magna carta BL catalogueAs I recently tweeted to British Library curator Julian Harrison, before the year is out we will all have reached #PeakMagnaCarta. But that time is not yet upon us!

In this 800th anniversary year, I’ve already been (albeit briefly and unexpectedly) something of a radio celebrity, talking about thirteenth century England on ABC radio in three capital cities across Australia. Heady days, folks; heady days! But we’re only just beginning. There are any number of public events, lectures, exhibitions and conferences planned. I won’t be at all of them, but I admit I’m going to gorge on this unaccustomed appetite for my period and specialty while I can.

Here’s a curated selection of Magna Carta related activities for you to peruse: Read the rest of this entry »


9781445645742Darren Baker of the blog and associated newsletter ‘The Provisions‘, has a new book on Simon de Montfort, With All For All, out now* with Amberley Publishing. I posed a few questions to him in the lead up to publication, to probe how his book responds to a range of opinions about this complex character circulating in the academic world:

This is the first biography of the Earl of Leicester since J. R. Maddicott’s Simon de Montfort in 1994. What do you see as the key distinction between your characterisation of Montfort and his? Do you think interpretation has shifted in a particular direction in the last twenty years?

Maddicott gives perhaps the fullest account yet of Montfort’s life and career. He is what you might say is a biographer’s biographer, meaning his work will always be an indispensable resource for people like me. In the end, however, I feel his judgment is too harsh, that he is inclined to see him easily corrupted by his success, to be too much like his father, who incidentally I don’t think was the complete demon he is often portrayed as today. Maddicott is certainly not the first to present such a sombre view, but so thorough is his biography that it has been the prevailing opinion since it came out. I see Montfort as a much more inspiring figure, one who truly did make a lasting contribution, and at first I felt compelled to answer criticisms about him in the body of my book. I then realized that most lay readers probably couldn’t care less for any scholarly tug-of-war, they just want a great story, so I shuffled my opinions to the back of the book. Read the rest of this entry »

On 1 March, I pose a few questions to Darren Baker, author of a new biography of Simon de Montfort, With All For All, as he wraps up a week long online book tour. Watch here for updates.
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OK – odd request perhaps; or perhaps not.

I have been trying unsuccessfully to locate a 15th/16th (?) century English (?) recipe I found online a few years back. Despite my, if I say it myself, pretty amazing googling powers, I haven’t managed to find the original site, a copy of the same recipe, or my original printout (doh!). I need your help to find it, gentle reader, because that baby was a tasty thing, and I want it in my repertoire for future Med-Ren Feasts (an *awesome* annual tradition of the Centre for Medieval & Renaissance Studies at Monash).

Here’s what I can recall:

As modified for a modern shopping list according to the original site, it definitely had the following ingredients:

  • chicken
  • oranges
  • lemons
  • mace
  • white wine
  • prunes
  • currants

It may also have contained (memory is hazy…):

  • dates?
  • cinnamon?
  • onion?
  • chicken stock?

You were supposed to serve it in its broth, although I had to drain most of that off when I first made it, in order to transport it 75km by train, bus, car and foot….

This is as close as I have found recently, but it’s not the version I originally used, which included some advice about modern substitutions:

If these details ring a bell with you – please ‘elp!

I do so love getting new books! Just lashed out on these with a voucher from my kind in-laws. If you see me sitting impatiently by the post box, you know why:

de colore copeland hermeneutics

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.

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 »

I don’t regard myself as a particularly computer-geeky person, but in history circles I often turn out to be the one person who knows how to work the projector, and that, apparently, makes me an IT guru. I’m often astounded by the things I seem to know about computers that some people don’t, and how many people ask me for advice about this kind of thing. But then, if nobody tells you about things, it is certainly harder to know about them. If you’re reading this, perhaps you are one of the people who already knows this stuff. If not, then I hope it is of use to you! Below, I’ve compiled a non-exhaustive list of apps that I’ve found useful. Go to.

