Jack Pettitt, an Exeter graduate and secondary school history teacher, has spent his summer filming a series of online videos to help his students learn about the Normans. To make this series look as professional as possible, Jack not only filmed on location at historical sites, but recorded interviews with several academics, including myself and others from the CMS. And after Jack had finished talking to me about the Norman Church, I took the opportunity to ask him a few questions about medieval history and the current secondary school curriculum…
What aspects of medieval history do you teach?
‘In my school, we go from the decline of the Roman Empire to the migration of tribes into Britain, so the Jutes, the Saxons, and the Angles. And then we look at Anglo-Saxon England itself. We cover very basic topics, such as what it was like to live in Anglo-Saxon England, and look at VIPs like Alfred the Great, Offa, etc. Then we do the Norman Conquest in quite a lot of depth. We go from the invasion itself – we cover all three battles in 1066 – all the way through to how William secured control. Then we move on to medieval England. First we take a bottom-up approach and look at things like town life, village life, and the Black Death. Next we do more top-down history and look at medieval kingship. We focus on King John, Magna Carta, and the Peasants’ Revolt.’
How do students respond to medieval history in comparison to modern history?
‘In most lessons I hear “when are we doing WWI?” or “when are we doing WWII?” The students have this perception that modern world wars are the most important and the most engaging and fun. And I think that partly comes from what they do in primary school. But, also, I suppose because it wasn’t that long ago. I teach in a boys’ school and a lot of boys have grown up with stories from their grandparents about WWII and Nazi Germany so it’s more relatable. It’s close. It’s the same with the Cold War when I teach it to my GCSE students. They’ve got an emotional or cultural connection to some of the stuff, like the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan – and you can see it. Whereas when you teach about the Anglo-Saxons or Normans, it’s so far away it’s another world.’
So how do you make medieval history engaging?
‘My ethos is that I love the subject and that’s going to come through, hopefully, in my teaching. But sometimes for the average person, you need to make a link. Teaching history is about finding the relevance for your students. For example, showing how the Magna Carta is relevant today, how it was a step towards a more democratic society.
I also try to bring topics to life and I think that’s very, very important. You’re not meant to have a bias when teaching, but some of the stuff I find really dry, like the farming calendar – I couldn’t think of anything drier! In contrast, my Black Death scheme of work runs over four lessons: I turn the whole classroom into a medieval apothecary and I wear a lab coat and look at symptoms and cures.
I also teach every lesson to an inquiry question, which is grounded in historical rigour. For example, my King John lesson asks if Disney’s representation of King John is fair. So we look at how Disney portrayed him in Robin Hood and then we look at what historians, such as Marc Morris and Stephen Church, have said. I try to ground my lessons with the work of historians. And it makes it fun, doesn’t it?
Finally, why are you doing the video series?
‘This is a crazy idea I had in January. I thought wouldn’t it be cool if I could teach a lesson and the kids could see me, their teacher, doing history in the field? How inspiring would that be! They would love it! And it makes use of current digital technology. Plus, not only will it show the kids that their teacher is passionate about the topic, but it will be a great teaching aid for others.’
May is an exciting month for Exeter’s Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. As a part of Dr Levi Roach’s AHRC funded grant ‘Forging Memory: Falsified Documents and Institutional History in Europe, c.970-1020’, a series of events will be held across the University, and the Cathedral and its Library & Archives exploring Exeter’s genuine and fake medieval documents.
In the 1060s, shortly before the Norman Conquest, the canons at Exeter Cathedral produced a series of fake royal charters. These forgeries claimed that King Æthelstan of England (924-39) had granted the church multiple pieces of land along the Exe valley. These fakes tell us little about the reign of Æthelstan, but they do provide a fascinating snapshot into the concerns of the eleventh-century cathedral community and its leader, Bishop Leofric.
Medieval charters were created to record a transaction between two parties, such as a king and a church. As such, they capture the interests of both the donor and the recipient. In contrast, a fraudulent charter only represents the concerns of those who later forged it. Medieval forgeries can therefore provide us with a privileged view into the thoughts and concerns of the clerics who produced them. In the case of Exeter Cathedral, the forgeries in the name of Æthelstan were created to try and enhance the church’s properties: none of the lands ‘Æthelstan’ supposedly granted in the charters were held by the Cathedral in the eleventh-century. Through these forgeries, the canons tried to provide proof of their ancient right to things which did not belong to them.
