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In conversation with… Alice Taylor, Part II: “Culture Wars”, the State, and Overlordship in Twelfth-Century Scotland

This is the second part of the students’ interview with Alice Taylor, an expert on medieval Scotland. This part of the discussion covers the concept of “culture wars”, the impact of an increasing literate mentality on the state, and the dynamics of overlordship.

Stuart Pracy is the chair and we rejoin the conversation with a question from Jamie Hodgskin.


JH: You were talking to Damien earlier about the Forth and how it was such a conspicuous border between the north and south… Do you think there was a sort of culture war between the incoming Anglo-Normans and the existing Gaelic magnates?

Alice Taylor: I think it’s a really difficult question to answer. First of all, the term “culture wars” is something that is located from the 1970s onwards… If you’re interested in this, there’s a very interesting book by two American historians called Fault Lines, which talks about when and how the idea of culture became part of contemporary politics and why – just FYI, super interesting! But in terms of politics being led by perceived cultural difference, I think there’s a very rich vein of potential inquiry here. There are some very oft-quoted examples, like the one from the early thirteenth-century Crowland chronicler where he says the king of Scots, at this point William, doesn’t like his own people and only listens to Frenchmen. And you’ve got the wonderful chronicle of Jordan Fantosme on the 1173-74 rebellion where he says pretty much the same thing: William doesn’t like listening to his own people. So there is an idea that there is a separation in Scotland between native counsellors and incoming counsellors, and that the king is listening only to his own men, a small cabal of people speaking a different language. There’s also some very interesting Gaelic poetry translated by Thomas Clancy in The Triumph Tree, where it’s said how bad it is that David has divided us from Alexander, i.e. David’s brother Alexander I. There’s this sense that, in the early twelfth century, Alexander was someone who didn’t make linguistic divides a thing versus David, who did…

And in the twelfth century, we also have the transformation of an elite language from Gaelic to French. But we don’t know whether that’s actually happening in Scotland, because we’ve got the issue of English here. Lothian, the heart of the kingdom, is an English-speaking area – it’s not Gaelic-speaking. So this idea of a Gaelic/French or Gaelic/English divide – these are not easy divides to talk about. You also have the methodological issues of how far linguistic differences equal cultural differences. Again, we don’t know these things. So this is a long way of saying you are looking at a period of profound change where it is possible to reframe these questions along cultural and linguistic lines. But we do not really know whether this was done, because of the difficulties in our evidence.

And there are other sorts of fault lines as well about Highland and Lowland that we begin to see playing out in the difference between Galwegians (the people of Galloway) and Scots. There’s a lot of stuff about the awful Galwegians and how dreadful they are. So when a French romance is written called the Romance of Fergus of Galloway, which is hilarious in many ways, the story is how this Lord Fergus becomes more “civilized”. He moves from Galloway, goes on a quest in Scotland, north of the Forth, and then is so changed by the experience that he is able to become a lord of Lothian! So that’s his journey from Galloway, Scotland, north of the Forth, to Lothian – and that’s a journey of civilizing.

So the short answer to your question is that you can’t say precisely, yes, “culture war” is the way to think about this – but it is a way into thinking about something. Even if the term doesn’t really fit, it is nonetheless interesting to think with it.

Gigi Roxburgh: The work we’ve read of yours was talking about the relationship between the Scottish royalty and the aristocracy, and I was wondering how that relationship changed in a time when there was a growing literate mentality?

AT: It’s a really good question. Let me take a few steps back… One of the big issues when looking at government in this period is the heavy hand of a much bigger historical narrative about the rise of the modern nation state. It’s been a huge pressing historical question: how do you explain the modern state? When did it emerge? Why did it emerge? And why did it emerge in Europe? In some ways, these are questions of political theory and political thought, but they are told historically, they’re told through history. One of the big changes that has been posited here, by the sociologist Max Weber and others, is the idea of the bureaucratisation and the institutionalisation of relationships of power. So you basically move from a scenario which Weber calls patrimonial power, where you can exercise power based on who you are and your inherited position, versus a scenario where power and authority are exercised through officers, as in it shouldn’t matter who I am, I’m the King, and it shouldn’t matter who you are, you’re the justice – and you fulfil that role. It’s what Weber calls the “disenchantment of modernity”. So when you’re looking at that in relation to governments in medieval states, the central Middle Ages is the first time in European history since the Roman Empire that you can begin to see the bureaucratisation of power. And this is reflected in the rise in the survival of documents as the way in which you do business. This is discussed in, sadly, the late Michael Clanchy’s extraordinary book From Memory to Written Record, where he talks about how the use of documents trumps literacy. He also said you don’t need state-sponsored education to promote literacy. You can do this through interaction with documents: pragmatic literacy.

To get it back to Scotland, there are two issues here. One is the idea that in order to have a state, you can’t have patrimonial power. In the twentieth century, this created a lot of narratives of state formation that essentially said the way in which we understand the rise of the state is the declining power of the aristocracy – that if you’ve got state formation, you necessarily have to exclude aristocratic power first. In the Middle Ages, you’ve got these moments of transition. You give out fiefs to the aristocracy and then, through bureaucracy, you take lordly power away from them and you give it to government or to the judicial system. And the big conflicts of the later Middle Ages are primarily about this: the aristocrats are cross that power is being taken away from them and the state is happy because they’re taking away power from aristocrats. And how well a state does that affects its later trajectory. So the narrative goes that the French didn’t do it well enough and that’s why you have the French Revolution. That’s the big, big historical question there.

