Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Why 'do' history?

I have neglected this blog for a shamefully long time - a result quite simply of teaching and family commitments.  Research has been squeezed in, but 'extras' have been squeezed out.  Anyway - thanks to the incredibly generous Leverhulme foundation, I  am now entering a period of two-years' research leave.  Leaving teaching behind temporarily is a bit bitter-sweet, as I find our students truly inspiring. But this is an incredibly liberating opportunity, and I'm very exciting about having the time to follow all kinds of threads and traces through the library and archives.

Glimpses of the past at Winchester Cathedral
I'll be doing my best to write the blog regularly again - and now seems a good moment to remind myself of why we do history.   I think that, in all honesty, my sense of what history is, and why I do it, is an ever-changing thing.  At the moment, I'm particularly struck by histories of concepts - nostalgia, enough-ness, ownership, balance (on which there's an extremely sophisticated new book by Joel Kaye).  Concepts like these, which aren't necessarily rooted in particular terms, can all too easily seem trans-historical and self-evident.  This is one reason why we need historians - to think through the implications, resonances and boundaries of such concepts over time - to acknowledge that 'enough-ness' for example is contingent on economic and social contexts. Exploring change over time in this way isn't necessarily to say that these concepts are entirely relative, but it is to challenge our own often very complacent assumptions.  

In 1979 (in the American Historical Review), William Bouwsma, described 'an anthropological vision ... that culture is a product of the creative adjustment of the human race to its varying historical circumstances rather than a function of universal and changeless nature, and the perception that culture accordingly differs from time to time and group to group'.  So here's something for me to aim for!

Monday, 20 October 2014


I've just finished reading Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda, a marvellous sweeping book, which is both quirky and perceptive, horrifying and extremely funny - it's really quite unlike anything else I've read.


Near the beginning, we are introduced to the character of Mrs Stratton, a late Victorian clergyman's wife, living a life of disillusionment and poverty.  Her husband went to Oxford - Mrs Stratton, obviously, didn't.

'Mrs. Stratton was not a don.  She could not have been, for while the constitution of the university would permit entry to a fourteen-year-old boy (with his pocket full of string and dried-out worms) it could on no account matriculate a woman.  Yet Mrs Stratton had the walk for it.  Her whole body expressed her calling.  She had a walk you can see today in Magpie Lane and Merton Street.  The dynamics of this walk are best appreciated if you place a three-foot-high stack of reference books in your imaginary walker’s extended arms.  From here on it is all physics.  You can resolve it with vectors – the vertical arrow indicating the mass of the books, the horizontal one the propulsive force of the moving body.  It is obvious.  You can see immediately why the body of such a person tilts forward at 60 degrees to the horizontal.  It is the books, or the propensity for books, that does it.  And when you see the height of the stack it is also clear why such people always lift their head so high.  You thought it was myopia, but no – it is the height of the imaginary books they must look over.'

It's an unkind description, although the narrator is not a gratuitously cruel one.  But the unkindness exposes the mistrust and antipathy towards women with intellectual pretensions.

Anyway - I hope I don't walk like this!

Thursday, 16 October 2014


Last weekend, I went to a conference in Strasbourg at their centre for English Studies.  I was asked to talk about student friction and violence in late medieval Oxford.  It was the first time I'd been to Strasbourg - what a beautiful city! - it's a lovely combination of the elegant and the picturesque - I loved it, and it was a little tough sitting indoors in such beautiful sunny surroundings!

By Jonathan Martz (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The conference connected rather nicely with the kinds of issues we were thinking about at the German Historical Institute two weeks ago.  We tend to think of conflict as an absolute term - but it was useful to have an opportunity to think about the frictions and entanglements (the term of Wendy Harding) which it involves.  Conflict needn't be a single event, so much as an entangled web of antagonisms, and, as historians, we miss much of this, if we're too focused on the big set-piece battles.  If we really want to understand violent hostility, we need to think carefully about the dynamics of ongoing antagonisms, to think about the relationship between 'diplomacy' and military activity, and to question the distinction between the frictions of everyday life and the outbreaks of cataclysmic violence which go down in the history books.

It certainly made me think about the misbehaving students of the fourteenth century in new ways. The St Scholastica's Day massacre of 1355 is often spoken  of as the inevitable outcome of inevitable town-gown tensions - it was a devastating three day event involving horrific violence on both sides (scalping, mutilating, etc).  But how can it have been inevitable when the tensions which generated it dated back at least half a century?  Was it just the cumulative effect of those tensions, like a volcano building up and finally bursting? What was the relationship between the everyday quarrels (frictions) between townspeople and students and the catastrophic and brutal violence of 1355?

