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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, Ivrea). 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
What happens after empire? In an age in which Europe continues to grapple with its colonial past, there could scarcely be a more timely question. Yet while the Fall of Rome is frequently invoked within political debates (for better or for worse), the same can scarcely be said of the Carolingian Empire, which spanned much of northern and western Europe in the eighth and ninth centuries, fundamentally transforming the continent’s political landscape.
The decision of the HERA partnership to fund a major project investigating the aftermath of the Carolingian Empire – the ‘transformation of the Carolingian world’, to use the favoured terminology – is therefore to be warmly welcomed. Sarah Hamilton has already written about the project’s aims and her contribution, so I would like to take the opportunity to reflect more generally on the post-Carolingian period, in the light of the project’s inaugural conference in Berlin last month.
As Stefan Esders, our host, explained in his introductory remarks, the core idea behind the project is to view the tenth century not simply as a prelude to the central Middle Ages, but as a development out of the Carolingian age. The focus is therefore on change as well as continuity, on seeing how similar texts and ideas came to take on new meanings in the post-Carolingian world. These themes came through strongly in almost all of the papers (helpful summaries of which can be found by searching #UNUP on Twitter). A common refrain was that texts and ideas developed in the Carolingian period continued to be used and applied within the tenth century, whether in the form of local institutional histories (Koziol), notions of identity (Diesenberger), legal materials (Esders), liturgical laudes (Welton) or normative ordinances (West). Yet such apparent continuity can be misleading, as these (and other) speakers noted: even when copying or imitating Carolingian texts or genres, tenth-century writers repackaged these for the present; this was not a case of stagnation or idle nostalgia, but of strikingly new variations on existing themes. Then as now, invoking the past was a powerful rhetorical tool, but not one which should be mistaken for straightforward continuity.
Nor it was not all about continuity either. The focus of Sarah Hamilton’s paper was rites of excommunication, which are first recorded in the tenth century. This raises important questions about the impetus behind such acts of codification. Similarly my own paper touched on some of the earliest examples of imitative script – that is, self-consciously archaic writing – from Europe, whilst Sarah Greer provided a thoughtful consideration of the foundation of Quedlinburg, one of the most important new convents of the tenth century. There was, therefore, plenty new going on in these years. But just as change can often be detected within continuity, so one must be careful not to exaggerate the novelty of these developments: new texts, rites and convents certainly came to the fore, but these often owed much to the past.
The cardinal lesson of the conference – if it might be distilled into one – was therefore that we must be wary of overstated claims about both continuity and change: the same texts and artefacts can mean very different things within different contexts, while different texts and artefacts may fulfil very similar functions. Perhaps most importantly, the papers all underscored the vitality of the ‘long tenth century’ as a period of transition between the early and central Middle Ages. It has long been my belief that historians of the period could learn a great deal from scholars of Late Antiquity – who have transcended the ancient/medieval divide so well – and it is promising to see steps in this direction. Indeed, as Patrick Geary noted in the concluding discussion, it would be nice to see more experts on the eleventh and twelfth century integrated as the project continues. It is only when we start to shed our identities as ‘early’ and ‘central’ medievalists that we will truly start to understand these fascinating and dynamic years.
Whether there are any lessons to be learned here for a nation facing the prospect of Brexit and dreaming of ‘Empire 2.0’, is perhaps a question best left to a different day. For the time being, it looks as if the future of tenth-century studies is bright; this ‘Age of Iron’ (as Cardinal Baronio once called it) may yet come to be appreciated in its full diversity and complexity.
Dr Levi Roach, Lecturer in Medieval History
Self-Defenestration, Squatting and Structural Stress: The History and Conservation of St Nicholas’ Priory, Exeter
For some years now St Nicholas’ Priory, in the area of Exeter off Fore Street known as ‘the Mint’, has been closed to the public. However, conservation work continues and plans to reopen at least parts of the priory are afoot. The building is managed by Exeter Historic Buildings Trust (EHBT) and I recently met with the Trust’s representative, Lesley Lake, to discuss the priory’s history and its future.
The priory’s history goes back to shortly after the Norman Conquest. Gytha, Harold Godwinson’s mother, owned numerous properties in Exeter including St Olave’s Church; after the newly crowned King William defeated a rebellion by the city of Exeter in 1068, he gifted the church to Battle Abbey. In 1087 the monks from Battle who had been sent to take over the abbey’s new property decided to establish a Benedictine priory nearby as a sister house of Battle and dedicated it to St Nicholas. Over the following centuries the priory expanded, with most of what remains today dating from the fifteenth century.
