Category Archives: PhD thoughts

Identity on the seashore

A long time ago, I had to study an essay called ‘Eupalinos ou l’architecte’ by Paul Valery. At the time, it made very little sense to an eighteen-year old from Bradford, but somehow part of it has stuck. There was in it, I think, quite a bit about the scope for creativity generated where sea meets shore, and unexpected things get thrown up completely at random. The idea that new ideas are most easily found in situations I now know to call ‘liminal’ seems to work quite well for all kinds of things and I can now link it with colour theory – green can be made to look very different if you put it against red or against yellow – as well as with literature and history.

I think now that there is a kind of seashore moment between history, particularly cultural history, and anthropology. Historians tend to think in terms of time and events, anthropologists in terms of geography and the everyday, so if you introduce an anthropological element to a historical situation, or vice versa you get to see a culture taken out of its historical or geographical context and that could spark something new. Naturally, there are risks. These are helpfully analysed by Conrad Leyser, who sees the greatest risk as being that of circular reasoning: anthropologists tend to see primitive societies through the prism of the history they learned at school, historians then recognise the picture drawn by anthropologists as relating to a historical period and round and round you go.[1] But it’s worth a shot.

In the short term, I’m wrestling with a modern article on identity in its anthropological sense, which seems to relate directly to us now. It is written by a Serb, Zagora Golubovic, and starts off with a survey of various academic studies of identity, looking particularly at the possibility of having more than one kind of identity.[2] Everyone starts off with a sense of belonging to a primary group, usually the family, which he calls a ‘personal identity’. Later, the individual acquires a ‘collective identity’: an individual retains her personal identity, but then adds a secondary socialization group – a school, factory etc. which brings with it the need to conform, to learn how to behave as a member of the group. For some individuals, at this point, ‘free determination’ becomes possible and an individual may separate from the group and see herself as unique. Golubovic believes that this third type of identity is only open to a few as it involves severing the ‘umbilical cord’ that connects to the group.

Golubovic moves quite swiftly to a modern example and looks back at the former Yugoslavia as an example of a state which, although it encompassed many different ethnic identities which were presumably related to the primary group and thus seen as ‘personal’, did, in his view, have a acquired ‘collective’ identity which was fostered by a proactive state.

Now it h3_%20yugoslavia_map_2008_sml_en_editedas broken up into several different states, based on ethnicity, and that collective identity has been lost. Gulabovic’s proposal is that the role of the EU should be to consciously establish a corporate identity, a cultural paradigm which might embrace the entire European community, particularly those areas that feel excluded from the current EU because of its overuse of English.

I hold no brief for defending this thesis. It is way outside my field and the article turned up in a Google search for anthropological discussions of identity and really drew my attention because of the current EU debate. But you could take this taxonomy and apply it to my dead monks.

So, in the medium term, I want to get my head round how this might apply to ninth century monks who probably never gave identity a thought. However, they did have a sense of belonging to something and a sense of mission. Collectively, they were tasked with ensuring the ‘correctness’ Charlemagne wanted to achieve in religious observance and it has been often argued that unity of religion was one of the ways through which Charlemagne sought to hold his large and disparate kingdom together.   Some individuals were tasked with elucidating the faith and dealing with heresy in its various forms. All this was part of creating, refining and enforcing a thread that gave a common identity to Charlemagne’s people. But they were also men of God, answering to a higher authority and tasked with holding even rulers to account. And they were sons of a monastery, responsible for teaching and learning and worshipping in a fixed place which had some sense of identity, often via foundation myths. So how should we analyse their identity?

I think this is worth pursuing. Watch this space. It may be a place where the sea meets the shore.


