Home » Discussion
Category Archives: Discussion
One of the pillars of the Medieval Studies community at Exeter, Emma Cayley, left the university over the summer to take up a post as Head of School of Languages, Cultures and Societies at Leeds. Our loss is Leeds’s gain, as I know from personal experience having been hired and served my probation during Emma’s highly successful stint as Head of Modern Languages here (2011-2016). This post is intended as a collective vote of thanks for the sixteen years of service Emma gave to the medieval community at Exeter.
Indeed, we have Emma to thank for the existence of the Centre for Medieval Studies seminar which she set up on a shoestring in its first year of existence, including the key lubricant of post-seminar wine, initially on a contribution basis. Sarah Hamilton recalls that ‘even once funding became more certain, her commitment to wine and collegiality was ongoing and will be sorely missed, as will her commitment to promoting medieval Latin as well as French.’ As will surprise nobody who knows her, footwear features prominently in Sarah’s anecdotes about Emma: ‘one of my earliest memories of her is going to some MA event at the cathedral and as we left she dived into a shoe shop; on a visit to Beijing she dragged all of us into a covered market to look for shoes….’ Yolanda Plumley similarly remembers Emma’s sartorial excellence as an enhancement to the pleasure of collaborative plotting about Medieval Studies over lunch meetings. She adds: ‘one of the highlights for me of the fifteen years we spent together at Exeter was the delightful conversation that unfolded between us on debate in medieval music and literature over the twelve weeks of an MA option we once taught together.’
Emma’s unshakeable commitment to her PhD students is a common theme in their comments. Pete Knowles, who completed his PhD in 2015, describes her as ‘the best PhD supervisor I could have asked for; from being filmed leafing through the Exeter book manuscript with grout on my fingers, to translating Old French over a bottle of fizz in a pub garden one summer evening, I finished my doctorate with three years of fantastic memories and a friend for life.’ As a result of his innovative collaborative PhD programme, Pete now works as an Executive Producer for creative tech company Antenna International. More recently, Emma was instrumental in securing three Nicklaus-Cartwright PhD Scholarships in French. The high calibre of medievalist applicants led to us benefitting from the presence of Edward Mills and Coline Blaizeau, both now in the latter stages of their doctorates. As Edward comments: ‘without Emma’s decision as Head of Department to invest in PhD funding, I doubt I’d be doing a PhD today.’ Coline speaks in similarly glowing terms: ‘Emma was always kind and understanding, generous and sensitive – all things that made it easy to speak with her openly. I quickly felt comfortable in her presence and able to share my thoughts.’ Edward adds that ‘she has always been a tireless advocate for involving PhD students in the wider life of the Department: I’ll never forget going to see the Exeter Book being digitised, and seeing for the first time how much work she had put into the research and public engagement project that had led up to that moment.’ The beautiful and fitting leaving present that Coline and Edward made for Emma says it all.
Emma’s tireless positivity and enthusiasm have been a great source of strength for Exeter Medieval Studies over the past decade and a half. Her parting gift was the holding here in July 2019 of the XVIth International Courtly Literature Society Triennial Congress. I had the pleasure of co-organising this with her and Michelle Bolduc, another valued colleague whose presence in our ranks came from Emma’s vision of the breadth of Medieval Studies. Edward and Coline offered invaluable organisational help, which in Edward’s case involved giving attendees the same tour of medieval Exeter that he himself had received from Emma after accepting our PhD scholarship offer. We lost count of the number of colleagues who told us it was the best ICLS conference they had attended – and, of course, how pretty the campus is. Emma holds a number of prestigious offices within the Medieval and French academic communities, evidence of her energy, generosity and enthusiasm for these fields of study. She is currently president of the ICLS, as well as being Co-Editor of French Studies and a member of the AUPHF Executive Committee. We wish her well in all of her future endeavours, and look forward to an opportunity to welcome her back to Exeter soon!