Keeping up to date

Email notifications

Literature expands quickly. Not everything that’s published will go on to become a classic of the field, but there is still value in being on top of what has come out recently. In a hangover from my science days I use Thompson Reuters’ ISI Web of Science to manage email alerts of new journal publications in fields of interest to me. This is a subscription service, but most tertiary institutions have a subscription. With an email alert, rather than having to login and repeat the same old search on a regular basis, you save your common search terms, and then set up an automatic alert so that a list of any new results of those searches will be sent to your inbox on a weekly or monthly basis. The humanities collections of the Web of Science are still developing, but it already covers most of the journals published by major publishers, and is growing all the time. The other really great thing about this database is it lets you track not only the citations within a particular article, but also anything which has cited it in turn, allowing you to follow the research footprints both forward and back. [Edit. Note, the email alert service requires you to set up a personal login in addition to your institutional access login method.]

Keeping track


(Or your preferred bibliography software) I swear by this little gem. I learned to love it when I was a working lab scientist, and I couldn’t believe how few people new about or used it when I jumped the fence to humanities. Endnote (and similar programs such as Zotero) lets you:

  • store your bibliography in an easy, standardized and searchable format
  • insert references into written work with a simple click
  • format references in word processed documents instantly
  • keep your notes on a particular item with its bibliographical details
  • attach soft copies of articles, chapters, etc.
  • create thematic folders

The hot tip of all hot tips is to start using Endnote (or similar) early in a project. Don’t wait until you have hundreds (or thousands) of items floating about needed to be entered!

Most literature searching databases, from ISI to JSTOR, and even your local library catalogue include an ‘export to Endnote’ feature which means you can even send reference details direct to your bibliography without having to type them all in by hand. This is super handy and saves you heaps of time, although I do still recommend going through after a big import session to make sure things capitalization or hyphenation style in imported records match any entry protocols you have been using. For example, I always use n-dash between ranges of numbers (e.g. 1264–65), but sometimes an import will introduce entries that have hyphens instead, I just quickly fix that before moving on. Then I always know my bibliography will be consistent in any piece of writing.

Endnote also now includes a web-based storage option so you can take your bibliography with you wherever you go.

For Zotero. A similar, free app:


This little app is wonderful for keeping track of time. You tell it when you begin and end working on a particular task; it adds up the time that you spend — per day, week, month, etc. — on a given task or task category and can show it to you in table or graph form. This is a useful thing for those who are working casually on a range of jobs, such as tutoring or as a research assistant, because it helps you account for every moment spent and make sure you are billing for the time you actually spend working. It’s also very useful for keeping an honest track of time spent on your own research project or thesis, and this can be especially important if it turns out you’re actually spending most of your day on facebook without noticing and need to give yourself a kick in the proverbial. Statistics show you will tend to underestimate the time spent on paid work, but overestimate the time spent on thesis/own research. Toggl does it for you so that you’re not relying on the fallible instruments we call our minds.

Focusing on Writing

Write or Die

Most people write more and better and more regularly with either a carrot or a stick. This is the stick. Write or die is an app for when you’ve done some reading and thinking need to write up your ideas in a rough and ready draft. It gives you a clean screen to type into and locks out other programs until you meet your set target, which might be in words or minutes spent writing. The app prompts you to keep working by alerting you if you have slowed down or stopped, according to the severity of the ‘stick’ you set yourself, for example, by turning the screen progressively more red, setting off a klaxon alarm, or even, on the most severe setting, erasing your work before your eyes. It’s amazing how motivated one can become to keep writing under this kind of pressure! Version 2, now online, has ‘consequences’ mode as well as ‘reward’ mode, if you’re more of a carrot person. There is a free online version, but the paid one might be worth the $20 cost if you are a serial procrastinator when it comes to getting words on the page.


