Category Archives: teaching

Teaching with Wikipedia

I’ve just finished teaching my module on Wikipedia and medieval history. It’s a short course for MA students, taught through five two-hour seminars. I started this module in early 2018, as I think the first of its kind in the UK; it’s now run three times, with the support and advice of the brilliant Wikimedia UK team.

It’s evolved quite a lot from where it started: from what was basically a ‘normal’ medieval MA course with a Wikipedia dimension, to a course that’s more squarely focused on Wikipedia itself, and its implications for those concerned with the (medieval) past.

There’s quite a lot of interest these days in teaching with Wikipedia, so in case it’s useful for anyone thinking of running such a module, I’ve attached my course guide. Comments and suggestions for improvement would be very welcome!

Wikipedia and Medieval History (pdf)

image: Andrea Caprez (via
https://twitter.com/staatsarchiv_zh/status/1147521814563872768 )

Reflections on the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ debate

It’s with some hesitation that I write this blog. It’s not really my field, and the topic is angrily contested; many historians have chosen to keep their heads down and concentrate on their teaching and research at a busy time of year. But the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ debate raises important questions for those who study the medieval past, and for historians more broadly.

At its simplest, the debate concerns the value of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ as a label for the culture, society and politics of southern and eastern Britain before the Norman Conquest. It has been argued by scholars such as Dr Mary Rambaran-Olm (for instance, here) that the label is irredeemably racist and must therefore be abandoned, not just because of its modern appropriation by far-right groups, but because of its history since the Reformation. Proponents of this view add that its continued use actively discourages BAME scholars from entering and remaining in the field; some hold moreover that its abandonment should be merely the beginning of reforms required to dismantle a structurally racist system of knowledge production in the modern university.

Those making these arguments have met with awful racist abuse online, and I applaud the courage of Dr Rambaran-Olm and others in facing it.

Others in the debate have pointed out that the label ‘Anglo-Saxon’ was abundantly attested in sources from the time (especially those written on the continent) and so cannot easily be dismissed or ignored, have called for more thorough assessment of the term’s early modern and nineteenth-century use by specialists of these periods, and have raised concerns about abandoning commonly-used labels to extremists. (There’s a useful summary by Michael Wood here.)

One of the issues is a significant UK/US dissonance. In America and other English-speaking countries, the term ‘Anglo’ or even ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is often used as an ethnic label – indeed, that is apparently its normal usage outside the academy. In the UK, this usage can certainly be found; but it is a marginal one, and for the most part the label today is used with reference to the historical period, whose traces remain evident in place-names and even standing buildings. In standard UK usage, Hadrian the African, for instance, who came from North Africa and became abbot in Canterbury (d. 709), is just as much part of Anglo-Saxon history as the Venerable Bede.

To be clear, this does not mean that the UK is less racist than America, just that different countries with different histories are differently racist. Where the far right in America uses a language of ‘Anglo-Saxon’, the far right in the UK, and especially in England (the largest of the four nations of the UK), primarily employs a language of exclusionary Englishness (e.g. the English Defence League). It’s maybe partly for that reason that BAME people living in England are much less likely to consider themselves English than white people living in England, often preferring instead the label British. To talk about the ‘early English’ or the ‘Old English’ instead of the ‘Anglo-Saxons’, as has been mooted, might help combat racism in the US, but might inadvertently feed it in England.

There is a wider issue here, which is about the best way for historians to combat fascism in all its forms: an acute question in 2019. For me, the key is to write good, accurate and engaging history that does not oversimplify past complexities, that respects the integrity of the historical sources in the search to understand the past as best as possible for its own sake – and that challenges both the distant past’s direct relevance to contemporary politics, and anyone’s claim exclusively to own it.

When extremist groups appeal to the early Middle Ages in their efforts to reshape the contemporary world, historians should point out where they are wilfully and grotesquely misreading the evidence: after all, the appropriate and sensitive use of evidence is what historical training and historical ethics are all about.

