Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Saxon England at the Olympics

I'm watching the Olympics coverage of the equestrian three-day event (recorded, as it was on in the middle of the night NZ time). It's one of the few events where New Zealand actually has some realistic hope of winning a medal, but the thing I'm enjoying most is the course! They have really pushed the boat out when it comes to designing cool-looking jumps. There is the 'Ancient Marketplace', complete with what looks like giant Roman amphorae and a very cute stuffed goat; the Tower of London, which is basically the playhouse of my dreams; and 'Over the Moon', a crescent moon on the top of a hill overlooking the city.

But my favourite feature is the 'Saxon Village'. Every time I hear the commentator mentioning it, I get this mental picture of an evil Norman knight riding his horse over a bunch of grovelling English peasants! I realise this picture is probably wildly inaccurate and you early medievalists will be bewailing my ignorance, but clearly I have seen too many dodgy Hollywood movies. (Also, it seems the organisers have no respect for Saxon culture either, because from what I can make out, the 'village' consists of a few piles of stone and what may be a midden...)

* Edited to add: Maybe I was a bit harsh about the little Saxon house. It actually has a red tiled (!?) roof.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

I love our Postgraduate Research Seminars

Yesterday, I was on campus for the latest Postgraduate Research Seminar organised by my School. This is where the BA Hons. and Masters students present their research projects to the School's staff, fellow students, and the wider research community at the university, and I always find them very stimulating. Sure, you get the odd esoteric philiosophy student whose work goes right over my head, but generally, there are at least a few presentations I find really interesting, and sometimes, the odd one that gives me a new perspective or fresh questions to ask about my own research. Because the School is multidisciplinary, it's always an intriguing mix of topics. I've seen everything from the historico-archeaological debate over the siege of Troy to Christian Science beliefs about reason, and from the the ethics of pre-natal screening to the history of fascism in pre-World War II rural New Zealand. 

This year, one of the stand-outs for me was a case history of an intriguing late nineteenth-century land dispute. The case involved an indigenous Maori woman using the procedures of the colonial legal system to convert lands that had been under native leasehold title into individual freeholds under her own name. This process embroiled her in a long-running and apparently very acrimonious legal battle with another woman landholder of European ethnicity, and the dispute eventually saw the European woman being 'run off' and returning to Europe. The student in question is using this as a case study to explore the workings of the Native Land Court in that era, but I found it a fascinating example of some quite unexpected dynamics of both gender and ethnicity, in that a Maori woman used all the powers of the externally imposed colonial legal system (effectively, 'white man's law') to her own advantage (fee simple land title being more secure and, ultimately, more economically advantageous than either 'native' or Crown leasehold title). While the tiny amount I know about this case is only what was presented in this seminar, it does seem to be one of those examples that reinforces the point that feminist approaches to history cannot ignore other categories of identity - such as ethnicity or class - or they will fail to tell the whole story about how power was operating and being negotiated in any particular historical context. In other words, you can't assume all women are 'sisters' and have common interests just because they share two X chromosomes!

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Black Prince rescues the Good Parliament! Er, wait a minute...

I was thrilled to discover this rather dashing equestrian statue of Edward, the Black Prince (father of Richard II) outside the railway station in Leeds.

But take a closer look at the dedication:

Really?? Edward was the heroic 'upholder of the rights of the people' in the Good Parliament? To my knowledge, the Black Prince was in fact mouldering away on his deathbed somewhere in London while that parliament was sitting, and he was in no condition to do any grand posturing for 'the rights of the people' even had he wanted to. His real achievement was to get his brother, John of Gaunt, to publicly recognise his 9-year-old son Richard as the heir to Edward III's throne (Edward III himself also having one foot in the grave by this point).

