Working on a PhD can be a very isolating experience, even if you’re around loved ones. It’s never easy to explain what you’re doing – not only do you feel self conscious, but for those of us in what you might call more esoteric fields, it can be downright embarrassing.
It’s not that what we exegetical and intellectual historians are doing anything bad, per se. But explaining that you’re examining Bede’s Ecclesiastical History as an eschatological text is going to get you some strange looks. The “ecclesiastical” part will catch the attention for some. The “eschatological” will make others look at you strangely. Explaining what eschatology means is bad enough. I study how Bede built his mental world and how his beliefs about the end of time and geography influenced how he wrote. However, the mention of apocalyptic thinking concerning a Christian writer tends to get you pigeon-holed unnecessarily, and often without follow-up questions. You can tell by the look in the eyes.
So it was with some relief and not a bit of anticipation that myself and 9 fellow Bedans got together at University College Cork last week for a symposium on our research concerning the man himself.
No need to be embarrassed. No need to explain the basics for those who’ve never heard of the guy. Just a chance to talk about the research and bounce a few ideas around the table without an audience. It was also a chance to meet with Peter Darby, who has just published a book on Bede and the end of time (which gave me unfounded panic attacks concerning my own PhD). He’s rather nice.
What was particularly interesting was the breadth of our studies, and we were just a small band of Bedan scholars in one part of the world (from peoples once described by Cummian as “pimples on the face of the Earth“, I must add). Even where our work was in a similar broad field – such as mine and Peter’s – we have gone about it in completely different ways and looked at different source material in many areas.
Many of us, in fact all of us except for Peter, have been moulded in some ways by Jennifer O’Reilly, who also attended the roundtable. At a conference in Galway recently I and a couple of other graduates from Cork’s medieval studies courses were described as “the grandchildren of Jennifer O’Reilly”, which has a certain accuracy. Her analysis of Bede’s ouevre has greatly influenced all of our work, which was apparent during the discussion.
In many ways, we are following in her footsteps, while synthesising an array of different materials into new, original works. Bede might approve.
It has been a busy, and in some ways a hard 18 months. It’s been good. Marriage and sorting out a home, a permanent home, while juggling a full-time job has left no room for blogging and not a great deal of time for research. But the times, they are a-changing.
This week I gave my first paper in almost two years. It was hard to put it together, like stretching a muscle I haven’t used to its limits in, well, nearly two years. But it was enjoyable. The process of working through my thoughts and putting the arguments together made me realise how much I love working on medieval studies and how close I am, in a very real way, to finishing the thesis.
That might seem presumptuous, as there is still a very long way to go, but I’m at the point where most of the ideas are sketched out and the whole thing has actually been thought through more than I had realised.
My head is buzzing with distractions these days but with discipline, and some luck and spare time, I’m really getting somewhere after having to put things to one side for too long. I feel like I’m coming out of retirement, and I’m enjoying it.
That is how Zahi Hawass, the secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, feels about the wanton destruction carried out by looters in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. If you haven’t read the story, here it is in Dr Hawass’ words:
As every one knows, the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, is naturally lit and due to the architectural style of it, there are glass windows on its roof. The criminals broke the glass windows and used ropes to get inside, there is a distance of four metres from the ceiling to the ground of the museum. The ten people broke in when I was at home and, although I desperately wanted to go to the museum, I could not leave my house due to the curfew. In the morning, as soon as I woke up, I went directly there… Luckily, the criminals who stole the jewellery from the gift shop did not know where the jewellery inside the museum is kept. They went into the Late Period gallery but, when they found no gold, they broke thirteen vitrines and threw the antiquities on the floor. Then the criminals went to the King Tutankhamun galleries. Thank God they opened only one case! The criminals found a statue of the king on a panther, broke it, and threw it on the floor.
But apart from damaging priceless artifacts – and for a rough list of what was damaged, see Eloquent Peasant – two mummies were destroyed and had their heads ripped off. The mummies, which have not yet been identified in the media, may have been those of Tutankhamun’s grandparents, and were among the best-preserved in the museum’s holdings.
It’s possible, based on what I’ve read on Twitter and elsewhere, that the plan was to sell these on the black market. The salaries of many Egyptians are so low, and unemployment is so high (these are some of the reasons people have been protesting for the last week) that it might be a temptation too far for some. That the would-be thieves came in through the roof suggests a certain element of organisation and planning, although nothing more has been said about them.