Senior Lecturer in French
As my colleagues at Exeter know, I have spent the past few years looking at the concept of news in the Middle Ages. I’ve been considering what the idea of ‘news’ meant in the medieval world, what sources remain for news, and what studies of news in the Middle Ages might tell us about news in other historical periods. And I think they could tell us quite a lot…
This is because the modern concept of news has become intertwined with the idea of modernity, of what makes the modern world distinctive. News is seen as a crucial component of modern democratic societies, a reflection of modern communications technology, and has even been used to discuss the modern experience of time. Early modern scholars are very conscious of the close relationship between news and modernity. As a result, they emphasise the foundational role played by early modern news in the creation of newspapers and the modern news market. In these arguments, medieval news is seen as something different and “other”. It is a foil for teleological narratives of news, progress, and modernity. But the problem is that we don’t know that much about news in the Middle Ages… So how can we be sure that it was different? And what if medieval news was less different than assumed? How might that affect our understanding of news and its relationship to the modern world and modernity? There is a problematic gap in the scholarship here. Further research is needed.
Despite the prominence of news as a topic for modern and early modern scholars, little work has been done on news in the Middle Ages. Various scholars have touched on this area, but few have thought about it in depth. This means that some of the most basic questions haven’t really been answered, including, for example, what does medieval news look like? After all, this is a period before the emergence of traditional news media such as newspapers. Getting to grips with the basics as well as thinking about the more sophisticated aspects of this topic has proved hugely stimulating. It’s rare to find such an obvious and interesting topic for which there is still so much work to do!
And, hot of the press this month, my article ‘News in the Middle Ages: News, Communications, and the Launch of the Third Crusade in 1187-88’ presents my initial thoughts on the topic. In this piece, I discuss why historians have been slow to tackle medieval news and how we can identify news in our medieval sources. I also explore how news was transmitted through a case study relating to the Third Crusade. I track the dissemination of three related news stories in 1187 and 1188: the defeat of Christian forces by Saladin at Hattin, the subsequent fall of Jerusalem, and the launch of the Third Crusade by Pope Gregory VIII. As a case study, this turned out to be both more complicated and more revealing than expected – but you’ll have to read the article to find out more!
However, there is still much more to say on news in the Middle Ages – and I have more work in the pipeline. Over the coming year I hope to complete two further articles on this topic. One will focus on the manuscript context of our extant news sources from 1187 and 1188, and draws on research funded by the British Academy Neil Ker Fund. Here I will grapple with the problem that none of our original news sources survive – all we have are copies. My article will investigate when, where, and how this material was copied, and what the act of copying tells us about the relationship between news and history in the Middle Ages. The second article will discuss the relationship between news and the medieval experience of time. This responds to arguments made in early modern scholarship about news and the emergence of a ‘modern’ sense of the present. As you might imagine, I am somewhat critical of this view…
In fact, there is so much to do that I have roped in a group of other scholars to help me explore this topic. From 2019 to 2021, I am leading a collaborative project on ‘News and News Cultures in the Middle Ages’, supported by a Small Research Grant from the Leverhulme Trust. This project brings together a variety of established and early career researchers with interests in communication, information networks, public opinion, and – of course – news. We are working together to produce a volume summarising what medieval news is, how it was disseminated, and how it functioned in society. It is intended to lay the foundations for future studies on news in the Middle Ages and to be the go-to work for scholars from other periods and disciplines. Hopefully, it will make this topic front page news!
Tuesday 16 July 2019 marks the 650th anniversary of the death of John Grandisson (1292-1369), Exeter’s longest-serving bishop. The cathedral and the diocese have been shaped by many hands over many centuries but arguably it is Grandisson, who led the diocese for forty-two years from 1327, whose imprint has proved the most enduring.
Before his tenure, Exeter was seen as something of a poor relation among the cathedrals of medieval England. When he arrived the cathedral church itself was unfinished, building work having stalled repeatedly due to the shortage of funds. By the time of his death, its appearance, and its reputation, were transformed. Exeter Cathedral had become a beacon for worship in the west of England, and the cultural and creative centre-point of the city, county and diocese.
Grandisson was born to be a leading figure in public life. His family were aristocrats from Herefordshire with blood ties to many of England’s greatest noble dynasties; they could even claim a connection with the Plantagenet royal family. His background would have ensured his rise to the top in any walk of life but as a boy John was recognised for his intellectual talents and he was sent to study at Oxford and Paris, then the most prestigious university in Latin Europe. At Paris Grandisson came under the influence of one of the leading minds of the time, Jacques Fournier, whose own career as a churchman was one of the most significant of the age, leading the battle against the notorious Cathar heretics and culminating in his election as Pope Benedict XII in 1334.
