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Isidore of Seville says:

The noun (nomen) is so called as if it were ‘denoter’ (notamen), because by its designation it makes things known (noscere, ppl. notus) to us. Indeed, unless you know its name (nomen), the knowledge of a thing perishes.[1]

So if naming is the creation of knowledge, what is anonymity? Is it simply not knowing? or is it un-knowing; the destruction of an idea?


[1] Isidore of Seville, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, ed. by Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach and Oliver Berghof (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), (p.42) I.vii.1.
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This is exciting! I’ve secured some seed funding from the Arts Faculty (another big thanks to them for allowing me an extra 24 hours to finalise my application under extreme circumstances) for a new project that builds on the skills I’ve acquired through the hard slog of doctoral study and broadens them out into new and tantalising directions. Dear readers, you heard it first here that Medieval Meanings of Anonymity will be on my radar over the next few years. Before I embark on this project, I thought it would be worth cataloguing how it came into existence. As an early career scholar, I’ve been bugging a few people with the question ‘how did you come up with your next big project?’. Having discovered one method for myself, it seems only fair to share it.  Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

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.

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!

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[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.

parergon30-1coverI’m happy to announce that my article “Words as Weapons in the Correspondence of Edward I with Llywelyn ap Gruffydd” has just appeared in the most recent edition of Parergon. You can get it through Project Muse here if your library has a subscription.1 Here’s the abstract to whet your appetite:

The correspondence exchanged by Edward I of England and Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, Prince of Wales in the late thirteenth century has traditionally been read for its legal and jurisdictional implications. However, as Rees Davies noted, language was itself a weapon in medieval Anglo-Welsh conflict. From this assumption, I examine a single letter exchange to investigate the construction and function of royal epistolary language. I suggest that traditional and formulaic elements were adapted to strategic expression of the authority and longevity of royal power, and that silences were equally intentional and rhetorically forceful weapons in the campaign to dominate Wales.

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[1] I know it’s all about open access these days, but I’m a member of the august association that publishes this journal, and the income that this online access generates keeps it afloat, and able to do fabulous things like offer student essay prizes, subsidized conference registrations, professional training seminars and travel bursaries. All of these activities are things I have benefited from in my own (albeit, so far, short ) career, and are in my humble opinion Good Things. So, despite the fact that I’m all for people being able to read my work (the more the merrier!) you won’t find me putting illicit copies of this online because I think it would be genuinely counter productive and mean spirited of me to deny opportunities like this to others by diverting such an important funding stream away from the good work of the Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Studies. On the other hand, if you are an independent scholar without access or means you can contact me privately for a copy for your own use if you are interested, because I do care about information accessibility even if I don’t want it to be at the expense of small scholarly societies. End rant.

I’ve been puzzling over a conundrum which, perhaps unsurprisingly, has me speculating about medieval language choices. This is the thorny issue of pronouns, specifically, the matter of I and me. It’s not difficult these days to summon up any number of illustrative examples of these little but important words being misused with abandon. Here’s a quote, for example, from the Australian Minister for Finance and Deregulation, Penny Wong, on the topic of same-sex couple parenting: “I do not regret that our daughter has Sophie and I as her parents.” I’m not intending to discuss the gay marriage issue on this occasion. Instead I want to throw out some thoughts on the implications of the common grammatical error of using I as an object. (Senator Wong is merely a useful illustration of how widespread this particular mistake is in Australian – and perhaps other English-speaking – cultures.)

I used to think about this as merely a matter of inaccuracy or lack of education. Knowledge is certainly part of the matrix. My own ‘vernacular’ practice is, I admit, rather variable. The difference between subject and object wasn’t something covered in English classes at my school, and I doubt very much that I was unusual in that experience. My only childhood memory of any ‘discussion’ of the difference is my father interjecting ‘Andrew and I!’, ‘mum and I!’ whenever I used ‘me’ in such combinations. (Sometimes, in retrospect, even when I was originally correct… Sorry, dad!) I only really grasped the distinction when I began to learn Latin as a University student, and even now I sometimes slip, especially in casual conversation. But reflecting on the matter recently – as a result of marking a large number of undergraduate essays – I realised that there are also many other factors at play. For one thing, there is a complicated socially embedded bias against using ‘me’, especially in combination with other individuals. ‘Me and Jane’ (or ‘Jane and me’) seems to smack of a sort of lower class patois that must be avoided at all costs if one intends to sound educated, sophisticated and culturally aware: somehow this sensation remains, even when the sentence is “Anna bought matching watches for me and Jane”, which is, of course, grammatically correct.[1] I can’t trace the origins of this emotional reaction to language, but it is as if ‘me’ intrudes itself too much upon our notice in a sentence to be considered quite polite. Perhaps ‘I’, by virtue of its particular phonemic resonances, is less obtrusive, less overt, more self-deprecating than ‘me’? Maybe because of the ways that ‘me’ is stereotypically misused as a subject among the less educated, it has acquired connotations of general linguistic impropriety? (Conversely, as The Atlantic recently informed us, the pronoun whom is undergoing an inexorable decline because “Correctness is significantly less appealing when its price is the appearance of being—as an editor at The Guardian wrote—a ‘pompous twerp.'”. So, clearly, wanting to appear educated or at least of a middling-to-upper socio-economic background isn’t the only factor at work in the sociology of language choice. And I doubt I’m telling you anything you didn’t know there![2])

In other words, the use or abuse of I and me reflect not only our level of education in grammatical theory, but also how desirable it is in a given social context to perform that education, also taking into account the particular social, cultural and emotional baggage that adheres to individual lemmas of our vocabulary.