But historians should also, and I would argue above all, point out that the past is not an instruction manual or a model for the present. Whatever your reading of it, early medieval history was a very long time ago: it is or ought to be largely irrelevant for contemporary political issues, whether in England or America or anywhere else. The main problem with 21st-century fascists pretending to be medieval Anglo-Saxons or Vikings is not that they have misread Bede or Gildas: it is that they are fascists.

Notes:
Edited 11.11.19 to remove ‘if one looks hard enough’ after ‘this usage can certainly be found’, to avoid any unintended implication that racists need to be sought out.


What is a History lecture for?

Once upon a time, a typical History degree in the UK would be taught through a combination of lectures and small-group teaching. The small-group teaching would be based on discussion of reading done in advance. To enable all the students to do the reading, libraries would stock multiple copies of relevant books, next to little cardboard boxes of offprints – authorised photocopies – for reading in the library, not for borrowing.

This all sounds rather quaint in the era of digital reproducibility. When JSTOR first appeared, lecturers publicly lamented that students no longer learned how to use library catalogues, but they privately welcomed the way it abolished the old access problems. Every student could read the same chapter or article in preparation for the small-group discussion, and a course could be easily updated if something new and brilliant came out.

Now, though, reproduction technologies are being applied not just to the reading but to the lectures, through lecture capture.

UK students and university administration alike often see lecture capture as progress with no downsides. You can listen to your lecture again and again, at your leisure, whenever and however suits you. Staff concern about dropping attendance is countered by the benefit the technology clearly offers to students who unavoidably miss a lecture through illness, family emergency, or other commitments, quite apart from university ‘business continuity’ if a lecturer falls ill or is otherwise unavailable.

But these debates, though important, are missing a key point: reproducing something inevitably changes the original in some way.

This year, a number of engaged students have politely emailed me, weeks after a lecture, to ask for references to things I referred to in passing in a lecture – and not just book titles (which I naturally provided), but for page numbers. In essence, they are asking for my lecture’s footnotes. And that’s perfectly understandable. Digital reproduction means the lecture has become a resource, not an event. Now that students can listen to it again and again, their expectations of the lecture have changed. It is now effectively a recited text.

Does this matter? As it happens, most of my lectures are texts, since I tend unfashionably to write them out in full. Is there any reason I shouldn’t simply upload them as texts, so all the students can read them for themselves? Why not treat undergraduate lecture series as oral textbooks?

That might be where we’re going. But there are two issues. The first is that if we expect lectures to receive the kind of scrutiny that published texts come under (especially if they end up on the internet, which these days is more likely than not), lecturers will have to spend rather longer on writing them, and changing their nature: polishing them up, equipping them with footnotes, and removing those wry quips that might sound awkward taken out of context.

The second is deeper-rooted. I think most History lecturers don’t want their students to ‘learn’ their lectures by dint of repetition: these lectures aren’t e-How videos, teaching a historical data-set to be repeated back in an exam. That’s because a History degree, at heart, isn’t primarily about rote learning lots of details about the past – it’s about learning how to construct, for yourself, reasoned and persuasive arguments on the basis of incomplete evidence. Undergraduate lectures are generally intended to introduce students to a wider body of historical literature, to help guide them through it; they are not supposed to stand in for that literature in itself, or to give the answer for the exam. But that is what uniform lecture capture presents their role to be.

In other words, as lecture capture becomes ever more prevalent and normal, there is the risk that undergraduate lectures become obstacles to the kind of learning that History degrees are intended to inculcate. It may be historians would be better off replacing them with 20-minute screencasts to be viewed in advance, and ‘flipping the lecture’. Ironically, rather than bringing lectures into the 21st century, could lecture capture end up killing them off?

*Update* 13.11.2018
To my slight surprise, a few people have read this blog as just an(other) attack on lecture capture. But I wasn’t arguing straightforwardly for or against (and I specified the advantages of LC for many students, though I accept I ought to have mentioned disabled students explicitly).