From university John moved on to the city of Avignon in southern France, then the capital of the Roman papacy. He was set fair for a career in the papal court but his talents marked him out as a potential leader of the church in England and in 1327 Pope John XII appointed him to the bishopric in Exeter. It was something of a back-handed compliment: his predecessor, Walter de Stapledon had just been murdered by a London mob leading an uprising against the government of King Edward II (1307-27). Exeter was well-known for its poverty, the poor state of its buildings, and its remote position at the outer reaches of the realm. It was a far cry from the cultivated world of princes and prelates Grandisson had known all his life. ‘I find myself not only at the ends of the earth’, he wrote, ‘but in the very end of the ends thereof’.
Grandisson’s first priority was to finish the cathedral church. Making use of materials which had been stockpiled, he oversaw the completion of the nave, including the vaulted ceiling with its bosses carved with vivid images still in situ today. He also added new features which had not been envisaged by his predecessors, probably the Minstrels’ Gallery on the nave’s north wall, and a chantry chapel which he intended for his own tomb.
Grandisson not only completed the cathedral church but also invested in a dramatic re-development of the church of St Mary at Ottery, turning it into a collegiate church. Just about a dozen miles east of Exeter, Grandisson made Ottery St Mary a grand gateway to his diocese. His mitred head can still be seen on a corbel stone at one end of a nave arch.
Grandisson also invested in the working life of the cathedral. He provided books for the use of the cathedral canons, liturgy and music to assist them in their worship and learned texts of theology, canon law and science to ensure they could meet the demands of their ministry in the city and diocese. The books were placed in a purpose-built library, the first in the cathedral’s history, and perhaps the first in the west of England – it was another hundred years before there was a library at Wells Cathedral in Somerset.
Grandisson’s cosmopolitan early years had given him a love of stylish furnishings and during his career at Exeter he commissioned many remarkable artworks. An ivory diptych now in the collection of the British Museum depicts a finely carved images of the crucified Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary.
An exceptional set of Mass vestments were made for him: an orphrey, an ornamental border cloth, now in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and a chasuble, now kept in the museum of the church of St Sebastian at Ponta Delgada in the Azores display some of the very finest embroidery in gold and silver-gilt thread, known as Opus Anglicanum or English work because the skill was unmatched anywhere in Europe.
More important than building work or the furnishings, Bishop John applied his genius to the practice of worship in the cathedral. He was fascinated by the long history of the church and the lives of the saints whose feast-days filled the calendar. He made his own collection of these histories to be used in the cathedral, finely copied in a folio manuscript which is still kept in the Library & Archives. The life-story that fascinated him most was that of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury under Henry II (1162-70), whose determination to keep the church independent from the king and his government led to a long dispute, exile and finally roused four of Henry’s knights to murder him in his cathedral. Becket had turned his back on his career as a courtier, its privilege and political influence, and committed himself to his church and the people it served. For Grandisson he was the perfect role model.
Grandisson was also interested in the sight and sound of worship. He created a new Ordinal for the Cathedral, that is the manual that set out how the clergy were to process, where they were to stand, and what parts of the liturgy were to be spoken and sung. Today, the Cathedral Choir still turns to Grandisson’s guidance for the Christmas Eve service that carries his name.
At 5.30pm on 16 July Exeter Cathedral will perform a requiem mass in honour of their great bishop. In the following months further events will recall his contributions in different dimensions of church life including decorative art, the customs of worship in liturgy and music and education, learning and the making of books. Related exhibits will display some of the artefacts connected with him still held in the Cathedral Library & Archives.
The scorching summer of 2018 was a great gift for archaeologists. For the first time in almost two decades an unbroken dry spell brought features below the surface of the landscape clearly into view. These ‘parch marks’, visible only for as long as the weather holds, provide the very fullest evidence of the foundations of earthworks, buildings, roadways not only of a medieval date but reaching back across the whole timespan from the Industrial Revolution into pre-history.
