Wednesday, 9 April 2014


Conscience and self-knowledge should surely be intertwined.  Assessing the rightness or otherwise of our actions, being morally accountable for them, acknowledging our own intentions require introspection and understanding.

It's odd then that whilst the knowledge of self as a subject of historical study has received lots of interest (particularly from intellectual historians working on contexts as far apart as the study of Socrates, the so-called 'discovery of the individual' in the twelfth century, and the apparent individualism of the Renaissance), there is very little work on the idea of conscience as such.

It's as if conscience is assumed to be a rather a-historical category: so much a part of us as human beings, that one can't subject it to historical study as a motivating or shaping force, akin to political, social and economic motivations.  Or, on the other hand, it is simply subsumed (particularly by medieval historians) into the framework of 'religious motivation'.

Tomb image of Philip IV, Saint Denis, from wikicommons

So I found Elizabeth Brown's recent article in Speculum (2012, no. 1) particularly fascinating (and thanks to Prof D'Avray for pointing it out to me).  It's a study of conscience and moral imperatives as expressed (and felt?) by Philip IV, King of France, and his chief minister Nogaret.  Philip, known as 'the Fair', is a really seminal figure in French history: debates still rage about the extent to which he promoted 'statecraft' in his kingdom, fostered a sense of 'Frenchness', and inaugurated new political forms.  He was also a horriific persecutor - of Jews, heretics, Lombard bankers, lepers, the Templar order, adulterers and so on.  

Image of the Templars from chronicle of Matthew Paris, wikicommons

Elizabeth Brown's detailed analysis shows that conscience is most certainly an important category of historical analysis, profoundly informing Philip and Nogaret's accounts of their own actions.  More importantly perhaps, she shows that conscience was also something which pushed them to behave in particular ways (not least in the drafting of wills and concern for future salvation): conscience doesn't just cause us to reflect on what we've already done, but shapes the way we behave in future.  In Philip's case, for example, his conscience obliged him, reluctantly, to return taxation which had been levied for a military expedition which did not in fact happen.  Perhaps the most dramatic event of the reign, was the arrest of the Pope by Nogaret, on behalf on Philip, in 1303: the Pope escaped and died shortly afterwards (of natural causes).  Philip and Nogaret claimed that conscience was their main motivation.

Boniface VIII. wikicommons.

But even Philip and Nogaret felt uneasy about arresting a Pope.  And it was a desire, perhaps, to appease their troubled consciences, that Nogaret so stridently tried to get the Pope posthumously condemned.

What strikes me here is that the lengthy self-justifications these two engaged in, were undertaken precisely because their consciences weren't quite clear.  They convinced themselves that they were doing the right thing, but this needed a conscious effort.  So this is the point at which conscience and self-knowledge come apart.  Managing conscience effectively in politics often seems to amount to side-stepping true self-knowledge, deluding oneself as to one's true motivations, convincing oneself of the rightness of a cause which one knows, deep down, to be wrong.

My inspiring school history teacher, Miss North, commented that Henry VIII was one of those figures able to delude himself into believing in the rightness of a course of action which he knew really to be wrong.  And she claimed that it's those deluded individuals who are the most dangerous.

In other words, it's in the historical moments and people in which conscience and self-knowledge come apart, that we have most to fear.

Monday, 7 April 2014

The Mayor of Casterbridge

More Thomas Hardy -  it's an enormous bedtime treat to hear such a distinctive voice creating landscapes of intense power and melancholy.

Woodcut for The Mayor of Casterbridge, source wikipedia

I began with Under the Greenwood Tree, because of my interest in harmoniums - on which more shortly. Next The Mayor of Casterbridge.  I don't intend to give away the plot, but what struck me most forcefully here was the amount of social mobility.  Michael Henchard, the eponymous hero, or anti-hero, begins the story as a lowly journeyman hay-trusser.  He rises to become a wealthy corn-merchant and the mayor of Casterbridge - he is at the top of the social tree in his community.  Of course, as so often with Hardy, decline and melancholy follow.  

Wheel of fortune in Sebastian Brant`sNarrenschiff, woodcut by A. Dürer (wikipedia)

Based only on my stereotypes of rural nineteenth-century society, I was surprised to find that such social mobility could form a credible plot.  And this helps me looking back to the fourteenth century also.  It is so easy to assume that past societies were immobile, that hierarchies were fixed, and that social position was immutable.  I've certainly assumed this very often of the Middle Ages, and the 'true' stories of dramatic social rises are few and far between.  But by the fourteenth century, the wheel of fortune was an immensely popular literary and iconographical motif:  the idea of a great rise in fortunes, and the precariousness of any social standing, was something which resonated with people who felt both empowered and vulnerable.  If many were trapped in their positions, others had, dangled before them, the possibility of economic and social climbing - opportunities which worked both ways, as the commercially successful could also fall catastrophically.

