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What do you buy for a bibliophile?

I’m in a happy position, but it’s complicated. I’ve got a *massive* book voucher to spend on anything I want. But what do I want? Not novels… I already own many hundreds more than I will probably ever find the time to read, and I have access to the even more substantial fiction collections of various family members. I want to spend my loot on something meaningful, and so this morning I’m pondering what exactly are the fundamental texts that any medievalist worth her or his salt ought to own. I already have my own copy of Lewis & Short’s Latin Dictionary – a lucky find on the Blackwell’s second-hand shelf about a decade ago; I own Latham’s Medieval Latin from British and Irish Sources; I’ve got one and a half sets of Tout’s Chapters in the administrative history of mediaeval England, and both medieval volumes from the English Historical Documents series; if you’ve been reading closely you know that I recently acquired Powicke on King Henry III and the Lord Edward, and I already have his The Thirteenth Century — another lucky second-hand find in York a couple of years back; I’ve also got both the earlier and later medieval volumes of the much more recent Social History of England, and a miscellany of royal biographies… In fact I have four full-height bookshelves of assorted medieval ‘stuff’, but I’m sure there are things I don’t have that I ought.

What would you do? Get something shiny and new, reflecting up-to-date scholarship? Or invest in the big reference tomes like the New Cambridge Medieval History? Primary sources? Readers for undergraduate teaching ideas? Specialist works? General surveys? What are the indisputable must-haves on your list? I need some inspiration, because for some perverse reason it’s much harder to know what to do with windfalls when they fall, than it is to dream about what you would do with the money when you haven’t any!

[Edit: it turns out it’s quite difficult, nay, impossible, to get second hand volumes through this outlet, so we’re looking at stuff that’s still in print on this occasion, folks…]

It’s official! Details of the fifteenth Thirteenth Century England conference have just been released and I’m happy to pass them on to you, dear reader. I’m not so happy that having spent most of July in the UK it’s extremely unlikely that I’ll be able to make it back again in September, because it looks like a corker. If you can be there, enjoy, and I shall be there in spirit…

Oh, and if anyone would like the registration form and full program, just email me or post a comment and I’ll be happy to forward them on. Sadly, they don’t seem to want attach to this post!

Thirteenth Century England XV: Authority and Resistance in the Age of Magna Carta

2–5 September, 2013

Aberystwyth & Lampeter

Conveners: Janet Burton, Phillipp Schofield, Björn Weiler

  • Helen Birkett (Exeter), Visions of Power: Authority and Religious Identity in Cistercian Exempla
  • Richard Cassidy (London), Bad sheriffs, custodial sheriffs, and control of the counties
  • Judith Collard (Otago), Visual representation of authority in the Chronicles of Matthew Paris
  • Peter Coss (Cardiff), On what authority (if any) did knights revolt in the thirteenth century?
  • Rhun Emlyn (Aberystwyth), Graduates and Authority during the Conquest of Wales
  • Ian Forrest (Oxford), Sources of Power in the Thirteenth Century
  • Beth Hartland (Glasgow), Rebellion and the North in the thirteenth century
  • Katherine Harvey (London), A Disputed Episcopal Election in Thirteenth Century Winchester, 1238-44
  • Philippa Hoskin (Lincoln), Bishops and rebellion: theory and practice in the mid-thirteenth century
  • Jennifer Jahner (Pasadena), Polity, Privilege and Voice: Political Poetry in the Age of Magna Carta
  • Melissa Jones (Cardiff), Family Strategy or Personal Principles? The Cantilupes in the reign of Henry III
  • Owain Wyn Jones (Bangor), The ‘Oes Gwrtheyrn’ chronicle
  • Fergus Oakes (Glasgow), King’s Men without the King: Royalist Castle Garrison Resistance between the Battles of Lewes and Evesham
  • John Sabapathy (London), Innocent III’s Political Thinking on Questioning and Resisting Authority
  • Sita Steckel (Münster), Voicing resistance. Arguments against the mendicants in England and France
  • Katherine Sykes (Oxford), Regulating religious women in the age of Magna Carta
This is more or less what Aberystwyth looked like the last time I was there...

This is more or less what Aberystwyth looked like the last time I was there… This time let’s hope the drama is in the research rather than the weather. (Photo from

And another thing… This:

Skeleton recently identified as that of Richard III

seems to answer a question that has been at the back of my mind since high school. Viz., whether the king really had a physical deformity, or whether this was all so much Tudor rhetoric. Given that it seems the former was the case (i.e. skeletal analysis shows evidence of scoliosis; they haven’t just laid it out oddly to make it *look* hunch-backed), it raises an important point that isn’t necessarily new but possibly in need of restating:

The academic world, or perhaps the world in general, has an excessive tendency to regard historical reportage, particularly in medieval and ancient texts which are already highly ‘othered’, as metaphorical, mythic, exaggerated, or just plain baloney. I see this as having been intensified by the linguistic turn, at which point historians everywhere suddenly realised (or at least articulated) that language is/was a manipulable and fallible vehicle for the ‘truth’ about historical pasts. This theoretical inheritance puts us at risk, occasionally, of throwing the baby of historical depth and complexity out with the bath-water of Whiggish certainty. The king’s remains remind me that sometimes or rather, also, the most politicized and rhetorical of texts can reflect observed realities, and we really should be working harder to keep both our trust and our cynicism –if that’s the word I want– in constant dialogue when approaching the past.

