Inspired by Levi’s call for Leeds and Kalamazoo papers on the blog a few weeks ago I thought I’d post one of my own for Leeds 2019…
I’m currently in the process of putting together a session (or two, if there’s a lot of interest) on Fertility and Infertility for next year’s International Medieval Congress at Leeds. I’ve been working on a long-term project on medieval attitudes to infertility for some time, and have written about it on the blog before. Infertility and childlessness crop up in a wide range of medieval texts and my sense, from discussing the subject informally with other medievalists over several years, is that quite a few people are now working on this and related topics from a variety of angles, building on what is now a large and sophisticated body of work from historians of medicine in particular. It would be nice to bring some of these scholars together and think about future directions for the field.
So, if you’re working on medieval fertility/infertility/reproduction related topics and would be interested in giving a paper, please get in touch with me by 15th September – email@example.com. Papers that approach the subject from any angle or source base are welcome, and could include people working on history of medicine, literature, demography, marriage, etc. And if you are more organized than me and have already made your Leeds plans but would be willing to chair a session, please also get in touch.
Catherine Rider, Associate Professor in Medieval History
In June and July 2018, Julia Hopkin, an MA student in experimental archaeology at Exeter, spent some time in Exeter Cathedral Library and Archives, funded by the university as part of the College of Humanities’ student internship scheme. Her job was to create a guide for students (at all levels) who might be interested in using the Library and Archives for research. Here she talks about her experience.
We’ll be putting copies of the guide on the module webpages for the History dissertations other modules but otherwise for a copy please contact Catherine Rider (firstname.lastname@example.org). For more information on the Cathedral Library and Archives see their website.
Most people are completely unaware that Exeter Cathedral has a library or an archives, and to those unfamiliar with it, it might sound like a rather intimidating place, full of dust and uninspiring tomes. These ideas couldn’t be further from my experiences there and in my recent role putting together a guide to the Library and Archives’ collections, my aim was to debunk some of these misconceptions and make the extensive collections as accessible and unintimidating as possible, especially to students who may not have much experience with research outside the university.
The earliest contributions to the library date to the mid eleventh century, with the first books brought to the Cathedral by Bishop Leofric in 1050, and the archival documents have been accumulating from around the same time. Records and acquisitions in both areas are ongoing, and the topics covered by the material are almost bewildering in their scope. This makes them a gold mine for researchers in all sorts of subject areas – from Anglo-Saxon literature to local genealogy, 17th century medicine and medieval land ownership – but something of a daunting prospect for an undergraduate and for anyone (i.e. me!) trying to put together a brief summary of the collections. The L&A staff were as helpful and knowledgeable as always, however, and with their help I managed to find a handful of broad themes that represented the main bulk of the collections while appealing to student interests.
From there it wasn’t difficult to find examples from both the Library and Archive collections to illustrate the wide range of topics represented in the collections. Famous volumes such as the Exeter Book (a unique collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry) and Exon Domesday (a rare survival of local data collected for the Domesday book) were obvious choices, but other types of sources such as photographs, newspaper cuttings, and even the books and Cathedral buildings in themselves, as records of historical craft techniques and heritage conservation, also provide a vast supply of research opportunities. Many sources are also sadly under-investigated and could benefit considerably from research being done on them – the wax seals of bishops, monarchs and dignitaries from around the country attached to early charters being a particularly promising example.
I also made an effort to emphasise that there really might be something for everyone at the Cathedral and to highlight sources that people might not expect. Students primarily interested in international history might assume there was little for them, but when the library includes a whole range of bibles translated into Native American languages, relics of 19th century Christian missionary efforts, who knows what other research topics the collections can cater to? To combat the misconception that all historical material is dry and boring, I also included my favourite group of Cathedral sources, the Chapter Act books. Kept continuously from 1385 to the present day, these record Cathedral decisions and payments, often in minute detail. The records vividly illustrate life in the past in all its wonderful mundanity, from the orders of new hymn sheets and repairs to almshouses to the misbehaviour of choristers and organists – such as the fines given to Richard Dickinson, bellringer, who ‘through his own fault’ managed to break some of the Cathedral windows during a funeral in 1619.
As I began my research it became clear that not only was there entirely too much material to create anything more than a very brief guide, but also that introducing students to the process of researching in the Library and Archives was just as important as giving an insight into the collections themselves. Having volunteered there in the past, I was familiar with the peaceful location behind the Cathedral, the wall displays in the entrance hall interpreting the history of the Library and Archives and some of its treasures, and the quiet, book-lined reading room, but introducing it for other students has helped me to appreciate it in a new light. I suddenly noticed features like the wheelchair ramp and the browsing mode of the online catalogue, as well as all the potential research opportunities that appeared when I started looking at them from the perspective of other researchers coming for the first time. Describing the process of making an enquiry and trying to emphasise how welcoming and knowledgeable the staff are has made me realize how lucky we are as Exeter students and residents to have such an amazing resource freely available to all of us and right on our doorstep.
