Saturday, December 11, 2010

Back from the dead

Literally. No, I haven't personally had a brush with mortality, but I have been dealing with one deposition, a handful of murders and a bunch of drawing-and-quarterings (drawings-and-quarterings?). It’s not that I live in a particularly rough ‘hood. It’s just that since I last posted, I’ve been spending most of my waking life getting the Big Research Project for this year into coherent form (with chapters and everything!). The death of my deposed king, Richard II, was described by the chronicler Thomas Walsingham as the result of self-imposed starvation, but the Chronicle of Adam Usk posits a more sinister cause. After his deposition, Richard had been imprisoned by Henry IV, against whom a number of Richard’s faithful earls had rebelled in the Epiphany Rising of January 1400. The rising failed and the earls were executed:
"And now those in whom Richard, late king, did put his trust for help were fallen. And when he heard thereof, he grieved more sorely and mourned even to death, which came to him most miserably on the last day of February, as he lay in chains in the castle of Pontefract, tormented by Sir Thomas Swinford with starving fare."*
That reference to the chains makes it all sound more than a bit suspicious, but perhaps it was just being stuck in Pontefract that made Richard lose the will to live. There’s less doubt about the death of his uncle, the duke of Gloucester, whose alleged murder – by being held down and smothered with a featherbed – is rather gruesomely recounted in the Rolls of Parliament, along with numerous accusations and counter-accusations of treason. I’ve been rather struck by Paul Binski's explanation of why drawing and quartering was the preferred penalty for condemned traitors. Noting the connection between the king’s body as both an individual, mortal body and the microcosm of the immortal body politic of the realm, he points out that monarchs “had the power to divide others who threatened the body politic with division.”** It's a timely and somewhat chilling reminder that the texts and discourses that so often preoccupy us as researchers had material, visceral impacts on historical human flesh.

In the course of this year's research, I've become very interested in how gender ideals are expressed through the sexed embodiment of institutions in late medieval political thought - for example, the body politic as an extension of the male body of the king, or the household as an extension of the body of its master/father. On the latter idea, Derek Neal's 2008 book The Masculine Self in Late Medieval England*** offers a valuable analysis. He does a great job of relating the discursive models of masculinity expressed in 14th-15th century legal, moral and didactic texts to the way masculinity was actually performed by individual men, as refracted through records of their involvement in court cases, guild activities, civic disputes and other ‘real’ historical events.

So, anyway, I got the final draft of the research project to my supervisor last week. Barring any major criticisms (which I don’t anticipate, based on feedback on the first draft), I should then only need to do some minor proofing/punctuation fixes and tidy up my footnotes (nightmarish!) before it’s ready to submit. I had the oddest feeling when I did the final ‘save’ on that document – like there was suddenly a void I wasn’t quite sure how to fill. That didn’t last long, though, as I reacquainted myself with the joys of being able to go for a long run by the sea (followed by a paddle, water temperature permitting) without having that constant itch at the back of my mind telling me I needed to get back to work.

In other news, I’ve had my abstract accepted for the conference in February (more on that in another post, but thanks to everyone who gave me such good advice on writing it!). I still need to write the actual paper, but I think that may just wait until after Christmas.

*Chronicon Adae de Usk, A.D. 1377-1421, pp.198-9 of the 1904 edition edited and translated by Sir Edward Maunde Thompson. [You can read this edition of the chronicle online at the Internet Archive.]
**Paul Binski, Medieval Death: Ritual and Representation, London: British Museum Press, 1996, p. 65.
***Derek Neal, The Masculine Self in Late Medieval England, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Wetting the baby's head

On Friday, I wetted the baby's head, so to speak, by presenting my research project at my School's annual postgraduate research seminar. I was speaking at 10am, and while I was listening to the students who went before me, I went through a few angsty moments of self-doubt, thinking, "do I really have an argument here?" and "all these people going to think my ideas are whack". But, in the end, it went really well and I got a lot of positive feedback (including from the Dean of the Graduate Research School, who asked some good questions that allowed me to bring in a few choice points I'd had to remove from my original presentation to keep it within the time limit. Very gratifying.)

The thing that was great about the day was that the research projects presented were so varied. The School combines the departments of History, Religious Studies and Philosophy, so amongst the topics were the history of a secretive quasi-fascist group operating in NZ in the 1930s, the peculiar historiography of a highly controversial incident that took place during the 19thC Taranaki land wars, Theosophy and quantum physics, time and the nature of God, the history and demise of technical schools, and Muslim-non-Muslim relations in NZ post-9/11 (by a scholarship student from Pakistan. It was very interesting to hear her perspective as both a Muslim and a non-New Zealander.) There was one other medievalist presenting, whose work is on the Hospitallers in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. We had a good chat at one of the breaks and she gave me some tips on a surprising number of medieval manuscripts held by several NZ libraries. (But I forgot to ask her if she'd seen
Kingdom of Heaven. You all know how much I love that movie.)