From an edition of Boccaccio's De Casibus Virorum Illustrium showing Lady Fortune spinning her wheel (wikipedia)

It's useful to remember that few societies are as immutable as they appear - but that, much as politicians might like to focus on the upward trajectories, their very existence makes success all the more fragile: each success story so often masks a fall.

Saturday, 29 March 2014


I've just finished reading Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy.  I'm working my way through Hardy's novels mainly because we spent so much time in Dorset last summer: the sense of place and way in which the landscape acts on the individuals is very striking in Hardy's writing.

Jude the Obscure is depressing and dispiriting and quite astonishingly horrific.  Much of the plot revolves around the idea of what constitutes true marriage, and the place of sex within it - I was pretty struck to find such frank discussion of sex in a book published in 1895.  The multiple tragedies of the plot are shocking and awful beyond words really - and Hardy seems quite deliberately to avoid encompassing the full horror in language, offering only short and abrupt accounts of the climactic moments.

Despite the romantic and familial tragedies which hit Jude, in a sense it's his own unrealistic aspirations which utterly destroy him.

As a child, he becomes obsessed with the idea of studying at 'Christminster' - a university town, very much like Oxford.  For Jude, it's a highly romantic place - characterised by the eminence of a tradition of learning stretching back to medieval times, the peace and tranquillity of lives dedicated to the pursuit of learning, the centuries-old architecture a moving witness to the intellectual achievements which have happened within its walls.  But those very walls, on which he ends up working as a stone-mason, symbolise his exclusion - for no other reason that his social status and background.  The reader knows, with a sense of pathetic inevitability, that Jude's hopes and dreams, and endless nights spent self-teaching, are utterly in vain.  And not only does this make a tragedy of Jude's life - it makes a mockery of learning and all it apparently stands for.

'He always remembered the appearance of the afternoon on which he awoke from his dream. Not quite knowing what to do with himself, he went up to an octagonal chamber in the lantern of a singularly built theatre that was set amidst this quaint and singular city. It had windows all round, from which an outlook over the whole town and its edifices could be gained. Jude's eyes swept all the views in succession, meditatively, mournfully, yet sturdily. Those buildings and their associations and privileges were not for him. From the looming roof of the great library, into which he hardly ever had time to enter, his gaze travelled on to the varied spires, halls, gables, streets, chapels, gardens, quadrangles, which composed the ensemble of this unrivalled panorama. He saw that his destiny lay not with these, but among the manual toilers in the shabby purlieu which he himself occupied, unrecognized as part of the city at all by its visitors and panegyrists, yet without whose denizens the hard readers could not read nor the high thinkers live.'

Oxford.  Image credit:

This all made for quite uncomfortable reading for me, happily ensconced in the honey-coloured quad of St John's.  I truly don't think that the same comments could be made of Oxford today - but the danger is always there that we become so absorbed in tradition and self-congratulation, that we fail to ensure that the university offers opportunities to as many as possible, regardless of background; in welcoming people to the university - to research, to learn and to teach - all our own minds are opened by the insights and contributions which come together.  And this is why study days for A-level students, like the one we held last week, are so important - so thanks to everyone who came!

Wednesday, 26 March 2014


When I was travelling back from Germany recently, hunting for a coffee in the airport I was struck by the cute 'vintage' decor and feel of the cafe called TASTE OF HEIMAT.

What an utterly bizarre idea.  The concept of this chain seems to be to provide worn-out travellers with something faintly resembling home-cooked food.  It's intensely nostalgic.

Nostalgia is something that I'm extremely interested in at the moment.  It seems to be a response across social groups in the fourteenth century to profound structural and social change.  Anyway - more of that anon... But what's so striking about nostalgia is the way that it encapsulates a longing for something which never really existed anyway, and does so in terms entirely framed by present concerns.

What better embodiment of modern nostalgia than a chain of cafes claiming to offer a reminder of home.  The decor is reminiscent of a time before mass-production, when family kitchens were individual, warm and inviting - and yet it's a chain which stretches across Germany.  The tag 'Heimat' invites a cosy sense of home-coming, but the name is a linguistically hybrid one - Taste of Heimat.   Some writers on nostalgia seem to see it as a specifically post-modern phenomenon responding to a sense of disintegration and lack of centred-ness.  I'd argue that that sense of being modern and losing one's sense that the world is comprehensible according to a single, continuous and acknowledged framework, is a much older phenomenon, and characterises responses to extreme change in the medieval period also.  But whether or not this is true, the multilingual and mass-produced pastiche of a nostalgic reminder of home is surely emblematic.

Monday, 24 March 2014

The streets of Paris

The other purpose of this trip to Paris was to get a sense of the space used by students when misbehaving in the fifteenth century.  My project is a comparative one, looking at Oxford, Paris and Heidelberg.  Then, as now, these were three very different cities, and exploring the different ways in which students engaged with the urban space in which they found themselves, provides some useful points of contrast.