[1] ‘Making Early Medieval Societies: Conflict and Belonging in the Latin West 300-1200’ ed. K Cooper and C Leyser CUP 2016

[2] ‘An anthropological conceptualization of Identity’ Zagorka Golubovic in Synthesis Philosophia 51 (1/2011) pp 24 – 43

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January 15, 2017 · 2:21 pm

A dummie at the court of King Access


Dummies cover

I have blogged before on the joy of ninth century library catalogues, and in particular on the joy of reading ninth century librarians’ comments. Now for the hard stuff. In between chasing missing books, these guys did a fantastic job of listing what they had. For St Gall, there is a lot of fun to be had in matching the lists to the extant stock, but for Reichenau, just a boat ride away, not only do we not have the manuscript versions of the catalogues, we also don’t have any Reichenau manuscripts at Reichenau. Happily, and thanks to a diligent German scholar in 1918, called Paul Lehmann, we do have a printed copy of several ninth century catalogues, based on copies made of contemporary manuscripts in the eighteenth century. And Lehmann did track quite a few of the manuscripts mentioned in it amongst the stock transferred to Karlsruhe after the dissolution of the abbey so they can’t all be imaginary. But for the time being, it’s the catalogues that are exercising my mind. And what to do with them that might contribute to an understanding of the textual culture that the monks were living and working in.

My mind drifted to the idea of visualisations, thence to digitisation and – and this is a long leap – to the idea of a database of texts. I used to use databases for my work, but they came ready-made. Not only had someone else done the key to disc bit, but someone else had dreamt up the structure required. And the database programs available to me now are not the ones we created in 1999.

And so I became a dummie. And bought a book that showed me how.  In its own way.


And I have to admit I’m still a dummie, but I am a wiser dummie because I have a better idea of why it’s hard.

I thought it was hard because of the technology, but it wasn’t. I thought it was hard because of the circularity of the process of deciding which fields to include before you have entered all 700 records because it is only after you have entered those 700 records that you know which fields are needed and by then changing the fields is problematic. But it wasn’t really that either.

I did the right things. I started with apparently uncontroversial stuff like ‘Author’, ‘Title’, ‘approximate date’ and ‘Title of catalogue’. I spent rather more time and experimentation on the fields which were to categorise the type and content of the text concerned: ‘Letters’, ‘Sermons’, ‘Biography’ for example, as well as ‘Patristic’, ‘Grammar’ and ‘Astronomy’. I did quite a bit of sampling and refining. I came up with some sort of system to ensure consistency and found the kind of fixes that are required when ninth century monastic librarians meet 21st century technology. I learned quite quickly, for example, that ‘Author?’ is not a simple question if the title is ‘the Book of Genesis’ – I presume people have spent whole PhDs on less. Given that that is not an option, the choice is between leaving the field blank or simply entering ‘BIBLE’. For a couple more days I wrestled with this kind of thing, finding out along the way how to add new fields and build in a checking system at the end so that entries were consistent. And then I took a day or so off. And then I tried to enter 700 records.


And when it came to using the fields, I realised that I had the thing upside down. Being a dummie at setting up a database is easily cured by buying a yellow book. Being a dummie at describing ninth century texts will take a lot longer to fix. It took the plan of setting up a database to bring it home to me that I need to know much more about these texts and about the authors before I analyse them. I need to decide for example, which authors are ‘patristic’ because the database requires me to say something more definite than ‘This catalogue includes several patristic authors’. I need to find field labels that fit the historical context. Trying to split ‘Theology’ from ‘Philosophy’ is not going to work so I will put them together but can I lump Augustine’s biographical texts in with hagiography? Is Rhetoric part of Grammar? What is the difference between a commentary and an exposition if you only have the catalogue title? Is it possible to make sensible use of a record that just says ‘Alexandri libri’? If you have a title such as ‘de libero arbitrio’ does that mean it’s the one by Augustine that you already have or might someone else have used the same title?

I once heard someone who works a lot on digitising historical records say that the people creating the digital resource ended up learning more than the users of the resource ever could. That seems to be true here.  I’m learning a lot about what these monks read. But I still hope to have some visualisations by September.

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The tale of the frustrated librarian



I think I have always had a thing about library catalogues. It is true that library catalogues are not what they were. The electronic ones of today are much more efficient than the card indexes in the Bradford City Library in Darley Street were, but they do lack a certain serendipity. Time was when one might search for something on Russia and get easily distracted on to Bertrand Russell, but that as they say is another story. But suddenly, serendipity is back and it’s a lot of fun.