Afterwards, I was kind of buzzing. I always get quite nervous just before I have to speak, but I do get a kick out of the actual 'performance'. So before jumping in the car to drive the 90 minutes home, I headed to a local park and decompressed with a long run through the native bush alongside the river. I love running in the bush. All those narrow loamy tracks winding away from me into cool green shadows. The way I can't hear anything but the call of tui, my own breathing, and the occasional rush and gurgle of a stream or river. The elegant strength of soaring mamaku and kahikatea, and the delicate beauty of unfurling ponga fronds. At home, I have plenty of places to enjoy this goodness, but they all require running up and down hills - sometimes seriously big ones! So it was lovely to be able to enjoy the bush
sans searing lungs and burning calf muscles for a change.

And now, thanks to all your great advice on my last post, I have my first proper conference abstract just about finished and ready to send to my supervisor tomorrow morning. After fluffing around over it for the better part of a couple of weeks, I woke up yesterday morning with the whole thing - including the rather catchy title - quite clearly formed in my head. I just had to get up and type it. (I love it when that happens.)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Awesome abstracts anyone?

So, things are starting to get a bit more serious for me in this whole postgraduate study adventure, and my supervisor is starting to push me (oh-so-gently and enthusiastically) into submitting abstracts for conference presentations. I'm used to giving presentations - I've been doing it for years in my work so I have no great anxieties about public speaking. And I'm also pretty confident my research is starting to generate some interesting and worthwhile things to say. BUT I have no real experience of academic conferences and I'm not quite sure how best to go about writing the abstract. (I'm not even worrying about the actual presentation content at this stage. I figure I'll tackle that as and when something actually gets accepted!)

The first conference I'm looking at is a big medieval/early modern shindig here in NZ early next year. They require a 200 word abstract for a 20 minute paper. Some of the other CFPs my supervisor has pushed my way ask for anything up to 500 words, but presentations always seem to be about 20 minutes in length. (Curious: is this some kind of 'gold standard' in terms of academic conferences?) I figure such a short time slot requires something really tight and specific - like a brief source-based case study or example that illustrates a wider theme or interpretation - rather than anything broader or more generalised. Does that sound like a good way to approach it? And is it normal to quote from or reference sources in the abstract? Or would you just give an outline of your argument and where it fits into the existing scholarship on the topic? (Or do you even worry about that second bit?)

So, questions, questions. Naturally, I'll be asking my supervisor for her help, but do any of you have any tips for writing a really kick-ass abstract? Or links to good posts or advice on the best way to structure it? I remember Notorious PhD had some good stuff up towards the end of last year (maybe?) on seminar presentations, but damned if I can find it now.

On that note, I'm presenting my current research project to the world (well, to all the bods from the School of History, Philosophy and Classics anyway) for the first time at a postgrad Research Seminar this Friday. When I was doing the methodology weekender a couple of weeks ago, a few of us were talking about what we were going to be presenting and my topic seemed to arouse quite a bit of interest. On the face of it, it sounds pretty racy - there's nothing like a medieval chronicler for giving you good opening lines to work with. I just hope I don't disappoint!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A medievalist meets Maori history

It’s Sunday evening, and I’ve just returned from one of the periodic two-day intensive courses on historical methodology I’m being put through this year. Today’s session was on Maori historical methodology - whether there is such a thing, and if so, what it is and how, and by whom, it should be applied. As someone steeped in medieval European history, you might think this would be completely irrelevant for me - and that’s what I thought, too, at first - but that didn’t turn out to be the case. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think it was quite a revelatory session.

The crux of the matter we discussed was the question of who ‘owns’ history, and there was much conversation about contemporary debates over whether or not Pakeha (New Zealanders of white European descent) can write Maori history, and if so, how they should go about it. For historians trained in the western tradition of academic history, where documents and archives are often considered the authoritative starting point, it must be something of a mind shift to be told that they cannot even access those archives until they have talked to the kaumatua (tribal elders) and established a relationship of trust. Often, too, the written archives - which are most frequently, though not always, ‘outsider’ views of Maori history and cultural traditions - are considered inferior to the oral traditions maintained on the marae.