Now in Scotland it’s much more complicated because you don’t have an end-point of a “modern nation state” because Scotland doesn’t develop into an autonomous “bureaucratic” state in the seventeenth century – it becomes part of the Union of Crowns. It retains its own distinct legal system, but it becomes incorporated into a British state. And, as a result, for a long time Scottish statehood wasn’t a pressing historical question – because there was nothing to connect it with the modern age, if that makes sense. A lot of the work that was done in the twentieth century on medieval states was very much about that longue durée idea of connection, the rise of parliament, for example, or the growth of representative institutions. So if you don’t have that modern connection, it means that scholarship gets stymied – and that’s what happened in Scottish historiography. So my book was basically about trying to write that history, i.e. what was the Scottish state?

And the second point is that it’s a really interesting example of a state where you don’t have state formation produced by this battle between aristocratic and royal interests. They kind of progressed together with aristocrats running the state in a different context. In a way, that’s quite surprising! It’s different from England and actually resembles something that’s much more like France.

So the rise of thinking about literacy is, in some way, a spur to thinking about statehood and how to understand embedded elite power in statehood. I think it’s a pressing historical question and that’s what the book was trying to do for this one polity.

Stuart Pracy: I think it’s really interesting to place your book in that longue durée discussion – and to make that idea of the bigger framework really explicit. Has anyone got any remaining questions that they want to ask?

Harry Fayter: My question ties in with my sources essay… When Scottish kings are put under subordination by English kings, to what degree did they remain loyal to the English king? Or to what degree did they try and undermine their authority?

AT: It’s a fantastic question because this is the idea behind your module ‘The Celtic Frontier’ – the idea of the creation of a frontier and what that frontier is defined in relation to. Here the rise of English kingship and its attempts to impose dominance over the remaining parts of the British Isles and Ireland is the key narrative.

To what extent do Scottish kings try to subvert this overlordship, to resist it, to accept it? In 1175, when William has been captured and the Treaty of Falaise is imposed, it’s devastating for everybody and, you could arguably say, leads directly to political conflict in Moray and in the north. It also leads to the intensification of royal government there, and it poses internal political problems for William. Partly, this is because the flipside of overlordship is protection: he is protected through his subordination. And that dynamic between resistance, domination, and protection is a dynamic we can see playing out in different ways in different contexts, i.e. with relations between Welsh princes, Irish kings, Irish lords etc. There’s been this extraordinary discovery by David Carpenter of the text of the Treaty of Norham in 1209, in which William submits to overlordship by King John. And we might ask why? In some ways, it’s because he doesn’t have a choice: when you are dealing with insurrections all the time (as William was), you probably think that you’re just going to have to commit yourself to this more powerful person.

‘the flipside of overlordship is protection’ 

My advice for your essay would be to look at the language of lordship that is being used in treaties, to look at the circumstances in which they were imposed, and to treat each case as participating in a similar kind of rhetoric, i.e. the language of liege lordship or overlordship. And think about the capacity of those words to bestow sometimes very heavy obligations, as in the Treaty of Falaise, and sometimes very light obligations, as in some of the early treaties with the Welsh. But then again, you’ve got to remember that they basically tear up most of these treaties after a few weeks! Like the Treaty of Windsor with Henry II – it lasts six months! You’ve also got to think about it in terms of the symbolic power of these treaties, rather than actually wanting to enforce them to the letter.

SP: Alice, thank you so much for your time. Before you go, are there any last remarks you want to make?

AT: I think the twelfth century is a really profound period for changing relationships in the British Isles and Ireland, and it’s a past that continues to be felt today. It’s still being contested, it’s still being worked out – it is very much part of current discussions! So it’s a very important time to be studying these sorts of questions.


In conversation with… Alice Taylor, Part I: Scottish Identity, Intermarriage, and “Revolts”

Dr Alice Taylor on-call and mid-flow!

Last month, students on the Special Subject module ‘The Celtic Frontier: Post-Conquest England and her Celtic Neighbours’ were given the opportunity to interview Dr Alice Taylor, an expert on medieval Scotland and author of The Shape of the State in Medieval Scotland, 1124-1290 (Oxford, 2016). The students’ questions focused on the long twelfth century and ranged from Scottish identity and culture to elite politics. After 50 minutes (!!) of grilling, we finally let Alice go…

This blog post and the next provide the highlights of our discussion. They are must-reads for students working on Scotland in the twelfth century – we are very grateful to Alice for both her time and her full responses!

The session was chaired by Dr Stuart Pracy with students on the module posing the questions. We begin with a question from Damien Welham.


DW: I’ve got a question on Scottish identity… It’s quite broad, but how did the coming of Anglo-Normans shift what it meant to be Scottish? And what would you say were the main problems that they caused?

Alice Taylor: Goodness, Damien, that’s a big question! So the question ‘how does elite settlement into Scotland over the twelfth century change political culture’ is, basically, the question that has preoccupied historians of medieval Scotland for about 200 years – and there have been many different ideas about it.