I hope that the guide will make the Library and Archives’ material more widely used by Exeter students. There is a huge amount of material that could not only really enhance student’s work, but also would benefit from more attention and research work done with it. There is so much to be gained on both sides and both I and the Library and Archives’ staff would be delighted if even a handful of students turned their interest and expertise to these collections. This has been an extremely rewarding project for me, and I hope it continues to be of value to others for the years to come.
Julia Hopkin, MA Experimental Archaeology
A couple of weeks ago, on Saturday 17th March, a few staff in the Centre had a stall at the University’s Community Day to showcase some of the research we do relating to Exeter Cathedral. We had interest from people of all ages, asking questions about our projects, the pictures and maps we were showing, and about life in medieval Exeter more generally. Here is a short taster of the research by Sarah Hamilton, Oliver Creighton and me that was on display. We’re also in the early stages of planning a larger scale project which looks at the history, archaeology and manuscripts of Exeter Cathedral, and if you’d be interested in hearing more please feel free to get in touch with me.
Exeter Cathedral and its World: Sarah Hamilton focused on Cathedral MS 3518, a liturgical manuscript which lists, among other things, the saints commemorated by the Cathedral community each day. This includes the major Christian saints as one would expect but it also includes a number of more local saints from the South West of England, such as Nectan of Hartland and Petroc of Bodmin. Looking at these saints is one way to understand how the medieval clergy of Exeter Cathedral thought about their local history, and people had fun trying to spot the saints’ names in the images of the manuscript (surprisingly tricky: I never did find Rumon of Tavistock…).
Medieval Medicine in Exeter Manuscripts: I was looking at Cathedral MS 3519, a collection of medical treatises and recipes from the early fifteenth century, particularly some of the ones relating to pregnancy and fertility. Recipes like these are often striking for their weirdness (at least to modern eyes) – eating animals’ reproductive organs to stimulate men’s and women’s fertility, for example – but they are also a fascinating way to think about medieval people’s health concerns.
What Lies Beneath? A Geophysical Survey of Cathedral Green, Exeter: Oliver Creighton contributed some images from a geophysical survey of the Cathedral Green that he undertook last year with other staff and students from Archaeology. This was probably the most popular part of our stall, as people tried to interpret the black and white images and work out if there was a Roman road underneath the cloisters.
And if anyone wants to hear more about one of Exeter Cathedral’s most famous manuscripts, the Cathedral is holding an afternoon event celebrating the Exon Domesday on 17th April: see their website here for more details and to book.
Senior Lecturer in History
At the end of January I went to a workshop at the University of Cologne, run by a.r.t.e.s. Graduate School for the Humanities and expertly organized by Eva-Maria Cersovsky and Ursula Giessmann. It focused on ‘Gender(ed) Histories of Health, Healing and the Body, 1250-1550’.
I’ve long been interested in this area, which is important for my own research on medieval infertility, although thanks to other commitments in the last few years I am not as up to date on the scholarship as I would like to be. The workshop brought together a small group of scholars from the USA, Canada, the UK and Hungary as well as Germany, and it was good to hear about the work being done in these countries, as well as to gain feedback on some of my own work in progress on infertility, gender and old age in the Middle Ages.
The papers covered such diverse topics as hospitals, royal and aristocratic courts, saints’ cults, contraception, medicine, and pharmacology. One particular strand of discussion running through a number of the papers, which perhaps takes its cue from similar work on the early modern period, focused on how scholars can get at medieval women’s medical knowledge and the ways in which they provided healthcare. As the American historian Monica Green showed back in the 1980s, very few medieval women are formally designated as medical practitioners in our sources, using terms such as ‘medica’, surgeon, or even midwife. However, the majority of medieval healthcare happened in the home, and it seems likely that much of this work was done by women. By the end of the period we can see elite women who clearly had some expertise in medicine. Thus the keynote lecture, by Sharon Strocchia, described the medical knowledge of women at the sixteenth-century Medici court, and showed that these elite women were concerned with a variety of medical issues in their households and were clearly well informed in their dealings with court physicians. This kind of information is harder to come by for earlier centuries but papers on a range of source materials including miracle narratives, medical recipes, images of miraculous healings and hospital records suggested some possibilities.
I still need to think about how to work all of this into my own research but the conference got me thinking much harder about the role of gender in my sources: in particular, who knew what about reproductive disorders in the Middle Ages, and who offered what kinds of medical and healthcare advice relating to fertility?