My focus was rather on how LC changes the nature of a lecture – in disciplinary terms, it effectively makes it into a secondary source – and how this has pedagogical (as well as workload) implications. Actually, I suspect many students have long considered lectures to be secondary sources, rather than guides to them, so in that sense LC is just bringing a latent issue to the fore,  but in a way that merits reflection.

Making use of LC technology in an imaginative and properly thought-through way could improve teaching, but perhaps not in a way which leaves the standard lecture-based teaching model intact (whether that’s a good or a bad thing).

Carolingian queens – coronation ordines

“Curiously, the earliest documented [coronation ordo] is for a queen, Judith in 856” – Jinty Nelson.

The coronation ritual by which the Frankish princess Judith was initiated into her marriage with the West Saxon king Aethelwulf has often been studied by historians of queenship and Anglo-Frankish contacts and connections. It has not however been translated into English before, as far as I know.  This blog is therefore to make available my own draft translation of this important text, on the day of a modern royal wedding to boot. It’s rather rough and ready (& not polished enough for formal publication), so comments are welcome.

To provide some context, I’ve also translated a slightly later coronation ritual for another Frankish queen, Ermentrude. This ceremony,  which took place in 866, did not mark the beginning of Ermentrude’s marriage to Charles the Bald – they had been married since 842, and in fact Judith was one of their children. The liturgy is preceded by a short text which offers an explanation as to why Charles (and Ermentrude?) arranged the event, decades into their married life. Further research on this by Zubin Mistry is forthcoming in the journal Early Medieval Europe.

Medieval coronation orders are strange sources. Composed largely of prayers, interspersed with citations from and references to the Bible, they can seem difficult to make much of (and to translate into English,  too). However, these two rituals were written for specific occasions, and it may be possible to detect traces of how they were tailored to those occasions. They were also written by the same person – Archbishop Hincmar of Reims.  That makes a comparison even more telling: how did Hincmar adjust and adapt his material, according to the political and theological imperatives of the moment?

One final point. It’s often assumed that marriages such as these were political affairs, not affairs of the heart. Perhaps. But Hincmar at least hoped that one wouldn’t exclude the other, since alongside praying for eternal life, freedom from ‘the stain of adultery’ and plenty of offspring, he also hoped Ermentrude and Charles would persevere amore coniugali sincero: ‘in sincere conjugal love’. Unfortunately, Charles’s efficiency in negotiating a remarriage to a woman named Richildis merely days after Ermentrude’s death in 869 suggests this prayer may not have been fully answered.

Translation of the Judith and Ermentrude consecration ordines (pdf)

A kingdom on a knife edge

The Treaty of Verdun of 843 is (or used to be) famous, as the moment when the Frankish empire of Charlemagne was divided amongst his heirs. It can be argued that this division can still be traced in modern European political borders.

But at the time, the treaty was seen as no more than provisional.  And one of the most spectacular attempts to reverse it was the invasion of western Francia by the eastern Frankish king, Louis ‘the German’, in 858. In the end the western king, Charles ‘the Bald’, managed to hold on to power – but it appears to have been a close-run thing, and in the winter of 858 the whole political framework of the Frankish world teetered in the balance.

One of the reasons Charles clung on was that his northern Frankish bishops did not desert him (though  Archbishop Wenilo of Sens made a different decision). Instead, the northern bishops met at the royal palace of Quierzy from where they sent a remarkable and wide-ranging letter to the invader Louis, in which they offered him advice on what his priorities should be as a king. Managing royal lands, tackling the Vikings, supporting the church – all these ought to be higher up his agenda than taking over his own brother’s kingdom. Above all, he should be wary of listening too much to (secular) counsellors who might not have his best (spiritual) interests at heart.