There are people who would call it the ‘Normanization’ of Scotland, that what happens to Scotland is the same as what happens to England following the Norman Conquest. So you have the imposition of fiefs, you’ve got the rise of French as the dominant language of the elites, you’ve got castle-building… It’s what happens to England in miniature. And if you were reading a book in the 1950s then this would be what you would read.

Now, there have been a number of people who have been working since the 1950s who are like, ‘hold on a second!’ Because what’s happened over the last 70 years is, essentially, a kind of cultural limitation of the effects of Anglo-Norman settlement. A lot has been done in terms of reframing. What’s the biggest shift in the geopolitics of north Britain? Rather than Anglo-Norman settlement, it’s the shift of the kingdom of Alba from north of the Forth to south of the Forth.

The Firth of Forth is a really, really big divide, even in Scotland now. And until the Forth Bridge was built, it was really difficult to get over. So in the thirteenth century and, indeed, before, people would call Scotland north of the Forth an island. If you look at the maps of Matthew Paris from the thirteenth century, he presents Scotland north of the Forth as being only connected to the rest of Britain by a bridge. And this area north of the Forth was called ‘Scotland’ – so the Kingdom of the Scots was much bigger than the area of ‘Scotland’.

Northern Britain as depicted by Matthew Paris ©BL

So, in a way, the big transition is the eleventh-century shift in the centre of power of the Scottish kingdom and Scottish kings to being within the area now called Lothian. That’s the area that contains Edinburgh, Roxburgh and (then) Berwick – kind of urban settlements. The incorporation of Lothian as the centre of Scottish kingship is a more profound shift for the geopolitics of Scotland because, if you think about it, if your centre is in the north, then who are you most interested in? Essentially, Norway and Denmark – not the kingdom of England! Whereas what happens in the late eleventh century is you’ve got a new dynasty, which is situating itself as being the rightful kings of England, in a way, and looking much more to the south as the primary area of diplomatic engagement. And so the settlement of the Anglo-Normans needs to be seen in that context, which is a cultural shift seen in the kings of Scots themselves. So you can absolutely see big changes because you have the replacement of an elite! But those big changes need to be seen in the context of a much broader shift that is being led by kings, rather than being led against kings, if that makes sense.

DW: Thank you very much! This week I’ve read quite a lot about this Forth divide and that I found that quite interesting.

AT: It is! It is really interesting because it’s also this idea of the symbolic power of Scotland north of the Forth. There’s this extraordinary source called On the Location of Alba which was written in the late twelfth century and talks about the symbolic division of the kingdom of the Scots into seven – and the earliest division is the area north of the Forth. So there’s the question of whether or not the south is Scottish… At this point, the monks of Melrose, an abbey in the modern Scottish borders, are still writing about themselves as though the Scots are other people. They only start seeing themselves as being part of the kingdom in the thirteenth century – Dauvit Broun has written about this.

We always like to complicate things as historians, but even talking about Scotland is a kind of later imposition on what is actually a much more complicated polity that these elites are entering. And they’re thinking ‘well, this is very different from my fief in Shropshire’… Which it is! If you were Walter FitzAlan and you were given Ayrshire you might have been like ‘my lordship in Shropshire has not really prepared me for this…’ That would be how I would certainly feel if I were him!

Stuart Pracy: I’ve been to both Scotland and Shropshire and they are very different – so I will back you up on that! It’s definitely different.

AT: And it’s different strategies of lordship. That also puts a very different spin on the idea of intermarriage. You know the imperative, the need to intermarry, because what you’re marrying into is knowledge. What does it mean to be an Anglo-Norman lord in Angus? It’s very, very different from Sussex. And the kinds of social relationships that you’re entering into… marriage is a really, really useful tool for that.

SP: Hanife, it looks like you have a question you want to ask that follows on from this.

Hanife Hursit: Yes, my question was actually in relation to intermarriage, and I’m interested in the role that women played. Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to find much information on it, I guess because it’s the medieval period. But my question was going to be on the importance of intermarriage in Scottish politics and the wider role that women played – and your take on that.

AT: It’s a really interesting question – and in some ways the example of Scotland only highlights some of the issues that we have looking at the twelfth century in particular. Most of the evidence from medieval Scotland in this period survives from charters. You might have been introduced to the People of Medieval Scotland database (POMS), which contains information about all the people who are mentioned in the Scottish charter corpus. And it’s both a funny and sad fact that for about 200 years there are more people in that database called William than there are women! The materials that we have to study even just aristocratic women are based on what we can garner from charters, because there’s not much in the way of a chronicle tradition in this period…

‘It’s both a funny and sad fact that for about 200 years there are more people in that database called William than there are women!’

We know that there are hugely powerful heiresses, women who exercise vast amounts of power and authority, particularly in the west, and who we know are acting as these key nodes of lordly patronage and lordly networks – but we don’t really know anything more than that. We also know that there are large numbers of intermarriages not just through the existing Gaelic-speaking aristocracy but also, for want of a better word, Anglo-Norman women who are marrying major mormaers (regional rulers). We also know a lot about women’s patronage, what they give land to. But it is very, very difficult to look at the political role of women here because there’s just not a lot of twelfth-century evidence, even though we know intermarriage is the way in which these incoming lords must have embedded themselves.