Forgeries can tell us about more than just a community’s nefarious ambitions, however. The ways they were composed reveal how medieval people thought about their past. Often, when completing fake documents, forgers would try and copy the style or handwriting of other ancient documents; they were aware that fakes had to look the part. In turn, the authorities invoked in forgeries reveal what parts of the past were most important to a community. At eleventh-century Exeter, it seems that King Æthelstan was a foundational figure.
Including the Æthelstan forgeries, Exeter Cathedral’s Library & Archives hold sixteen pre-Conquest charters – an exceptionally large number for a regional archive.
Between 13-31 May 2019 some of these charters, both forged and genuine, will be displayed in an exhibition held at Exeter Cathedral’s Library & Archives, titled Forging the Past in Medieval Exeter. The exhibition explores how and why the canons at the eleventh-century cathedral produced forgeries, placing their production in the context of changes within the bishopric and Viking invasions. Also displayed throughout the exhibition is the so-called ‘Golden Charter’ – a charter issued by King Æthelred ‘the Unready’ in 994 to the Bishop of Cornwall, in which the see’s privileges are defined and secured. While the contents of this charter are significant in themselves, the charter’s epithet comes from the fact that all its capital letters are covered in gold leaf. The charter is the oldest surviving golden single sheet charter from Anglo-Saxon England. This unique status led to the ‘Golden Charter’ being loaned to the British Library for the internationally acclaimed exhibition Anglo Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, held from October 2018 to February 2019.
Running alongside the exhibition are a series of public tours on Saturday 25, Monday 27 and Tuesday 28 May. These tours provide a unique opportunity to see some of the Archive’s Anglo-Saxon charters up close. They will explore the motivations of specific Exeter forgeries, as well as the dynamic life of these documents in the 1,000 years after they were written. These tours are free, but numbers are limited so booking is essential – please sign up for tickets here.
The month of forgery events is rounded off by Levi Roach’s public talk, ‘Fake founders and counterfeit claims: the forged documents of medieval Exeter’, held in the Cathedral Chapter House at 19.00 on Thursday 30 May. In this talk, as well as discussing the forgeries produced at Exeter during Bishop Leofric’s episcopacy, Levi will place these fake documents in their broader British and European contexts. Again, this event is free, but please do book your seat in advance here.
Dr Jennie England, researcher on AHRC-funded ‘Forging Memory’ project
The Centre for Medieval Studies at Exeter hosts a lively programme of activities throughout the year, a number of which are only possible through the generous support of Emeritus Professor Nicholas Orme. Nicholas is a renowned and well respected scholar with expertise in the history of the medieval Church, education, and childhood. He is also well known for his local studies of the Southwest. This year, as part of the annual ‘Orme Day’ festivities, we invited Nicholas to tell us more about the origins of these interests and how they developed. He also explained how he first came to Exeter and why he continues to support our activities at the Centre.
Q. When did you start studying medieval history?
‘I was a historian by the age of six. I know this because, when I was at infant school, we had to write every day in a little book called a ‘newsbook’ and I wrote a story about a prince and a princess. But instead of ending it ‘…and they married and lived happily ever afterwards’, I said ‘they married, but then he died and his brother became king’. And the teacher wrote in the margin, “Oh, Nicholas, what a sad story”. But what I had realised at that age was that, unlike literature, history doesn’t stop. I had elder brothers who had history books at home and I must have read something like The Life of Henry V: Henry wins Agincourt, marries the king of France’s daughter, and then he dies – and it all changes. So history was there at a very, very early age.
But my ‘Damascus road’ moment came a lot later, when I was 20 and was in the vacation of my second year [at university]. My parents had retired to the Forest of Dean, which was a very run-down area in those days, and we had no car. I really found it a very depressing place to spend the vacation.
But my brother came over with a car and we went to a village called Newland. It’s a pretty village with an interesting church and when we were wandering round it, I saw a cottage gate which said on it ‘The Old Grammar School’. And I thought to myself, ‘why on earth should there be a grammar school in this village?’ In the history I had done hitherto, nobody had ever mentioned education. And on investigating this place, it turned out it was a medieval, fifteenth-century, grammar school foundation.’