I have been spending a lot of time in the company of half a dozen library catalogues dating from the ninth century. The monastery of St Gall in Switzerland is world renowned for having had the good fortune to retain a large proportion of its medieval stock amongst these manuscripts can be found some of the earliest library catalogues in Europe. And they make you think.

At this stage, they are making me think about librarians. The oldest and most comprehensive list has been heavily annotated. In some cases, this just means that space was left for additions to be made in the appropriate category, which was usually, but not always, defined by author. But mostly the annotations are the laconic remarks of a long suffering librarian who, like long suffering librarians all over the world, was either trying to keep track of his books despite the attempts of library users to secrete them away or simply needed to disassociate himself from the purchasing decisions of his predecessor. The set of comments gives a very modern impression of a bloke trying desperately to bring order to something that has been allowed to get away and do its own thing.

Thus we find that several books were dismissed as ‘inutile’ – (useless), ‘pusillum’ (very little or paltry) or ‘antiquissimo’ (very ancient) and in one case, Isidore’s book on differences, that the volume in question was ‘totum mendacium et inutile’ (a complete lie and useless). Sometimes the previous librarian had not catalogued the book in question by the standards expected by the annotator.   A book catalogued under Pope Gregory is annotated: ‘et in uno ex eis vita pauli et antonii’ (and in one of them there is a life of Paul and Anthony) and another is found to be concealing some of Jerome’s letters. In other cases, books had outlived their usefulness. Isidore’s synonyms are annotated ‘hoc legi non potest’ (this cannot be read) – clearly a plea for more funding. Some books were clearly simply not present at the time the catalogue was updated. A volume on the books of Tobias, Judith and Esther had been sent to the school, as had a volume of letters from the popes of Rome. One on Ezekiel was lent to the lady Rickart : ‘habet domna rickart’. Of two volumes of the lives of the Holy Fathers, ‘unum habet liutart’ (Luitart has one of them).  One of my favourites is ‘hoc auditum est non visum’ (this is heard but not seen). It was clearly important that the writer had sight of the book, or at least of the chap who had it: ‘Ruodinum vidi habere qui dixit suum esse hoc non vidi’ (I saw Ruodinus who said it was his. I have not seen it) And it was important to count. Of four volumes of the gospels listed ‘ex his duo non inveni’ (of these I cannot find two).

This opens up a whole world. Can we track down these individuals? Was St Gallen running a kind of lending library? How did the books marked ‘ad scolam’ fit into the educational programme? Several scholars have tried to cross reference these catalogues with the extant collection but it is extremely precarious research. For me, there are two important things to establish. What did scholars of St Gall had access to at home when they compiled their multi text manuscripts and what must have been borrowed? And did any of the multi text manuscripts in these catalogues act as a model for the ones I am working on?


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Digital Humanities#

As part of my PhD, I have started following a short course on Digital Humanities.  Students on the course create a weekly blog and so I am posting my blog here.  It may or may not make sense.

For the first session, we were invited to consider three issues. Firstly, the distinctive characteristics of digital methodologies, secondly, the new research questions which they make possible and finally, any possible limitations.

Last week, this seemed straightforward, however as I sit here and look at the task, it seems anything but. The reason for this is, I think, that digital humanities is an emerging technology and this, after all, is what attracts me. Those working in the field currently are, in a sense, still pioneers. This has many pluses. Pioneers do amazing things with very little. They take risks and keep trying when a jobsworth would have long since given up. This is vital. Debates around the meaning of open access, the appropriate technology, participation in development and so on are what will lead to success.

Bu they don’t make it easy to get a handle on it. We seem to have a common umbrella term – Digital Humanities. But common characteristics are problematic. The list could in fact be boiled down to two: openly available on line and to some extent put together by university teams with research funding. But that’s not the point. The point is the diversity. Emerging technology does not benefit from the straitjacket of a definition.