Along with many other similar sites, much of St Nicholas’ was torn down following the Dissolution in 1536, leaving only the northern and western ranges standing. An amusing account survives describing how several local Exeter women attacked the workmen who came to dismantle the rood screen within the church, chasing one up the tower and forcing him to leap out of a window to safety. In spite of (or, rather, because of) their religious fervour the women were arrested and the remaining buildings were sold off. Eventually the priory was purchased by Robert Mallet in 1562, whose family leased the property for the next two centuries and converted part of the buildings into a mansion. During the mid-seventeenth century it was divided into two separate dwellings and Mint Lane was created, though it was not until 1864 that the dwelling over the lane connecting the two ranges was pulled down to widen the lane to the size it is today. In 1820 the Wilcocks purchased the building known as the ‘Priory’ and converted it into five premises for rent – the property was eventually sold to Exeter Corporation in 1912 and opened as a museum in 1916. Meanwhile, in 1775 the Roman Catholic Mission moved into a tenancy in another part of the extant buildings, the ‘Refectory’. Eleven years later, Lord Hugh Clifford of Chudleigh purchased the buildings for their permanent use, leading to the construction of the Roman Catholic church in 1788 and the Roman Catholic school of St. Nicholas in 1855. By 1959 the church and school had left the premises and in 1991 the Roman Catholic Diocesan Trust put the buildings on the market. In 1995 Carol Griffiths came across the empty and decaying Refectory and set about its restoration, founding the EHBT in 1996 and securing the lease of the property in 1998.
Today, the priory complex remains divided into these two sites: the ‘Priory’ or ‘St Nicholas’ Priory’ to the west; and the ‘Refectory’ at 21 The Mint to the north. ‘St Nicholas’ Priory’ is a Grade 1 listed building and is owned by Exeter City Council. It includes the Prior’s chambers, guest chambers, kitchen, a Norman cellar, and retains an original plaster ceiling – most of these rooms have been restored to resemble a Tudor dwelling.
The Refectory is a Grade 2* listed building and is leased by the EHBT from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Plymouth. The eighteenth-century Catholic church and the nineteenth-century school buildings are still extant and stand on the site of the chapter house and priory church, with a walled garden replacing what was once the roofed cloister. During the mid-seventeenth century the Refectory was sub-divided into several storeys and now contains the Refectory on the top floor, a flat, and a three bedroom house. Both the flat and the house are currently occupied and are the only income stream the EHBT have for the property outside of donations. The medieval roof timbers in the Refectory are particularly impressive and come from trees that were felled between 1439 and 1453.
The conservation of both sites has proved challenging. Squatters took over the Refectory in 1999 and stripped a Georgian cupboard of its panels for firewood. A little later, the refurbishment of roof was interrupted when the initial contractors went bankrupt – leaving the work unfinished and the medieval roof protected by only tarpaulins. The current closure of the Priory has been caused by significant structural problems, in part thanks to a large and heavy oak screen from the fifteenth century whose weight has been bearing down on the Norman cellar beneath. This problem is currently being solved by suspending the oak screen from a steel arch above, which is also designed to fortify the walls. In spite of these setbacks the EHBT and the Council have resolutely continued with their restorations. Of course, such hard work requires funds and, according to the EHBT, a total of £819,000 has been raised so far, much of which represents the award of Heritage Lottery Fund money for the project.
Although there is still plenty of work to be done and many organisational matters to resolve, enough should be completed for the Priory to open to the public for the Heritage Open Days festival in September. Parts of the site should also be open on 22 and 23 July, while on 21 July a special reception is planned for organisations who would potentially like to use this space for exhibitions, theatrical performance, or even ghost-hunting! If you have an event and would like to make use of this space, then you should contact EHBT via firstname.lastname@example.org – Lesley and the members of the trust will be very happy to hear from you! Hopefully, there will soon be plenty of diverse events to attend within these two fascinating buildings.