Q. When did you start researching medieval schools in depth?
‘In my third year, I did a Special Subject on Richard II’s reign. Although I did labour very conscientiously on the political history, the thing that really got me was the discovery of collegiate churches. I knew about monasteries and one had done Bede, Cistercians and that sort of thing. But I suddenly realised that there were these things called collegiate churches, which were very commonly founded in the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They fascinate me because they are all sui generis – and I always find monks boring because they’re so uniform. I discovered that collegiate churches very often had schools, as well as hospitals, alms houses, and things – and that built on my personal discovery of Newland grammar school.
So when I was in my third year and wanted to do research, I went to see my tutor, Bruce McFarlane, saying I wanted to do something that combines national history and local history. I made three suggestions to him and, of the three I mentioned, he said schools would be the thing to do. And ever since I’ve enjoyed these two things: national and local history. I’ve never wanted to do local history that was entirely self-contained, because it’s the interplay of the general and the local that interests me. And, of course, you’ve got that with a school because you’ve got a curriculum that’s beyond the school itself. So when I became a postgrad, I started to work on schools and I did a thesis on schools in the West of England, based on Gloucestershire.’
Q. When did you come to Exeter?
‘In the summer term of my second year of research, my supervisor stopped me in the quad and said that Exeter was looking for a one-year appointment. What had happened was that they hadn’t had any applicants – or one or two very poor ones! Bertram Wolffe, who was at Exeter then, was a pupil of my supervisor and had written to him asking if he had anybody suitable. So I said to Bruce McFarlane, “do you think it would help with my CV?” And he said, “yes, it would because you’ll get a year’s teaching experience and that will stand you in good stead for getting a permanent job”. They advertised the post as half-teaching, half-research – but it turned out not to be that at all, as you might imagine!
I was very lucky while I was here because three [permanent] posts came up. They had a very small number of applicants for the three jobs to the extent that one of them had to be filled with a temporary chap so that they could have a look at him before they decided whether to keep him on. But I was one of the other two who came in, so I was very lucky.’
Q. When did you start to become interested in medieval Devon?
‘It wasn’t for a long time that I got into Devon. First of all, I wrote a book and it took me an awful long time. It is difficult when you start teaching, isn’t it? Writing your courses… For the first few years I was just doing the courses and the teaching all year. I only did the research in the vacation so I didn’t get the DPhil for five years after I started here, which wouldn’t be allowed now. And then it took me another four years to publish it, because it needed a lot more work to turn it into a book. I’d been here nine years before my book came out, which, again, wouldn’t be allowed nowadays! And then what I couldn’t publish from the thesis in the book, I put into a second book on the West of England. And that’s when I decided I had to get up on Dorset, Devon and Cornwall – and came to realise that the Cathedral archives had wonderful stuff. Then I started to work on that and got involved in the locality.’
Q. Why did you decide to support medieval studies at Exeter?
‘When I left [the history department] I was not replaced, which annoyed me. There were only two medievalists left: Sarah Hamilton and Julia Crick. So I thought, they need some support, we need to keep medieval history alive. So I said to Simon Barton [then in Modern Languages], “would you like to have the resources to bring in a special lecturer?” The idea was it should somehow fire people up, both students and the general public – although it’s obviously difficult to get somebody who relates to both. But we have managed quite well over the years – we had a very good one on Magna Carta, for example. And I have got a bit of spare money and I don’t want to give it to my Oxford college, which has got far too much, and plenty of other donors. I’d much rather it came down here where it can be useful.’
This term I am based at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, working with the Traveler’s Lab research group. The Traveler’s Lab is a small network of scholars interested in medieval mobility and communication, and in using new digital analytical methods to explore medieval data. It is also distinctive – in the Humanities, at least! – in its use of undergraduate students as active researchers.