Catherine Rider, Senior Lecturer in History
Interviewers: Tom Douglas and Max Blore (3rd year undergraduates)
On Wednesday 22 November 2017, Professor Conrad Leyser (University of Oxford) visited the Centre of Medieval Studies here at the University of Exeter. Prof. Leyser presented a paper entitled ‘The Cult of the Virgin Mary and the History of the Family in the Middle Ages’ and we were fortunate enough to meet him and interview him informally for half an hour beforehand. As final year history students studying The Medieval Reformation as our special subject with Professor Sarah Hamilton, we had discussed Leyser’s views on church reform and were excited to hear his take on some of the questions we had prepared. It was a great opportunity to hear from someone currently engaged in an area of scholarship relevant to our recent studies and also to discuss broader issues such as periodisation and approaches to sources which are key to understanding the Middle Ages as a whole. We decided in particular to focus on how Leyser’s approach to Medieval history has been influenced by his previous work on Late Antiquity, as well as his concept of reform and how it links to other developments such as changes in family structures and the institutionalisation of the Church. Prof. Hamilton had provided us with a context to work with from our seminars and was also present at the interview to contribute some of her thoughts to the conversation. The opportunity to discuss what we had learned with Prof. Leyser in person was both illuminating and insightful, and will hopefully stand us in good stead for our upcoming coursework essays!
Question: Your previous research is on Late Antiquity. How did you become interested in the Medieval period?
Conrad Leyser: There was a lot about the Medieval period as a whole at home. Both my parents were medievalists, so my interest in the period seemed bizarrely natural, and this continued into my undergraduate degree, when I was most interested in the High Middle Ages — the eleventh and twelfth centuries. But then in my third year I did a paper about St Augustine and this converted me to Late Antiquity. It helped me twig that everything that is there in the eleventh and twelfth centuries came from somewhere. The cult of the saints, monasticism, clerical hierarchy — all of these are formed in that late Roman period. So when it came to doing a doctorate, I felt I needed to go back there, and then eventually go forward again…about 30 years later that started to happen!
Q: How do you think that your research on Late Antiquity has informed your approach to writing medieval history?
CL: Well…entirely! Studying Late Antiquity gave me some sense of the long span and in essence provided me with the basic groundwork that you need and use all the time in studying the later period. Historiographically there’s still a kind of gap, a sense of them and us, even between Late Romanists and Early Medievalists studying exactly the same period. The general feeling is that this issue of periodisation is just kind of resolved, and studying Late Antiquity gives you a sense that you might start to do something about it.
Q: What in your view marks one period from the next? What marks Late Antiquity out from the Medieval period?
CL: Well I would start from the premise that you have to flatten it out. You can’t presume that there is any difference between, for example, the third century and the sixth, or the sixth and the ninth. The presumption right now is that wherever you want to locate it, there is a kind of ‘fall’ into the medieval period (and this is a fall because “medieval” is still a bad brand). People are still trying to locate this drop, and, distressingly, colleagues and ex-colleagues of mine have sought to reinvent a kind of medieval turn, which is really quite destructive. What’s good about Late Antiquity is that it has pushed a kind of continuity in terms of thinking which extends up to the late eighth and ninth, and even into the tenth and eleventh centuries. There’s a culture war that’s been going on since the Renaissance, when the idea of the Middle Ages was invented as a kind of shameless self-promotional move, and now our challenge is whether we can come up with something different in terms of periodisation. Late Antiquity is a start but in economic terms it’s still not fully established. There are very few jobs in Late Antiquity — these jobs are either ancient or medieval — but it’s our best hope yet of offering a different narrative. So, I’m not going to answer the question of ‘when do the Middle Ages start’ because that’s basically an evil, satanic question!
Q: One big word for the Middle Ages is reform, the subject of much of your research. What would be your definition of reform?
CL: ‘Reform’ is a claim — it has no big content. It’s the opposite of something like heresy which is a kind of accusation; like orthodoxy, reform is a claim that people will have to accede to. Who’s going to want to stand in the way of reform?! Some people will make a fuss, but in a sense you’re trying to isolate these people, smoke them out and neutralise them by saying, ‘right, we’re going to have reform’. You see this very much happening in a modern university context — there are constant reforms and they are a way fundamentally to organise people. Reform is not necessarily all top down; in the university context it’s not all managerial. Sometimes you get people on the ground saying we want this to happen, and there’s an attempt to persuade up and say to the hierarchy, ‘look, you guys are standing in the way of reform’. In essence, ‘reform’ is an accusation that’s meant to unsettle people for whatever purpose. It will have a particular context at any given point but that’s what reform does.
Q: You’ve previously categorised the tenth century as ‘pre-reform’. When does reform in the Middle Ages start for you? What are the most important factors and who do you see as most important in it?
CL: I have a lot invested in the tenth century. But for me, there’s a bigger fish to fry than ‘when does reform start’ which is ‘when does the Church start to exist as an autonomous institution?’ Right now I’m interested in testing the hypothesis that the tenth century is when this starts to happen. Up until the tenth century, the Church is a network of households. There are points, notably in the fourth century and then again in the eighth and ninth, when it has a massive steroid injection of imperial patronage to make it look a lot bigger than a network of households, but then in both cases that patronage drops away. But when the Carolingian empire falls in the Latin West, churchmen, especially bishops, and in particular in north Italy start to think, ‘this empire falling apart thing happened before when the Roman empire fell apart, and it’s happening again now. Let’s look what happened back then. Oh! The Church kept going while the empire fell apart…we can do this!’ In the fifth and sixth centuries when the Church kept going it’s not really self-conscious. Someone like Gregory the Great had no interest in constructing a church; he thinks the world is going to end and is just concentrating on getting to tomorrow before the Last Judgement. But in the tenth century they are building a new world. Churchmen are thinking ‘we can do this and we don’t need imperial patronage, we’re a cosmopolitan network of highly educated men, on we go.’
