One Year of the New Historians’ Sketchpad!

Holy moly, it’s been a whole year! Admittedly, sometimes it feels like longer just because of how much has changed since June 2021 – if you asked me how long the blog’s been back up, my honest answer would be ‘since about the mid-‘80s?’ – but still, we’ve got a whole new year of producing cutting-edge Earlier Medieval content which has given both Sam and I a space to develop new ideas, entertain and inform our readership, publicise our work and – occasionally – indulge our worst tendencies towards camel obsession and charter-based pedantry respectively.

Still, I’m really proud of the work we’ve put in and I think the growth we’ve seen in audience numbers reflects that. As such, I thought we’d have a look over the highlights of the last year in blogging. Both of us have picked our favourite and/or most noteworthy posts from the last year, so without further ado, here they are in no particular order:

Divide and Fail to Conquer (30th December 2021)

Sam and I, I think its fair to say, have slightly different approaches both as historians and as bloggers. If in doubt, then to use Crusader Kings III jargon, he will play wide and I will play tall. That is, he will expand his scope and I will focus on the details. Obviously, this isn’t to stereotype either of us: our records on this blog and in our publications show that Sam is just as capable as drilling down into the nitty-gritty as I am at taking in several hundred years and thousands of miles. However, my first academic love is always taking evidence in detail and building relatively small-scale pictures out of that; and then bigger pictures from that. Not seeing the wood for the trees is, of course, a bad habit; but the flip side is that when I present you with a wood, I know every tree in it, and the work I tend to be proudest of is the work where I can plunge into the details and come up with something wider, beyond a purely local study.

There’s a lot of that sort of thing on this blog. Last year, I was writing a book about the history of the tenth-century West Frankish kingdom, looking at the narrative of it in more detail than anyone has for a century. The blog saw a number of posts based on that. I could have put my dissection of the early history of the county of Boulogne here; or my hypothesis regarding West Frankish involvement in the earliest strata of the history of the March of Valenciennes, but instead I’ve chosen my analysis of the brief reign of Louis V as sub-king in Aquitaine. I went with this one because a) it’s an attempt to correct a thousand-year-old slander of a teenager (admittedly a king, so it would be appropriate to break out the tiny violins) but more importantly because b) I think that after a millennium it moves analysis of this episode on from the account given by Richer of Rheims to something more accurate and more useful. This, ultimately, is why it’s here over something more experimental like my Roman Roads post (which, for the record, barely missed the cut).

Sam: What Type of Elephant did Charlemagne Have? (10th June 2021)

When Fraser and I first started talking about having me contribute to the blog, I knew that I wanted to start with this post. People who know me will be familiar with my obsession with Charlemagne’s elephant, and I need no excuse to start talking about the adventures of Abu al-Abbas. He is going to feature prominently in the title of my forthcoming book on Carolingian diplomacy with the Islamic world. I’m therefore thrilled that this post has been so well received by people. I’ve long been convinced that Abu al-Abbas was an Asian rather than an African elephant and this seemed to be the place to make that case in writing. But in doing so I hoped that I could make a much broader case about the early medieval world. Writing the post also provided me with an opportunity to discuss some of the most important themes that run through my work. These include diplomacy, interaction between Christians and Muslims and logistics across the early medieval world.

But it also speaks to my wider approach to diplomacy between the Carolingians and the Caliphate, which is that by drawing upon the rich and deep sources that come from the Arabic world, we can better understand the otherwise thin material available for these relations. Sources like al-Jahiz on elephants provide a vital context that allow us to see Charlemagne’s dealings with Harun al-Rashid through the latter’s eyes. By exploring Abu al-Abbas’s Indian origins, I wanted to remind us that the Caliph operated in a much bigger world beyond his relations with Charlemagne, and hint at the multitude of events and people that lay behind the brief sentences that otherwise tell us about their contact.

Fraser: A Sad, Angry Gesture of Defiance (30th November 2021)

There had to be a Charter A Week here. As I said above, I’m proud of everything we’ve done on this blog, but our translation work is probably our best claim to be important: as someone familiar with other examples, The Historians’ Sketchpad is one of the biggest single repositories of free-to-use original translations of Carolingian material out there. I have heard from colleagues that they’re using it in class, I’ve seen it cited on Wikipedia pages: having accessible source material – as Sam says below – is something that matters.