Asking why tension quite suddenly took such a violent form leads us into complex entanglements of cultures of violence, economic tensions, legislative responses, personal and collective animosities. And entering that complex web seems to me far more important, to any student of conflict and change, than simply noting the dates of the great battles.

Monday, 13 October 2014


At the workshop at the German Historical Institute last week, one of the participants asked me whether I'd been inspired to work on the topic of student violence by the issue of fees.  Being a total idiot, I misheard and thought he said 'feasts' - and given that I don't attend that many raucous feasts, the answer was no.

Anyway - when I realised what he'd actually said - I remembered some material from the archives in Dubrovnik on the subject of fees.  Medieval Dubrovnik seems to have been a city with a particular regard for education, and the importance not only of basic literacy, but of fairly widespread learning. Schooling here was quite widespread, literacy levels were high from a surprisingly early date (thirteenth century at least), and the quality of secondary education was fine.  But Dubrovnik (known at that stage as Ragusa) didn't have a university, so the city council sent promising young men abroad to study - to Paris or Padua in particular.

Detail of a master and scholars from Gautier de Metz 'L'image du monde', 1464.  source: http://prodigi.bl.uk/illcat/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=44150 (British Library, Catalog of Illuminated Manuscripts)

For example, in 1455, the council gave 60 hyperpers to the Dominican friar Donatus, in order that he could pursue his studies in Paris (Consilium maius vol. 10, fol. 152v).  In 1463, a patrician young man was given a grant to study in Italy (Consilium maius, vol. 12, fol. 138v).  Some families were obliged to make huge sacrifices to send their children to university: in 1463, a commoner was given permission to sell some of his lands in order to support the studies of his son (Consilium maius, vol. 12, fol. 183v).  Some young men seemed to see the promise of study as a good wheeze to extract money, because the council began to put in clauses to ensure that payment of the grant would only be forthcoming on completion of the degree (eg. Consilium Maius, vol. 13, vol 26r), or refuse to pay money until the student was actually on the boat to university (eg. Consilium Maius, vol. 13, fol. 147v).  

All this reminds us just how expensive university study was in the Middle Ages - and just how limiting such costs could be.  Why was the city government prepared to support young students financially? - presumably because it was felt that these young people would be able to give something back to the community, and certainly by the fifteenth century, it was felt that those with a university education could more effectively serve the growing bureaucratic needs of state.  In other words, I'm cynical enough to think that the number of financial grants to students rose because education could increasingly be given a price.

Set this beside the growing sense nowadays that university education is increasingly commodified - it's treated as a commodity with a commercial value, whose financial cost represents an investment for a greater return at some future point (an excellent article by Stefan Collini on this here) - and everything begins to look quite regressive.  The commodification of university learning is sad, intellectually constraining and misplaced in my view. But the Dubrovnik material gives a slightly more positive perspective in indicating how a fully-fledged sense of respect for the value of education can open up opportunities; more importantly, it introduces a sense of accountability and responsibility which hopefully means something more than just handing essays in on time!

On the Dubrovnik material, I recommend Krekic's 'The Miscellanea from the Cultural Life of Renaissance Dubrovnik' in his Dubrovnik: A Mediterranean Urban Society (1997)

Wednesday, 8 October 2014


Last week I went to a rather wonderful workshop at the German Historical Institute in London.  I was talking about my misbehaving students in Oxford and Heidelberg in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but the conference as a whole was about 'Dynamics of Social Change and Perceptions of Threat', and part of a much larger interdisciplinary research project based at the University of Tuebingen.

The conference organisers had big questions for everyone: 'Under what conditions and in what manner threats may lead to a reconfiguration of values, structures of authority, responsibilities and resources.  Under which circumstances and in which way will an initially short-term reconfiguration of values, competencies and resources cause in wake of a perceived threat accelerate social change - or: under what conditions and in which manner will the old order be re-affirmed and restored, assuming that this is possible?'

I'm not sure that there exist answers to these questions in quite that form - but they are important questions to ask.  Conflict studies is a burgeoning field, and it's clearly very important to ask why conflict happens.  But one of the puzzles for students of the Middle Ages (and I imagine for modern historians also) is that conflict usually achieves *so* little - it's hard to see why people are prepared to risk so much.  When I was working on late medieval revolts in northern France, I was struck by how many of them achieved precisely nothing - and yet, nearby towns would quickly follow their example, only to be greeted with violent and horrible retribution.