This statue certainly plays fast and loose with the medieval past (and no doubt has been implicated in the odd less-than-accurate history essay written by Leeds schoolchildren). It was erected in the late 19th century (a date in the 1890s rings a bell, though I can't remember exactly when) and I would love to know a bit more about the context in which it was produced, and in which its extraordinarily inaccurate dedication was considered apt. Anyone the wiser?

Friday, July 20, 2012

A cultural history of politics, and the politics of cultural history

My experiences at IMC Leeds - the papers I heard and the many interesting discussions I had - along with my pre-conference meetings with a couple of Leading Scholars in my field, have got me thinking about the kind of history that I want to do, and more broadly, about how various 'types' or approaches to history get defined (and, at worst, pigeon-holed as hopelessly outdated or 'politically irrelevant'). While to those outside the field/academia, the question may seem somewhat rarefied, it is an important consideration because the way your research is perceived and ‘labeled’ can have a significant impact on opportunities for funding, publication, participation in collaborative projects etc. Broadly speaking, my thesis could be classed as political history in that it deals with the actions and motivations of those who hold the reins of power, both formally through institutions like kingship or parliament and, more informally, through bonds of personal loyalty and kinship. But, by asking questions about how perceptions of gender (and ethnicity – but I won’t go there in this post) shape the way power is distributed, applied, reproduced, and contested across these institutions and relationships, I'm also taking an approach that overtly applies 'cultural theory' (let's call it that for simplicity's sake, as I don't have the space or inclination here to go into the nuances of my feminist / postcolonial theoretical toolkit) to the analysis of late medieval politics.

So does that make me a political historian? A cultural historian? Both? Neither? Are such distinctions even useful? My thinking on this was in part prompted by a discussion on the political relevance of cultural history, started by Jon Jarrett over at A Corner of Tenth Century Europe and then expanded upon by Magistra et Mater. I agree that for medievalists, making one's research politically relevant within contemporary culture is more important than ever in these days of shrinking humanities funding and ever more stringent demands to prove one's 'impact factor'. (For those unfamiliar with the world of academia, this is basically the demand - expressed in different ways in different countries - to prove that taxes invested in higher education/ research are not being 'wasted' on 'frivolities'. Its nastier and more ignorant face can be seen in the public comments section of any major newspaper when some hapless social science or humanities researcher gets a grant for studying bogan subcultures or some other perfectly sound academic question that the Commentariat, in all its collective wisdom, considers outrageous.*)

But (getting back to the point) I am made distinctly uncomfortable by the idea that political relevance implies an overt association with identity politics, or that an absence of such overt identification and its agendas infers the 'depolitisation' of cultural history. I'm having trouble articulating this well, but I guess that as someone who is focused in part on the history of masculinities, I was brought up short by John Tosh’s claim (via Magistra) that the cultural turn in the field of gender and masculinity has detached it from the ‘men’s movement’ of the 1970s, and thus robbed it of its political edge, an argument that has also been advanced in somewhat different forms by a number of historians who identify as feminist.** I have to say, I never considered that my interest in the history of masculinities (in my case, knightly masculinity in particular) has anything to do with any kind of 'men’s movement' or with unearthing positive male role models from the past, and I’d be pretty disturbed if other people thought that was an agenda that is driving my research. I suppose I am thinking of gender in more abstract (but no less politically relevant) terms, in that I am hoping that by uncovering and unpicking the hidden gender dynamics that underpinned and supported (and also contested) particular relationships of political power in the past, I can not only shed new light on historic events and structures, but also make people look with new eyes on such dynamics at work in the modern world. There is a clearly a political agenda driving my work on medieval political history, as I believe that the first step to changing a system is to understand exactly how it works and how it preserves existing privilege. I often find that when I start explaining my research to IRL friends and acquaintances, they very quickly have an ‘a ha’ moment when they recognise parallels or resonances within a specific contemporary political context.*** (For those of you about to accuse me of shameful anachronism, I’m always at pains to emphasise that I am not positing any simplistic causal relationship between the medieval past and the present.) The way I see it, cultural history is an inherently political (and politically relevant) project, even if it is not overtly associated with any particular movement or strand of identity politics.