Tom Chadwick, PhD student in History
I recently participated in a campus visit for Year 9 and 10 school pupils as part of Exeter’s Widening Participation scheme to encourage a larger pool of students to consider a degree in the humanities. I offered the pupils two workshops in historical studies, focusing on the medieval and early modern worlds. I selected these topics, partly, because they represented my own areas of expertise and, partly, because I wanted to provide a (hopefully, welcome!) alternative to the predominance of modern history in the current school curriculum. The experience of planning and leading the workshops was very illuminating and prompted some reflections on my own attitudes to the differences between education at school and university, and the influence which these differences have on the responses of students to the work we assign them.
‘Preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done’…..so wrote Herodotus in his introduction for the Histories of the Greco-Persian wars in the 5th century BC. This description of the historian’s trade, fortified by Leopold von Ranke’s 19th-century insistence on ‘what really happened,’ remained current until at least the early 20th century and the explosion of the Whig tradition by Herbert Butterfield. Despite this, national and local identities have often depended upon the Rankean ‘scientific’ and teleological interpretation of the past, particularly because it is amenable to narratives of popular, public histories. In contrast, there is the approach taken by the pupils in my recent workshop, who happily observed that ‘history is written by the victors!’ Here effective analysis of events and patterns is done through thoughtful consideration of the position and experiences of the characters who appear in the records. The scholarly version of this second approach, which engages with the diverse perspectives of class, gender and race, is bread and butter for academic historians, but it is often perceived to be in conflict with the ideal of a collective community, which seems to require the support of Ranke’s model of historiography. The black and white shading of these positions are, of course, illusions; the pupils in the workshop were quite aware of the difficulties in examining evidence which is biased or incomplete, and of all disciplines in the humanities history is arguably the most resistant to the stereotype of postmodernist relativism. Nevertheless, even if the distance between the models of history taught in secondary and tertiary education is not so wide, many students seem intimidated by the transition. In this post I would like to discuss this issue from the perspective of working with pupils who were still in school. In brief, reflecting on this change is as useful for tutors as it is for potential students!
One of the difficulties faced by new undergraduates is the frequent requirement for them to recognise and reject some of their preconceived ideas about their chosen subject. The purpose of this demand should expand and invigorate their approach to a discipline, but it can also cause confusion and lead them to question their own abilities… A healthy sense of bamboozlement is, of course, vital for a good life (as I, and others, tell myself in
most some situations). Indeed, for postgraduate research onwards ‘feeling stupid’ is, or should be, a reminder that we are scaling the peaks we once viewed from the base camps in which we produced our undergraduate dissertations. Primary and, especially, secondary education is so focussed on the linear progress of attainment, however, that some students can become so discouraged by the approach to history at university that changing programmes or dropping out entirely seem to be the best options for them. Of course, there are many valid reasons for making these choices, but it ought not to be because of premature assumptions they are not good enough to complete the challenges we set them. The Widening Participation initiative in the College of Humanities seeks to manage the leap across this chasm for students entering undergraduate programmes in its departments, especially if they come from underrepresented groups. The opportunities offered by the College include campus visits, in which pupils receive a tour of the university and attend workshops led by PhD students in the subjects that they might be interested in studying for a degree here or elsewhere.
Designing any seminar or workshop is, of course, challenging and it is especially so when the participants differ from your usual audience. However, the potential for providing an influential experience was an effective motivation; I know myself that early impressions can be very formative… although I decided, wisely I think, to eschew simply screening The 300 Spartans or A Bridge Too Far! I doubt that Richard Egan’s
recitation of his lines performance would have instilled a lasting affinity for the concept of the past not already achieved by Horrible Histories! I led the group of 19 pupils in two sessions, which I divided into discussion of medieval and Early Modern studies (no Nazis!). I began the first session by inducting the pupils into one of the finest traditions of university education: a quiz (including chocolate for the winners). I asked teams of pupils to find a list of images amongst the illustrations on, rather natty, A3 copies of the Mappa Mundi. It was produced c. 1300 and is the largest surviving document of this type and currently resides at Hereford Cathedral. The map, publicised by the cathedral’s wonderful website, is a splendid resource for offering newbies a vivid depiction of the medieval imagination…. The illustration of the Golden Fleece is especially delightful, but all of the images introduce a cultural landscape thankfully removed from the standard syllabus of the Battle of Hastings and Magna Carta. These events are, of course, important landmarks in English and European history, but this was an opportunity to provide the pupils with experience of topics which were not selected because of relevance to their national identity. The first group to find the emblems were suitably rewarded with the aforementioned prizes… Although this was not entirely representative of a university seminar, it did try to explore a different aspect of the past and the students seemed to appreciate it (or, at least, the chocolate!).