The St Scholastica's Day Massacre in fourteenth century Oxford was horrifically violent, and, interestingly enough, it was pretty much the last event of its kind.  For the students (or at least for those who survived) it was rather a successful episode.  The revolt began when two students hit a tavern-keeper over the head with a tankard, accusing him of watering down the wine.  Three days of violence and mutilation followed - in which townspeople gave as good as they got from the students - and the townspeople found themselves facing utterly disempowering repression.  They never really dared challenge the student body again.  But social change wasn't just brought about by the violence of the students - it happened because that violence was backed up by a web of royal support, legislative power and clever rhetoric.  In other words, the university authorities provided accounts of what had happened which effectively exonerated the students, explaining how they were victimised by the brutal and bestial townspeople, without actually denying that the students had been violent themselves.  It was a clever piece of rhetoric, which managed to maintain the sense that students could be violent and powerful, whilst also portraying them as wronged victims.  And it was that rhetoric which ensured that the town was punished, and the students empowered.

In the fifteenth century, the picture changed significantly, but that's another story.  What most struck me at this stage, was that the possibility of change doesn't depend only on the violence itself, but on the ways in which it is described, narrativised, appropriated rhetorically, later.  And if there's any lesson here, it's that we need to read accounts of conflicts against the grain, and to remember that the act of representation, of making a story of it, is itself a form of violence and certainly a form of power.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014


It's the third day of 0th week today ( strange Oxford nomenclature), and really nice to see familiar student faces returning and new students arriving.  We're all really looking forward to getting to know them all and to enjoying many lively discussions together!

I've just returned from a conference in Strasbourg, so I also have a 'back-to-school' kind of feeling, one sharpened by a long and tedious plane journey.

Interestingly, it was the journeys to university which seem most to have stimulated the imagination of poets and story-tellers interested in student life in the Middle Ages.  We have very few fictional accounts of life in the medieval university, but quite a lot of texts surviving describing the adventures befalling students on their way to study. 
Chaucer's Reeve -
image  anonymous (http://sunsite3.berkeley.edu/hehweb/EL26C9.html) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Famously, Chaucer's Reeve's tale tells of two students from the north of England, who study at Cambridge, and visit a nearby village to see the wheat being ground.  They trick the greedy Miller and sleep with his wife and daughter.  Chaucer probably got the story from an Old French version called, Le Meunier et les deux clercs’  which in turn seems to have come from an Old Dutch original; there's also a Middle High German version,  Students were quite notorious, and when they were on their way to or from university, they reputedly made their presence felt in pretty irritating ways. 

There's a whole genre of Middle High German stories known as Studentenabenteuer which tell of the mischievous shenanigans which students got up to on their way to university - the stories have lots of sex, quite a lot of violence, and are often very funny.  In Zeierlei Bettzeug by der Schweizer Anonymous, a travelling scholar tries to stay with a peasant en route, but the peasant just says: ‘ein grossen furz lies er do/ und sprach zuo dem schuler also;/ ‘schuloer, das ist das bette din’ (‘He let off a huge far and spoke thus to the student: ‘Scholar, that’s your bed’): the student, though, has the last laugh, as he leaves a huge pile of poo for his host to slip in the following morning.  Sophisticated stuff.  The moral of the tale is: ‘wer spottet, des sol man spotten’ – ‘he who mocks/ takes the mickey/laughs last, laughs longest’.  In Claus Spaun's, Funfzig Gulden Minnelohn, a young man travelling to university spends all the money his dad has given him on a night of passion with a woman in a town he is travelling through – idiotically, he tells the husband about this the following day, who surprisingly enough gives him back his money, chastises his wife, and tells the student ‘darumb bis nummermer so gech,/ wann willeicht es geriet dir nit also’ ‘ don’t be so stupid next term/ you might not be so lucky again’(364-5).

And in reality, journeys to university were potentially very dangerous.  In 1310, a certain Salomon le Breton claimed that he had been stripped and robbed on his way to the University of Paris, and violently abused.

So I'm glad that our students are all safely here!

Thursday, 25 September 2014


We're home now.  I miss Dubrovnik already!  What a wonderful time we've had - in every way.  The material I've been looking at will now go on to the back-burner for a while, as I prepare for a term's teaching and return to my main project on misbehaving students in the fifteenth century.

St Vlah (St Blaise), patron saing of Dubrovnik, holding the city in his hands