* Just to be clear on this, I absolutely support Dave Snell’s research and think his PhD topic was completely legitimate (and really cool!) Indeed, his investigation into the construction of identities bears a certain, if distant, relation to my own interests.

** Important disclaimer here: I have not yet read Tosh’s piece in the edited volume Magistra discusses (Sean Brady and John H. Arnold (eds.), What is masculinity? Historical dynamics from antiquity to the contemporary world (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)), so I may be completely misinterpreting this.

*** I will explore this in more detail in a future post, as I think it is best done through concrete examples rather than trying to explain it at an abstract level.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Home again, and a brief ode to my beloved Tour de France

In an unprecedented display of airline efficiency, Air New Zealand managed to fly me from London all the way home without a single delay (this has never happened to me before). Oddly, although I have returned from summer into mid-winter, the weather here is better than my last two weeks in York and Leeds. Sure, it is cool, but the sky today is bright blue and the sun is shining with that intensity peculiar to the southern hemisphere, a far cry from northern England's rather dour display.

I have had good intentions of sending follow-up emails to all the great people I met at IMC Leeds, sorting out all my conference notes, doing some free-writing on the thinking I've been doing on my thesis topic, and blogging my Leeds experience. But so far, all I've managed is to unpack and do some (much needed!) laundry. Oh, and catch up with what has been going on in my beloved Tour de France (all the stages I've missed so far have been recorded, per my instructions). I managed to catch the first couple of stages on  the TV while I was still in France, but was surprised to find coverage in England pretty limited, especially considering that the Englishman Brad Wiggins is looking solid to take the overall victory! Tonight (NZ time), the riders are off into the Pyrenees. In just under 200km, they'll climb the Col d'Aubisque, the monstrous Col du Tourmalet, the Col d'Aspin, and the Col de Peyresourde (even the names give me a bit of a shiver down the spine). The best will play a six-hour game of extreme chess, testing each other's legs and hearts over and over as they attack up the climbs. For the sprinters and other non-climbers, it will just be a matter of survival, and cyclists that will compete fiercely against each other on the flatter stages will get together in the 'grupetto' and try to drag each other across the stage finish line under the cut-off time.

Many of my friends are a bit perplexed at my passion for this event, and it's hard to explain the unique combination of sporting endeavour, beautiful French countryside, historic resonance, and cultural quirkery that attracts me year after year. But a writer in yesterday's Guardian did a pretty good job of describing some of the Tour's characteristic charms:

"...cars were to be seen parked in the roads leading to the village of Samatan, in the Gers, where the stage began, and which was putting itself on the Tour map for the first time. A field was set aside for a display of local produce, most of it presented under the bizarrely cynical slogan 'Canard heureux, canard savoureux': a happy duck is a tasty duck.

The break had already formed when the riders entered the village of Bassoues, population 350, where the Frankish army defeated the Saracens in the eighth century. A vast banner of welcome covered the facade of the 43m-high dungeon towering over the village, and the field passed through a medieval wooden hall that straddles the main street. On a relatively relaxed and brilliantly sunny day, in which they were no significant changes to the standings, this was a moment of pure magic such as only the Tour de France can provide."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Tips for young players

I'm writing this at 30-odd thousand feet, somewhere over the Pacific. I left London at 9:30pm last night, after taking the train back from IMC Leeds the day before. I spent my last day-and-half staying in Kew and madly photographing documents in the National Archives. Lesson learned #1: If you're going to be spending 24+ hours on a plane with nothing to do but read or peer at a tiny TV screen, you may want to spend the day leading up to the flight doing something other than sitting in an archive, peering at old documents. By a few hours into the first 12-hour flight leg (stop off in Hong Kong for refuelling) I felt like I had sand under my eyelids. I found some more good stuff though, and took loads of photos to assist with future deciphering - some of these docs are in pretty bad shape and will need some digital manipulation to make them readable.