It seemed counter-intuitive then to take a call from a TV researcher developing a new series devoted to underwater archaeology. In fact, there was good reason why The History Channel had chosen this moment to schedule the filming of their new series aiming to show that a stretch of inland waterway is as rich in hidden archaeology and history as any expanse of ocean. If not carrying quite the same decompression risk of diving the naval wrecks off the coastlines of Africa or Australia, you’d be best advised not to wade very far into the Avon, Severn or Ouse except when the rainwater table was at an all-time low. The series, River Hunters, takes its inspiration from the USA where searches of the waterways close to Civil War battlefields have uncovered some remarkable artefacts. Arguably the trend-setter is Beau Ouimette, whose self-produced shows on You Tube are on the brink of becoming a global phenomenon. Producers persuaded Beau to bring his unique brand of wading to Britain, to sift the course of some of our most historical significant watercourses.
Beau’s passion is battlefield history and it was hardly surprising that his schedule should take in Tewkesbury, where tributaries of the Avon and the Severn frame the site of the Wars of the Roses battle where the Lancastrian cause was decisively defeated in 1471.
Tewkesbury was not as large a battle as Towton (1461), seeing combined forces of no more than 10,000; nor did it bring a virtual blitzkrieg to the town as occurred at both the first (1455) and second (1461) battles of St Albans.
But it did represent no lesser watershed moment: the Lancastrian interest was all but destroyed. Leading Lancastrian nobility lay dead, among them, John Courtenay, earl of Devon, who had only just returned to the royalist fold. Henry VI was captured and then killed; his son and heir, Edward of Westminster, died in the melée; Henry’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, who had led his the cause for the best part of twenty years, was forced to return to France.
The river tributaries played a central and decisive role in the battle. They were the reason that battle was drawn at Tewkesbury: the Lancastrian army had hoped to cross the Severn at Gloucester but the Yorkist force stood in their way, so they had tried to pass ahead of them by pressing further north. When the Lancastrian battle-formation was broken and the Yorkists set about a rout, the remnant of King Henry’s force fled for the Severn bank knowing that if they crossed it they might fight another day. Most were cut down by the waterside, or were drowned. The battlefield also lay in the shadow of the Benedictine abbey of Tewkesbury its own precincts bordered by the same river tributaries. In the rout some struck out for the abbey, although for the Lancastrians the only sanctuary they found was a burial place on sacred ground.
So Beau and team came in search of both the Wars of the Roses and the monastic tradition. It was the last truly hot weekend of the summer and they waded into the Swilgate south of the abbey grounds with the excitement of a day at the seaside. Perhaps those Civil War sites are very willing with their secrets but here it was slow going. By the half-day mark, the low-lying murky water had offered up only some very eclectic signs of twentieth-century life: a roadworker’s lantern and a cache of printers’ letterpress type. Early afternoon took us no further back in time but gave us the basis for a narrative: a World War 2 era firewarden’s tin helmet, a testament to the six-year vigil that watched over the abbey tower.
Predictably perhaps, it was only as the light finally began to fade, and even the ebullient Beau looked less than comfortable seven hours into his wet-suit, that the river offered a tantalising hint of medieval Tewkesbury. Pressed deep into a wedge of silt, the detector led to hand-worked pins and studs surrounding the remains of leather strips – straps? – of early date. Naturally, given it was now past 7pm, there was an immediate and unspoken agreement to interpret them as battlefield artefacts. An archer’s arm-guard: sure thing! For this monastic historian, it was the less romantic but (much) more plausible provenance of a block of dressed stone we also recovered that almost made the wait worthwhile.
Here there was evidence of the monastery’s development of water meadow south of their precinct, and perhaps of the fishery that fed the community, and kept them, more-or-less, within the letter of chapter 39 of their Rule, On the measure of food.
River Hunters is now showing on The History Channel, Mondays, @ 9pm.
Eminent Churchillians have been all a-quiver. Darkest Hour has carried their subject far beyond his familiar home in the Culture pages of the serious newspapers to set him trending, everywhere. And the academic eminences have themselves been pulled into the spotlight, called on to share their expertise in every media forum, from the Today programme, to the Chris Evans’ Breakfast Show, just in case any of us had forgotten how Britain found itself in the spring of 1940.
But this flurry of attention has left them conflicted. They have been in awe at the spectacle of Neville Chamberlain’s gaunt, grey profile reanimated so perfectly that it might be an original newsreel, remastered in HD. But then they have been deeply troubled to see cabinet meetings convened in the War Rooms in May 1940 when everyone – of course, literally, everyone – knew they did not move there until September when the bombing started. And the spectacle of their Grand Old Man stepping on to the Tube to focus-group with the Great British Public has left them positively queasy.
