, and also maybe figure out some fruitful ways to approach my sources with issues of identity (self and communal) in mind. I just hope Dunedin isn't too cold!

[1] Chris Given-Wilson, ed., The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England, 1275-1504 [CD-ROM Edition] (Leicester, England: Scholarly Digital Editions, 2005): RP ii, 158.
[2] The letter is printed in the contemporary chronicle of Henry Knighton. G. H. Martin, ed., Knighton's Chronicle 1337-1396. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995, pp.410-13, quote at 411.
[3] Ibid.
[4] W. M. Ormrod, “The Use of English: Language, Law, and Political Culture in Fourteenth-Century England,” Speculum 78, no. 3 (July 1, 2003): 750–787.