So, an example is my totes fave Eschina, lord of Mow in Roxburghshire, who sometimes calls herself Eschina of London – and she is somebody whose marriage patterns you can actually track! Eschina of Mow/London marries Walter FitzAlan, her first husband, and it’s also possible that she is related to the mother of William the Lion’s high-profile illegitimate son Robert of London. Her marriage alliances are, essentially, ways in which she starts exercising firstly, her power over southern Scotland through her marriage to Walter FitzAlan and, secondly, embeds herself in that south-easterly lordship of Roxburgh, which is the richest area of the kingdom at this time. But you have to do that work yourself… That’s the annoying thing about studying aristocratic women in Scotland – and that’s where POMS is really helpful. So you can type in Eschina’s name into POMS and immediately you get all the known information about her. She’s somebody who doesn’t appear in chronicles and we wouldn’t know anything about her were it not for charters. But it is very clear that in the second half of the twelfth century she is this key node that allows for a lot of other people to gain status through her. I’d say Matthew Hammond is probably the best person to read on women in the adoption of charters. I don’t know if that answers your question!

SP: It’s a very, very thorough answer and I think it covered everything and more, didn’t it?! Do we have another question?

Evan Shingles: My question’s on Scottish royal relationships with the kings of Man and the Isles. I wanted to know how the Scottish kings related to them in the twelfth century: was it always hostile? Was it sometimes positive?

AT: It’s a really interesting question – and the short answer is a bit of both. Incursions from the west start early in the reign of Mael Coluim IV, when he’s young and everyone hates him. There’s been a way of writing until very, very recently (possibly spurred on by devolution) that considers these incursions overwhelmingly in national terms. So anything that looked like an incursion against royal authority would be written as a ‘rebellion’, for example, you’ve got a ‘rebellion in Moray’. It’s the idea that somehow these Scottish kings have natural authority and anything that is against them is understood in the words of rebellion. The last of this tradition is probably Andrew McDonald’s Outlaws of Medieval Scotland, where you are looking at people who are “revolting” and then writing about them as though they are rebels.

And Somerled is very interesting because Alex Woolf has written a really nice piece about a text called the Song of the Death of Somerled. He has this beautiful reading where he basically rewrites the entire history of these incursions from the west in the reign of Mael Coluim and reframes them by saying these aren’t incursions, these aren’t rebellions, these aren’t attacks. This is actually a large diplomatic alliance, which has different people leading at different points and which Somerled is part of. It’s a different option that’s going on in Alba, i.e. Scotland north of the Forth, basically in direct opposition to the kingship of Mael Coluim. So when we’re looking at these relationships it’s sometimes hard to find literature that actually speaks about them in the way that they should be spoken about. Richard Oram in his Domination and Lordship book writes about the reign of Mael Coluim IV very well here, based on the work of the late Alasdair Ross. But that’s very, very recent – that’s in the last 10 years!

And so when we’re thinking about the relationships with the kings of Man and the kings of the Isles, it’s very, very important to see them as being part of a diplomatic alliance in which the authority and legitimacy of kingship is not secure. There are other options, there are other ways of thinking about Scottish kingship, particularly in that middle period of the twelfth century. You could be looking at a very, very different kind of polity which just essentially leaves southern Scotland and Northumberland to the remnants of Mael Coluim III and Margaret’s dynasty, and actually sees a much broader-based alliance between what’s now central and eastern Scotland and the west…

SP: I think that’s a really interesting idea, because your book is all about how Anglo-centric viewpoints on Scotland are problematic. But it’s interesting to see the regional historiographical issues with revolts in the area – an interesting breakdown of historiographical problems within broader historiographical trends!


See our next blog post for ‘Part II: “Culture Wars”, the State, and Overlordship in Twelfth-Century Scotland’

Congratulations, Prof. David Bates! Distinguished Alumnus Wins Prestigious Prize

David Bates, who received his PhD from the University of Exeter in 1970, has been awarded the prestigious Prix Syndicat national des Antiquaires du Livre d’Art 2020 for the book La Tapisserie de Bayeux published in 2019 and co-authored with the art historian Xavier Barral i Altet.

The book gained the prize against competition from twenty-three other books from all historical periods. In September 2018, the two authors were invited to submit a proposal for the book by the authorities in Bayeux responsible for the Tapestry to Citadelles & Mazenod who are widely regarded as the leading Art History publisher in France. The authors wrote independently within their fields of expertise, sometimes disagreeing, notably on the subjects of the date and commissioning of the Tapestry. The result is a lavishly illustrated volume containing the two authors’ commentaries accompanied by a magnificent half-size leporello reproduction of the Tapestry (i.e. a pull-out version folded concertina-style). However, such high-end production values come at a cost: the book is priced at €690.00 – making it more suited to institutional than personal budgets! Fortunately, a cheaper version of the commentaries is also available: it costs €29.00 and includes illustrations but not, alas, the leporello reproduction.