The Lab was founded by Gary Shaw (Wesleyan), Jesse Torgerson (Wesleyan) and Adam Franklin-Lyons (Marlboro College). I met Adam and Jesse at major medieval congresses in 2015 and 2016, and then had coffee with Gary at the British Library while he was in London on a research trip last year. The timing was fortunate: I was looking for potential members for a network on medieval news, while they were forming a group to explore the movement of information and people in the Middle Ages. We were also all interested in experimenting with new digital techniques – partly just to see what they could do! Having been vetted fully, they were happy to let me join them, even though it was unclear how this collaboration would work in practice. Not only am I usually based several time zones away, but we also make rather a diverse group: Gary, our reluctant leader, focuses on late medieval England; Jesse is a specialist in ninth-century Byzantium; Adam works on Aragon in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; and I’m interested in twelfth and early thirteenth-century Britain. Indeed, until this term, this collaboration had been more prospective than real. However, the granting of research leave from Exeter has allowed me to relocate to Middletown for three months and to work closely with the Lab during their Fall Semester. I’ve also been lucky enough to be affiliated with the Wesleyan’s Center for the Humanities (CFH), which has provided both office space and research resources – as well as a lively research environment.
What makes the Lab so distinctive is its close co-operation with Wesleyan’s Quantitative Analysis Centre (QAC). Not only is this helping to support much of the Lab’s activity in terms of resources and student internships, but it also allows us to work closely with Pavel Oleinikov and his undergraduate students, who specialise in quantitative and digital analysis. This is a collaborative venture which allows for problem-solving and research development on both sides. Although the medievalists design and run the projects, the students and staff working with us use their own expertise to visualise and analyse the data – and this can take the project in new directions and raise important, new research questions. The fuzzy (sometimes very fuzzy…) nature of our data also poses interesting challenges for our QAC members.
Being based in Wesleyan this term has allowed me to be an active member of the Lab and to understand much more fully how the ‘lab’ model operates. I’ve been allocated a small group of undergraduate students to help me with a side project on Caesarius of Heisterbach and his social network. Two of the students are helping me to create and check a new database of Caesarius’ interactions, one student is using network analysis to visualise this data, and another student is mapping aspects of this network on the landscape. Two of the students are working for university credit, while the others are paid interns supported by the QAC and the CFH. The Lab also hosts regular Lab lunches, in which we discuss new ways of analysing data and trouble-shoot problems. These lunches are important as they help to make the Lab into a research community rather than simply students working with individual staff members on separate projects.
During my time here I’ve learnt a lot about the challenges of project management and the more technical aspects of working with and storing data. I now intend to use this experience to create something similar at Exeter in association with our new Digital Humanities Lab. However, transferring this approach is not going to be straightforward. It should, hopefully, be possible to set up some student internships through the College of Humanities to work on short-term projects, but it’s unlikely that other funding will be available. Likewise, the much less flexible system of credits and assessment in the UK means that it will be difficult to integrate this model into Exeter’s taught modules.
Having said this, digital approaches are the way forward and will become standard parts of the medievalist’s research toolkit in the near future. This means that we need to think seriously about developing these skills and collaborative partnerships sooner rather than later. Digital techniques certainly won’t replace traditional research methods, not least because the nature of our source material means that only some of it can be converted into meaningful datasets. However, we do need to be aware of what techniques are available and how they might be used alongside tried-and-tested qualitative approaches.
The sheer array of digital analysis possible was brought home to me this weekend at the Social Science History Association conference in Montreal. I was present as part of a session organised by the Lab, in which Gary, Adam and I presented work that had been produced in collaboration with our student researchers. Although ours was the only medieval panel, the questions raised concerning the organisation, visualisation and sharing of data all suggested ways that we could develop our research – both individually and as part of a bigger collaborative Lab project in the future. Particularly interesting were presentations by Ian Gregory (University of Lancaster), who has been developing new ways of analysing and visualising texts, and Anne Knowles (University of Maine), an expert in Historical GIS whose Holocaust Geographies project is pushing her away from maps and towards new, more abstract and expressive ways of presenting this data. It has to be said that the conference itself was a somewhat different experience to the standard medieval congress, not least in the longer sessions, more intense timetable, and the serious lack of coffee. However, as a way of finding out how other disciplines are operating in this new digital world – and how we, as medievalists, may be lagging behind – it was invaluable.
Helen Birkett, Lecturer in Medieval 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)
The annual International Medieval Congress hosted by the University of Leeds in July (and known affectionately as the ‘IMC’ or ‘Leeds’) is the highlight of the European medieval calendar – and this year saw a particularly large number of Exonian intellectual pilgrims make the journey north.