This is constitutive of the Church’s free-standing thing in the Latin West and reform is a consequence of that. Whereas the eleventh century is stereotypically seen as a move away from, and reaction to, the so-called corruption of the tenth century’, it is instead a product of that tenth century formative moment and it’s to do, crudely speaking, with globalisation. If your priest or bishop is somebody you know, then they can be married, they can do all sorts of things with yours and their property, but it’s fine because you know them and trust them. But if you don’t know them and they’re a career cleric who is part of this mobile, cosmopolitan elite swanning in, then it becomes critical that they don’t have any dependence and that you scrutinise their financial transactions very carefully, and then you can trust them. So in other words I’d then place reform roughly in the second half of the tenth century as a kind of criteria by which to assess the productivity of the clergy who are no longer operating in a face-to-face society. Certainly, reform is not the consequence of tenth-century corruption; that’s the function entirely of eleventh-century propaganda.
Q: Your lecture today is about the history of the family in Medieval Europe. How close does our modern perception of family come to how it was understood in Medieval Europe and how does the concept of the family change from Late Antiquity to the Medieval period?
CL: I think that the Medieval period, and specifically the tenth and eleventh centuries, is formative of the modern notion of the family. I think that the key transition that I will attempt to set out is from the family as a legal unit which it is in a Roman context to the family as defined by blood ties, which is how we think of family today. We presume the family is a natural collection of people related by blood, but that’s a historically specific notion. I’m not a family historian and I’ve come to this by working on the clerical hierarchy, but a key index in this shift is the development of a group of men who reproduce without having sex i.e. priests. And so you get a nature versus culture split-out. There are two groups of men, some of whose property transmits through their generation biologically of heirs and some of whose property transmits institutionally. And the Virgin Mary is the kind of god-mother of this shift.
Q: A lot of your writing goes into great depth about rhetoric and interpretation of sources. What is it that you look for when you first approach a source and has your approach to sources changed across your career?
CL: I did my research in the second half of the eighties when the linguistic turn was happening in the UK in the humanities. Although I lived it more vicariously than I actually read it, I had friends who were skimming through Derrida and the rest of it, so that was, I guess, formative. I’m not at that level, but someone like Foucault is a key presence and there is an intuition behind this thinking that’s come to seem more and more important — that people writing in the past are different and we cannot understand them. Especially when you work on the history of religion, it is critical that you not presume that a Christian now has anything to do with a Christian then. There is also a wider premise that the self is not the same. Without saying that people in the Middle Ages didn’t have interiority, I would say that when we pull of all these ideas together what we have is a sense that the words people in the Middle Ages said were always a public performance and they are not telling us how they felt. Any attempt to say that you really knew what it was like to be, say, Augustine, is already a methodological fail. Whereas in the ‘80s there was a sense of the need to ‘forget all this crusty old scholarship’, I’m now as interested in manuscripts than deconstructionism, which are key to understanding how culture and memory really work. Now I use a bit of culture theory and a bit of manuscripts whilst retaining the sense that all of the record we have is a highly mannered performance. You have to start with the presumption that it’s a show and in decoding them have to try to catch who the audience are, what the effects of that performance might have been. Especially in the context of religion, finding a way to render that that doesn’t trigger people to say that’s reductive is certainly something to strive for.
Gregory the Great or Gregory VII?
Well I really love Augustine but Gregory the Great. Gregory VII was a maniac!
Peter Damian or Liudprand of Cremona?
Well that’s a tough one. A few years ago I would have said Damian but now Liudprand. He tells better stories. He’s also Augustinian.
Cluniac or Cistercian?
Cluniac. Cistercians are nasty, Starbucks-empire builders!
As many of you will know by now, our former colleague Simon Barton died suddenly just before Christmas. Simon had been at Exeter for many years, first in Modern Languages and then in History, before leaving in December 2016 to take up a chair at the University of Central Florida. Simon will probably need no introduction to many of you: if you didn’t know him in person, you have probably come across some of his work on medieval Spain. He was – among many other things – always a great supporter of the Centre for Medieval Studies, and was also one of the founders of our MA Medieval Studies. For more on his work at Exeter see the lovely tribute that Alun Williams wrote for the blog just over a year ago, when Simon left us for Florida.