No doubt there’s more to say, but I’m still digesting this, and I refuse to be rushed…

Head wounds of Richard III. Left: a heavy weapon has sliced off the bottom of the skull on one side. Right: [edit] an arrow wound. [Posthumous wounds have been detected to the face, ribs, and pelvis, not shown here.]

Historians practise empathy as a profession. As Guy Halsall has argued frequently through his blog (and no doubt in person), this is one of the most important things history trains students to do. Reading a historical source well is to get inside the heads and hearts of all the players (not only the ones whose voices are explicitly articulated) to understand (if not agree with) them, and hence it is a personal, ethical and political action. Nevertheless, constant empathy is an emotionally taxing thing. Being able to see the other side (and the other other side, and the other other other side, and… you get the idea…) of every story is psychologically draining. Like trauma doctors who regularly have to look at mangled human bodies and face their suffering, historians develop their own kind of ‘professional shields’ to protect the psyche from the horrifying humanity of people in the past, especially —but not exclusively— their distress. By sifting data out of their stories, analysing it, and reconfiguring it into new narratives driven by whatever theoretical stripe, we are both making versions of the past accessible, and also, strangely, enabling a distancing between ourselves and our materials… or rather, I should say, real, historical people. Sometimes things break through this line of defence. A friend of mine tells a story about how reading Héloise’s reply to Abelard’s Historia Calamitatum as an undergraduate had her crying in class. Personally, I almost lost it at a major international conference when the speaker read out a contemporary description of the innumerable dead after the battle of Evesham (I don’t think I was alone, either). And today I find myself deeply moved by the revelation of the physical insults perpetrated on the body of Richard III before and after death. I can’t afford to be so deeply affected by the people whose lives I study on a regular basis, but I’m glad that I retain the capacity.

Recently on the MedFem Listserv, the valuable online forum of the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship, discussion was piqued by the question of whether we’re ‘done’ with the history of medieval queenship by now. I think most people ended by agreeing that the answer is ‘no’, even if some individual queens sometimes seem to be getting all the attention;[1] the usefulness of studying exceptional individuals for understanding the role of women generally in society at large may be small; and the value of looking at less well-known queens, not to mention non-royal women, certainly shouldn’t be denied. Theresa Earenfight has begun to address this through her recently established blog, Queens in the Middle Ages, which will be a great place to watch for more developments if you’re interested. Theresa recently posted:

royal women were highly visible to their contemporaries. Their lives were recounted in chronicles, the management of their estates and households recorded in fiscal documents, their letters collected in archives, and their religious and artistic patronage remembered in the books, buildings, and works of art they sponsored and treasured. Yet later scholars put kings at the center of the history of medieval Europe and ignored most queens, dismissed them as unimportant, forgot their actions, and obscured their lives…

This is certainly the case for a particular episode of English, French and indeed wider European history from the late thirteenth century. I’ve talked briefly about this before, and I’ll be waxing eloquent on the topic in Winchester in July, since my paper has just been accepted for the Kings & Queens conference, so I won’t go into loads of detail here. But suffice to say, the more I looked into the contextual background of three letters from Edward I to queens of France, the more horrified I became at the almost complete silence of historians on the involvement of these women in diplomatic efforts to avoid an Anglo-French war in the 1290s. They are almost completely invisible in the diplomatic historiography. Some works mention the presence of Marie of Brabant and Jeanne of Navarre at a meeting with Edward’s brother, Edmund of Lancaster, at which (depending on whose account you read) Edmund was duped into agreeing to a ‘secret’ peace pact with Philip IV, or did some duping of his own which resulted in Philip’s animosity. And that’s about it. No further comment or analysis. Not even a flicker of a pause in which to wonder why these queens were involved in negotiations, how they may have been involved in setting up or facilitating the occasion, or what their response to its failure might have been. No reflection on what the royal men considered to be the role of these women in diplomacy, or whether they sought it, or expected it, or resented it. No curiosity over how normal or extraordinary this kind of activity was. No mention of the subsequent correspondence from Edward to Marie, Jeanne, and Marguerite of Provence, even though two of these letters have been in print since Champollion-Figeac’s two-volume collection Lettres des Rois, Reines et Autres Personages des Cours de France et d’Angleterre depuis Louis VII jusqu’à Henri IV, Tirées des Archives de Londres appeared in 1839, and all three are noted in the Calendar of the Close Rolls, Edward I, Vol. III: 1288—1296, first printed in 1904.[2] What this means is that despite having had the resources to hand for at least one hundred and seventy-four years it simply hadn’t occurred to anyone to ask these questions, even though the presence and influence of the three queens was not invisible to their contemporaries. I’d say that shows we aren’t done yet.

On the upside, it means there are still plenty of opportunities to add to the story of thirteenth-century diplomacy. That, at least, makes me smile.

[1] Eleanor of Aquitaine, I’m looking at YOU!
[1] J. J. Champollion-Figeac, ed., Lettres des Rois, Reines et Autres Personages des Cours de France et d’Angleterre Depuis Louis VII Jusqu’à Henri IV, Tirées des Archives de Londres. 2 vols, Collection de Documents Inédits de l’Histoire de France (Paris: Imprimerie Royale, 1839-47); Calendar of the Close Rolls Preserved in the Public Record Office. 61 vols (London: HMSO, 1900-1963). Point of trivia – Jacques Joseph Champollion-Figeac was the elder brother of Jean-François Champollion, famous for translating the Rosetta Stone, one of the other iconic British Museum posters of my childhood previously discussed here. I guess I was always doomed to be an Egyptologist or a Medievalist…!

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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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