The buildings in Paris have, for the most part, changed dramatically since the fifteenth century.  But a lot of the street layout in the Quartier Latin, where the students lived, remains remarkably similar.  I have found quite detailed accounts in the archives of how students negotiated their way around the streets and squares, and used the different connotations of particular areas to give meaning to their mischief.  

So, for example, we learn that in 1470, one Master Hugues Angot was woken from sleep in his hostel in the Rue des Noiers (now absorbed into the Boulevard Saint Germain) by loud and insulting singing outside his window.  Unable to sleep, and unable to endure the insults to his masculinity, and knowing the perpetrators to be old rivals, he roused his friend and they both went out into the street in their nightgowns.  They walked as far as the corner of the Rue des Anglais, but couldn’t see their disturbers, so they went back inside to get dressed properly.  Then they went out again, and saw their enemies at the end of the rue du Plastié (now rue Domat).  Unwilling to confront them directly, they passed on to the Place Maubert, a small square lined with student hostels and brothels.  Then they decided to take the long way round back to their hostel to avoid being spotted by their enemies and to avoid provoking a fight.  So, they passed by rue des Lavandières, then Rue des Noiers, then the Rue des Anglais.  Then turning down the Rue du Plastié again, they returned to their hostel via the Rue Saint Jacques.  But, just as they were returning to their hostel, they saw their enemies coming from the Rue des Anglais.  At this point though, some other people appeared, so the aggressors fled to the corner of the Rue des Closbrimeaux (now Rue Jean-de-Beauvais).  The men who’d been woken then chased their enemies until the Place Maubert, where they caught up with them outside the tavern des Trois Haches.  At this point the insulting singer tried to hit Hugues Ansot on the head, but Hugues defended himself with a stone, and the man was killed.

Not realising this, Hugues returned to his hostel.

At least this is the account which Hugues gave in his appeal for remission for murder.  Self-consciously trying to justify himself, he referred to space in very particular ways.  Retracing the steps of these students gave me a real sense of the importance of space.  Strategically, the students moved between the great open space of the Rue Saint Jacques and the overcrowded, dark spaces of the narrow streets of the Quartier Latin.  And symbolically, they moved between the public spaces of the city and the spaces of student and university life – they were making points about their integration into the life of the city, about the defence of their honour.  The real sense of their movements, the scary nature of events, the way in which their actions were shaped by, and shaped, the space around them – felt very different as I walked along the cobbles. 

Friday, 21 March 2014

In the archives

I’ve just returned from a wonderful trip to Paris (thanks to Frédérique Lachaud and the séminaire Franco-Britannique for the invitation) and this seems like a good moment to try to start posting again on the blog… sorry for the massive hiatus!

As well as getting some great feedback on my work on fifteenth-century student misbehaviour from colleagues at the seminar, and spending some time showing my son and husband my favourite spots in Paris, it was an opportunity to go to the archives and gather some more material on the fifteenth-century University of Paris. 

I always get a little anxious before these trips that so much of the material I work on is published and available in wonderful and scholarly editions, that it is hardly worth looking at the originals.  This is emphatically not true!  Every trip reminds me that there is so much still to discover (a trip to Heidelberg over the summer was crucial in discovering that the Acta universitatis, the main records of the university, continue for years after 1451, the end date of the published edition), and, of course, there are often inaccuracies in the published editions.  

But going to the archives represents something more than this I think – something more intangible.  It’s partly to do with a sense of historical imagination – holding a 600 or 700-year-old document in your hand gives a sense of connection with the past which is inspiring.  It’s partly to do with getting a real sense of the size, quality and format of the documents to underline the purpose they were designed to serve.  And it’s also to do with the fact that these aren’t just documents with text – they’re objects in their own right.  In many ways, some of them were even historical agents of sorts.  The point was brought home to me particularly forcefully when I was working in the archives in Lille in northern France some years ago.  I was looking at evidence for a revolt in Saint Omer in 1306, and found that the rebels were much inspired by a letter written to them by a famous Flemish rebel named Peter Coninck (who had led Flemish weavers to victory in the Battle of the Golden Spurs) – whilst the letter provided inspiration for its recipients, it was discovered by their enemies who used it further to discredit them.  The letter itself became almost fetishized – it ceased to matter what it said in it – it was fought over and talked about and grabbed and stolen – the letter itself came to symbolise the protest and the struggle.  To see the document itself then, was to see not just a document which told me about the revolt, but something which had been part of the revolt itself.  A much more comical example is that of a quittance or receipt sent to the Count of Artois in the late 13th century – - it was sent from the court jester, known as ‘Fromage’, and the rather disgusting remains of his seal – a punning bit of cheese – linger greasily on the parchment.  Another example of a document which was something much more than a piece of writing – it was part of a historical process, a joke.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014


Sorry about the long gap.. Work has been insanely busy.  Anyway, here's a link to a post at the Oxford University Press blog:

What I've written is a bit bonkers, but electronic publishing does represent an exciting opportunity to think critically about reading and writing...  I'd be interested to know what you think.