Since news of Simon’s death began to circulate, there have been many tributes posted online, especially on Twitter, from his friends, colleagues and students, in the UK and overseas. A colleague at UCF has also set up an online tribute wall here. Instead of repeating these comments this blog post seeks to record the memories we have in Exeter of Simon as a friend, colleague, teacher and PhD supervisor. When I put out a call to the Exeter medievalists for their thoughts, the response was – predictably – huge. I have tried to include as many contributions as possible but in order to keep the size of this blog post manageable I have edited some of them down.
‘I sought out Simon as a PhD supervisor because of his expertise in Spanish medieval history but I had no idea I would be so lucky to find someone so kind, enthusiastic and encouraging who has supported me all the way – and I had a long way to come! He had a wonderfully light touch way of delivering what you realised later was searing criticism, e.g. “you’ll look back on this and want to change it – a lot”: an incredible skill in mentoring that not only made you want to do better, but affirmed to you that you could do it. I am already missing him terribly as I complete my thesis, he always said how much he was looking forward to “the next instalment” and it is sad that he won’t see the finished article, though of course I will dedicate it to him. He finished his last e-mail to me, just a couple of days before he died, with the words “YOU WILL PREVAIL” and I have taken these to heart as I continue without him.’ Teresa Tinsley
‘Many of those who have written about Simon have drawn attention to his humanity, personal kindness, his civilising influence, courtesy and his scholastic achievements and generosity. These were qualities he had in abundance but to these I would add integrity and gentle persuasiveness. It was he who became my supervisor and mentor back in 2006/7 and who was to be a much valued colleague, friend and inspiration. As well as having similar academic interests (many of which I owe to him), we both served on the board of The Society of the Medieval Mediterranean. Simon became its president in 2013. He once told me that he did not think he made his most important contribution when at the helm but preferred to work away from the limelight. He considerably underestimated himself. As president of the society he was dynamic, innovative and inclusive: he was a popular and auspicious choice who succeeded in widening the society’s appeal and encouraging young and new academics by instituting a prize acknowledging the work of the society’s founder, Dionisius Agius, and awarded biennially to the best first work by an aspiring academic in the field of medieval Mediterranean studies.’ Alun Williams
‘For me, when I started my MA in 2013 Simon was most helpful and generous with his time. Having been at university in the 1970s, with no background in Humanities and having spent my professional life in commerce, I was a raw recruit and needed some guidance. I well remember my first effort at an Humanities essay which he marked; it had ugly paragraphing and dire referencing. Simon patiently helped me through it and I was most grateful thereafter.’ Conrad Donaldson
‘I am far away here in Gaza, Palestine but I felt sad and depressed because of the big loss. I had the privilege to meet Prof Simon in Exeter between 2006 till 2009 where I gave him and a group of students some classes in Arabic and the Holy Quran. He was an example of kindness, tolerance and real friendship. I could never forget his smiley face. Please convey my heartfelt greetings to his beloved ones whom I used to see walking with him in Exeter High Street. Please tell them that they have lovers and friends in Palestine.’ Mahmoud nayef Baroud
‘Simon has been my supervisor for five years now and during that time he has been so kind, supportive, and encouraging to me. He was always so generous with his time and resources and so loyal and dedicated to his students. Even when he moved to Florida last year there was absolutely no doubt in his mind that he was going to see all his current students in Exeter through to the end of their PhDs. He was also so understanding and empathetic as a supervisor. No question was ever too silly and no worry was ever unimportant to him. He had such unwavering faith in other people that he was always the one to believe in me and my work, even when I didn’t believe in myself. Despite being a hugely successful academic, he always had time to support those further down the career ladder. I remember one time when he asked me for some ideas and references for a lecture he was giving to undergraduates on the same area as my thesis. The idea that a leading professor would ask for help from a lowly PhD student shows just how much respect he afforded his fellow academics whatever stage of their career they were at. So whilst his academic achievements and publications speak for themselves, it is his kindness and compassion as a person that I will always remember him for.’ Rowena Cockett
‘Simon was an excellent scholar and had a lovely personality – sociable, warm, courteous – a verray parfit gentil knyght as Chaucer would say.’ Nicholas Orme
‘He seemed especially adept at engaging with the research and activities of others, regardless of whether it was related to his own work, which was a great thing for those of us just starting out!’ Zoe Cunningham
‘I’ll always cherish his advice and patience.’ Mike Whelan
‘Simon was one of the most impressive scholars that I have met. He was also warm, self-effacing and wonderfully good humoured. He seemed always to carry with him a feeling compounded of calm, authority and gentleness.’ Elliot Kendall
‘What a mean, muddy thunder to kill the noblest tree.’ Istvàn Kristo-Nagy
‘We bonded over our shared appreciation of the significance of Ladybird history books to our formation as historians (in particular that for Richard the Lionheart). Indeed, at his leaving do, he told me that they were some of the books he couldn’t bear to part with when he was preparing to move to Florida. Shortly after he joined History, I had a tap on my office door one dark autumnal evening, and Simon appeared, looking shaken and saying “I’ve just discovered I’ve got a three-year Leverhulme fellowship!” His modesty, and awe were typical. The Fellowship led to the research which became Conquerors, Brides and Concubines: Interfaith Relations and Social Power in Medieval Iberia (2015).’ Sarah Hamilton
‘Simon was my supervisor, and I feel extremely lucky to have worked with him for the last three years. He was a giant among medieval Hispanicists, and his scholarship has had a huge impact on our field. He was also an incredibly kind, humble, generous, and wise supervisor who cared deeply about his students and who inspired many of us to follow him into the archives of medieval Spain. He will be sorely missed.’ Teresa Witcombe
And finally, Oliver Creighton offers a lighter anecdote: ‘I remember spending a couple of fantastic hours walking the Floridian beaches near Sarasota with Simon while on a trip to the University of South Florida, and us both forgetting to put on any suncream and getting sunburned while talking through the future of medieval studies at Exeter.’