I had hoped to devote most of the workshop to discussing a ‘source-book’ of documents on medieval medicine (continuing my focus on the more graphic features of the period!), but the interest of the pupils and teachers inclined towards discussing the general practice of studying history at university: the structure of the degree, the choice of modules, the format of lectures and seminars, the criteria for assessment… These questions would perhaps not inspire them to specialise in the Middle Ages, but it was a useful primer for the general study of history. It was also, as most teaching is, very insightful for me; many aspects of academia that I take for granted (degree classifications etc) were unfamiliar to the students. Holly and Kate, the undergraduate historians who were supporting the school for the entire visit, were probably more useful for this! We did eventually turn to discussion of a medieval source: the rules for doctors in Frederick II’s Constitutions of Melfi (1231). Identifying sources which represented the experience of a university seminar, but were accessible for a mixed group of year 9 and year 10 pupils proved difficult. Although they were willing and had some good ideas, the difference between these stages of education was apparent in the reaction of the different year groups to the material. This was not, I think, because the source was too esoteric or difficult to understand of itself, but because of general intimidation by the perceived complexities of it. This was also apparent in their reaction to the Early Modern texts in the second session: records from the trial of Charles I (1649) and accounts of the Battle of Lexington (1775) by British and American correspondents. Although initially surprised by this reticence, I realised that it was little different from the feelings many of our undergraduates display and, after some prompting from myself and the teacher, the pupils managed to summarise the principal points of both of these sources.
I was genuinely excited by this opportunity to teach school pupils, especially because the brief permitted me to use material so different from that on the usual secondary school syllabi! While I hope it was useful for the pupils, it was definitely a fascinating and informative day for me. It can often be frustrating for tutors when undergraduates have difficulty grasping the content or implications of a particular source, especially when, after so much time above the clouds, if nowhere near the summit (!), it can be difficult for us to see these difficulties ourselves.This workshop reminded me of just how much basic understanding and intellectual engagement I expect from my students – and how daunting it might be to deal with such unfamiliar material. It is something I will bear in mind when teaching classes in the future when, perhaps, one of these pupils might become one of these students!
Zoe Cunningham is a PhD student in the School of Law, affiliated to the Centre of Medieval Studies
In just a few years, family history research has become something of a cultural phenomenon. Proof of this will be apparent to any professional researcher arriving at the National Archives or – perhaps more especially – at a regional record office or heritage centre. Now they will find themselves explaining to the staff that unlike their typical visitor they have in fact called up this charter or that diocesan register for its own intrinsic interest and not simply because of some passing reference to a presumed ancestor. Of course, this surge of interest in family research might fairly be said to have been the salvation of county and city archives, which have seemed ever more vulnerable in face of local authority austerity. In fact the courage of some to cut loose from the direct control of councils owes much to the foot-fall they have seen from self-taught researchers of all ages with a passion discover more about their own past.
The origins of family history
The fashion for family history and its place in prime-time TV may be a recent development but, of course, the tracing of family lines does have a long… pedigree. In England its origins as a subject of scholarly enquiry are usually traced to the years between the Break with Rome (1534) and the outbreak of the Civil War (1642). The early anxieties and later ambitions of the Tudor monarchy gave rise to statutory measures for the regulation of social status and the use of a growing governmental bureaucracy to subject the political nation and the authority they exerted in their own provinces to ever closer, central scrutiny. Henry VIII initiated a cycle of heraldic visitations which continued at regular intervals – with the exception of the years of civil war – until the Glorious Revolution. The crown’s heralds held local elites to account for the arms, and, of course, the titles to which they were accustomed to lay claim. The coming of the visitors caused families to recover their records, create a synthesis and in many instances, to commit them to parchment in a genealogical roll. They were helped in their response by new forms of national and regional history: William Camden’s Britannia (1586) brought the histories of the nation’s counties into focus for the first time; John Weever’s Ancient funeral monuments (1631) gave its readers a glimpse of a distant ancestry which might be their own; in Monasticon Anglicanum (1655-73) William Dugdale and Roger Dodsworth pieced together the testimony of old monastic cartularies and chronicles still widely scattered in the libraries of provincial gentleman.