But with that said, this one, whilst it’s my choice, isn’t my story. This is the story of Duke Acfred II of Aquitaine, and as it appears here, it’s that story as interpreted by Geoffrey Koziol. I read Koziol’s book at an impressionable stage in my PhD, and Acfred’s charter for Sauxillanges was one of the ones which really inspired and stuck with me. For that reason, it’s my selection: I love this story, and it’s one of the shining beacons of why tenth-century history can matter on a human level. Even though all I’ve done is English the Latin, the powerful tale underlying it is my pick for a translated text.

Sam: Pope Leo III writing to Charlemagne on North African Affairs (17th August 2021)

Whereas I had an idea that the post about Charlemagne’s elephant might draw people, this one blowing up caught me by surprise. Fraser had quite rightly insisted that translations needed to be at the heart of what we did. Our self-indulgent musings about our work might occasionally be of interest to the odd reader, but sources put in modern accessible translation would actually be useful to people who wanted to get to grips with the past, within or without the Academy. Unfortunately, translations are also hard, and doing them in public risks both ridicule or accidentally misleading people if one stuffs them up. I’m therefore very grateful to Fraser for gently prompting me to nonetheless take the plunge.

The right source opens up a multitude of different worlds, and this letter from Leo III to Charlemagne most certainly does that. The headline, that both Pope and Emperor were interested in affairs in North Africa, and had means of acquiring information about them, is fascinating enough, and something I intend to talk about more in my long-promised book. But the letter also draws up into Byzantine Italy and Idrisid Morocco, forcing us to think about how the particular politics of these places linked into a much wider early medieval world. It also provides us with a new perspective of the pirates in the period, and their immensely divisive activities across the sea. Much like the Mediterranean, this letter joins all of these people and places together, expanding our understanding of Charlemagne’s perspective in the process.

Fraser: Translating Between Vernaculars in the (Long) Tenth Century (20th January 2022)

And then there’s this. The blog’s biggest post this year, by pure numbers, was my review of The Invention of Power, which is not a post I like very much. This is partially because ‘medieval history is written off the basis of sources not of data’ is not a particularly original or insightful point; but mostly for the simple fact that I don’t like being that negative. This blog is supposed to be about writing down snippets of my historical research that are (hopefully) interesting and enjoyable, not giving other work a kicking. Nonetheless, when that post started getting a significant readership, it made sense, given the book was at the heart of the The Discourse at the time.

This post, though, was a surprise. I’d be lying if I said I had a profound thesis in the post, or for choosing it as a highlight. I have real warm feelings for this post, and the response to it, simply because it’s a little peek into this fascinating world I’ve spent so much time working in that I find interesting, and other people did too. Appropriately enough for a post on language, it prompted discussion and that’s pretty nice.

Sam: Kathleen Wood-Legh and the Cambridge Refugee Committee (30th September 2021)

One of my rules when I started writing for this blog was that no individual post could take me more than one day per fortnight from start to finish. Academia is a career path that attracts perfectionists, and I was well aware that if I let myself, the blog could very easily take over all my spare time. Contributing to the blog has also been a very useful exercise in the discipline of writing quickly, something I still need practice with.

I broke that rule with this post. The extraordinary life and career of Kathleen Wood-Legh loomed larger and larger in my imagination the more I learned about her. I realised that I wanted to do her justice. More than that, I felt a deep debt to her, one that could only be discharged with the very best I was capable of. The result is a post as full and as lyrical as my brain could manage, and a more personal one than I anticipated when I started, as the small ways in which my history intersected with hers became more apparent to me. Above all, this post is important to me because Kathleen Wood-Legh is the sort of person who doesn’t always make the history books, but who mattered, who made the world an infinitely richer place for the work she did and was at the heart of so many people’s stories. Finding herself in a world that was on fire, she rescued the innocent from the flames and raised new buildings from the wreckage afterwards. It seemed to me that that deserved to be remembered.

 Finding Troy (5th August 2021)

Academic writing has its conventions. Books and articles have been bred over their long genealogies to particular sizes, bearing an impressive plumage of references and quotations. While the writer’s personality may come through, and not even academic journals disavow all humour in scholarship, a certain solemnity and weight is expected. One of the joys of contributing to a blog is that much of that goes out the window. While I try to offer reliable scholarship in my posts, I won’t deny that I am occasionally guilty of indulging in a certain amount of whimsy in the process.