To my severe annoyance (and momentary panic, until I came up with plan B), the battery in my camera died after the first hour, despite it saying it had almost a full charge when I checked it this morning. I should have known it was about to expire because I had been taking video of squirrels, of all pointless things (you Brits probably think this is like filming the rats getting into your rubbish, but to us they are cute little bushy-tailed comics that have the lure of the exotic - no squirrels in NZ). Lesson learned #2: No matter what the stupid camera display says, always give that sucker a full charge before setting off for a day in the archive. Luckily, I had my iPad with me, so plan B was to take my photos with that. They're not as crisp as the ones taken with my camera (the iPad doesn't autofocus the way my camera does and it's hard to hold it steady), but they're good enough to work with. Phew!

Ah, I hear the happy rattle of the drinks trolley approaching down the aisle. I'm completely turned around at this point, and have no idea what day/ time it is. We had breakfast at dawn just before landing in Hong Kong and now, after a two-hour layover, they're serving us dinner and drinks. Oh well, any time is a good time for a glass of bubbly...

Friday, July 13, 2012

Scottish drinks (not whiskey, but drinking with Scots!)

I'd like to open this post by stating, with oh-so-good intentions, that when the time is right and I am in the right scholarly atate of mind, I will blog more extensively on my experience at IMC Leeds, and on all the thought-provking/ stimulating/ aggravating papers I have listened to. But for now, I'd just like to extend a hearty 'thank you' to the merry band of Scots and fellow travellers whose drinks party I crashed on Wednesday night. This came of strategically hanging around at a reception hosted by the Medieval Academy of America, which was then sort of overrun by people from a neighbouring session on 'The Breaking of Britain', a brilliant digital humanities project being progressed by Dauvit Broun and various other bods from Glasgow, Edinburgh and farther afield. Check out the website at http://www.breakingofbritain.ac.uk/. It's initiatives like these that make it perfectly viable to do a PhD in medieval history fron New Zealand! Anyway, Dauvit and co. hosted a very convivial 'meeting of the minds' back at their accommodation, and I was delighted to be invited along. I think I have mentioned before that I find this ginormous conference (1000-odd people, I believe) somewhat overwhelming, so it's always a relief to me when I get to meet and talk with people on the much more human scale of standing around in someone's kitchen chatting over a beer! It was great to discover several fellow scholars from other corners of the world who have very similar research interests to me, and email addresses and promises to share ideas and work-in-progress have been duly exchanged. At one point in the evening, I found myself talking to someone who has discovered in the pipe rolls (quite by chance, as I understand it) some very interesting and, until now, unpublished, information on the execution of William Wallace (that's 'Braveheart' to all you non-medievalists) and the disposal of the four quarters of his body. There is an article in the works so I won't offer up any spoilers, but given my interest in treason I am naturally dying to know more!

Leeds is my first major conference, but I'm quickly getting the sense that it is often these serendipitous meetings and conversations that turn out to be the most valuable and interesting bits. So the advice of my university's graduation speaker this year (who is world-renowned in his field but whose name I can't remember at the moment) that 'if you get an invitation, accept it', has proved* to be quite sound. Oh, I also, quite unexpectedly, ran across the very gracious Magistra et Mater (who blogs at magistraetmater.blog.co.uk **) at this same drinks party. Last I saw of her, she was off to the dance!

* To Jackson if you're reading this - you will note that I have learned from your legalistic linguistic (lingualistic?) pedantry! (although perhaps in this somewhat-Scots context, you would have allowed me 'proven'...)
** Apologies for the crappy limks. I'm posting this from my iPad (while on a train, no less) and the blogger platform is not entirely iPad friendly. In fact, it's bloody frustrating!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

On York.