Here’s a translation of this source as a pdf (it’s also available on the Hincmar translation website, since Archbishop Hincmar of Reims was  its leading author). It’s the first result of a regular collaborative Latin translation class with PhD students (Harry Mawdsley, Richard Gilbert, and Robert Heffron) at the Department of History here in Sheffield. We hope it’s useful.

Image: adapted from Wikipedia.

‘Our dearest wife and son’ – King Lothar II’s charters

One of the problems of studying the Frankish kingdom of Lotharingia  – the ‘lost’ kingdom between France and Germany – is that the main narrative sources for the time were written outside its borders: they are external perspectives, looking in. It is this that makes the charters issued by Emperor Lothar I and by his son King Lothar II (855-869) so important, as ‘internal’ evidence. A full book-length study of the former by Elina Screen is in hand; this short blogpost focuses on the latter, all available in a high-quality and open-access edition.

Only thirty-six charters  from Lothar II’s nearly fifteen-year reign survive (including a handful of originals with images available online).[1]. This isn’t an enormous number, either in absolute terms or compared to the 139 from his father’s admittedly larger kingdom. But the charters nevertheless provide a great deal of useful information, in this as in other early medieval contexts.[2]

For instance, we know that issuing a charter was a ceremonial act, by which a king demonstrated his authority.  Where it took place mattered, then, as the scene for the expression of royal power. Lothar II issued charters at sixteen different locations,  including palaces, monasteries and cities. Plotting these locations on a map creates a view of Lothar’s kingdom defined not by its borders but by its centres of power – a king’s eye view of his kingdom, as it were (see the map above, showing how his kingdom spanned five modern countries).

His great-grandfather’s palace of Aachen towers above all the others,  as the site for almost a third of Lothar II’s charters.  But the charters also show change in his rule: for instance, the grants he issued in and around Lyon mark Lothar’s takeover of most of the kingdom of his younger brother, Charles of Provence, in 863.

Many charters also mention important political figures at the time, allowing us to reconstruct something of their careers. It’s striking that the first two of Lothar’s charters, both issued in 855, accord a prominent position to Hubert, the brother of Lothar’s first wife Theutberga. Hubert is described in the first of the two as an influential courtier (‘our beloved adviser Hubert’). Hubert then however disappears – only to crop up again in 868, but this time as a dead rebel whose property had been confiscated.

Another important figure at Lothar’s court was Archbishop Gunthar of Cologne. Although deposed by the pope in 863, Gunthar tried to cling on, and a document from 866 suggests that in that year Lothar II supported him. It states that Gunthar, though longer an archbishop, was now the gubernator et rector of the church – we might say ‘manager’ – and was making efforts to keep the Cologne clergy onside, with Lothar’s help.

But as so often with Lothar II, it’s his marriage that attracts the eye. Here’s an English translation (pdf) of one of the most evocative of his charters, granting property to a convent in Lyon and issued in the early summer of 863. This was just a few weeks after a council at Metz had confirmed, with the approval of papal legates, that he could be married to his mistress Waldrada. And sure enough, in this charter Waldrada is given a prominent place, as Lothar’s ‘dearest wife’; and their son Hugh gets a mention too. Issued on the occasion of Lothar’s successful acquisition of part of his deceased brother’s kingdom, and when all his marital problems seemed behind him, the charter may have marked the apogee of his reign.

King Lothar II’s charter for St Pierre-les-Nonnains

Unfortunately, a few months later Pope Nicholas I stepped in to annul the Metz council,  and threatened Lothar with excommunication unless he returned to his wife Theutberga. Waldrada vanishes from the charters. She reappears only in early 869, as ‘our beloved’ (without any reference though to her marital status). At that point, Lothar probably hoped that the new pope Hadrian, who had succeeded to the intransigeant Nicholas, might be more open to negotiation. But fate decided otherwise, since Lothar himself died, still a young man, just a few months later. The 863 charter survives, then, as a poignant reminder of what might have been, for Lothar, Waldrada, Hugh – and indeed for European history more broadly.