Family history in the late Middle Ages
Before the relationship between crown and political nation was challenged, and changed, in these years, it is generally assumed that ideas of family identity were not so well focused and that noble and gentry society did not demonstrate the same enterprise in the recording of its own history. The adoption and use of (coats of) arms remained fluid until the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The proof of the right to particular arms or indeed to an inheritance as a whole might be mustered ad hoc but was not a routine feature of noble or gentry discourse. Genealogy as a concept was well understood but was pursued for the most part only in clerical contexts where the descent of emperors, kings, and pontiffs provided a chronological framework for a chronicle narrative, and a narrative of the founder of the monastery and their family line offered a degree of institutional security to a convent community. It has often been suggested that the very first sign of these impulses passing over into lay circles was the making of the Rous Roll, the genealogical history compiled by John Rous, perhaps for Anne Neville before the Battle of Bosworth (1485).
Family history research in fifteenth-century Devon
Yet a manuscript from the Courtenay archives at Powderham Castle, near Exeter, now digitised by specialists from Exeter University’s Digital Humanities team, Charlotte Tupman and Graham Fereday, may present something of a challenge to this conventional view. The Courtenay cartulary has only recently been returned to Powderham and has not been available to researchers for nearly forty years.
It was first brought together in the third quarter of the fourteenth century and its principal contents track the Courtenay family’s acquisition of the old Norman barony of Okehampton which became the mainstay of their medieval earldom, and their commercial development of new towns at the east – Colyford – and the west – Kennford – of their domain. Perhaps as much as fifty years after the manuscript was begun, c. 1400-1425, quires were added at the front containing a family tree and family chronicle. Unusually at this date, the structure of the tree is formed not only of lines and roundels but also with the stem and branches of a tree, formed with broad strokes of a bright green paint. It begins not with the Courtenay family themselves but with the forebears they claimed, with the earldom, the Norman families of De Brionne and De Redvers who held respectively the shrievalty and nascent earldom of Devon in the first generations after the Conquest.
The tree follows the Courtenays from their arrival in England from their original French home at Chateau-Renard in the Val de Loire, their intermarriage with these Norman baronial lines and their claim of the earldom finally recognised by Edward III in 1340. It continues with the succession of Earl Hugh III de Courtenay (d. 1377) who married Margaret de Bohun (d. 1391), granddaughter of Edward I, whose marriage portion included Powderham. Their fourth son, Sir Philip Courtenay (d. 1406), built the castle and it is his descendants who recovered the earldom. The family chronicle expands this narrative and is illustrated with the blazons associated with each generation of the Courtenays and their forbears.
The research of these fifteenth-century Courtenays was based largely on the foundation history of the Cistercian Abbey of Forde, of which they were patrons. The text that is woven around the tree, and continues on into the cartulary not only records the names of each generation, their marriages, issue, obituaries and their place of burial; it also includes passages from the (now lost) longer narrative of the fortunes of the Forde colony of monks from their first settlement at Brightley near Okehampton in 1133 down to the beginning of the fourteenth century. While a number of Cistercian houses compiled genealogies of their founders, it is rare to be able to demonstrate their direct transmission into the records and books of a lay household. Without the monastic original how far the Courtenays copied a Cistercian manuscript is unclear but it seems likely that the visualisation of their tree and the arms in their lineage – each finely painted and picked out in gold leaf – represent their own creative input. In doing so, the corporate, institutional identity which charged the Cistercian narrative was overlaid with its precise counterpoint, an expression of dynastic lordship. Interestingly, the territorial outlook of the original, which represented the White Monks reaching out across the West Country, was retained more-or-less verbatim no doubt because its tone of seigniorial ambition was well-suited to the Courtenays’ own purpose.
Reformation reception of Cistercian history
Remarkably, there is a second manuscript in the Powderham archives which bears witness to the appropriation of Cistercian narrative for the purposes of lay family history. A parchment booklet written in the first half of the sixteenth century contains another copy of the foundation narrative and later history of Forde.
The booklet carries a dated ownership inscription naming William Strode (d. 1579), a major landowner in Somerset and Devon who was energetic in buying up estates at the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Perhaps the pinnacle of Strode’s rise to regional power was his marriage into the Courtenay dynasty. It was his entry into the hold monastic heartland and into the region’s noble lineage which persuaded him to assimilate the same dynastic narrative – already re-purposed once, in the fifteenth century – as his own. More than a decade after the Cistercian community had itself been driven from Forde, their pioneering work in genealogy provided a template for fashioning the identity of an up-and-coming family.