Watching their discomfort, the medievalist might be heard to mutter, ‘Welcome to our world!’. Conscious anachronism for dramatic effect – the PM reaching out to ordinary people in their time of peril his people in time – is often the least of our worries when our period makes it on to the screen. Apparently the Middle Ages are so remote from anything that the viewing public knows (or cares to know) that there is no question of trying to recreate it as it was. On the contrary, as a Lost World, there is a licence wholly to reinvent it. So the Benedictines of 13th-century Italy become Mafiosi in a mountainous redoubt – The Name of the Rose (1986) – the battling of Bruce, Balliol, Wallace and Edward I becomes a Six Nations match at Murrayfield – Braveheart (1993) – and the professional tournament circuit between Crecy and Poitiers is recast as something akin to a mad, muddy summer of festivals, from the Big Weekend, to V, via Glasto – A Knight’s Tale (2001).
And now, in the pursuit of Box Office (or Box-Set) success, it seems there is a determination to make the medieval truly out of this world. Judging from the messages in my inbox, it does seem that there are viewers of Game of Thrones who are quite satisfied that its medieval vision, more Middle Earth than Middle Ages, has more to offer than the other one, so tiresomely grounded in, erm, history.
So, it was with no small scepticism that I responded to an approach to act as historical consultant for the filming of a mini-series of Philippa Gregory’s The White Princess, her novelised account of the union of the houses of York and Tudor after 1485. The BBC TV series based on the prequel novel, The White Queen, had met sharp criticism for its sense of period which was flimsy even by the usual standards and was a poor reflection of Gregory’s own commitment to research.
Meeting the producers and directors, I was struck immediately by their up-front acknowledgement that the screen has generally got the Middle Ages wrong. I was also impressed by the research they had already done. The producers and I digressed very happily on Cardinal Morton and the pre-Reformation church. The director slated to supervise the Battle of Stoke (1487) displayed a disarmingly detailed knowledge of the formation of the battles, that is the deployments of force mobilised by Henry Tudor and the Yorkist rebels. She also knew a good deal about the German musketeers and their legendary leader, Martin Schwartz. I have to admit it was difficult not to be enticed by the prospect of bringing to an audience an historical moment in which we glimpse the coming Military Revolution, archers rendered obsolete by the handgun. Their grasp of the dynamics of the period was matched by an awareness of the landscape and environment in which it was played out. Before I became involved, buildings that were right for a fifteenth-century story had already been chosen as locations, Sudeley Castle, Gloucester and Wells cathedrals. I was especially pleased to find that the production team were well aware of the role of Gloucester in the short life of Henry Tudor’s eldest son, Prince Arthur, who for a time was entrusted to the tutelage of the abbot of the Benedictine monastery.
I agreed to take on the consultant role and soon found myself following the crew on their tour of these West-Country locations to give the nod – and certainly the occasional critique – to the scenes they were staging. Of course, White Princess is above all a portrait of a marriage and the bread-and-butter filming had no need of my watchful eye, as Lizzie (i.e. Elizabeth of York) and Henry Tudor played out their lively relationship framed only by flickering candlelight and the faint suggestion of linenfold panelling. But the story also tells how that relationship weathered the storms of a realm still profoundly unsettled after the Battle of Bosworth. The team were eager to show the armed rebellions that repeatedly cut through the connubial calm of Mr and Mrs Tudor. By far my longest day on location was spent at a picnic bench in Bradford-on-Avon taking the director through each turn and twist of the day’s fighting at Stoke. I also did my best to talk her out of representing Warbeck’s hastily abandoned stand-off at Taunton as a battle. Ever with an eye to diversity, she warmed to the reality of cosmopolitan armies. Now I was called on to check the accuracy of the non-English dialogue, and after verifying the insults with which Schwartz and his men showered their opponents, I was also given charge of the exchanges at the Burgundian and Spanish courts.