Probably the best $10 you will ever spend. This app isn’t free but it does set you free from the temptation of ‘just quickly checking email’… or doing other pointless, time wasting tasks (or just watching videos of kittens) online when you should be writing. We all do this. And many people can’t stop doing it simply through will power. (*guilty*) Probably because thinking about research and writing about it are both actually really bloody hard to do: the brain naturally veers to one side and takes the path of least resistance unless you force it back to the stony path of intellectual work. Freedom helps by blocking your network access for a time set by you, anywhere between 15 minutes and 8 hours. There’s no countdown clock or any other distracting widgets telling you how much longer you have to ‘endure’ – just no internet access on your device for the time you have set yourself: browsers will open but not connect. The only way to turn it off and get your internet back is to reboot, which is actually quite a hassle if you have 15 windows open and lots of files to save and close…

Backing up

Sync Toy:

This is a great little free Microsoft app, especially handy if you use a portable hard drive (like I do) for travelling or commuting with your files from desk to desk, or — as in the case of a thesis — you want to make sure you always have a backup of the most recent version of your documents. Sync Toy can be set to synchronise (make sure the same files are represented in two places), or backup (save copies of everything in one location to a second location. Run it regularly (daily or at least weekly), especially during thesis writing!

Of course, these days there are a lot of cloud-based options that let you store and work on files in a virtual drive that can be accessed anywhere there is internet and sync to desktop versions automatically. I do use these for research notes and collaborative writing tasks, see below.

Wrangling your information


I’m still getting into this, but it’s pretty awesome. Evernote is a cloud-based notebook that lets you keep everything in one place: bookmarks, website content, screencaps, word documents, pdfs, and jottings. The Evernote web clipper app lets you capture online content and save it direct to your Evernote notebook, while in the notebook itself you can enter, tag, categorize and search your notes. Like all cloud-based apps, the desktop and online versions sync on a regular basis, or on command, meaning you can be sure of having a back up of your ideas, and you can access them anywhere. In my experience it’s cumbersome to use it to store lots of images, and I haven’t found a way to integrate it well with Endnote, but it can do most other things you might need in terms of helping you store research ideas, and retrieve them effectively. You can get a premium version which lets you search within linked word documents as well as within the ‘cover’ notes; but there is a free version which has basically all of the capabilities a student would need, and plenty of storage capacity. For example, I used it recently to make sure I couldn’t lose my PowerPoint or script for a major conference presentation: even if I misplaced my USB stick or my luggage got lost in transit, I could still download the files.

Evernote doesn’t replace the functionality of word processor programs like Word or Pages. For example, its no good at inserting footnotes and formatting, but it is perfectly adequate for taking research notes, meaning you can do this effectively on any online device. This potentially saves you weight in your bag whether it’s international travel, or just a trip downstairs to the library. Its tag function and the capacity to make multiple notebooks within your account mean you can use it as a research ‘filing cabinet’ where your own generated material is stored together with whatever relevant things you’ve found online.


Dropbox is another cloud-based app. I use it especially for collaborating on Word documents. To do this, both (or all) parties sign up for a free Dropbox account (again there is a premium version, but you might find the free one is sufficient to your needs as a student); then everyone downloads the Dropbox desktop app. This creates a folder on your desktop which is synced to the cloud. You can edit documents in the folder in real time and everyone’s copy will automatically update.

I’ve found Dropbox more useful for this kind of editing than Google Drive because the latter doesn’t let you edit Word documents from within the cloud. Instead, you have to download them and than re-upload the new version. In a collaborative situation, this could lead to a lot of confusion and potential stuff-ups about which version is current and communally approved. On the other hand, Google Drive is great for things like making and sharing forms or group schedules, and for communally editing documents if they were created in Drive as a Google document in the first place.

Online security


This is an amazing app. It’s a password manager: you create one long, complex, mega-password to get into lastpass, and it remembers all your other passwords for everything from your email to your internet banking. It can also generate passwords for you at random, according to parameters like the number of characters, whether to include numbers or special characters, and whether the password should be pronounceable. Since you don’t have to remember them, you can have really long, weird passwords, and different passwords for all your online activities, both of which greatly increase your online security. The only slight problem is it apparently doesn’t work on iPhones…

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 »

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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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