Odo of Bayeux as portrayed on the Bayeux Tapestry

The book has a strong connection to David’s doctoral studies in Exeter. David’s PhD, completed under the supervision of Professor Frank Barlow, was a biography of Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the man widely regarded as being in some way ultimately responsible for commissioning the Tapestry. Since then, the Tapestry has been ever-present in David’s professional life, even though this is his first direct publication on the topic. The book required him to revisit subjects that interested him enormously when he worked on his thesis, namely, the nature of Odo’s wide-ranging intellectual patronage and his relations with the Kent churches, notably the abbey of St Augustine’s, Canterbury, the monastery where David and many others believe that the Tapestry was made.

David found writing the book on such a famous subject challenging, particularly given the huge literature published on the Tapestry and the broader issues of artistic creativity, historical accuracy, and authorial motivation. But it also revived memories of the excitement of doing the PhD, of the many people with whom David made contact when writing it, and of the many avenues opened up by studying Odo. Looking back on those times, David also remembers the help given to him by one of Frank Barlow’s earlier research students, Graham Duncombe, who studied the society of post-Conquest Kent, worked for the Victoria History of the Counties of England, and was tragically killed along with other members of the VCH staff in a car accident on the M2. It was Graham who also made many of the introductions that shaped David’s later career during his first prolonged period of work at the Institute of Historical Research, of which David was Director from 2003 to 2008.

The Centre for Medieval Studies sends it heartfelt congratulations to David and thanks him for sharing this good news with us – particularly welcome in these difficult times!

Medieval Research Seminars 2020/21: We’re Back and We’re Online!

It’s the start of a new academic year at Exeter and many things are different. We can’t teach, research, or meet together as a community in quite the same way as before. But we’ve adapted and found workarounds – and it’s no different for the Centre’s Medieval Research Seminar!

We have a full programme of seminars scheduled for this year, details of which are on the Centre’s webpage.  Until further notice, our seminars will meet online. As usual, we will host two public lectures. We’re pleased to announce that John Tolan is giving the Barton Lecture in December, while Elisabeth van Houts will give the Orme Lecture in March. These lectures will be open to all – although we’re still working out the logistics of this! Invitations to the other seminars will be sent out via the Centre’s mailing list. If you’re not on the mailing list and would like to attend a particular talk, then please get in touch with the seminar organisers, Helen Birkett (H.Birkett@exeter.ac.uk) or Levi Roach (L.Roach@exeter.ac.uk).

Moving online has also offered us new opportunities. We are no longer constrained by a travel budget, which means that we can host more international speakers – and we’ll be hearing from scholars based in the US and France this year. The shift online has also encouraged us to experiment with the seminar format. We’ve offered speakers the options of giving a standard 45-minute talk, doing a shorter ‘Show and Tell’ session (where speakers introduce us to a particular source or research question), or taking part in a 40-minute interview with a member of staff. We hope that this will keep our online audiences engaged and increase the chance for discussion.

Des Atkinson and his online ‘Research Masterclass’ in June

Research seminars play a crucial role in maintaining our sense of community at the Centre. It’s where a disparate set of medievalists come together to hear new ideas, meet new scholars, and to interact with each other. We managed to keep these seminars going in May and June, which helped to ease feelings of isolation created by lockdown. Hopefully, this year’s seminar series will continue to add a small sense of normality to this very abnormal time.

Our first scheduled event, the AGM and welcome meeting, will take place on 14 October, just after our MA programmes start. We look forward to seeing members of the Centre then – and non-members at later events!

Helen Birkett, Centre Director


News in the Middle Ages: Read all about it!

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.

Not what news looked like in the Middle Ages…

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!

Helen Birkett

Medieval History in the Classroom: An Interview with Jack Pettitt

Jack Pettitt

Jack Pettitt, an Exeter graduate and secondary school history teacher, has spent his summer filming a series of online videos to help his students learn about the Normans. To make this series look as professional as possible, Jack not only filmed on location at historical sites, but recorded interviews with several academics, including myself and others from the CMS. And after Jack had finished talking to me about the Norman Church, I took the opportunity to ask him a few questions about medieval history and the current secondary school curriculum…

What aspects of medieval history do you teach?

‘In my school, we go from the decline of the Roman Empire to the migration of tribes into Britain, so the Jutes, the Saxons, and the Angles. And then we look at Anglo-Saxon England itself. We cover very basic topics, such as what it was like to live in Anglo-Saxon England, and look at VIPs like Alfred the Great, Offa, etc. Then we do the Norman Conquest in quite a lot of depth. We go from the invasion itself – we cover all three battles in 1066 – all the way through to how William secured control. Then we move on to medieval England. First we take a bottom-up approach and look at things like town life, village life, and the Black Death. Next we do more top-down history and look at medieval kingship. We focus on King John, Magna Carta, and the Peasants’ Revolt.’

How do students respond to medieval history in comparison to modern history?

‘In most lessons I hear “when are we doing WWI?” or “when are we doing WWII?” The students have this perception that modern world wars are the most important and the most engaging and fun. And I think that partly comes from what they do in primary school. But, also, I suppose because it wasn’t that long ago. I teach in a boys’ school and a lot of boys have grown up with stories from their grandparents about WWII and Nazi Germany so it’s more relatable. It’s close. It’s the same with the Cold War when I teach it to my GCSE students. They’ve got an emotional or cultural connection to some of the stuff, like the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan – and you can see it. Whereas when you teach about the Anglo-Saxons or Normans, it’s so far away it’s another world.’