That is part of what makes Finding Troy one of my favourite posts. Inspired by a very strange book that makes the unusual choice of locating Troy in the vicinity of Cambridge, this post thinks about the stories people tell about their homes and the way they connect them to the ancient past and to distant places, both real and mythical. In doing so I draw upon a number of ideas developed as part of my research with the Impact of the Ancient City project. But I also wanted this post to act as a love letter to Cambridge, the place I have lived longest in my life, and which did so much to make me as a scholar and as a human being (make of that what you will). I spent the decade or so resident there fascinated by the stories and legends that surround the place. But I also ventured out into the flat yet fascinating countryside in which it lies (full disclosure, I may have accidentally guided the devil out of the Fens. I’m very sorry). This post tries to talk about the power of place and the connections between people and the landscape by discussing a landscape that I have loved intensely for the last ten years.

[Ed: For the record, this post happens to be my favourite thing Sam has written for the blog thus far.]

Fraser: Was there a Rus’ Khaganate? (14th April 2022)

In a lot of ways, my new project at Tübingen was a very cynical move. The current fad in new hires is global history; and material culture never hurts. My tenth-century Frankish research has, despite my occasional proximity to numismatics, been very textual, but you can’t do viking research and ignore archaeology or limit yourself to the West. The end result of this is that I can make some kind of case for being able to teach the history of both medieval Canada and medieval Tajikistan; but there’s something more important at play here. I’ve got background in viking history, and this blog post came out of the moment where I realised: this is a very fun, very exciting, very interesting project, and even in places I’ve not been previously familiar with, I can add something! ‘Imposter Syndrome’ is not something I suffer from too badly, but this post comes out of a moment where I overcame that with new research.

Moreover, on a research level, most of what we can see about Northman polities outside of Scandinavia comes from a Latin Christian milieu, whether that’s Dublin or Frisia. Establishing that a viking realm in the Turkic world isn’t a figment of historiographical imagination – no matter how shadowy it is – is an important part of doing comparative history, because now I can start thinking about processes. With a case outside its orbit, I feel less worried that the proximity of the western realms to an institution as powerful, and as literate, as the Christian Church (the proverbial lead weight on the trampoline) is having unmeasurable effects on their development which render them all strange cases in a global sense…  

And there you have it: a year’s worth of blog highlights. Hopefully we’ll be able to reconvene here next year for another dose. In the meantime, we’ve got material lined up until the end of July and some plans for things beyond that, so settle in and we hope you enjoy what’s coming!


Career (and Other) News III and Name in Print VII-X

Something a little different on the blog this week, a little more personal. I have been known to get a little personal here on occasion, and so arguably this is just following in an established tradition, but there’s not going to be any juicy post-Carolingian content this week. Normal blog service will be resumed on the 30th, when we go back to Louis V’s Aquitaine, and then we’re kicking the New Year off with a bang. You can expect dog-headed men, non-existent counts of Boulogne, possibly migratory queens, and a whole load of suspicious brothers.

Today, however, is about news. The first, and most important, piece of news is that I got married last Thursday. It was a small civil ceremony, and because ours is an interfaith and international marriage, it’s ceremony number one of three spread out over more than a year; but it was the one which, legally, counts. (And yes, I did briefly get in trouble for blogging on the wedding day until I clarified that both the posts and the tweets are posted and scheduled well in advance…) Thankfully, the plan was always to keep it small and with the rise of Omicron* that turned out to have been good foresight. With restricted numbers, we all had a lovely time. Me and my wife and our dogs are very happy together…

…or, at least, we will be for the next month. You may remember that since last Spring I have been not-quite-unemployed grace of a Visiting Fellowship at Leeds and database work for the Sylloge of Coins of the British Isles. Whilst the latter has been quite interesting – by this point I certainly have a much better idea of the coinage of King Cnut – it wasn’t, and wasn’t intended to be, a long-term thing. So the good news is that I have a new job! From February 2022 until the end of that year, I will be a fellow at Eberhard Karls Universität, Tübingen, working in their Center for Advanced Studies’ project ‘Migration and Mobility in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages’. This has the delightful result of reuniting me with my old mentor from my Humboldt fellowship, Steffen Patzold, as well as all my other friends from Tübingen. This is genuinely wonderful, as my six months at Tübingen back in 2017/18 were some of the happiest and most productive of my life. I will also get a chance to expand my scope, because I’m moving on from tenth-century France. The title of my project is ‘Constructing Legitimacy amongst Mobile Elites in Northman-Ruled Polities in the Long Ninth Century’, and I’ll be looking at political cultures in Viking realms from Ireland to Russia. This doesn’t mean that this blog will stop looking at the tenth century. However, it is my sketchpad, and so what that means is that you can also expect even more rambling about Vikings as I try and get thoughts in order.