I’m a complete neophyte in this area, so I hope any tangata whenua who may read this will not be offended by my naivety, but the aspect of Maori historical epistemology that really entranced me was that Maori do not view time as linear, but as cyclical, where past, present and future all co-exist. It’s not just that Maori have enormous respect for their ancestors, but that they are their ancestors and their ancestors are (in) them. Sir Tipene O’Regan, an historian and Maori ‘elder statesman’, put it this way:

“I and my tribe are the present expression of our tupuna [ancestors] and the source of our uri, our descendants. We are both past and future, as well as ourselves…To inquire into my history or that of my people, you must inquire into my whakapapa. My tupuna may be dead but they are also in me and I am alive. To know them, you must know me! In order to deal with them, you must deal with me!”

For me, the most compelling aspect is whakapapa, which is genealogy but also so much more than genealogy. It is tracing a relationship back to its beginning, to the elemental forces that formed the sea and the land, human life and all that sustained it. As I observed at one point today, during a (rather heated) debate about Pakeha doing Maori history, and about the ‘ownership’ of histories which involve both Maori and Pakeha ancestors, it seems to me that at some point, all Maori history is also ‘family’ history, with all the fraught emotional baggage and byzantine politics that can entail.

I think it was Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie(2) who pointed out that western academic history is utterly wedded to a Judeo-Christian linear view of time, involving a one-way trip from Creation, through Fall and Resurrection/ redemption, to, eventually, an end times/Apocalypse scenario. This linearity is so fundamental to the epistemologies of western societies that I suspect even those of us who are non-believers are probably incapable of ever really escaping it in order to see life on Earth in some other way. Having said that, it seems to me that some of the new work on the ‘post-medieval’ is beginning to challenge and disrupt that linearity from the inside, by consciously interrogating the role a certain idea of the ‘medieval’ past plays in constructing our own ‘modern’ or ‘postmodern’ worldview.

That’s a topic for another discussion, but in the meantime, can I just say that I am heartily glad I have settled on 14th century England, rather than 19th century New Zealand, as my field of research?

1. Tipene O’Regan, “Who Owns the Past? Change in Maori Perceptions of the Past”, in John Wilson, ed., From the Beginning: The Archaeology of the Maori, Auckland: Penguin Books, 1987, p.142.

2. I could be wrong here. Maybe it was Braudel? I know it was one of those Annales dudes, but it's Sunday night and I'm too lazy to go and dig out my notes...

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Francophilia: Pour Bastille Day - Le Tour

It’s Quatorze Juillet, and I’m celebrating Bastille Day by watching the six hours of Tour de France coverage I taped overnight. I enjoy watching other cycling events, like the Giro d’Italia and that uniquely gruelling madness known as the ‘Hell of the North’ - the one-day classic from Paris to Roubaix that is distinguished by the bone-shattering, tire-tearing sections ridden over the narrow cobbled pavĂ©. There, the weather gods frequently conspire to produce a combination of rain and cold that is misery for road cyclists (though it makes for great entertainment for us armchair athletes).

But there’s something special about the Tour de France. Something romantic in the true Byronic sense about some of those epic high mountain climbs like the Col de la Croix de Fer, the Col du Galibier and the monstrous Col du Tourmalet, where the epic battles of the Tour are waged. Sometimes it’s men pitting themselves against other men, more often it's men battling against themselves, simply to survive to the finish and ride again the next day.

When I think back to some my favourite moments of Tours past, it’s always those elemental dramas that stand out. Tiny, gnomelike Marco Pantani, all guts and teeth, soaring up Alpe d’Huez in the boiling heat miles ahead of the rest of the field. Thomas Voekler, amongst the most unlikely wearers of the maillot jaune ever, dropped over and over again on the vicious slopes of the Pyrenees and, every time, clawing his way back to hang on to the jersey for another day. Tyler Hamilton riding the entire 2003 Tour with a broken collarbone but still winning stage 16 from Pau to Bayonne with a ridiculous solo breakaway and finishing fourth overall. In the same Tour, Lance Armstrong taking a hair-rising ride across an alpine field - on a road bike!- to avoid hitting Joseba Beloki after the latter’s sickening crash on the descent into Gap. (Sadly, Beloki never really came back from that one. He returned to racing, but never again came so close to winning one of the ‘grand tours’.)