So how do you make medieval history engaging?

‘My ethos is that I love the subject and that’s going to come through, hopefully, in my teaching. But sometimes for the average person, you need to make a link. Teaching history is about finding the relevance for your students. For example, showing how the Magna Carta is relevant today, how it was a step towards a more democratic society.

I also try to bring topics to life and I think that’s very, very important. You’re not meant to have a bias when teaching, but some of the stuff I find really dry, like the farming calendar – I couldn’t think of anything drier! In contrast, my Black Death scheme of work runs over four lessons: I turn the whole classroom into a medieval apothecary and I wear a lab coat and look at symptoms and cures.

I also teach every lesson to an inquiry question, which is grounded in historical rigour. For example, my King John lesson asks if Disney’s representation of King John is fair. So we look at how Disney portrayed him in Robin Hood and then we look at what historians, such as Marc Morris and Stephen Church, have said. I try to ground my lessons with the work of historians. And it makes it fun, doesn’t it?

Finally, why are you doing the video series?

‘This is a crazy idea I had in January. I thought wouldn’t it be cool if I could teach a lesson and the kids could see me, their teacher, doing history in the field? How inspiring would that be! They would love it! And it makes use of current digital technology. Plus, not only will it show the kids that their teacher is passionate about the topic, but it will be a great teaching aid for others.’

Helen Birkett

Forging the Past in Medieval Exeter

May is an exciting month for Exeter’s Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. As a part of Dr Levi Roach’s AHRC funded grant ‘Forging Memory: Falsified Documents and Institutional History in Europe, c.970-1020’, a series of events will be held across the University, and the Cathedral and its Library & Archives exploring Exeter’s genuine and fake medieval documents.

In the 1060s, shortly before the Norman Conquest, the canons at Exeter Cathedral produced a series of fake royal charters. These forgeries claimed that King Æthelstan of England (924-39) had granted the church multiple pieces of land along the Exe valley. These fakes tell us little about the reign of Æthelstan, but they do provide a fascinating snapshot into the concerns of the eleventh-century cathedral community and its leader, Bishop Leofric.

An Anglo-Saxon forged charter at Exeter Cathedral

Medieval charters were created to record a transaction between two parties, such as a king and a church. As such, they capture the interests of both the donor and the recipient. In contrast, a fraudulent charter only represents the concerns of those who later forged it. Medieval forgeries can therefore provide us with a privileged view into the thoughts and concerns of the clerics who produced them. In the case of Exeter Cathedral, the forgeries in the name of Æthelstan were created to try and enhance the church’s properties: none of the lands ‘Æthelstan’ supposedly granted in the charters were held by the Cathedral in the eleventh-century. Through these forgeries, the canons tried to provide proof of their ancient right to things which did not belong to them.

King Aethelstan (Originally from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge)

Forgeries can tell us about more than just a community’s nefarious ambitions, however. The ways they were composed reveal how medieval people thought about their past. Often, when completing fake documents, forgers would try and copy the style or handwriting of other ancient documents; they were aware that fakes had to look the part. In turn, the authorities invoked in forgeries reveal what parts of the past were most important to a community. At eleventh-century Exeter, it seems that King Æthelstan was a foundational figure.

Including the Æthelstan forgeries, Exeter Cathedral’s Library & Archives hold sixteen pre-Conquest charters – an exceptionally large number for a regional archive.

Between 13-31 May 2019 some of these charters, both forged and genuine, will be displayed in an exhibition held at Exeter Cathedral’s Library & Archives, titled Forging the Past in Medieval Exeter. The exhibition explores how and why the canons at the eleventh-century cathedral produced forgeries, placing their production in the context of changes within the bishopric and Viking invasions. Also displayed throughout the exhibition is the so-called ‘Golden Charter’ – a charter issued by King Æthelred ‘the Unready’ in 994 to the Bishop of Cornwall, in which the see’s privileges are defined and secured. While the contents of this charter are significant in themselves, the charter’s epithet comes from the fact that all its capital letters are covered in gold leaf. The charter is the oldest surviving golden single sheet charter from Anglo-Saxon England. This unique status led to the ‘Golden Charter’ being loaned to the British Library for the internationally acclaimed exhibition Anglo Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, held from October 2018 to February 2019.

Running alongside the exhibition are a series of public tours on Saturday 25, Monday 27 and Tuesday 28 May. These tours provide a unique opportunity to see some of the Archive’s Anglo-Saxon charters up close. They will explore the motivations of specific Exeter forgeries, as well as the dynamic life of these documents in the 1,000 years after they were written. These tours are free, but numbers are limited so booking is essential – please sign up for tickets here.

The month of forgery events is rounded off by Levi Roach’s public talk, ‘Fake founders and counterfeit claims: the forged documents of medieval Exeter’, held in the Cathedral Chapter House at 19.00 on Thursday 30 May. In this talk, as well as discussing the forgeries produced at Exeter during Bishop Leofric’s episcopacy, Levi will place these fake documents in their broader British and European contexts. Again, this event is free, but please do book your seat in advance here.