Quite apart from attempting to steal some of the most priceless treasures any civilisation has produced, the desecration of the dead is something I find particularly horrifying. Whether it was Carter hacking up Tutankhamum in order to remove him from the coffin, or this atrocity, the destruction of a corpse is just unforgivable. I accept that removing the bodies from their original context in their tombs was, in itself, disturbing the dead, but as it was for their long-term preservation and safeguarding it was clearly for the best. What happened in the Cairo museum was mindless vandalism and cruelty, depriving not only the dead of their dignity but future generations of the chance to learn of and see these historical figures first-hand.
Perhaps part of my disgust is that mummification keeps the bodies so close to the state in which they were in at death. I think this adds to the horror of what happened, because these criminals destroyed two bodies which were clearly identifiable. I can only wonder at the inner workings of whoever could bring themselves to do this. Like Dr Hawass, my blood too is boiling. When I heard that the museum had been broken in to and mummies beheaded, my heart skipped a few beats. I have loved Egyptian history for as long as I can remember, and I am passionate about the preservation of all history. It is all part of human civilisation, and if we don’t remember and treasure what has gone before, what is the point of going forward?
Dr Hawass’ statement, which had to be faxed to Italy to be put online, as the Egyptian government has shut down the internet there, also mentions that stores of antiquities at various other dig sites have been looted. We can only hope that some of these can be recovered, but history teaches us that they may be gone unless turned in or otherwise stumbled across. In Cairo, Egyptian citizens mindful of their magnificent heritage surrounded the museum to keep looters out until the army could take control of the building. I am unsure what is happening at other sites.
While I know there are those who believe Dr Hawass to be more intent on grandstanding and seeking publicity, the fact remains that he is a master of his field and that his passion for antiquities sparks something in everyone who hears him. I met him once, very briefly, when he gave a guest lecture in UCC. I still have my lecture notes with his autograph, “Zahi”, scrawled across them. His enthusiasm for Egyptian archaeology and heritage was infectious, and so I know that his distress at what has happened is all the more intense.
“My heart is broken and my blood is boiling”. These words sum up the feelings of anyone who loves history and who shares the horror at the events of this week.
I’m also watching Egyptology News for updates on the situation.
UPDATE: 30/1/2011, 21.23: KV64 has more on the damage.
I read the new Wallis-Kendall translations of Bede’s De Natura Rerum and De Temporibus during the week as part of my research into Bede, nature, and time. One passage in DNR struck me:
Pestilence is born from air that has been corrupted on account of the deserts of men either by excessive drought or rains [Isidore, De Rerum Natura]. When the air has been absorbed by breathing or eating, it engenders pestilence and death. Hence we very often observe that the whole of the summer season is transformed into tempests and wintry blasts. These are called ‘storms’ when they come in their own season, but when they come at other times there are called ‘portents’ or ‘signs’.
Although this was written in the early AD700s, The whole air/pestilence thing was a common belief until the nineteenth century, as Wallis and Kendall note in their commentary. But Bede’s line “we very often observe that the whole of the summer season transformed into tempests and wintry blasts” tells us a good deal about the world in which he lived.
It’s fair to say that Bede, living in Jarrow, Northumbria, in the north-east of what is now England, probably did not experience temperatures in the high-30s Celsius. However, Northumbria is not exactly Arctic either. Coming from a country that often experiences rains during summer, I can empathise with the feeling that summer seems full of “tempests and wintry blasts”. This line, which is Bede’s own observation and is not, as far as I can tell, derived from a secondary source such as Isidore, suggests then that Bede lived in a time of frequently cold, wet summers, probably exacerbated by Jarrow’s proximity to the North Sea. Whether he is speaking symbolically is another question though…
We all use the past for our own purposes. Some of these are quite innocent, some are not. I’m sure we can all thing of examples for both cases. As you might expect, it has gone on since the invention of writing. Skirmishes became major victories, minor rulers become emperors, and so on and so forth. I’m watching V For Vendetta as I write this, in which a man in a dystopian future uses ideas about the past to inform the present and future. Although there are no Guy Fawkes or revolutionary figures on show here.