I’m also not going to be the only one of your faithful bloggers out there. Recently, I had the chance to catch up in person with the other half of the Historians’ Sketchpad team for the first time in about two years. Besides taking the dogs to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, where we talked about Hugh the Great’s lions and bumped around potential translated text projects, we could congratulate each other about the new jobs, because Sam is also going to Tübingen next year! His project will be called ‘Mobility and the Making of Carolingian Diplomacy’.

The team together at Kirkstall Abbey. I had genuinely forgotten how tall Sam is; when he walked in the door I asked him where his dream-catching trumpet was…

Obviously, all this assumes an awful lot about how things develop with Omicron over the next several weeks. As I write this, people from the UK are not currently allowed into Germany without a ‘compelling reason’, which does not include business travel; and there is also a work-from-home order in place. I am keeping in touch with the German side as things evolve; and thankfully, I have got enough resources to hand to be able to start the research here when the time comes if that proves necessary. We’ll see – whilst I am very grateful to be employed, and the move is temporary in any case, I’m less happy about having to move away from my wife. For a whole bunch of reasons, the structural precarity of early career academia is muted for me compared to most of my colleagues, but it’s still not fun or pleasant. Appropriately enough to bring this full circle, one of the University and College Union’s current representatives for casually employed workers is Ben Pope, one of the friends I made at Tübingen (only three-and-a-half years ago, but three jobs ago for both of us). This is probably preaching to the choir for anyone reading this blog, but UCU is fighting against precarity as part of its current strike action, and it deserves your wholehearted support.

Anyway, it’s the Christmas season, so let’s not leave it on that depressing note. It’s been over two years since I last updated this blog with news of my work’s fortunes in print. Why don’t I put the newest stuff here so you can access all the late- and post-Carolingian history that this post didn’t contain? I won’t do the full breakdown the way I did in the past, so here are the four articles of mine which have come out since September 2019:

‘“Nullus alicui clerico episcopatum conferre debeat nisi rex”: Royal authority and disputed episcopal elections during the late Carolingian period’, The Medieval Low Countries 6, pp. 55-73.

Political culture and ducal authority in Aquitaine, c. 900-1040’, The History Compass 18, pp. 1-10. (which is open access, so you can read it right now by clicking the link!)

‘”A girly man like you can’t rule us real men any longer“: Sex, violence and masculinity in Dudo of Saint-Quentin’s Historia Normannorum’, Anglo-Norman Studies 42, pp. 101-117.

And finally:

Governance, locality and legal culture: The advocates of Saint-Martin of Tours’, Early Medieval Europe 29, pp. 201-224. (also open access!)

Some of these you might be familiar with, if you’re a long-term reader. Sexuality in Dudo of Saint-Quentin, for example, is a topic we’ve broached a few times on this blog (and one which, naturally, gets me no few clicks to this day from search topics like ‘Norse sex’). However, it’s a really neat little bit of close reading which also links up with wider issues of the Scandinavian influences on Normandy. If you’d like to read it, let me know and I’ll see what I can do. Something much easier to access is my work on advocates at Saint-Martin, which I am particularly proud of for a few reasons. The first is that it’s the first article I’ve ever published which began life entirely on this here blog, which by itself validates it as a research tool. The second is that it encompasses much more than what the title might suggest. I have the bad habit of drafting articles which amount to a case study in search of an argument, and this one almost fell into that pit; but in fact it came round to saying something quite important. The third is that thanks to Charter A Week, you can actually read my translations of some of the charters I discuss in the article right here. It’s a cross-media branding exercise, entirely by accident! (The same, for what it’s worth, is true of the letter of Charles the Simple which my Medieval Low Countries article discusses.)

And with that, I’ll leave you be. Whatever may or may not happen this Christmas, whether we can see family and/or friends or not, I hope you all manage to find some happiness over the holiday season. Merry Christmas to one and all!

*which sounds like the next Avengers movie, doesn’t it?