Despite the fact that this sounds like a publicity blurb, I’m not involved in any way in this – absolutely no kickbacks have changed hands. (Can a kick change hands? Mixed metaphor? Anyway, I digress.)

The main point is, the interwebs have been lighting up with this new resource, which I am linking here for the benefit of those not on (or in contact with those on) any sermon studies newsfeeds which is where the sh**has really been going down. I’m talking about ‘Enigma’ – a tool which helps you to identify uncertain words in medieval Latin palaeography. The truly wondrous thing about it is that it permits wild card searching for unknown / uncertain letter forms, including the first letter/s, making it more functional than a conventional palaeography dictionary for those tricky cases.


Launch Engima in a new window

In the olden days, when I was a scout leader, we used this thing called the ‘buddy system’ to make sure all our little charges got back to base after a ‘wide game’ running around the local creek in the dark. It’s kind of self-explanatory: everyone had a buddy, and buddies had responsibility to make sure each other made it back safely. Hold that thought.

There’s been a bit of chatter of late both on the interwebs and in the actual physical corridors about receiving academic feedback. What do you do with it? How do you cope emotionally? How do you view it intellectually? If you haven’t already done so, I recommend going over to The Thesis Whisperer and looking at what one kind supervisor told their student. But this isn’t just about students. It’s not as if academics take a magic ‘grown up pill’ as soon as they get their PhD and suddenly intuitively know how to manage this ‘feedback’ with a sanguine air. If nobody trains you in dealing with this as a student, you’re basically going to be left to figure out a strategy for yourself as a post doctoral scholar. Maybe that will work, or maybe not so much. You might be one of the lucky ones who has a great mentoring structure around you in your career, but equally, you might be (or at least feel) essentially on your own.

I’m chipping in with my two cents here because I’ve noticed some real differences in the course of my career change from the laboratory sciences over to the humanities, and there are some things that we (the humanities) can really take from the science model in this regard. I’ve shared this with various individuals, but it’s obviously ‘a thing’ so maybe sharing here will be worth it. Read the rest of this entry »

These seem to come around faster and faster – or maybe I’m just getting older… But it’s time for the sixth annual Revealing Records conference at King’s College London. This is a great forum in which to hear new graduate work based on original records. I recommend it if you’re in London later this month.

Here’s the blurb, courtesy of Kenneth Duggan’s academia page, where you can find a full program for the day:

Revealing Records VI

Now in its sixth year, the Revealing Records postgraduate research conference series brings together postgraduate researchers working with a wide range of sources from across the medieval world to share challenges and approaches through the presentation of their research. Featuring keynote papers from Dr Alice Rio (King’s College London) and Professor Paul Brand (All Souls College, Oxford) and a closing address delivered by Daniel Hadas (King’s College London)

Location: The Weston Room in the Maughan Library, King’s College London

When: 9.00-6.00, Friday 23rd May, 2014


To register, please email the conference organisers at the above address. Registration is free.

Lincoln Cathedral (image: wikimedia commons)

Lincoln Cathedral (image: wikimedia commons)

I’m really looking forward to June-July. Not only am I hitting the conference boards (and the legendary dance floor) at the Leeds IMC, but also spending several weeks in Lincoln as International Visiting Fellow in Medieval History. I’ll be taking the first steps in an exciting new research project while there, looking in the county archives and university and cathedral collections for examples of anonymity in different genres of text – more on that in another post. I’ll also be giving a talk on new work at the Religious Men in the Middle Ages conference, a joint event of Lincoln and Huddersfield Universities under the auspices of the Bishop’s Eye network. Importantly, and excitingly, I’ll also be running a workshop for local postgraduates in medieval history, examining some of the methodological insights into blending cultural and political history with diplomatic that I built up over my doctoral work. It’s going to be great fun!

I’ve never been to Lincoln before, so I am really looking forward to this visit from a tourist perspective too. I can’t wait to visit the amazing cathedral.

I’ve been handing out a lot of this of late, so I thought I would centralize it here. Maybe you’re presenting at your first conference, or maybe it’s not your first time but it’s a really major meeting and you lack confidence. Either way, perhaps you should consider these points. Don’t be one of those people who give dire conference papers that everyone remembers for the wrong reasons.

1. It’s a conference paper, not a journal article

These two genres are very different, yet many people – especially in the humanities – treat them as if they are the same. In other words, to prepare a conference paper, many humanities students/academics sit down and write. They produce elegantly phrased sentences of complex construction. They delay the moments of ‘big reveal’, maybe by opening with an evocative quotation or posing a puzzling question that won’t be answered until the end. These strategies might work fine in a written version (although, actually, I advocate coming clean on what your argument right from the beginning even in print), but a conference audience can’t flip back and forth through the pages to double check they know who Llywelyn ap Gruffydd is, or what the quote you used said. Take pity on them! Plan your paper from the outset with the awareness that it is an aural object, designed to be spoken aloud and received by listening. This awareness will lead you to the following points…

2. People have to be able to follow your argument in real time

Signpost. Signpost. Signpost. State your argument (and even its parts) right from the beginning. When you (and the audience) arrive at a new part of the argument, say so. Explain why the audience should care before you launch into each new quote, or complex description of influences on an idea. If you expect them to indulge you in an extended aside, say that that is what you’re doing. Tell them when you return to the main point. Give people plenty of hooks and ‘stage directions’ so they can follow you as you speak in real time.