Not everyone was able to comment here, but I think these tributes speak for many of us in the Centre, even those who haven’t commented separately. Simon will be sorely missed!
Catherine Rider, Director, Centre for Medieval Studies
In my PhD research, I am looking at the local pasts that were communicated through liturgy in the tenth century in a metropolitan city on the Moselle river: Trier. My main corpus of sources consists of prayers, sermons, hymns and hagiographical texts, all of which can be found in medieval manuscripts from this area. In order to study these manuscripts, I needed to visit Trier itself, as they were not digitized yet. Visiting the epicentre of my research, however, proved more fruitful than I had imagined.
Architecturally, the city of Trier is a strange mix of every period from the last two millennia. The Porta Nigra and a basilica from the time of Constantine the Great represent the Roman past, the cathedral and market square
represent the High Middle Ages, and numerous churches and monasteries in and around the city were rebuilt in the course of history. The city breathes its own past on every corner. It was very useful to be inside my ‘object of study’ for many reasons, not least for its insights into the local religious communities of tenth-century Trier.
Firstly, I could physically measure the distance between the religious centres of the city. Even though many churches and monasteries have changed considerably over the last thousand years, the location of these centres did not. Being able to walk from the (still-in-use) monastic centre of St. Eucharius to the cathedral in half an hour, and then going another ten minutes to the royal abbey of St. Maximin and the canonical centre of St. Paulin, I got a clear grasp of how close these centres were to each other. This would have made interaction between the different centres very likely.
Another advantage of being at the ‘crime scene’ of my research is the availability of material culture. Studying liturgical sources, I was delighted to go into the Dom Schatzkammer, where golden reliquaries just sat there, waiting to be studied. Another obligatory visit was, of course, to the Stadtbibliothek, a modern building where the medieval manuscripts are kept. After having had a look at the beautifully illuminated Ottonian manuscripts – a local guide was very keen on explaining their greatness – I got to see my original incentive for visiting Trier.
Not only the artefacts and manuscripts, but also the lay-out of churches and monasteries were enlightening. Most of the time that is… Most bizarre was my visit to the royal abbey of St. Maximin. This monastery had been enormous and thriving in the tenth century. Now, however, most of the monastic buildings are gone, and the church itself – rebuilt in the seventeenth century – functions as a gym for the local secondary school. Gym mattresses were protecting the students from painfully bumping into the massive columns of the nave, and a basketball net had replaced a statue of Christ in front of the apse.
Although in some cases, time had completely ruined the medieval ambiance, other places seem to have survived the test of time brilliantly. A large component of my research comprises the study of local patron saints, as hagiographical texts and prayers for these saints can tell us about the importance of that local saint and the role he or she played in local society. Visiting the burial places – the centres of local cults – was an important element of my stay in Trier. Entering the crypt of St. Matthias’s Abbey, and sitting down in front of the late antique sarcophagi of the first archbishop of Trier, Eucharius, and his successor, Valerius, I could not help feeling connected with all those monks and pilgrims who have been visiting this crypt to pray to the local patron for the past sixteen centuries. The feast of St. Eucharius is still celebrated by the local Benedictine community every December: continuity in its highest form.
Studying medieval history is not only studying primary sources and reading literature. Most importantly, it is an attempt at imagining a past society. This society is best understood, I believe, if you have a chance to be part of it. When I returned from my visit to Trier, I did not only bring home notes on the studied manuscripts and reliquaries, but also about the physical distance between different centres, and the ambiance of local cult sites. And, in the spirit of traveling medieval monks, I brought back the thought that – if nothing else – I will have saint Eucharius of Trier at my side on the rest of my intellectual journey.
Lenneke van Raajj, PhD Student on the HERA-funded After Empire project
Appropriately – given that it was Halloween – I spent part of reading week in the archives researching the history of magic. Dr Alex Mallett (formerly of Exeter, now based in Leiden) and I were doing some of the final research for an AHRC-funded project led by Professor Dionisius Agius, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies on ‘Magic in Malta, 1605: Sellem bin al-Sheikh Mansur and the Roman Inquisition’ (see here for more details). I’ve written about this project on the blog before, when we were at a much earlier stage. To recap, it studies the case of Sellem, a Muslim slave who was accused of offering a variety of magical services to Christians. The case gives us a fascinating insight into many magical beliefs, Christian-Muslim relations, and many other aspects of life in early modern Malta and, with the help of a team of other British, Maltese and French scholars, we’ll be exploring these in the book we’re producing as the main outcome of the project.