[1] Two of these originals can be viewed online at the Marburg Lichtbildarchiv website, Zugangsnummern 4743 and 11400. For the rest, see the amazing Abbildungsverzeichnis der europäischen Kaiser- und Königsurkunden‘s page for Lothar II.

[2] See for instance the database of Charlemagne’s charters (including ‘private’ as well as royal documents): http://www.charlemagneseurope.ac.uk/

In Praise of Gobbets

As the teaching year begins, one of the routine tasks historians in many UK institutions face is explaining to puzzled students (and sometimes new colleagues too) what we mean by “gobbets”.

This is a venerable and (I suspect) distinctly British form of examination in which students are provided with a series of text extracts or images, and expected to write something about them in a short period of time: typically, 20 minutes for each extract (or ‘gobbet’). They are sometimes labelled old-fashioned – but in fact they’re ideally suited to the 21st-century classroom.

As an example, here’s a gobbet that we’ll be studying in my class:

“The holy Roman Church, as the mother and teacher, nurse and instructress of all churches, is to be consulted about all doubtful and obscure things which concern the continuity of the right faith or the dogmas of piety, and her healthful admonitions are to be kept”.
– Hincmar of Rheims, De Divortio, 860

How might one ‘respond’ to or comment on this gobbet? Well, a good response might:

  • observe that this, the opening line of the treatise by Hincmar of Reims, suggests the pope should be consulted: this signals Hincmar’s cautious fence-sitting, for fear of being proved wrong at this early stage of the controversy over King Lothar II’s marriage;
  • pick up on the ‘doubtful and obscure things’, an issue that lay at the heart of the treatise and the divorce scandal as a whole;
  • connect this passage to Hincmar’s often fraught relation with the papacy, noting how in this passage he framed papal authority as primarily pedagogical (and that in practice he recommended holding a general council rather than going straight to the pope);
  • and could finish by noting that the Roman church indeed did end up being consulted in the case, and that Pope Nicholas made great efforts to ensure that his ‘healthful admonitions’ were kept.

These are just the comments that spring to my mind as I write this blog: quite certainly other interesting things could be said about the content, context and significance of this short passage.

You’ll notice that these comments are all quite specific, and probably won’t make much sense unless you already know quite a lot about the history of Lothar II’s divorce (as all right-thinking people should). That’s because the strength of the gobbet examination is that it blends assessing precise historical knowledge of the sources with interpretative creativity. You can’t bluff your way through them; but it’s not a test of how much you know, it’s a test of how you use that knowledge to make a point based on exactly what’s in front of you. If your commentary could apply to *any* extract from the text in question, then it’s probably too generic. Good responses tend to pick on the precise wording of the extract to make observations grounded in a wider knowledge; the best can surprise and enlighten even the person who chose the extract in the first place.

According to legend, gobbets go back to Victorian period civil service exams: that may be so, but they seem to be coming back into fashion. In some ways that’s not surprising. After all, the contemporary world is all about “discontinuous reading”, it’s all about the fast-paced analysis of screenfuls of text. If the gobbet examination didn’t already exist, we’d have to invent it.

And if gobbets are in this way surprisingly “aligned” with the wider world, they’re also neatly aligned with history as it’s practised today: rigorous but imaginative source analysis is after all at the heart of all historical writing worth its salt. No wonder gobbets are a jewel in the crown of final year examinations, alongside other assessment forms such as dissertations: they’re an excellent means of simultaneously assessing – and promoting – both knowledge of a broad range of historical sources and a methodological sophistication in historical interpretation, all with reference to the particular as well as the general. And isn’t all that still at the heart of what historians actually do?

Update Feb 2018: Jonathan Healey  has pointed out on Twitter that as part of a court case, there is now a judicial discussion of a gobbet paper, with the priceless opening observation that ‘The word “gobbet” does not generally evoke a pleasant picture or a comfortable feeling’. I’m optimistic that my students wouldn’t agree!