I spent last week in York, reputed to be the 'best preserved' medieval town in England (or something along those lines). It's hard for me to know what to say about my experiences thereof. On the one hand, I became fully immersed in my visit to Micklegate Bar, the ancient stone gateway on which the heads of a number of 'my' traitors were displayed to such devastating (though sometimes unintended) political effect in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Mickelgate museum, although tiny,  has a very good exhibition on the battle of Towton, aided in no small degree by a video that explores in detail what has been learned from a recent archeological excavation of a mass grave from the battlefield. (On this, suffice it to say that if 'chivalry' ever lived in the treatment of the vanquished, it seems to have well and truly died at Towton.) At the other end of the historical scale, I also visited a number of wonderful late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century pub survivals. My 'local' was the Mason's Arms, built in the late 1800s and incorporating into its quirky interior a stunningly carved wooden fireplace from the medieval gatehouse of York Castle (long since destroyed). I discovered some of the best architectural and decorative features (art deco tilework, glass etc.) in a couple of 1930s pubs that haven't suffered too much from 1960s and '70s 'improvements'.

But...( and as a great friend of mine always says, 'everything before the "but" is bullshit'), on the other hand, I can't deny that my first impression of the old town centre was an anticlimax. I had heard so much about York's medieval streets and 'walking the walls' that when I first entered the city, I was utterly shocked and disoriented to find that the first buildings I saw inside the walls were those of a 1960s brick housing estate! To be fair, I came in through the somewhat less tourist-friendly Goodramgate, and was primed with expectations that had been set, just two days earlier, by my experience of Saint Malo. Saint Malo was almost entirely reconstructed stone by stone after WWII, so it was able to be kept entirely 'in character'. By contrast, I imagine York is a more organic survival, so it bears many scars of its industrial past. I had high hopes of the Shambles, which is sold as an authentic medieval cobbled street complete with half-timbered buildings hanging over it at wonky angles. But here again, I'm afraid France won out. I saw much more extensive and better-preserved medieval quarters in places like Vannes and Rennes. I'm probably making myself very unpopular with the locals by saying this, but I'm afraid York was simply too over-built and over-touristed to charm me. Not to mention heinously expensive!

On the up side, though, I did have a couple of excellent meetings with professors from the University of York, which has a highly-regarded Centre for Medieval Studies and a very active scholarly press. Both the people I visited are senior scholars with big reputations in my field, so as a lowly PhD student from antipodean  obscurity, I was initially a bit intimidated. However, they both proved to be very positive and encouraging about my research topic and ideas, and they have given me lots of good advice, contacts etc. It is wonderful to have some validation from scholars of this caliber that I even *have* a research topic and questions worth pursuing. Of particular help, I think, is the offer to read and critique my work as I progress. This is an offer I'll definitely be taking up, starting with my attempt to turn my conference paper from IMC Leeds into a publishable article (my first! in academia, anyway). That will be a project for July-August. I already have a pretty rough draft, so I just need to make sure I dive straight back into it when I get home next week.

I'm delivering my paper at Leeds this afternoon. I'm much happier with it now, after some late editing has tightened up the argument and trimmed some loose threads (all those weird/funny little bits that you so want to include for their entertainment value, but which sadly suck up precious presentation minutes). I'll write more on the IMC in a future post. It's my first time here, and I'm a little overwhelmed by the scale of it, but I have met some very cool peeps, including some fellow medievalist bloggers.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A wee French Faux pas

On this trip, my French has definitely improved a lot. As I've been travelling solo for part of the time, I've been in full-on emersion mode with the only conversations I'm having being with French-speaking locals. The real test came when the NZ friend I was staying with had a minor fender-bender in a nearby village, thanks to France's insane give-way-to-the-right rule, which is basically an accident waiting to happen. The woman who hit us spoke no English, and we ended up going to her house nearby to complete the mountain of paperwork required to file a 'contrat amiable' (a detailed description of the incident that both parties agree to and sign, so the insurance claim can be expedited). I was able to translate both ways, and even gently, but firmly, persuade Madame that she was not entirely in the right.