So where’s the medieval parallel? Well, in connection with this I have been thinking about the development of the plural as a form of polite address. Grammatically speaking, it’s all wrong: when there is a single subject the subject and verb ought to be singular. For some reason, however, kings of England (and elsewhere) in the high middle ages began to be represented in writing with ‘the royal We’. By the thirteenth century, they also sometimes addressed single subjects with plural pronouns and verbs, as in the formula vobis mandamus quatenus faciatis, which, for the sake of making the point, I will translate as ‘we command yous that yous should do [whatever]!’.[3]

When I made the point in a paper at Leeds a few years back[4] that it seemed significant when kings of this period decided not to use the plural pronoun in their commands, instead instructing subjects with versions of the phrase precipimus tibi quatenus facias, it emerged in comments that some scholars working on earlier periods didn’t see why this would be rhetorically important. In their sources, tibi simply indicated that the command was addressed to one person, vobis that there must have been more than one. Their impression was that I simply hadn’t quoted the whole thing and that multiple addressees were in fact involved. But no! Rather, as I replied at the time, the use of the plural was associated with dignity, status, and respect. It was less about the grammar accurately reflecting the number of subjects or objects to hand than it was about expressing the gamut of associated social meaning.

It seems from a cursory glance at earlier medieval sources that this developed into a standard practice sometime in the mid to late twelfth century (although I would be eager to hear of earlier examples). It’s intriguing that this is also a period in which many other means of defining and demarcating the distinctions between social ranks are also emerging and solidifying. What I ask myself, in light of my musings over the modern grammar of colloquial English, is whether medieval authors were completely aware of these changes at work, or if they too, in their turn, were sometimes mystified by the use of language that seemed technically incorrect. I open the floor for yous to discuss it…

[1] Conversely, coming into contact with a large number of manual and trade workers through my other half’s work, I am sometimes astonished to hear myself beginning sentences with pearls like “Me and my sister went…”. There’s some kind of chameleonic essence to my language use that I’ve never been able to shake. As a child I reportedly spoke a broad Glaswegian brogue with my school mates and would turn around in my chair and translate into ‘Australian’ for mum and dad on request, while recently on a visit to the States I was asked if I had been born there when my accent started to ‘tune in’ to the local cadences apparently of its own accord. Fitting in is what I do.
[2] Although I am making a personal stand to bring ‘whom’ back into correct usage, and hang the accusations of twerpery. (Twerpery? Twerpitude? Hmm…) Students who use whom correctly in essays for me get bonus smiley faces in the margins. True story.
[3] Which reminds me of my favourite line in that great Australian film, Two Hands, if you will excuse me… Young thug: “Yous two are f***in dead!” (Sees two police officers walking past.) “Nah, not yous two.”
[4] ‘To dictate or delegate? The language of governance in English royal letters, 1272–1307’, given at International Medieval Congress, Leeds, 13 July 2010.

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…!

This is one of those wonderful moments in which something one reads for “breadth” turns out to be an essential spark for restarting the engine of the project one is supposed to be working on. But perhaps that’s not so surprising: the brain becomes attuned to thinking about certain things. It might not even strictly be thinking, because while new flashes of insight can come of it, it is really a kind of mental path of least resistance through which new information is processed by reference to old. The brain – or perhaps I should say ‘the mind’ – likes patterns. As shown in the famous, or infamous, pigeon experiment discussed by Richard Dawkins in The Enemies of Reason (above), it is attuned to seeking them in the exterior world; it is equally attuned to performing them in the interior mechanisms of thought. Thinking about, or returning to the familiar idea of codes and encoding as a mode of producing and understanding texts (whether we mean then or now) is one of my ‘mind habits’, as some readers may know.

So, speaking of patterns, I suppose no one ought to be surprised that this comment leapt out at me from Michael Camille’s discussion of Derrida’s engagement with the image of Socrates and Plato from Matthew Paris’ copy of The Prognostics (Oxford, Bodleian, MS Ashmole 304, f. 31v.), videlicet:

[a] message… is encoded and its decipherment is dependent upon the addresser and addressee sharing the same code.[1]

Read the rest of this entry »

A while back I remember being horrified by a post at Vaulting and Vellum on the defacement of illuminated manuscripts. When you work on less visually elaborate and aesthetically pleasing sources, say administrative letters for the sake of argument, the chance of that kind of sin being perpetrated on your materials is much lower. What is much more common in this scenario is the source which has been damaged by the attempts of past scholars, editors and archivists to read it.

Like this:

Archive damage

Kew, TNA, SC 1/3/106. Apparently a letter from Thomas fitz Alan to Henry III, c. 1220. Luckily in this case the text was printed by both Prynne and Shirley, because good luck making anything of it now… Photo by Kathleen Neal

A significant number of thirteenth century letters in the SC 1 collection bear similar evidence of chemical agents having been applied at some time to increase the contrast of ink on parchment. Happily in most cases only small portions of the text are affected, typically at the edges, and often UV can help you see through the murk… if you happen to be in Kew with the original in front of you, that is. When you’re forced to rely on digital reproductions from several thousand miles away, it gets your goat to find that some element of dictaminal rhetoric vital for your argument has been obliterated, to all intents and purposes, by otherwise well-meaning predecessors, some of whom helpfully calendared the contents but failed to reproduce them in entirety. One of these days I will tabulate all the examples of this defacement in SC 1 and by correlating them with editions or scholarship of certain authors point a stern and censorious finger at likely culprits. For now I simply say, “Curse you, Oh archivists of the past!”

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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.

You can also find my academic profile on Academia.edu

Twitter: @KB_Neal

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