Yeah, yeah, I know - over the years, most of these guys have been implicated in drug scandals, and those that haven’t are probably lucky and/or particularly well-served in the undetectable chemicals department, as opposed to ‘clean’. (Lance Armstrong, I’m looking at you.) But I sometimes wonder if you’d have to literally be superhuman to ride some of these routes - and not only that, but to do them day after day for three weeks - without some kind of artificial help. I’ve driven up Alpe d’Huez, and it was so steep for such a long way, we had to have the car in second gear! In some strange ways, the dopage has only added to the distinctive nature of the Tour. I mean, who can forget the oh-so-Gallic Richard Virenque, all-time King of the Mountains, sobbing unashamedly on national television during the infamous l’affaire Festina? It all seems quite consistent with the early history of the Tour, when to stop off for a stiffening brandy or even a hit of cocaine ('the natural stimulant') was not unheard of, and competitors accused the organisers of trying to murder them by making them ride the high mountains. Stages were up to 300 miles long, on virtually unpaved roads with bikes that had no derailleurs. Who wouldn’t take drugs to survive that??

So, in honour of today’s Bastille Day stage (which the French will go all-out to win, as they always do), I leave you with a clip of one of the great stage wins of Tours past: Marco Pantani screaming past King of the Mountains Richard Virenque (in the polka dot jersey) and eventual Tour overall winner Jan Ullrich to take the victory on Alpe d’Huez in 1997.

Photo credit: Hippolyte Aucouturier (could you get a name - or a moustache - that is more French??) at the start of the 1905 Tour in Paris, from a great series of historical Tour photos at The Wall Street Journal.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Oral histories and medieval texts

It's been an unconscionable time since I last posted anything here, and (a few) inquiring minds have been asking what I’ve been up to. The fact is, up until last week, I was buried deep in an oral history project. (Well, to be honest, it was that and the World Cup. Viva Espagne!)

So, this oral history lark has turned out to be a much more interesting project than I expected. For history postgraduates in this country, training in the theory and methodology of oral history is pretty much required if you expect to work in the field, as much of the historical research done by organisations like the NZ History unit and through the Waitangi Tribunal and the Treaty of Waitangi claims process involves gathering oral histories from people who are still alive. Suffice it to say that as a sworn medievalist, I didn't initially expect this to have much relevance to my own research. But a few of you pointed out on my last post that oral history could potentially provide me with a new perspective on medieval history. This thought was echoed by one of the oral history advocates I’ve been reading up on, who noted that many of the documentary sources we rely on as medievalists – such as chronicles and inquisitorial proceedings – were originally based on oral testimony. They therefore raise many of the same practical and theoretical issues as oral histories, such as the ways that collective or public memory (the 'master narratives', if you will) shape the memories of individuals, questions around the validity and reliability of memory, and the difficulties inherent in capturing meanings conveyed through the sounds and silences of a human voice and translating those into words on a page.

As I’ve been discovering through my work with fourteenth century English chronicles, these accounts were not only based at least partly on oral testimony, they were also designed to be read aloud in the abbeys within which they were (usually) created or to an audience of aristocratic or royal patrons. This has led me to dig deeper into theories of authorship/authority, readership, and reception, and has enhanced my awareness that meanings in historical texts are not fixed, but are constantly shifting in response to the changing relationships between authors, readers and listeners.

Interviewing people for my own oral history project really brought home to me how much ‘editing’ – intentional and unintentional – goes into creating a historical source. For example, I was very conscious of how much I was 'shaping' my evidence simply through the questions I chose to ask or not ask during the interview process. I also got a strong sense of how my interviewees were shaping their memories of the past in order to fit with their experience of the present and to create a coherent narrative of their own lives. One of the big theoretical debates in the field of oral history seems to be the fact that historians in part create (through recording oral history interviews and then making written abstracts or transcripts from them) the sources they later rely on to support their analysis and interpretation. Try taking any oral conversation and turning it into written text and you'll quickly become aware of these problems. How do you deal with slang or idiomatic expressions that your readers may not later understand? What do you do with repetitions, contradictions, and 'crutch words', such as "like" and "you know"? How do you represent tonal changes and body language, which can utterly contradict what is actually said? And how do you handle gaps and silences, which may contain as much or more meaning than the spoken words themselves (as any good post-structuralist can tell you)?

Many medieval documentary sources often involve a high degree of mediation. For example, in the case of a legal deposition or inquisitorial record, the original oral testimony (which may or may not be heavily shaped by the inquisitor's questions) is given in, say, fourteenth century English or French or Catalan. This is translated and written down by hand in Latin, and later, the hand-written document may be converted into a printed Latin text. Finally, the medieval Latin is translated into modern English or French or Spanish, if one happens to be working with recent translations. So I think many of the same issues of interpretation and shifting meanings arise as with oral histories. For the research I’m currently doing, I’m working with several fourteenth century chronicles where the original Latin version is printed side-by-side with a modern (late nineteenth to early twenty-first century) English translation. Working back and forth between the Latin and the English, I can see where different translators have interpreted the Latin in quite different terms, and even where translators have simply not translated into English some of the more controversial elements of the original Latin. This applies especially - but not only - to translations done in the late nineteenth century and the earlier part of the twentieth century. It’s hugely frustrating, but also very instructive in terms of giving a perspective on how the historian’s own socio-cultural context and political position colours the history they write, even in something so seemingly transparent as a straightforward Latin-to-English translation.