The theme of the 2017 congress was ‘Otherness’, which meant that what tends to be a rather historical gathering took on a more literary tone (be that good or bad, depending on your perspective). Medievalists certainly took the theme to heart – the word ‘other’ could be found on session or paper titles on almost every page of the programme. However, while inspiring a wide variety of takes on the topic, it proved less conducive for amusing paper titles (and meant my slightly risqué effort got more attention than expected).
Fortunately, other members of Exeter’s Centre for Medieval Studies made their mark in less frivolous ways. The elusive James Clark helped to kick off proceedings with a paper in the very first session, while his PhD student, Henry Marsh, was among those presenting towards the end of the conference on Thursday. Other speakers from our extended PhD community included Lorena Fierro-Diaz, Edward Mills, Eddie Proctor, Lenneke van Raaij, Teresa Witcombe, Tabitha Stanmore, and Ryan Kemp. Among the staff, Richard Flower, John Wilkins and Sharon Marshall carried the banner for Late Antiquity and Classics, while I represented History and the High Middle Ages. In addition, Philip Schwyzer and Naomi Howell hosted two sessions drawn from their new HERA project, ‘Deploying the Dead: Artefacts and Human Bodies in Socio-Cultural Transformations‘.
Stealth participants (attendees not listed on the programme) included PhD student Imogene Dudley, Sarah Hamilton, and our man of the moment, Levi Roach, who received a number of hearty congratulations for receiving the Longman/History Today book prize last week. Both staff members also took the opportunity to hold supervisions in person with PhD students who are usually absent from Exeter due either to their status as DTP-award holders or employment through international research projects. Alongside current members of the Centre, a number of former Exonians were also present: Prof. Julia Crick, Drs Daniel Roach and Matt Mesley, and Kieran Ball, an undergraduate at Exeter and now a DPhil student in Oxford.
Meeting up with old colleagues and friends, as well as networking with other scholars, is the lifeblood of Leeds – and while the latter normally takes place during scheduled sessions and roundtable discussions, it also frequently occurs in the coffee breaks and wine receptions that break up the action.
This year, networking even made its way on to the dancefloor when, after several hours of enthusiastic dancing at the annual disco, I was propositioned by Aberystwyth PhD student Nathan Greasley about possible sessions for 2018. Nathan had attended my paper on Monday and it was this, rather than my dance-moves (always a triumph of stamina over style), which prompted the request. It may have been after 2am, but, evidently, keen medievalists never rest…
With the conclusion of yet another Leeds (and with my ears still reeling from what had been a frighteningly loud disco), my thoughts turn to the value of this event. It is hard overstate the importance of the IMC to the European medievalist community. Despite the wide time period and different disciplines covered by Medieval Studies, medievalists have managed to forge a strong and cohesive sense of identity – and, on this side of the Atlantic, Leeds has played a significant role in this. It provides a venue for European medievalists to meet regularly en masse and to present and discuss the latest research in their fields. The to-and-fro of scholarly exchange and the general bustle of the congress helps to re-energise tired teachers and to reassure PhD students of the wider value of their work. And, as the relationship between the UK and Europe fractures, it seems even more important to attend the congress and maintain long-forged links between scholarly communities on opposite sides of the Channel. But Leeds is also, simply, an opportunity to celebrate the arcane pursuit of Medieval Studies and the joy of working with medieval sources.
Having said this, attendance at Leeds remains an expensive affair and means that younger scholars, especially those without external funding, don’t always find it easy to join in the fun. The cost of registration and accommodation is pretty high and unlikely to decrease, especially as the financial effects of Brexit hit the UK economy. The bursaries offered by the IMC organising committee go a small way towards mitigating this cost. Yet, despite the barriers to attendance, I believe it is important for PhD students to experience this event at least once. It offers an opportunity – unrivalled in Europe – to share ideas and network with a wide variety of junior and senior scholars. This can lead to future collaboration and can help to establish reputations in a very competitive job market. The best way to participate in Leeds is, firstly, by presenting a paper and, secondly, by doing so in a pre-organised session rather than submitting an individual paper for consideration by the organising committee. Being part of a pre-organised session helps to ensure the coherence of your panel, which, in turn, will help to attract a larger audience. So, if you know others working on similar research themes, be pro-active in organising a session and don’t be afraid to invite more senior scholars to join you – even if it is just in the role of session moderator. The theme of next year’s congress is ‘Memory’ (which looks set to reassert history’s dominance at Leeds), but sessions and papers can be proposed on any topic – the theme is there to prompt rather than define content. The deadlines for submitting proposals are 31 August for individual papers and 30 September for sessions. These dates aren’t that far in the future so it might be best to follow Nathan Greasley’s example and start your preparations now… See you there next year!