However, as is so often the case, pride came before a fall. On Sunday, I spent the day in Saint Malo, a wonderfully restored/preserved late medieval - 18th century town that is still intact within its ring of massive stone walls (of which. more in a future post). Anyway, after having walked the walls (widdershins, of course) and climbed the chateau's tower for a view over the 16th century fort and wide, white sand beaches, I found myself in the shop of a local photographer.  The old boy himself was serving the customers, in between yarning to a couple of his mates. I ended up choosing a couple of photos, and launched into a discussion about packaging them so I could carry them home safely. And...that was when the fun began. First, I asked if he had some stiff cardboard to put around them. No, he says, but he has envelopes. I was thinking of those padded envelopes, so I asked if he meant envelopes with 'bulles', thinking of the French word for bubble wrap (papier bulle*). Well, Monsieur looked at me, looked meaningfully at his crotch, then he and his cronies fell about laughing and set to making a number of highly colourful jokes. Turns out I had asked for my photos to be shipped with balls, and not the kind that children and dogs play with! 

* A number of you may recall this vocab from 'The Great Bubble Wrap Incident of 2006', in which I, as the only French speaker, was sent on a perilous and ultimately fruitless mission to find enough bubble wrap to wrap and ship two bicycles from France to New Zealand. That is a LOT of bubble wrap...

Sunday, July 1, 2012

A day of culinary delights in Rennes

This morning, I took myself off to Rennes' fantastic food market, the second biggest weekly market in France. It takes place on Saturdays, as it has done for probably hundreds of years, at the Place des Lices, a network of cobbled squares surrounded by wonky pan-de-bois houses. It was truly a banquet for the senses, with just about every type of fresh vegetable, fruit, and miles of fresh flowers on the outside stalls (which ran over several blocks) and on the inner stalls, a wondrous array of fresh seafood, artisan breads, cheeses in myriad shapes and colours (and smells!), and meat and poultry of all persuasions. I had no idea there were so many different types of artichoke, or that the varieties of shallot, garlic, and onion available in France could cover an entire stall. I loved simply wandering around looking and smelling everything, but there was plenty of action with all the  old ladies muscling their way to the front of the queues, the vendors touting their wares in fine dramatic style (no wonder they call it a 'criee'). There were also plenty of adorable pooches for me greet and give a scratch behind the ears. (Rennes is a very dog-friendly city - even the plooty Michelin-rated restuarant next door to  my hotel welcomes them!) I was also quite amused by the site of the market's rickety little tea and coffee trolley, which appeared to be made out of an old pram with a parasol stuck in the top, doing the rounds of the stallholders.

Tastebuds whetted by the sights and sounds of a morning au marche (and an afternoon of shopping), in the evening I returned to dine at Le Cour des Lices, a restaurant right on the edge of the market square that boasts the best of the day's produce. I went in on the off chance and was lucky enough to get the last table, a little one right by the window that would have been a squeeze for more than one person. This place was a real delight. It didn't look like much on the outside, being in a very narrow and somewhat run-down looking old house, but inside it was modern and cooly luxurious, with pale wood-panelled walls and leather banquettes that were warmed by splashes of bright orange in the glasses, tableware, and linen. It is family-run (the wait-staff included a kid who looked about 14! but he did a very professional job) and obviously very popular with the locals, as every second party through the door was greeted with bisous and hugs from the charming maitre d'. My meal included foie gras layered with thin shavings of artichoke, roast pigeon with today's market legumes, and some kind of miraculous caramel buerre-sale mousse-y thing with baked apples. It was seriously eye-rollingly good, and a fitting sign-off to my last weekend in France.

Tomorrow, I am off to Saint Malo for the day on the train, so will report back on this most famous of Breton port towns. Here's hoping the weather is good!