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!