3. You only have time for one key argument

Don’t try to cram your entire thesis on a given topic into 20 minutes. Although it may all be relevant to the title you proposed (oh so long ago!), it will just push you over time, and clutter your audience’s mind. Plus, I think it’s simply bad manners when lots of other speakers (many of them dutiful higher degree students) will have worked hard to make sure they keep on time, and everybody’s time is valuable.

As you begin to prepare, sit down and deconstruct your larger argument to its skeletal outline. Reflect: who is my audience? How much background will they already have? What will I need to explain so that everyone can follow me? Once you’ve dealt with the context that is essential to allow an intelligent non-specialist to follow your ideas, you won’t have a lot of time for complex exposition. Stick to the key point, and save the flourishes for the written version. Maybe your argument has lots of parts… but probably you only have time to deal with some of them. So what will you prioritize? What is the main ‘take home message’ you want to convey. Like Nick Hopwood, I’d encourage you to get it out in the open from the opening words – and then stick to it.

4. The details are devils

In a written version of a paper, you will give extensive footnotes, and probably provide a number of examples or pieces of evidence for each point in your argument. These details do not all belong in a spoken version, however. See points two and three! Just as you must reduce your argument to its essential skeletal outlines, you must be ruthless about how much evidence is needed to illustrate it in this format. Some will be essential in order for people to see, recognize the validity of, and remember your central point. But the rest can wait for extended treatment in print.

5. Only use visual aids if they help

Some presentations naturally work better with a bit of visual assistance. For example, if you’re going to rely on the physical layout of a document to draw some conclusions, having an image of it will no doubt be useful. Or you might want a family tree so that the audience can keep track of the relationships between lots of individuals. This might work best on the old fashioned handout. Or it might be ideal for a Power point or similar projected technology. But never, ever, do this gratuitously. A pointless power point slide show just makes people wonder if that’s where you put your energy instead of into refining your ideas. And if you are going to use visual aids, work to integrate them into your presentation actively – rather than just distributing the handout / whacking up the slides without comment and forgetting about them. When it works, visual supplementation is great. When it doesn’t, it looks – and is – redundant, and detracts from your work.

Any other tips from your experience?

Turns out it’s really very hard to concentrate on finishing writing a grant application when some misguided idiot is lighting fires all along the nearest freeway on a day when it’s 39°C with high winds and there are sirens going by every ten minutes. Who knew?

[Edit 1: and now we have the water helicopters... Time to make sure I have a copy of all my important files backed up to the cloud, me thinks!]

Water Bomber at the Riddell’s Creek fire (Photo, jaytown1 via Instagram)


[Edit 2: What fun. The last five hours have been occupied 'enacting my fire plan'... packing up dogs, valuables and bottled water, hosing the exterior of the house, watching the wind changes and listening to ABC emergency broadcasts. Patches of frenetic activity interspersed with patches of sheer boredom, but no option of turning off the radio to focus, so no grant writing! I hope the Faculty is understanding tomorrow...]

[Edit 3: For those who were asking/wondering, my Faculty is ACE! Very kindly gave me the extra day's grace I requested once I explained the circs. Kudos to them.]

I have a lot of postgraduate students among my friends, and among this august group one reaction has been fairly prominent since I handed in and subsequently passed my doctoral thesis. Students, who are still embedded in the higher degree process, often think that there’s something special about me and/or my work, and that some aspect of this exceptionalism is what has carried me over the line at both submission and passing stages, whereas for them everything will naturally be much more difficult. This is rot. As Research Degree Voodoo recently reminded us:

A doctoral thesis is about 80,000 words (or your discipline’s equivalent) of academic writing that describes a research project that should take about 3 years and can be carried out by someone just starting out as a researcher.

Nothing more. Nothing less. It’s (probably) not a nobel prize. It’s (probably) not the best work you’ll ever do.

If there is one thing about me in particular that helped me achieve completing this PhD, it is the fact that I have done it before. I already held a PhD in neuroscience, and although the content and the quotidian processes of producing it were utterly different, the intellectual and emotional processes were very closely related. If you just plod through your candidature, keeping fairly abreast of what is required and doing ‘stuff’ regularly, completing actually boils down to a fairly simple matter. It’s about knowing when enough is enough; about keeping in perspective the fact that this is ‘just a PhD’ and not your Life’s Work; keeping the panicked voice of your inner perfectionist at bay while being able to say: ‘yes, of course I could go on and do about 100 more experiments, or rush off to a new archive and translate a bunch more charters, or whatever, but what I’ve got here is a respectable, original contribution, albeit not particularly earth-shattering in its importance. It is enough.’

