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.'