I'll write more on this translation issue soon, as I have some great examples to share with you. In the meantime, I'll be busy watching the World Cup final and, naturellement, my beloved Tour de France. Today's stage from Epernay to Montargis went through the gorgeous medieval town of Provins and straight past the cafe where I once drank (gagged down) possibly the worst cup of coffee of my life.

Friday, April 30, 2010

While I was sleeping...

Well, not actually sleeping. More like agonising over a literature review (why is it that you ALWAYS find five articles that totally change your thinking just when you think you’ve finally nailed it??), trying to figure out if I can produce something worthwhile for the SMFS graduate student essay competition (my supervisor is very enthused about this), and getting to grips with oral history. The latter is a requirement of my last taught postgrad paper, in historical methodology. If you want to work in any kind of professional history job in this country (and there are actually quite a few, given the whole Treaty of Waitangi claims industry), it seems you need to understand the theory and methodologies of oral history. For pretty obvious reasons, it’s not relevant to my interests in medieval history, but it’s kind of fun all the same. My efforts to come up with the most interesting project for the least amount of effort have me interviewing a few friends of my partner on their experiences of ‘coming of age’ as a male in the 1980s. Not as frivolous as it sounds, because it was a period that saw big shifts in the experience of ‘manhood’ in NZ, including the challenges posed to the entrenched rugby-racing-beer culture by the huge Springbok tour protests, and the bitterly-contested passing of the Homosexual Law Reform Act.

Not posting here for ages turned out to be a kind of an unintended social experiment. Everything I’ve written so far was just sitting there, waiting to be read or not read, as the case may be. I figured that with no new material, I’d probably just disappear into digital oblivion. Not quite, as it turns out. One thing that happened was the last post I happened to write, on cross-dressing, took on a bit of a life of its own, even getting linked from I Blame the Patriarchy, one of my favourite blogs ever. (Though I’ve never yet had the guts to comment there. Like the best lovers, it scares, amuses and stimulates me all at the same time.)

In other news, we’ve been watching the HBO series Carnivale on DVD. I’m a great movie lover, but in many ways I prefer series, because they get the chance to really develop complex characters and plot lines. Deadwood is probably one of my favourite entertainment experiences ever (though to be fair, I’ve had a bit of a thing for Ian McShane ever since Lovejoy). Carnivale hooked me in pretty quickly with its nasty 1930s travelling show aesthetic (reminds me of all those sinister small-town ‘museums’ we used to drive past on our trips to South Carolina or Florida when I was a kid). I love all the allusions to Gnosticism and Templar myths (cheesy as they may be - though not quite to Dan Brown proportions). But overall, this series is not quite doing it for me at the moment. It’s almost like the writers have tried to cram too much mystical weirdness in there, at the expense of a really strong central narrative drive.

So, this was a bit of a random catch-all, just to let you know I’m still here. I can’t promise to be a better poster in future, because I know I’m the kind of person who tends to be totally passionate about things for a brief period of time, and then entirely loses interest. It’s terribly flighty, but at this point in my life, I’ve accepted that it's who I am. I just make the most of the passion when it strikes. Thanks to all of you who’ve still been commenting, even on the old posts. I’m still reading your blogs, and I’ll be back to commenting soon.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Cross-dressing and other curiosities

This past weekend, we Wellingtonians hosted our round of the IRB international rugby Sevens competition. This is a huge event for the city and brings a massive influx of players and spectators from around the world. The tournament runs from Friday afternoon through to Saturday evening, but the town is basically en fĂȘte for days beforehand. Lots of locals take Friday off work (or simply fail to return after lunch). By 9am Friday morning, the pubs I passed on my way to work were all cranking and hoards of costumed fans were already spilling out into the streets of the CBD.

The costume thing has become a distinctive feature of the Wellington event. It started with a few groups of hardcore fans dressing up the first year, but now literally thousands of people dress up - perhaps as an unspoken alternative to the fun of Halloween, which we don’t really do in this country. The costumes seem to get more spectacular every year, and often show a good deal of creativity, planning and effort. This year’s offerings included a bunch of guys dressed as the components of a sandwich (two slices of bread, ham, tomato, cheese and an egg), and a massive bunch who came dressed as the 101 Dalmatians (yes, there were actually 101 of them).