Alex and I were researching in the Cathedral Archive in Mdina, which holds the inquisition records and, once again, gave us a friendly welcome.
Now we’re in the finishing stages of the project the kind of research we were undertaking was rather different from what I described back in 2014 when the project team first visited Malta together. Then we were searching for other references to Sellem in the archives, as well as exploring some of the other magic cases in the records for comparative material and planning the project’s Malta-based public engagement activities. This time, it was more a case of satisfying ourselves that we hadn’t missed anything crucial: making sure we really had checked all the files for the early years of the seventeenth century; tracking down some last supporting documents; finalising the last tricky bits of translation from Latin and Italian; and checking references.
It was also a good chance to catch up with some of the Maltese scholars who had contributed their expertise to the project. Just in case you might be tempted to think it was all work, there were also project meetings involving excellent Maltese cakes.
The visit to the archive – my first in 2 ½ years – also reminded me how much interesting material it contains for a scholar who, like me, is interested in magic and particularly in popular magical beliefs and how the Church tried to categorize and discourage them. Even though the seventeenth century is rather later than my usual area of expertise, I will definitely try to go back!
Catherine Rider, Senior Lecturer in History
Thinking about doing a doctorate in Medieval Studies, but unsure how to turn that initial idea into a formal funding proposal? This post offers some guidance on the process – as well as some information about what the Centre for Medieval Studies at Exeter has to offer for PhD study.
From idea to application
So you’re interested in doing a PhD… What should you do next?
- The first step is to identify a potential project. This means reading up on the past and current scholarship in the field, locating your main primary source materials, and finding a new angle, question or approach to the topic.
- Once you’ve done this, then you should look for an appropriate supervisor for your project. The research interests of your potential supervisor should overlap significantly with those of your project: sharing geographical, chronological and/or thematic foci is essential. You have probably already read some of their work when researching your topic. Your potential supervisor should also have some familiarity with the main genre of primary sources you’re going to use. At this stage, you should try to identify an initial list of three or four possible supervisors. In order to check what they are working on at the moment and what topics they are happy to supervise, check their university webpage, which generally lists research interests, publications, and areas of supervision they can offer.
- Next contact a potential supervisor via e-mail. Include a brief summary of your project either in the e-mail itself or as an attachment, and ask whether they would be interested in supervising research on this topic. You should also give some indication of your marks for both undergraduate and postgraduate work – they will want to know that you are capable of pursuing study at this level.
- You may get a variety of responses to your e-mail. Some scholars may feel unsuited to the project or be unable to supervise another student at this time. Others may want you to develop the project further and then get back in touch. Others may be interested in your project and want to discuss it with you. They will also probably request a writing sample to get a better idea of your abilities.
- At this point, apply to the university (or universities – you can apply to more than one and it is often sensible to do so to maximise your chances of funding) through whatever their application process is. Generally it’s an online form. Check dates for funding deadlines (or ask the university’s postgraduate office if they’re not on the website). Funding deadlines are often much earlier than application deadlines.
- If your potential supervisor is happy to supervise your project, you should now work with them to draft an application for funding. Competition for doctoral funding is intense and your potential supervisor’s input will be crucial in putting forward a strong application. You should try to meet with them in person or virtually to discuss your project, partly, to get to know each other a bit better – after all, you’re intending to work closely with this person for the next 3-4 years!
- Finally, listen to the advice of your potential supervisor and respond to their criticisms on any draft proposal – it will make your application better and will create a positive impression. Your potential supervisor will also have knowledge about the institution that is useful. Your application will need to show that you either have the skills required to use your primary sources or that you will be able to acquire them early on in your project – your potential supervisor will be able to advise you on training what is available at the chosen university. They will also be able to help identify colleagues who share interests with your topic or approach – this will strengthen your case for the fit between your project and that particular research centre.
Funding deadlines tend to be early in the new year so the time to start the process is now!
What about Exeter?
Want to work with leading experts in the field and enjoy the delights of leafy Devon? Then why not look at what Exeter has to offer! The Centre for Medieval Studies hosts a large, interdisciplinary community of scholars with particular strengths in medieval history, archaeology and Old French – and we’re looking for new PhD students to join us!
Several, highly competitive, funding options are available.
- The AHRC SWW DTP Studentship competition opens on 27 November 2017 and the final deadline is 11 January 2018. There will be no Open Day in Cardiff this year, but students can sign up for virtual information sessions until 1 November.
- Funding is also be available through Exeter’s internal schemes. The Doctoral College is holding an Open Day from 12.45-18.30 on 15 November for prospective MA and PhD students with talks on Exeter’s research facilities and funding options. It is also a good opportunity to meet your potential supervisor and other medieval staff in person. More details about the Open Day and how to sign up for it can be found here.