New exhibition at Powderham Castle
The Courtenay family tree, the cartulary and William Strode’s book form part of an exhibition now open to visitors to Powderham Castle curated by Exeter’s Digital Humanities team together with James Clark and Henry French from Exeter’s Department of History.
James Clark, Professor of Medieval History
The Medieval Research Seminar has been particularly active of late. Hot on the heels of Anne Lawrence-Mathers’ fascinating discussion of medieval magic and Sarah Hamilton’s insight into reading and understanding rites, we were very fortunate to play host, on 10 March, to Miriam Cabré. Miriam works at the Universitat de Girona, Catalonia, and has published widely on courtly cultures of medieval Occitania and on the troubadours more broadly. Miriam’s presentation was entitled ‘Literary landscapes and real itineraries: The reasons for mapping the troubadours’. Her paper offered an insight into her latest project, which explores the role played by the troubadours in a broader pan-European culture, while focusing specifically on one particular aspect of her research: attempts to ‘map’ the networks of production and patronage of these works and poets in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
Maps, as Cabré noted, are powerful tools in the hands of literary scholars, and have formed the front-matter of many an introductory text on the subject of troubadours. The production and use of any map, however, is fraught with implicit choices, which can have an important impact on how the works that they accompany are represented. Should the ‘boundaries’ of the map, for instance, represent borders of a linguistic or a political variety? In the context of the troubadours, how should maps represent the relative political importance of individual regions, or individual courts? Many maps (re)produced as front matter to troubadour anthologies ignore Catalonia entirely, and focus totally on the south of modern-day France: what is gained (or lost) through this decision?
Cabré outlined some of the opportunities that her project presents, particularly in emphasising the role of Catalan courts within the broader realm of Occitania. The map being produced by her team, she explained, will be digital: built from the ground up, it will use dynamic ‘layers’ to represent the movements of the troubadours’ courtly patrons, the activity of individual troubadours themselves, and key topographical features as they affected movement and literary production. Miriam offered an advance ‘sneak peek’ of some early builds of her map, demonstrating how useful it will be in visualising the itineraries and disparate geographical references implicit in works by troubadours such as Guillem de Berguedà. She presented an extract from Guillem’s Be·m volria q’om saupes dir (‘I wish someone would tell me …’), replete with place-names, as a particularly compelling example of the insights that this kind of mapping can offer:
Ja·N Ponz Ugz no·s lais adurmir,
qe segurs es q’om li deman
Rochamaura, qe fai bastir,
e la forza de Carmenzon;
e·ls murs q’a faitz a massa gran
lo reis los fara desrochar,
e·ls vals de Castellon razar.
[‘Let Sir Pons Uc not slumber, / For it is certain he will be asked to hand over / Rocamaura, which he had built, / And the stronghold of Carmenzon; / And the king will tear down / The thick walls walls he has had built / And raze the valley of Castellon.’]
Maps, as recent endeavours such as Medieval Francophone Literary Cultures Outside France have shown, can be powerful tools in helping researchers to appreciate the physicality of the literatures that we study. As Cabré’s Troubadours and European Identity: The Role of Catalan Courts project will aim to demonstrate, maps remind us that texts such as those contained in troubadour chansonniers were, ultimately, products of a particular time and place, composed in the context of specific geopolitical events. As Miriam herself explained, the broad scope of her project is reflected in the composition of the project team, which includes specialists in multiple disciplines and benefits from a healthy variety of approaches. The intersection between disciplines of ‘medieval studies’ was reflected in the audience for the talk itself, which boasted a healthy attendance of both literary scholars and historians.
All of us at the Centre for Medieval Studies would like to offer our thanks to Miriam for a fascinating and thought-provoking presentation, which certainly gave us all an opportunity to reflect on the potential of digital and multidisciplinary approaches for our own research. Miriam’s visit was organised by Dr. Thomas Hinton, a lecturer in French at Exeter who himself specialises in medieval Occitan (and who, in the true spirit of interdisciplinary, provided the translations for this blog post).