Helen Birkett, Lecturer in Medieval History
What better way to celebrate the end of exam marking at Exeter than to spend a summer’s day wandering around medieval sites in the Southwest?
On 1 June, two PhD students and I took a day trip to the parish church at Haselbury Plucknett in Somerset and Forde Abbey in Dorset. The main reason for this outing was the visit to Exeter of Joshua Britt, a PhD student from the University of South Florida, who is working on medieval anchorites. Anchorites were individuals who pursued the religious life by being enclosed in a cell, often attached to a church. Josh had come to Exeter to meet with our resident anchoritic expert, Prof. Eddie Jones, and to look through the archive of the late Rotha Mary Clay (author of The Hermits and Anchorites of Medieval England), currently in Eddie’s care. Josh was also interested in talking to me, having heard that I will soon be working on a new Latin edition of the Life of Wulfric of Haselbury by John of Forde. Wulfric was an anchorite who lived in a cell attached to the parish church of Haselbury Plucknett from 1124×25 until his death in 1154. In his time, he was a very well-known figure: his reputation reached the ears of the pope and St Bernard, and he was consulted by King Stephen. In the early to mid-1180s, at a point when memories of Wulfric were beginning to fade, his life and deeds were documented by John, prior and subsequently abbot of the nearby Cisterican house of Forde. Josh’s presence in Exeter provided the ideal excuse to indulge our mutual research interests and to visit both sites. One of our own PhD students, Tom Chadwick, also came along for the ride. Tom was happy to take a break from writing up his thesis and to offer his in-depth knowledge of local ales and ciders (the latter being much appreciated by Josh).
We set off from campus by car at 9.30 and arrived at Haselbury Plucknett just before 11.00. Here we met Jerry Sampson, a local archaeologist interested the medieval structure of Haselbury’s church. A thorough renovation by the Victorians means that little now remains of the church’s medieval fabric so Jerry’s help in interpreting the site proved crucial. He pointed out the extant medieval features and explained that the northern side probably retained the footprint of the twelfth-century church and Wulfric’s cell, the latter lying underneath the current vestry. The Life offers interesting glimpses into Wulfric’s cell, which seems to have consisted of an inner and outer room, with one door into the church and one window to the outside world. Much of our discussion centred on the exact arrangement of the cell and any other buildings, such as a stable and a room for Wulfric’s servant, which might have been part of the complex. Jerry has plans to carry out a geophysical survey on the site so some of these questions may be answered in the near future.
Next we wandered round the village, looking for the bridge and ford over the river, scenes of two of Wulfric’s miracles. The probable location of the latter was found down a public footpath at the side of the village inn – although, it must be admitted, the gentle stream at the bottom isn’t particularly impressive. By now, it was 13.00: like any good medievalists, we had managed to spend quite a lot of time looking at very little.
We then made our way to Forde Abbey and the home of Wulfric’s biographer, John of Forde (c.1150-1214). Forde Abbey was a Cistercian house and the second home of a community initially founded in 1136 at Brightley in Devon. Brightley proved unsuitable and five years later the community relocated to the present site, a crossing point on the River Axe – a ford – from which the new house took its name. The abbey was dissolved in 1539, shortly after Abbot Chard had undertaken an ambitious building programme and much of what remains of the medieval complex dates from this period. The estate passed through several hands until the Prideaux family bought it in 1649 and remodelled the extant buildings to form an impressive, if architecturally dissonant, stately home.