The team were excited by the prospect of staging battles but the other set-pieces that punctuate the drama, the ceremonial of coronation and marriage, made them strangely agitated and anxious. Above all, it was the fact that these were conspicuously sacred acts that seemed to unsettle them, that they would now be obliged to orchestrate priests and their liturgy. Of course, it was no problem to establish the rite used for the first Tudor coronation; Henry and Elizabeth’s marriage ceremony is also well-documented. The greater challenge was condensing it to a handful of scenes, significant in the context of the ceremony itself but suited also to the dramatic pitch the director had determined for this episode. Here too there was a problem of language, or at least for the actors. Of all the tasks I took on, the strangest was surely speaking the Latin into my phone’s voice recorder and emailing it across so that Kenneth Cranham – playing Cardinal Morton – could capture the fifteenth-century enunciation.
This at least was a little less out of my research comfort zone than my final task, poring over the fabrics in the costume department to pronounce on the colours and textures that were right for Lizzie and wrong for Lady Margaret Beaufort. In fact, the King’s Mother’s wardrobe is as well-documented as her personal piety. By the 1490s, it appears the only colours she could countenance wearing were ‘tawny’ and black. The costumiers took this message to heart, although their designs evoked somewhat less of a sense of late medieval contemptus mundi piety than they did of Maleficent.
There was also a moment’s tension over how to clothe a cardinal (Morton). They seemed to have bulk-bought purple chenille before I came on board so it was a battle to bring them to an acceptance that Morton’s generation was the first to be dressed in the classic red costume.
Of course, the predictable result was that many of the pains that I and others took over six months did not make the final cut. The ceremonial suffered especially, snipped and trimmed between close-ups with the liturgy consigned to a dimly audible backtrack. What aired, first in the US in April 2017, and in the UK in November, showed much more of the personal than the historical drama. But it did succeed in challenging at least some of my preconceptions. There was a genuine interest on our Middle Ages in the team – producers, directors, actors – that suggests that all is not yet lost to the likes of John Snow and Tyrion Lannister.
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!
‘We’ve found a body. We’d like you to help us with our enquiries’. An unnerving telephone message to pick up amid the usual end-of-term pressures, but as it turned out I was wanted only as a witness at a distance of some 550 years.
Canterbury Archaeological Trust have been leading an excavation at St Albans Cathedral as a prelude to the construction of a new welcome centre which is the centrepiece of their project, Alban, Britain’s First Saint, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The dig has already offered up fresh insights into the early history of the Benedictine Abbey, uncovering the footings of the apse chapels that were a central feature of the devotional scheme of the Norman church built by Paul of Caen, the Norman monk entrusted with the revival of the old Saxon monastery by Archbishop Lanfranc of Bec. Paul’s abbey was quite different from the St Albans known from later medieval sources, not least in the attention given to saints’ cults other than the so-called protomartyr, Alban. The Norman church was made ready to receive altars and relics of the then more modish English saints, Cuthbert and Wulfstan.
The unidentified burial has been revealed after clearing a sequence of much later burials, of those citizens of St Albans who worshipped at the former abbey in the eighteenth century when it served as the town’s parish church. Beneath these remains the archaeologists have uncovered the traces of a substantial rectangular structure which would have projected southwards from the abbey’s presbytery. At its centre they have found a brick-lined tomb chamber still holding its original incumbent. The skeleton is of a male in advanced old age. To find a medieval burial intact was surprising in itself since earlier excavations have shown that the site has had a long history of the disturbance – and robbing out – of the higher status pre-Reformation graves. Even more unusual was the presence with the skeleton of three papal bullae.
Each one bears the inscription of Pope Martin V (1417-31), the pontiff whose election at the Council of Constance ended the Great Schism which had divided the Latin church at the height of the Hundred Years War.
While the presence of the bulls allowed the burial to be placed loosely on the abbey’s timeline, there was nothing more in the material evidence to suggest an identity.
So it was time to turn back to the texts. St Albans Abbey is well known to medievalists for its historical writing and a rich seam survives from the fifteenth century. For the period of Martin V’s pontificate in fact there are three substantial texts, an annal, a book of benefactors and a biography of an abbot. Each of these recount how Abbot John Whethamstede journeyed over the Alps in 1423 to attend the ecumenical council at Pavia.
While in Italy, he also made the journey to Roman Curia in the hope that he might secure an audience with the pope. On arrival he was struck down with a mortal illness and since plague was raging through the peninsula, causing the council delegates to swap Pavia for Siena, it was assumed that he would die. Pope Martin offered him the aid of his own physicians and when no cure could be worked, sent one of his officials to administer extreme unction. When all hope was lost, the abbot experienced a vision of St Bernard of Clairvaux, and on waking his recovery began.