What always fascinates me, though, is the number of guys for whom getting into costume is license to get into drag. This certainly taps into the carnivalesque nature of the event, as it create
s an opening for symbolic transgression of gender roles and social order. I’m sure the guys heading to the rugby in their mini skirts and high heels weren’t thinking about this, but it’s fascinating to consider them as modern actors in a very old communal play. This form of ritualised inversion helps social groups ‘let off steam’ by symbolically testing the limits of communal values without actually breaking those barriers. In sixteenth century France, these young men might have dressed as kings or bishops, using parody of their ‘betters’ to offer a ritualised challenge to rigid social and political hierarchies. In modern Western societies - particularly one like New Zealand, where class boundaries are quite blurred and permeable - gender remains as a very visible stratifying system by which our social roles and behaviour get ordered.

It’s interesting that in this society, at least, a woman dressing like a man is no longer considered transgressive at all (except, perhaps, by my mother). In fact, according to the doyennes of fashion in New York and Paris, every few years it becomes positively the height of style. But going the other way is still taboo except in circumstances like the sevens tournament or fancy dress parties. I’m no sociologist but I’m sure there is a hugely complex web of factors contributing to this state. As a medievalist, though, I'm prompted to speculate about the notion from Aristotelian natural philosophy that things can move from a state of lesser to greater perfection (in medieval terms, from female to male) but not the other way around. Thus, female saints cross-dressing as males became a pretty standard trope in medieval hagiography. In these narratives, when a woman dressed as a man and, by implication, took on manly virtues, it became one sign of sanctity. But I can’t think of any examples going the other way, nor can I imagine that given the general medieval worldview on gender and natural order, a cross-dressed man could have been seen as anything other than dangerously transgressive. Anyone know of any examples to the contrary?

Here’s my favourite Sevens costume (entirely gender-neutral, unless you consider filling the chilly bin with beer is a man’s job) -

Thursday, January 28, 2010

History written in sand

While I was wittering on about learning Russian, Belle posted a link to this most beguiling piece of performance art. The things this woman does with sand are amazing, and her tracing of recent Ukrainian history is entrancing and chilling at the same time.

(Click here if you can't play the embedded version below.)

Monday, January 25, 2010

Seven things...

Having been given the hard word by Good (Enough) Woman, and with no further ado, here are seven things you wouldn’t know about me from reading my blog...

1. I’m a bit of a science nerd, and have two-thirds of a BSc degree in Exercise Science. A few years ago, I considered a career change to the sports science field, but after doing some personal training I discovered I had no patience for lazy whiners the clients.

2. Though I’m currently owned by two cats, I’ve also had dogs in the past. I always snort disdainfully at those clueless dog-owners on television programmes like It’s Me or the Dog, and say things like “I would never have allowed my dogs to behave like that!” But the truth is that one of them, in particular, was a right little scallywag despite his many obedience club certificates. My son once had to go to school and tell the teacher that yes, the dog really had eaten his homework.

3. I used to be a kickass belly dancer. I still think that my regular dancing gigs at private functions and at the local Turkish restaurant were the easiest dosh I ever made (and always in cold, hard cash).

4. I’m anxious about climate change but at the same time, I can’t shake my penchant for classic American muscle cars. I’ve owned various cars over the years (mostly squeaky Japanese sports cars) but the darling of them all was a royal blue 1965 Ford Mustang.

5. Like GEW, I’m a headbanger from way back. The first record I ever bought with my own money (yes, it was all vinyl back then kiddies!) was AC/DC’s Back in Black (and it’s still on my iPod today). Generally, I preferred the dirty and vaguely menacing products of Britain’s industrial wastelands (Black Sabbath, Judas Priest) to the shiny LA hair bands. Van Halen excepted.

6. The first time I went to university (straight out of school), I majored in Anthropology and Religious Studies. I had no clue what I wanted to do with a degree and picked these subjects mainly because they sounded interesting and my friends were doing them.

7. I’m a dreadful hoarder of books and papers, and also very lazy about tidying. This lethal combination means that my study is now so stuffed with crap, I can barely get in the door. However, instead of clearing it out and organising it, I’ve simply moved all my work-in-progress piles to the dining room table.