The other piece of wisdom that two rounds of doctoral study have taught me is that by the time you get to the end, nothing you’ve worked on feels new any more. It’s very easy to give way to a sense of despair and, throwing up your hands, cry out ‘it’s all a waste, because nothing I’ve done is actually new or interesting! Surely everybody already knows all of this by now, and I’ll fail for not having contributed anything to knowledge. Therefore, I must now… [return to point 1, above].’ Resist this impulse. Your work feels old to you because you’ve been thinking about it fairly constantly for three or more years; but nobody else has. That’s the point. That’s why your work is yours, and original.

None of these things is easy to realise or tell yourself when you’re within the process (even if you have done it before!), but they’re all true. So if you’re nearing the end of your candidature, next time you get in a panic don’t try and reinvent the wheel, or assume you need three extra chapters, or another six months. Just stop and ask yourself – is it enough? and is it mine? Or if you can’t figure it out for yourself, ask a trusted friend. The answers are probably yes and yes. You’re probably nearly finished.

So! (or rather Hwæt!)[1] My dissertation has just been passed, and it’s winging its electronic way to the printer and binder as I type (hat tip: I always use White’s, whenever I do a PhD!). One day, perhaps soon, it will be a book which all of you can read (if you can be bothered… if not, I’ll forgive you. Probably.). But the book won’t be quite the same, and it certainly won’t have quite the same acknowledgements in the front. In reflecting on the journey from thesis to book, it occurred to me that since this version will ultimately be read by few people, very few people will ever see the list of thank-yous that were important enough for me to put in the acknowledgements section. So I’m sharing them with you here, just so that my thanks are on record publicly, and because lots of people out there are awesome, friendly, helpful, wonderful colleagues, and that should be celebrated!

Read the rest of this entry »

The Close Rolls reveal that on December 14th, 1286, while Edward I was in Gascony, his cousin Edmund, Earl of Cornwall, witnessed the enrollment of a settlement among the heirs and parceners of Stephen de Bocton, a tenant-in-chief, lately deceased.[1] Stephen was survived by his wife and three daughters, two of whom were married. There were thus six people with a direct interest in the division of Stephen’s estate. Interestingly, among the lands and income to which they were now entitled were a number of rents specifically attached to various feast days, including Christmas. Presumably such rents enabled lords to entertain their important allies and tenants at banquets to mark these important moments in the liturgical, social and political calendar. After all, we know that ostensive feasting was an integral part of alliance formation and maintenance, and by no means insignificant in maintaining the dignity of lordship that enabled land holders to command the respect of their neighbours and dependents.[2] Even those who weren’t invited may have ‘feasted’ on the news of the rich dishes and their staggering variety.

I imagine, then, that the division of the Christmas rents may have been among the articles of inheritance that were hotly contested or at least seriously debated and considered in the course of reaching the settlement, because it is far from clear that all parties got an equal share of the festive goodies:

  • 26 ½ hens and a cock to Idonea, Stephen’s eldest daughter and her husband Thomas de Gatesden.[3]
  • 25 hens and two cocks, and a hundred horse-shoes to Joan, Stephen’s second daughter and her husband Ralph de Otringden.
  • 29 hens and a cock to Isolda, Stephen’s third daughter.
  • nothing for Matilda, Stephen’s widow – or at least nothing recorded in this entry on the Close Rolls.[4]
image from wikimedia commons

Fowl, I say! Image from wikimedia commons

Oh boy, I have been waiting a long time for this kind of software to be free and accessible to mere mortals, and finally, it is here! This is the preliminary result of me testing out a piece of shareware devoted to displaying frequency analyses as pretty cloud diagrams.[1] Basically all I’ve done here is paste a random, small assortment of Latin letter transcriptions from TNA, SC 1 (familiar to many readers here) into an online tool I recently discovered, called Wordle, and play with the display settings until I liked what I saw:

latin cloud

How cool is that?! In one visual sweep, you can start to pick out the most commonly recurring elements of vocabulary (granted, in declined form – but maybe that’s important and interesting in a different way from the stem lemma…).

My next project is to build some select files so that word clouds can be compared between, for instance, letters to the King, and those sent in his name; or letters from men, compared to letters from women… Such tantalizing possibilities! Bring on the summer!


[1] Perhaps it’s the scientist in me, but I often find visual data so much clearer to deal with. Give me a nice graph and a regression line, and we know where we stand – including the awareness that those little lines/dots/asterisks are a product of fallible human intent and design, rather than any kind of all-knowing objectivity whether derived from or metaphorically similar to an ultimate deity. Got that? Good.

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I teach and research at the Centre for Medieval & Renaissance Studies in the School of Philosophical, Historial and International Studies, Monash University (Australia). Views expressed here are my own and not representative of the CMRS, SOPHIS or Monash.

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Twitter: @KB_Neal

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