When he was restored to full strength, he finally secured his hoped-for papal audience and, thankful for his survival, determined to do his best for is abbey by requesting three significant privileges from the pope. He was amply rewarded: Martin assented to his request and issued three bulls which the abbot hoped would distinguish St Albans from its Benedictine peers: to dispense the monks from the traditional abstention from meat during Lent; to permit the use of a portable altar at the monastery’s studium at Oxford and at their hostel in the city of London; to allow the abbot and convent to farm the income from the churches under their jurisdiction to laymen. Abbot Whethamstede gathered up his bulls and promptly returned home to St Albans.
Martin V’s bulls were an early success in a long career. Whethamstede held the abbacy twice, stepping out of office in 1441 when his health again failed but returning in 1452 and remaining then until his death in 1465, when he was probably at least 75 years old. He is remembered now for his achievements as a scholar and bibliophile, for his pioneering interest in Italian humanism and for his friendship with Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, younger brother of Henry V, and Protector during the minority of Henry VI. Yet his monks always remembered his audience with Pope Martin and in the biographical sketch they entered in their book of benefactors, they made much of his ‘three-fold’ character, surely a nod towards the bulls he had brought them all the way from Italy.
Certainly, the episode was well enough remembered for the abbot to be laid to rest with these trophies, and the biography tells us that the chapel Whethamstede built for himself was, yes, projecting southwards from the presbytery.
A fitting reburial is planned. And so, unexpectedly, it seems the first to be welcomed across the threshold of the abbey’s new welcome centre will be one of its own abbots.
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)
When I started my PhD in medieval archaeology the reason was simple. There was a very clear gap in the understanding of medieval castles I wanted to address and formalising it as a piece of research seemed the next sensible step. So here I am researching why castles were demolished in the Middle Ages and what that looks like archaeologically. (Hopefully!) the results will carry weight and might change how people think about the subject.
As I’m approaching the end of my project, I’m thinking about what I might do afterwards. I would love to stay involved in academia but don’t know if there’s space. It’s a competitive field and, while I love the research and the teaching, it may prove very difficult to land that permanent academic post. What I do know is that I’d like to stay involved with discussions around castles and medieval archaeology – and becoming a university lecturer isn’t the only way to do that.
Voluntary work is a one way to keep a foothold in the field. Two years ago I joined the board of the Castle Studies Trust. We’re a small charity with no staff and a budget of around £15,000. We fund research projects into castles with a limit of £7,500 per grant. The Trust doesn’t get directly involved in the fieldwork or interpretation, but we do get to choose which projects we support, which, in turn, helps to shape current research in this area. What happens is that groups interested in carrying out research on particular castles apply to the Trust with projects that have been fully planned and costed. We then send these applications to a panel of castle experts who assess them and provide recommendations for funding. Finally, the board of trustees decide which projects to support, based on these recommendations. For those interested in applying for a grant, the application process opens in September and closes on 15 December. The Trust will confirm awards in February.
Regardless of what happens to me next, I have found volunteering with a heritage organisation a very useful experience. I’ve talked to archaeologists working in the field about their projects and have been able to pick their brains about my own research questions. I’ve learnt much more about castles and how they worked, and have broadened my perspective on the topic. My work at the Trust also shows that I am passionate about heritage: I’ve made the effort to do outreach, I’ve gained practical knowledge of the challenges of preservation, and I’ve been forced to consider the public benefit of projects submitted to the Trust. I’ve also gained a much stronger understanding of the funding process. By assessing applications and giving critical feedback, I’ve learnt what makes a strong application – and will be able to apply these lessons when I go on to make grant applications of my own. It’s also been a useful opportunity to build my professional network.
Importantly, it’s also given me transferable skills which will be useful outside the context of medieval archaeology. Becoming a trustee, even of a small charity, requires you to be an active volunteer and to take on some major responsibilities. You have legal duties, such as scrutinising accounts and doing your bit to ensure funds are spent in line with your organisation’s objectives. You also gain experience of governance, i.e. being in charge of an organisation. Finally, with the Castle Studies Trust I’m also specialising in communicating the results of our work, so I have demonstrable experience of communicating with different audiences and developing skills I wouldn’t get the opportunity to do so otherwise.