ETA: Oh wait. You might have guessed about number 5 from reading this post.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

I'm cheating on my first love with Russian

I’ve been learning French for several years, and I adore the language. I’ve grown to really like my classmates and a number of us have now been through four or five terms together. We’ve fallen into a happy routine of taking turns to bring the wine each week and laughing over it as we confess our latest vocabulary faux pas. It’s possible I may even have developed a leetle, tiny girl-crush on my teacher, a beautiful and charming lass of French Indochine heritage and strange musical tastes. She once played us the Jacques Brel song Ne me quitte pas and was perplexed that we thought it a cheesy old load of nonsense with weird stalkerish undertones.

But this term, I’m cheating on my first love because I’ve finally found a night class in Russian. I’ve had a strange yearning to learn Russian for years. Recently, it became almost overwhelming as a result of watching this fascina
ting BBC series, in which Jonathan Dimbleby spends 18 weeks travelling from Murmansk to Vladivostok. I know very little about Russia, apart from the corners of its history I traversed in the course of an undergraduate paper on the Napoleonic Wars. Also, some odds and ends about Catherine the Great, although I never fell for the story that she was crushed to death while trying to have sex with a stallion (this is one of those scurrilous myths that often get attached to powerful women, and despite all evidence to the contrary, never seem to die).

I imagine all Russians to be like Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises, all smouldering gangland staunchness and chewy Russian consonants. Either that, or like the icily elegant socialites Dimbleby meets in St Petersburg, who dismiss Western democracy and American consumer culture with a disdainful wrinkling of their White Russian noses. I’ve never been to Russia but a visit to the Hermitage Museum is definitely on my list of things to do before I die. That, and swilling French champag
ne in the Baroque dining room of some decaying St Petersburg hotel that’s seen better days.

Oy. I just had a look at the Hermitage website. The Cyrillic script is utterly mystifying. At least with French, you’re on somewhat familiar territory, even if the particular letter combinations and the accents create different spoken sounds from English. It’s just occurred to me how much of a challenge it’s going to be to learn this entirely new alphabet - like learning to read all over again!

Image: The almost impossibly fairytal
e-like Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood in St Petersburg (eat your heart out, Walt Disney). Apparently, it got this rather gruesome moniker care of being the site of Tsar Alexander II’s assassination.

Monday, January 18, 2010

If clothes maketh the man, can hair maketh the virgin?

Or more specifically, could an image of a queen with her hair worn down but simply plaited be interpreted as a marker of virginity? I ask because in the course of my research on Richard II, I’ve found myself pondering the possible meanings of a suggestive image from his charter to Shrewsbury in 1389. Unfortunately, I can’t find an image of the manuscript illumination, but it features Richard II sitting all kingly on his throne, while Queen Anne kneels beside (and slightly below) him, depicting her classic intercessory role as mediator between the king and his subjects. Anne is crowned but otherwise her hair is uncovered and it is shown hanging down her back in a long plait.

I know that ‘unbound’ hair was used as a symbol of virginity, for example in the coronation rituals for new queens and for nuns taking final vows. The picture to the left is from the Liber Regalis, a 14th century coronation ordo, and you can just see the queen’s hair falling down her back. But does the concept ‘unbound’ always mean fully loose, as it is shown here, or could it include plaited but not otherwise pinned up or covered?

I’m aware that image does not necessarily (or even frequently) reflect reality. This portrayal of Anne on her knees, pleading with her husband/king for the liberties of the town, should most obviously be read as a representation of her symbolic role as queenly intercessor - mirroring the Virgin Mary’s intercession with Christ on behalf of humanity. But at the same time, I wonder if there is a more subtle message being conveyed. If plaited hair can carry the same connotations as fully unbound hair, could it also be read as an allusion to the possibility that Richard and Anne had a chaste marriage? This is something that has been suggested by a few historians as an explanation for their failure to have children. (By 1389, they had been married for seven years and Anne was 21 - getting on a bit in the child-bearing stakes by late medieval royal/aristocratic standards.) It’s curious, too, that despite Richard’s deposition and the opportunities opened up by subsequent noble rebellions and rumours of his imminent return, no ‘pretender’ ever emerged who claimed to be his son (legitimate or otherwise) and heir.

The possibility that Richard and Anne had a chaste marriage is one of those ‘arguments from absence’ that can be so difficult to sustain (and indeed, the articles I’ve read so far that discuss the possibility stretch the available evidence rather thin). Richard certainly portrayed himself as a model of orthodox piety and ‘hammer of heretics’ - it was even reported that he processed barefoot with the monks of Westminster. By the late Middle Ages, chaste marriage had emerged as an attractive model for pious laypeople who, for whatever reason (including an arranged marriage), had been unable to take up a formal religious occupation. Perhaps the most notorious example was that of the married mystic Margery Kempe, who basically bought off her husband by agreeing to cover his (considerable) financial debts if he would discharge her ‘marriage debt’ and agree to stop having sex with her.