- Finally, ESRC SW DTP Studentships (for Economic & Social History applications) are also an option – more information on this competition will be available soon.
Helen Birkett (Lecturer in History) and Catherine Rider (Director, Centre for Medieval Studies)
Last July Cheryl Cooper, who had just completed a History degree at Exeter, did a student internship (funded by the College of Humanities and the Widening Participation scheme) looking at resources for medieval research in the Devon and Exeter Institution. She sums up her findings here. Now that we’re gearing up for the new academic year it might particularly interest returning undergraduates and MA students who are thinking about possible dissertation topics. For Exeter students and staff, Cheryl’s full report will shortly be put on the undergraduate and MA history dissertation ELE sites.
The DEI is one of Exeter’s hidden gems. A perfect paradise of calm and tranquillity for writers, historians and anyone looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. Tucked away in the historic centre of Exeter, the DEI, from the outside, looks like many of the quaint buildings in Exeter Cathedral quarter, boasting beautiful cathedral views but you would be remiss to believe that this is where the magnificence of the DEI ends. The real treasures of the DEI are located just behind the historic front doors. Founded in 1813 for ‘promoting the general diffusion of Science, Literature and the Arts, and for illustrating the natural and Civil History of the county of Devon and the History of the City of Exeter’, the DEI holds over thirty-thousand volumes and thousands of maps, prints and pamphlets and continues to be a ‘living library’ in which new acquisitions continue to be sourced. Students of Exeter University are automatically eligible for membership of the DEI for the duration of their degree, but unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your point of view) the DEI is a place that stays undiscovered for many students at Exeter. This may be partly due to the fact that many students, myself included, were/are unaware they are members of this hidden gem. As well as boasting a rather grand and peaceful reading room there are a number of study desks located in the library itself. The DEI makes a welcome change to the hustle and bustle of the campus library, and whether you choose to study in the library itself or in the reading room under the shadow of the cathedral, you will not be disappointed spending a few hours in this beautiful building – in fact as historians, the environment may even add some extra flair to your historical writing, as it certainly transported me back a few decades!
Medieval Resources at the DEI
Last July I was delighted to accept an internship with Exeter University cataloguing the medieval material held at the DEI – rifling through old books in a beautiful historic building did not seem like a bad way to spend a few weeks of my summer. The aim of the role was to try and get a clearer idea of what medieval materials the DEI possessed and to organize and present my findings in a way that would be useful for medievalists. Professor Henry French and Dr Catherine Rider had informed me at interview stage that to date, there was no comprehensive list of medieval materials held at the DEI so there was no way of knowing how long this task would take. It was a case of digging through the materials and finding a way of making it accessible to future researchers. I found this an exciting prospect, if not a little daunting. It was a project which I could fully co-ordinate and organise myself and one in which no one was sure what I might find hidden in the depths of the DEI. Of course as an historian the dream of finding a rare, undiscovered manuscript, hiding, untouched on a dusty shelf was never far away. Alas, this did not happen, but I did discover that the DEI holds a wealth of resources for medievalists, in particular for those wanting to research the history of the local area and contemporary views on medieval life.
The DEI (for those yet to visit) consists of two large rooms downstairs (The Inner Library and The Outer Library) and the Gallery situated upstairs. With over thirty-thousand volumes held within these rooms it was almost impossible to know where to begin. However, for this I must thank Paul and Derek from the DEI library team, who sat with me and explained how the library catalogue worked, where the most likely places to find medieval resources were and certain books of interest. Without their help I think I may have been unintentionally trapped in the DEI forever examining each book in turn! With their advice, as well as help and advice from Dr Catherine Rider, I identified the following categories as areas of interest: the Rolls Series, Local History, Wider Local History, Royal History and General History. These five areas are the ones which are covered in the most depth in my catalogue. The aim is to help medievalists who are researching the local area and students who are embarking on a research project and who want to use this local collection of sources.
Working through the areas identified produced a surprisingly large amount of medieval material; so much so, that it was impossible within this internship to list every individual resource. The catalogue produced is intended to give the researcher an idea of what type of material is held in each category and list examples from each. I have also included material that I found to be the most interesting, for example The Alchemical Testament of John Gybbys, translated from a 1423 ms held at the Bodleian Library and a wardrobe account from Edward I. I have tried to select a wide range of material to showcase just how useful the DEI library can be to medievalists.
This project has highlighted the medieval resources held at the DEI and has hopefully catalogued them in way which proves useful for medievalists. I would highly recommend the DEI as a place to study for Exeter students and hopefully this guide will show that it holds potential for medieval researchers. There are still areas yet to be covered in the hunt for medieval material, so who knows that medieval manuscript or unpublished source may be hiding in the DEI waiting for you to find it! Happy researching!
Cheryl Cooper, BA History Graduate and MA Student, University of Exeter