Dr Jennie England, researcher on AHRC-funded ‘Forging Memory’ project


‘I was a Historian by the Age of Six…’ An Interview with Prof. Nicholas Orme

The Centre for Medieval Studies at Exeter hosts a lively programme of activities throughout the year, a number of which are only possible through the generous support of Emeritus Professor Nicholas Orme. Nicholas is a renowned and well respected scholar with expertise in the history of the medieval Church, education, and childhood. He is also well known for his local studies of the Southwest. This year, as part of the annual ‘Orme Day’ festivities, we invited Nicholas to tell us more about the origins of these interests and how they developed. He also explained how he first came to Exeter and why he continues to support our activities at the Centre.

Q. When did you start studying medieval history?

‘I was a historian by the age of six. I know this because, when I was at infant school, we had to write every day in a little book called a ‘newsbook’ and I wrote a story about a prince and a princess. But instead of ending it ‘…and they married and lived happily ever afterwards’, I said ‘they married, but then he died and his brother became king’. And the teacher wrote in the margin, “Oh, Nicholas, what a sad story”. But what I had realised at that age was that, unlike literature, history doesn’t stop. I had elder brothers who had history books at home and I must have read something like The Life of Henry V: Henry wins Agincourt, marries the king of France’s daughter, and then he dies – and it all changes. So history was there at a very, very early age.

But my ‘Damascus road’ moment came a lot later, when I was 20 and was in the vacation of my second year [at university]. My parents had retired to the Forest of Dean, which was a very run-down area in those days, and we had no car. I really found it a very depressing place to spend the vacation.

All Saints Church, Newland, Gloucs.

But my brother came over with a car and we went to a village called Newland. It’s a pretty village with an interesting church and when we were wandering round it, I saw a cottage gate which said on it ‘The Old Grammar School’. And I thought to myself, ‘why on earth should there be a grammar school in this village?’ In the history I had done hitherto, nobody had ever mentioned education. And on investigating this place, it turned out it was a medieval, fifteenth-century, grammar school foundation.’

Q. When did you start researching medieval schools in depth?

‘In my third year, I did a Special Subject on Richard II’s reign. Although I did labour very conscientiously on the political history, the thing that really got me was the discovery of collegiate churches. I knew about monasteries and one had done Bede, Cistercians and that sort of thing. But I suddenly realised that there were these things called collegiate churches, which were very commonly founded in the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They fascinate me because they are all sui generis – and I always find monks boring because they’re so uniform. I discovered that collegiate churches very often had schools, as well as hospitals, alms houses, and things – and that built on my personal discovery of Newland grammar school.

So when I was in my third year and wanted to do research, I went to see my tutor, Bruce McFarlane, saying I wanted to do something that combines national history and local history. I made three suggestions to him and, of the three I mentioned, he said schools would be the thing to do. And ever since I’ve enjoyed these two things: national and local history. I’ve never wanted to do local history that was entirely self-contained, because it’s the interplay of the general and the local that interests me. And, of course, you’ve got that with a school because you’ve got a curriculum that’s beyond the school itself. So when I became a postgrad, I started to work on schools and I did a thesis on schools in the West of England, based on Gloucestershire.’

A medieval schoolroom – and the cover image for Nicholas’ book on ‘Medieval Schools’ (Yale, 2006)

Q. When did you come to Exeter?

‘In the summer term of my second year of research, my supervisor stopped me in the quad and said that Exeter was looking for a one-year appointment. What had happened was that they hadn’t had any applicants – or one or two very poor ones! Bertram Wolffe, who was at Exeter then, was a pupil of my supervisor and had written to him asking if he had anybody suitable. So I said to Bruce McFarlane, “do you think it would help with my CV?” And he said, “yes, it would because you’ll get a year’s teaching experience and that will stand you in good stead for getting a permanent job”. They advertised the post as half-teaching, half-research – but it turned out not to be that at all, as you might imagine!

I was very lucky while I was here because three [permanent] posts came up. They had a very small number of applicants for the three jobs to the extent that one of them had to be filled with a temporary chap so that they could have a look at him before they decided whether to keep him on. But I was one of the other two who came in, so I was very lucky.’

Q. When did you start to become interested in medieval Devon?

‘It wasn’t for a long time that I got into Devon. First of all, I wrote a book and it took me an awful long time. It is difficult when you start teaching, isn’t it? Writing your courses… For the first few years I was just doing the courses and the teaching all year. I only did the research in the vacation so I didn’t get the DPhil for five years after I started here, which wouldn’t be allowed now. And then it took me another four years to publish it, because it needed a lot more work to turn it into a book. I’d been here nine years before my book came out, which, again, wouldn’t be allowed nowadays! And then what I couldn’t publish from the thesis in the book, I put into a second book on the West of England. And that’s when I decided I had to get up on Dorset, Devon and Cornwall – and came to realise that the Cathedral archives had wonderful stuff. Then I started to work on that and got involved in the locality.’

Q. Why did you decide to support medieval studies at Exeter?

‘When I left [the history department] I was not replaced, which annoyed me. There were only two medievalists left: Sarah Hamilton and Julia Crick. So I thought, they need some support, we need to keep medieval history alive. So I said to Simon Barton [then in Modern Languages], “would you like to have the resources to bring in a special lecturer?” The idea was it should somehow fire people up, both students and the general public – although it’s obviously difficult to get somebody who relates to both. But we have managed quite well over the years – we had a very good one on Magna Carta, for example. And I have got a bit of spare money and I don’t want to give it to my Oxford college, which has got far too much, and plenty of other donors. I’d much rather it came down here where it can be useful.’