Richard and Anne’s childlessness contributed to the instability of Richard’s reign as the lack of an heir of the body arguably made it that much easier for Henry of Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) to establish his claim to the throne. Strangely, though, none of the chronicle sources make much of this apparent failure at one of the fundamental obligations of kingship. If Richard and Anne’s marriage was indeed chaste, one would expect more rumour and gossip, as they weren’t just any couple but the king and queen of England. On Anne’s death, one would also have expected more criticism of Richard’s decision to take as his second wife a girl of six years old, meaning even the potential for an heir would be postponed by canon law for at least six years. Whether Richard and Anne had a chaste marriage or there was some other reason they didn’t reproduce, consideration of the apparent ‘failure’ of this royal marriage (and of Richard as a man) from a political perspective also marks an odd lacuna in many modern interpretations of Richard’s reign.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Sod the resolutions

For many reasons, I am not a great fan of the New Year holiday. Not the least of these reasons is the many New Year's days I've spent nursing wicked hangovers and vowing never to drink again. I managed to avoid that particular trap this year, and I also managed to avoid making any New Year's resolutions, which I know from past experience that I'd probably break within a month.

Another reason I don't like New Year is the accompanying deluge of advertising from Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, and just about every gym in town, trying to convince us to part with our cash in pursuit of some mythical 'ideal self' that we could finally attain this year if only we'd just try that little bit harder. Now, I'm not against fitness or healthy eating per se (in fact, I've been known to indulge in these things myself from time to time). What bugs me is the blatant targeting of all this 'New year new you!' self-improvement crap at women, and the insidious ways women's perfectly normal human imperfections are used as the ammunition to generate guilt, fear and ultimately - of course - product sales.

I could write a very long and humourless rant on this topic, but I think this hilarious clip from That Mitchell and Webb Look really says it all.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Vikings to Brits: "Charlemagne made me do it!"

From Medieval News comes this item on a new book by Robert Ferguson, in which he claims the Vikings were not truly the aggressors in the bouts of pillaging and raiding that made them so famous. In fact, it was all Charlemagne’s fault. According to Medieval News,
"A new theory about what drove the Vikings to raid Western Europe in the late eight and ninth centuries has been published. It suggests that the Vikings in Denmark were reacting to a threat from the Carolingian ruler Charlemagne, who was seeking to destroy their society and impose Christianity on them."
Disclaimer: I haven’t actually read this book, nor am I familiar with Robert Ferguson’s scholarship or credentials. But whenever someone comes along who turns cherished master narratives on their heads - or at least makes us think again about long-held assumptions - my interest is always piqued. On the face of it, though, this seems like a pretty radical reinterpretation of the Viking invasions. (I’m sorely tempted to make a glib comparison between Ferguson's depiction of Viking aggression-as-defence and reactionary men’s rights activists who claim dysfunctional and violent men are simply the sad victims of expansionary feminism.)

The Medieval News article continues -
‘With the accession of Charlemagne in 771, the Carolingians began to implement a new program of converting their pagan and neighbors and promoting Christianity. Charlemagne launched numerous invasions of the Saxon peoples led by Widukind.

In a podcast interview [available through the BBC History Magazine website], Ferguson adds the goals of Charlemagne were to force the Saxons "to abandon their culture, political system, beliefs and everything, and make them part Christians ['part Christians'? I think this is a typo, unless Charlemagne was happy with superficial expressions of faith versus full and genuine conversion] and part of his empire."

Ferguson notes an episode of "ethnic-cleansing:" when, in 782, Charlemagne's armies forcibly baptised and then executed 4,500 Saxon captives at Verden, a town close to Denmark. The Danes would have been well aware of what was happening with the Saxons anyways, as Widukind was married to sister of the Danish king, Sigfrid, and often took refuge in Denmark to escape the Carolingians.

Considering the situation, Ferguson writes, "Should the Vikings simply wait for Charlemagne's armies to arrive and set about the task? Or should they fight to defend their culture?"

But the Norse could not fight the Carolingian military directly - instead they went after soft targets, such as monasteries, which were symbols of the growing Christian encroachment. Ferguson says, "everything points to a hatred that goes beyond just robbers who just wanted money."’
I’m no expert on the earlier Middle Ages/Charlemagne/pre-Conquest England, but I know some of you reading this are. Out of curiosity, I’d love to know what you make of Ferguson’s assertions. Has his theory been canvassed before? Is it crazy-talk? Can the Vikings really be rehabilitated as victims of Charlemagne’s attempts at ‘ethnic cleansing’ and forced Christianisation?