Being a trustee has been a really rewarding experience and it’s something that I would encourage others to do, particularly early in your career. Although, according to Young Charity Trustees, the average age of trustees in England and Wales is 57, don’t be put off – many charities are looking for younger members to join their boards. They want the new experiences and points of view that you can bring to the organisation. If you’re interested and want further information, the Young Charity Trustees group has some useful materials here.
Volunteering with heritage groups is a great way to contribute to an area you care about and to gain experience for your CV. I’ve found that in small organisation, such as the Castle Studies Trust, one person can make a colossal difference. But most important of all, I’ve found volunteering to be fun. So if there’s an organisation whose values match your own, offer to help them out. And if you want to know more about the Castle Studies Trust in particular, check out the video below.
Richard Nevell, PhD student in Archaeology
It brings me great pleasure to announce that the Arts and Humanities Research Council has seen fit to fund my new project, ‘Forging Memory: Falsified Documents and Institutional History in Europe, c. 970–1020’. This aims to place forgeries at the heart of our understanding of the growth and development of historical consciousness at a key period in European history. Starting from the the deceptively simple observation that the later tenth century is the first time when the forging of documents can be attested across the Latin-speaking West, it seeks to investigate what this meant on the ground.
Medievalists have, of course, long known that falsified documents can be just as interesting as the real thing. Nevertheless, forgeries continue to receive less attention than their authentic counterparts. In part, this is a matter of inertia. Particularly when using older editions, it is all too easy to slip into the tendency of ignoring those marked up as ‘forged’ (conveniently relegated at the back of the volume, in the case of the older Monumenta Germaniae Historica editions). More to the point, perhaps, forgeries often lack context. Whereas we know a fair bit about where and when most authentic documents were produced, it is difficult to ascertain the same for forgeries – documents which by their nature seek to hide their true origins. Studying them therefore requires a great deal of contextual knowledge about the forger and his (or her) aims, a fact which has discouraged synthesis and generalization.
Still, when we can date and localize forgeries, they offer a wealth of information. Precisely because forgers were not constrained by the realities of their day, these documents tell us much about their hopes, dreams and ambitions; they were the blank canvases onto which the monks and clerics of the Middle Ages projected their ‘ought world’ (to use Karl Leyser’s memorable turn of phrase). In this respect, we are lucky to have a number of closely datable forgery complexes from the later tenth century. Five of these will form the basis of my investigation, which will result in a book-length study: the counterfeit diplomas and papal bulls of Pilgrim of Passau (970s); the Worms forgeries, associated with Bishop Hildibald (980s); the purported papal privileges of Abbo of Fleury (990s); the Orthodoxorum charters, concocted under the auspices of Abbot Wulfgar (mid- to later 990s); and the forged and authentic diplomas associated with Leo of Vercelli (late 990s).
The intention is to use these case studies as a springboard to consider broader themes of memory and institutional identity in these years. They have been selected in order to give maximum geographical range within a tightly defined period; they have also been selected to give a balance of monastic houses (Fleury, Abingdon) and cathedral chapters (Passau, Worms, Vercelli). Each forgery complex is unique; and I hope to give due weight to the specific as well as the general. By examining a range of cases, however, I also hope to avoid getting lost in the detail. The interest of these documents lies in the fact that each act of forgery was not simply one of wishful thinking (though it was often this too); it involved a creative engagement with the past, the formulation of an alternative history of the religious house in question. By examining this phenomenon at the turn of the first millennium – a period identified by Patrick Geary as a decisive one where attitudes to the past are concerned – the study will add depth to our understanding of these developments.
In pragmatic terms, the project will run 21 months (effectively two years), with the first nine of these spent on archival research. Thereafter, the focus will be on writing up and disseminating findings, with a strong public outreach element. During this time, I will organize panels on the subject at a number of international conferences. The project will be then capped off with a public exhibition at the local cathedral in Exeter, which boasts its own fascinating collection of forgeries of the mid-eleventh century. This will be complemented by an end-of-project conference here at Exeter on ‘Forgery and Memory between the Middle Ages and Modernity’. Anyone interested in getting involved is strongly encouraged to !
Dr. Levi Roach, Lecturer in Medieval History