Helen Birkett in Middletown, CT: Collaborating with the Traveler’s Lab

This term I am based at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, working with the Traveler’s Lab research group. The Traveler’s Lab is a small network of scholars interested in medieval mobility and communication, and in using new digital analytical methods to explore medieval data. It is also distinctive – in the Humanities, at least! – in its use of undergraduate students as active researchers.

The Lab was founded by Gary Shaw (Wesleyan), Jesse Torgerson (Wesleyan) and Adam Franklin-Lyons (Marlboro College). I met Adam and Jesse at major medieval congresses in 2015 and 2016, and then had coffee with Gary at the British Library while he was in London on a research trip last year. The timing was fortunate: I was looking for potential members for a network on medieval news, while they were forming a group to explore the movement of information and people in the Middle Ages. We were also all interested in experimenting with new digital techniques – partly just to see what they could do! Having been vetted fully, they were happy to let me join them, even though it was unclear how this collaboration would work in practice. Not only am I usually based several time zones away, but we also make rather a diverse group: Gary, our reluctant leader, focuses on late medieval England; Jesse is a specialist in ninth-century Byzantium; Adam works on Aragon in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; and I’m interested in twelfth and early thirteenth-century Britain. Indeed, until this term, this collaboration had been more prospective than real. However, the granting of research leave from Exeter has allowed me to relocate to Middletown for three months and to work closely with the Lab during their Fall Semester. I’ve also been lucky enough to be affiliated with the Wesleyan’s Center for the Humanities (CFH), which has provided both office space and research resources – as well as a lively research environment.

What makes the Lab so distinctive is its close co-operation with Wesleyan’s Quantitative Analysis Centre (QAC). Not only is this helping to support much of the Lab’s activity in terms of resources and student internships, but it also allows us to work closely with Pavel Oleinikov and his undergraduate students, who specialise in quantitative and digital analysis. This is a collaborative venture which allows for problem-solving and research development on both sides. Although the medievalists design and run the projects, the students and staff working with us use their own expertise to visualise and analyse the data – and this can take the project in new directions and raise important, new research questions. The fuzzy (sometimes very fuzzy…) nature of our data also poses interesting challenges for our QAC members.

Being based in Wesleyan this term has allowed me to be an active member of the Lab and to understand much more fully how the ‘lab’ model operates. I’ve been allocated a small group of undergraduate students to help me with a side project on Caesarius of Heisterbach and his social network. Two of the students are helping me to create and check a new database of Caesarius’ interactions, one student is using network analysis to visualise this data, and another student is mapping aspects of this network on the landscape. Two of the students are working for university credit, while the others are paid interns supported by the QAC and the CFH. The Lab also hosts regular Lab lunches, in which we discuss new ways of analysing data and trouble-shoot problems. These lunches are important as they help to make the Lab into a research community rather than simply students working with individual staff members on separate projects.

During my time here I’ve learnt a lot about the challenges of project management and the more technical aspects of working with and storing data. I now intend to use this experience to create something similar at Exeter in association with our new Digital Humanities Lab. However, transferring this approach is not going to be straightforward. It should, hopefully, be possible to set up some student internships through the College of Humanities to work on short-term projects, but it’s unlikely that other funding will be available. Likewise, the much less flexible system of credits and assessment in the UK means that it will be difficult to integrate this model into Exeter’s taught modules.

Having said this, digital approaches are the way forward and will become standard parts of the medievalist’s research toolkit in the near future. This means that we need to think seriously about developing these skills and collaborative partnerships sooner rather than later. Digital techniques certainly won’t replace traditional research methods, not least because the nature of our source material means that only some of it can be converted into meaningful datasets. However, we do need to be aware of what techniques are available and how they might be used alongside tried-and-tested qualitative approaches.


The Lab fields questions at the SSHA (L-R: Jesse, me, Gary, and Adam)

The sheer array of digital analysis possible was brought home to me this weekend at the Social Science History Association conference in Montreal. I was present as part of a session organised by the Lab, in which Gary, Adam and I presented work that had been produced in collaboration with our student researchers. Although ours was the only medieval panel, the questions raised concerning the organisation, visualisation and sharing of data all suggested ways that we could develop our research – both individually and as part of a bigger collaborative Lab project in the future. Particularly interesting were presentations by Ian Gregory (University of Lancaster), who has been developing new ways of analysing and visualising texts, and Anne Knowles (University of Maine), an expert in Historical GIS whose Holocaust Geographies project is pushing her away from maps and towards new, more abstract and expressive ways of presenting this data. It has to be said that the conference itself was a somewhat different experience to the standard medieval congress, not least in the longer sessions, more intense timetable, and the serious lack of coffee. However, as a way of finding out how other disciplines are operating in this new digital world – and how we, as medievalists, may be lagging behind – it was invaluable.

Helen Birkett, Lecturer in Medieval History

PhD Students Wanted!

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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!
  7. 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)

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