Edwards Mills, PhD student
Arabic has not tended to be regarded as a language of medieval Europe, despite being spoken across parts of the Iberian Peninsula for nearly 800 years and indeed elsewhere too (Sicily, for example). Study of the south of the peninsula has been assigned to ‘Arabists’, often placed within Middle Eastern or Islamic history departments, whilst the northern kingdoms have been methodologically situated with studies of Latin Christendom. Yet, in reality, medieval Spain defies easy catagorisation. Its societies were multi-religious, multi-cultural and more often than not multi-lingual, and cultural, linguistic and economic interaction took place across the Peninsula throughout the Middle Ages. Recent research into the ever-porous borders between Spanish kingdoms has started to change how we imagine medieval Spain, and to break down methodological divisions between ‘north’ and ‘south’, but this also has implications for the languages expected of medieval Hispanicists. The city of Toledo is a good example. Toledans continued to speak and write in Arabic for some two hundred and fifty years after the city’s capture by the Christian king of Castile, Alfonso VI, in 1085. By the start of the thirteenth century, the period covered by my PhD research, the documentary records of Toledo Cathedral were being produced in both Latin and Arabic. Moreover, the local Arabic-speaking population were beginning to take up office as cathedral canons, meaning that both languages, as well as Romance (early Spanish or Castilian), would have been used on a daily basis in the cathedral chapter.
The high bar set by the medieval clergy of Toledo thus provides a challenge today if we are to try to fully understand these complicated and multi-lingual societies. As such, last summer saw me in Amman, Jordan, kindly sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to attend a language course in order to improve my Classical Arabic. I studied at the Qasid Arabic Institute, one of several language schools in Amman, and an institute with a reputation for excellence in Classical Arabic, that is, the language of the Qur’an and many medieval documents. The school operates across the academic year, with autumn, spring and summer terms, although the latter, running from mid-June to the end of August, is both the most intense and the most popular, drawing students from across Europe, America and Asia. I had taken several years of Arabic classes on joining, but Qasid accepts students at all levels, from complete beginners to those who wish to study Arabic poetry. The school runs a range of programmes, but the one that caught my eye was their course aimed at reading Classical Arabic, with additional classes available for those interested in medieval religious texts. I had four or five hours of lessons a day in small groups (sometimes as small as three to a teacher), and we were set a rigorous drill of homework every night for the following morning. It was certainly not a holiday! It was however incredibly enriching, and also very stimulating to learn in a linguistically immersive environment as using Arabic every day in Amman, despite the many differences with medieval usage, nonetheless involved putting into practice much of what I had learnt. By the end of the course, I was able to produce a translation of one of the early thirteenth-century charters I am working on for my PhD (the only full translation into any other language), and had been part of an extra class studying medieval commentaries on the Qur’an.
In addition to daily Arabic classes, it was also a great pleasure to explore Amman’s vibrant culture and history, and that of Jordan more broadly. Petra, the Dead Sea, and the Dana Nature Reserve were all remarkable. However, as an historian, I was particularly delighted to visit two twelfth-century crusading castles (Karak and Ajloun), the breath-taking Roman city of Jerash, and two eighth-century desert castles, Qasr Amra and Qasr al-Kharanah. These belong to a series of castle buildings, mainly caravanserai and hunting lodges, built by royal members of the Umayyad dynasty (660-750), which stretch through the deserts of Jordan, Syria, Israel and Palestine. It was a great privilege to be able to visit them, and to be reminded of the vibrancy of medieval Islamic culture, which had connections far beyond the region – among the remarkable frescos at Qasr Amra is an image of an early eighth-century Visigothic king of Spain!
Undertaking an intensive Arabic course in Jordan was a very enriching experience, and extremely helpful in allowing me to access the full scope of source material, very little of which has been translated, from thirteenth-century Toledo. I am very grateful to have been supported by the AHRC South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership, the sponsors of my PhD, whose generous Student Development Fund, aimed specifically at skills and language training, covered my tuition fees, accommodation and flights. A number of other funding sources are also available for students wishing to study Arabic, and anyone interested in applying would be advised first of all to contact their own university, but also to research Amman-based financial support, such as the British Institute in Amman, who offer visiting fellowships and grants.
If you are a researcher working on areas in which Islamic and Christian societies co-existed or collided, then I would encourage you to consider the many options available for learning Arabic. It will not only open up a wider range of source material to your study, but will also allow a more comprehensive approach to these complex and diverse societies. The medieval past doesn’t always provide a model for inclusivity and tolerance, but it certainly has much to teach us about the value of multi-lingualism and the sheer practical benefit of learning another language.