Research questions, or rather possibilities, on the other hand are more interesting. In ‘England’s Immigrants’, for example, it was obvious that the amount of data would have daunted most pen and paper researchers and so while the same research question might have occurred, it might well have been rejected as unfeasible. In ‘Film Hub North’ another truth came home: when you look at texts, you may be seeing trees not the wood. Transforming that text into data and making it visual points up connections and leads to conclusions which might well have been obscured in an analogue source. But to me, the most vital resource is connectivity. Not all the sites we looked at had this, but where they did, this opened up huge potential. Bringing together text, audio and visuals is already a powerful thing; enabling research that draws on more than one database to make comparisons and connections is breaking new ground.

The limitations? Today’s limitations are tomorrow’s developments. Even the limitations of our own vision will change as the technology opens up new possibilities. But at some point the ‘emerging technology’ has to settle into established techniques on the one hand and research and development on the other. At some point this needs to become the established way of transmitting knowledge and culture. Slowly, this is happening: Elsevier already publishes scientific articles online with links to live research data; scholarly editions of outstanding texts, for example the Lorsch Codex in Germany are now online with a mass of supporting data and analytical tools.[1] But this is still cherry picking. A publishing house does it because it is a sure market. A university does it for prestige. But when will this become normal? And more importantly, who will pay? Therein lies the limitation.




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Construction and re-construction

untitled (2)‘This small town [Rothenburg] is probably your only chance to see a nearly intact medieval walled city in Bayern that doesn’t contain a single modern building. That’s right—not a single building in the entire town was built after the Middle Ages. However, in WWII, Rothenburg was devastated when 40% of the town was reduced to rubble by bombs.’[1]

Sometimes it takes contact with another discipline to make you see historical themes in perspective. Such a contact recently, via Twitter, was Joshua Hagen’s article on the issues which arose from the decision to reconstruct Rothenburg.[2] I recommend the article, not least because it demonstrates that what we now see as a fait accompli was the product of many difficult decisions as to what should be restored and how. This reminded me of the decisions that have to be made when working on a piece of academic prose, which, once published, seldom betrays the existence of so many ‘roads not taken’. I wanted to pursue the analogy.

Rothenburg is only one of the German cities that were rebuilt after World War Two. I stood with my husband looking down on ‘medieval’ Nuremburg recently while he recalled his last visit in 1946 when ‘there was nothing there’. The children’s adventure playground just outside Frankfurt was always, for my German landlady, the Truemmerhaufen, the place where they dumped the rubble from the bombed out city in order to begin rebuilding. But for most of us, what we now see is ‘real’. The generation that remembers seeing the new emerging from the rubble in Germany is disappearing before our eyes. Anyone born after 1950 takes the restored buildings on trust, oblivious of the decisions taken or the unconscious assumptions made. Does this matter?

I think it does. There is a sense in which reconstructing a German town, or, indeed, a Middle Eastern historical site, is like writing history. No book, no building can ever restore the past as it was and the book or the building will always say as much about the society that existed when it was created as it does about the period it is recalling. For starters, there will always be a purpose in writing or rebuilding and there will always be some kind of deadline. Hagen makes it clear that Rothenburg was restored not because of its size or economic importance but because of what we would now call heritage. It was rebuilt, says Hagen, not to function in the post war world but to show that Germany’s cultural heritage could survive, that there was something left to be proud of, in a very dark time. It was also urgent – decisions had to be made which were always going to be disputed but it mattered more that they should be made, than that they should be perfect. And now, 70 years on, with new generations gazing reverently at the half-timbered buildings, it is, like a 1945 article, itself history, a product of its time, telling us more, possibly, about 1945 than it does about the fifteenth century. It is not true, but it is realistic.

So I do feel that written history and reconstruction are not that far apart. But bridging the gap between a scholarly article and something a non-academic can see, feel and touch is a tough call. I am starting a PhD this term and it will not involve a design for a reconstructed Carolingian scriptorium where children can wield quills and write on parchment in candle light whilst chanting psalms in Latin. But I would like to think that whilst the end product will (ahem!) be scholarly, the research I do will be something that can make the ninth century seem real to my contemporaries.

Watch this space.

[1] Let’s Go Germany, 1999, quoted in Hagen’s article

[2] ‘Rebuilding the Middle Ages: the cultural politics of reconstruction in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany’ in Journal of Historical Geography, Vol.31, (2005) Accessed via

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