The Chard Tower, the abbot’s lodgings, the north side of the cloister, the east range (which contained the monks’ dormitory), and the chapter house are the most visible extant remains of the Cistercian abbey – and of these, only the chapter house and the east range date from John’s time. The chapter house and the ground floor of the east range (now the cafe) can be accessed without tickets to the house. Those venturing inside the house may find it difficult to get to grips with the monastic geography of the building – the historical information provided focuses more on its early modern and modern inhabitants.
Fortunately, the final room of the house leaves you to your own devices with a selection of Cistercian habits, so even if the medieval history of the house is underplayed, you can still look the part. Outside, the gardens are nicely landscaped, very well maintained, and include a number of water features. At the far end of the gardens, the Great Pond seems to be monastic in origin, but, while of interest to the medievalist, it is not as impressive as the Centenary Fountain, which shoots a spout of water surprisingly high into the sky several times a day.
All in all, this was a fun day out – and we happily toasted the success of our trip with some ale and cider when we returned to Exeter. However, for those with a more general interest in medieval history, these sites are of limited interest. Unless you’ve read the Life of Wulfric (which is readily available in translation), you won’t really get much out of the church at Haselbury Plucknett – this is a site for Wulfric enthusiasts only. Indeed, the carved wooden ceiling and “Norman” cellar of our lunch stop, Oscar’s Winebar in Crewkerne, probably has more to appeal to the general medieval tourist! In contrast, Forde Abbey is certainly worth a visit, but is better suited to a family outing on a sunny day than a research trip. While there are significant medieval structures remaining at Forde, the estate is oriented more towards its later history and horticulture than those seeking the medieval.
Haselbury Plucknett Church: Entrance is free.
Forde Abbey: Entrance to the house and gardens costs £13.00 (although there is a 10% reduction if you buy tickets online) and opening times are restricted.
Dr Helen Birkett, Lecturer in History
As any veteran of the funding process knows, the next best thing to the elusive gold dust of ‘reveIance’ is the calendar-bound quality of ‘timeliness’. And nothing demonstrates timeliness or engages the public more effectively than a significant anniversary. Anniversaries are potent application fodder for a variety of topics, but have been particularly important for those wishing to raise the profile of the Middle Ages in recent years. So if 2015 was the year of Magna Carta and 2016 can be remembered for the great re-enactment of Hastings, what medieval commemorative delights can we look forward to in 2017? Well, this year’s historical headlines look set to be dominated by one man and the movement in which he was prominent: Martin Luther and the Reformation.
2017 marks 500 years since Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of Wittenberger church in an act widely recognised as the start of the Protestant Reformation. This heralded decades of religious conflict, violence and destruction, and reconfigured the cultural and political face of Europe. Whatever your feelings about the Reformation, it must be recognised as a major milestone in European history and the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses an event worthy of commemoration. Unsurprisingly, Germany is the focus of this year’s celebrations. The Luther 2017 project has been gearing up for the anniversary for several years and a full list of commemorative, largely non-academic, events can be found on its website. For those with a more scholarly interest in the topic, a list of the various Luther- and Reformation-themed conferences taking place across Europe and the US this year is provided by the Reformation Research Consortium. Many of the events listed concentrate on the significance of the Reformation for the early modern and modern world and look forward rather than back. However, there is also much to engage those interested in later medieval religion – and several such conferences are occurring within the UK.
The University of Huddersfield and Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, both use the anniversary as a prompt to bring medievalists and early modernists into further dialogue. In Huddersfield in April, scholars will investigate the impact of the Reformation on material and visual culture between 1400 and 1600, while September’s conference in Cambridge will explore how people chose both to remember and to forget aspects of the Reformation. In contrast, in June, scholars in Oxford will use the anniversary as the end-date for the ‘After Chichele’ conference, which focuses on the intellectual and religious character of the later medieval English Church.
Characterising 2017 as a year of Reformation also offers food for thought in terms of contemporary politics. It is undeniable that 2016 saw seismic political shifts in Europe and the US, the effects of which have yet to make themselves fully known. Although there are relatively few truly useful parallels to be drawn between now and the early sixteenth century, those relating to new media and social division carry at least some resonance. As in 1517, new communications technologies have already had a major impact on events and look set to influence things yet further – be that through attempts to regulate the fake news circulating on Facebook or the inauguration of a president who threatens to govern via Tweet. Likewise, we must feel a similar sense of unease to our sixteenth-century counterparts as we witness the unexpected overturning of a status quo and see our communities fractured by fear and mutual misunderstanding. We live in uncertain times – and, if 1517 is anything to go by, then this will only set the pattern for many years to come.