Teresa Witcombe, PhD Student (Exeter and Bristol)
I’m very much looking forward to joining the community at Exeter this coming autumn, and I would like to take the opportunity to introduce myself and my work.
Currently I’m finishing up a project: a study of saints from abroad in early medieval Rome. The city of Rome guided me to this project. Wandering through Rome—one of my favorite pastimes—led me to puzzle about the city’s many saintly presences. On the Tiber Bend, for example, we find, in close vicinity, churches for the marvelous wonder-worker St. George, the soldier-saint Theodore and, conveniently close to the Tiber, for St. Nicholas, a bishop with a reputation for assisting travelers in distress.[i] All three of these saints are ‘saints from abroad’, that is, saints who, according to their hagiographical legends, lived and died in locations outside of Rome. What are these saints doing in Rome?
The rise of ‘Christian’ Rome tends to conjure up images of Peter and Paul and the catacombs with their many martyrs. In the words of Ferdinand Gregorovius’ magisterial (1869-1872) History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages, a new Rome ‘rose again from out of the catacombs, her subterranean arsenal’, her Empire ‘transformed into an ecclesiastical system, with the pope as its center.’[ii] But when we look within the city walls we find that the new spiritual topography was shaped, as much, if not more, by saints from abroad.
The period I’ve considered is from roughly the 6th to 9th centuries. This isn’t because saints from abroad weren’t present in the city beforehand. Already the earliest list of saints venerated in Rome, the mid-5th-century Depositio Martyrum, includes North African saints: St. Cyprian and Sts. Perpetua and Felicita.[iii] Nor, of course, does the introduction of saints from abroad come to a halt in the 9th century. However, the reason to focus on the period from shortly before the ‘reconquest’ of Italy by Justinian’s armies in the mid-6th centuries through the 8th century is that this was a period in which Rome was still very much part of the ‘Byzantine’ world of the Eastern Mediterranean. Correspondingly, saints who belonged to the ‘cultural koine’ of the late antique/early medieval Mediterranean world readily settled in Rome.
The story I’ve tried to piece together is how and why these saints were settled in Rome and what impact they had on the city. It is a story of Byzantine administrators and Roman ecclesiastics, but also of communities of immigrants and Romans, their names long forgotten, who patronized saints from abroad for the protection and support these saints offered. Fragmentary as the evidence is, it helps wrench us away from an image of a monolithic papal Rome that grew out of its own ‘native’ sanctity.
The presence of these saints in Rome reflect their patrons’ Mediterranean horizons. Once in Rome their legends maintained the memory of the far-flung locations from which they were purported to originate, adding particular inflexion to the city. Moreover, these saints, just like their Roman counterparts, were in dialogue with the monumental Roman past into which they entered, imbuing it with new Christian meaning.
Take St. Hadrian. According to his passio, St. Hadrian was an administrator who converted to Christianity and was martyred in Nicomedia. His relics were said to have been brought to Constantinople soon after his death. What better location in Rome for a Constantinopolitan administrator-saint than the Senate House!
When Pope Honorius (r. 625-638) dedicated the senate house to St. Hadrian the architectural changes were minimal. The marble revetment and benches where the senators had once sat remained in place. This was then a site that continued to hearken to its imperial legacy and yet, whose saint proposed a radically new vision of empire. A new Rome was taking shape, still grounded in its imperial, Mediterranean, past.
Dr Maya Maskarinec, Lecturer in Medieval Mediterranean History
[i] The earliest surviving written attestations of a church dedicated to Nicholas at the Tiber bend date from the time of Pope Urban II (r. 1088-1099). However, circumstantial evidence (in particular a column inscription from within the church) suggests a significantly earlier date.
[ii] Ferdinand Gregorovius, Geschichte der Stadt Rom im Mittelalter: vom V. bis zum XVI. Jahrhundert (1859–1872), edited by W. Kampf, 4 vols. (Munich: C.H. Beck, 1978; first edition 1953-57); trans. A. Hamilton, History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages, 8 vols. (London: Bell, 1894–1902), here 1.1, pp. 10; 17-18.
[iii] Depositio Martyrum, ed. R. Valentini and G. Zucchetti, in Codice topografico della città di Roma II, Fonti per la storia d’Italia 88 (Roma: Tipografia del Senato, 1942): 17-28.