Helen Birkett, Lecturer in Medieval History
On Friday night I attended a screening of the 1922 film Robin Hood at the Barbican Centre in London. In addition to bringing a silent cinema classic back to the big screen, the event also showcased Neil Brand’s rousing new score for the film, which was performed live by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The new music is certainly an improvement on the soundtrack attached to the film on Youtube, however, as with most film scores, it is the visual spectacle rather than the music that stays with you.
Robin Hood was one of the most expensive and extravagant films of its day. It was an unashamed vehicle for Douglas Fairbanks, as clearly indicated by the film’s official title: Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood. Fairbanks helped to adapt the story (he is credited under his middle names ‘Elton Thomas’) and gave himself, in effect, three roles to play: first, the Earl of Huntingdon, a virtuous, chain-mail clad knight; then his alter ego, Robin Hood, marked out by his hose, goatee beard, and bow and arrow; and, underlying both, the charming matinee idol version of himself. The latter is alluded to most obviously following his defeat of Guy of Gisbourne in the opening tournament, when it is revealed that the Earl of Huntingdon/Fairbanks is afraid of women. The physically imposing and jovial Richard the Lionheart, played with gusto by Wallace Beery, finds this hilarious – and encourages all the female spectators at the tournament to mob him. Poor Fairbanks is forced to dive into the moat to escape and, luckily, isn’t hindered by his stunt chainmail.
The pace of the film is somewhat surprising. The first hour and a quarter of the story is devoted to the initial set-up in which the Earl of Huntingdon falls in love with Marian, is wronged by Guy of Gisbourne, and then abandons the crusade to save England from Prince John’s tyranny. At this point, Robin Hood makes his first appearance and the final hour of the film gallops along at a much merrier pace: Robin’s outlaw band prance all over the screen as they save the oppressed people of England; Robin rescues Marian, brutally kills Guy (the new score includes a rather nasty crack as his spine snaps), is captured by John and saved from a Sebastian-like martyrdom by the arrival of King Richard. At the climax of the film, Robin and Marian marry – and poor Richard, who seems to think that, as their monarch and their chum, he is entitled to hang out with them on their wedding night, finds himself locked out of their chamber. There is much to raise the modern eyebrow in this film, not least the bromance of lingering looks between Robin Hood and Little John – particularly in contrast to the rather chaste and motherly relationship between Marian and Robin.
For the medievalist, there is also much to amuse. The films opens with the statement that ‘history – in its ideal state – is a compound of legend and chronicle’, which, while irking the purist, probably represents popular attitudes to medieval films both then and now. The same liberal approach is evident with regard to the sets. Robin Hood’s landscape draws on the extant architecture of the medieval past and the distorted structures of medieval illustration. When the camera follows Richard’s crusader army to France, the audience is presented with an open plain and turreted castles perched on rocky outcrops, which seem culled from later medieval manuscript imagery. Back in England, Nottingham has been given similar treatment: it has the small, warped structures and large doorways of dwellings in manuscript-land. Finally, the cavernous inside of the royal castle mixes the height, space and light of a Gothic Cathedral with romanesque arches that could never have supported such a structure – and is quite different to the pokey palaces of medieval reality. This strange world also finds expression in the intertitles, which are deliberately archaized to the extent that they are sometimes a little difficult to understand on first reading. There is also a classic piece of medieval-sounding gibberish textually uttered by Friar Tuck as he prepares to test the fighting skills of a mysterious stranger:
So what did 1920s audiences want from Robin Hood and the Middle Ages? Well, above all, they wanted Fairbanks and they wanted him in an extravagant setting. Robin Hood was a high-end, lavish production that came hot on the heels of Fairbanks’ smash hits The Mark of Zorro (1920) and The Three Musketeers (1921). The film offered a suitably strange and archaic ‘impression of the Middle Ages’, which both accorded with audience expectations and provided Fairbanks with the fantastic backdrop needed for his latest swashbucking epic.