Bede: “Should history tell of good men and their estate…”
Some medieval writers were very clear about why they were using the past. Bede, the subject of my PhD, wrote that “should history tell of good men and their estate, the thoughtful listener is spurred on to imitate the good; should it record the evil ends of wicked men, no less effectually the devout and earnest listener or reader is kindled to eschew what is harmful or perverse”. Bede’s interpretation is always religious, and for him, learning from “good men and their estate” would inspire people to live good, Christian lives. But by establishing this in the preface, he establishes the precise meaning that he wants the audience to derive from the work. It’s only one facet of the text, but it’s a very important one.
Bede, of course, was not an innovator in this. The Classical world had paideia, and education by good example was an important part of this; consider the qualities extolled in The Odyssey or The Aeneid (although neither are actual histories, they were intended and were understood to be such).
People’s use of the past is often determined by what they need for the present. In Bede’s case, it was to encourage moral and religious reform amid what he believed to be a deep spiritual crisis. By using examples from Anglo-Saxon and continental history, his Ecclesiastical History became a “gallery of good examples”, to quote the oft-repeated phrase of James Campbell. I, like most people working in the field, would hesitate to say that Bede invented aspects of an individual’s character, and he probably did not. However, that is not to say that Bede did not emphasise certain elements in order to inspire the most reform. There are enough facets of King Edwin’s character, for example, that work against him being an ideal Christian ruler when Bede could simply have written them out and made him the Constantine-style ruler that King Oswald is in the EH. Edwin, for example, promises to convert several times but always finds an excuse not to become Christian. Oswald is Christian from the beginning of his reign.
Oswald, for example, becomes more than just a great king in Northumbrian history, he becomes a Northumbrian Constantine who restores and renews Christianity in the kingdom and, in Bede’s account, makes sure the religion becomes so embedded in the realm that it does not flitter away, as it had when Edwin was killed. I wrote a whole MA thesis on this, so I won’t repeat it here. But suffice it to say that Bede thus presents a progression in his people’s history, where they become more solidly Christian and so greater culturally and politically. By implication, these good examples become symbols of what they can achieve and what they stand to lose should they stray too far from the path, as he believes they are. Bede sought to use the past to make the present and future better.
Gildas, the British writer of the sixth-century, wrote history for the very same reason, although he was also writing against the backdrop of Saxon invasions and the threat of imminent conquest, which he understood to be divine judgement. He, in turn, used the Bible as a model for his history: prophetic history. Gildas, by identifying current events with ancient patterns, stitched his people into universal history and, in doing so, sought to expose corruption and “sting” the present so that society could be healed.
The Bible was, for Gildas, a “mirror” for his own times. It was a key for medieval writers to unlock not only the past but their own times. By studious analysis of the narratives and themes, they saw patterns in history that they believed were being replicated in their own days. Bede too looked into the Bible and saw it as a reflection of the present. When commenting on the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the exile to Bablyon (in the book of Kings), he says that the “allegory of so lamentable a history fits so well with the negligence of our own time”, but with Jerusalem standing for the Church and Bablyon for “the city of the devil”. Much of what I’m doing is recreating this sort of early-medieval mindset, because by studying the historian I can more effectively study the history.
The study of the Bible and commentary on the texts, exegesis, informed a good deal of medieval history writing. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History is, as Benedicta Ward noted, as much theology as it is history. I’m not much of a theologian, but I have always been a decent literary critic and analyst, so those skills are very much coming to bear on the structure and development of Bede’s writing. It is a very different intellectual world from the one we inhabit, and as such it becomes all the more of a puzzle.
I suppose a fair question to ask at this point is, ‘How do I use history?’ I am no prophet or theologian. For me, history is a way to explore the past, both at a cultural and intellectual level. I can pick up a book and chip a way into a world now lost to us. It’s probably why I favour ancient and medieval history; the modern is just too familiar. While I have learned much from my study of history, I seek to learn and teach rather than mould wider society. I don’t have the specific drive of a Bede or a Gildas, or perhaps I do but with a different focus.
Having scribbled thus I feel there is a lot more to be said on the subject. I will return to it now and again, methinks. But for now, I shall let history tell its own stories.
While on the subject of digital databases, a project at my own university this week launched a collection of images and information concerning representations of the Crucifixion in Ireland between AD800 and 1200. The site, COIRP, is in its infancy but the team aim to update the images and categories in the near future. This should prove to be a great resource for art and cultural historians of the early medieval period.
The project, Christ on the Cross, has been studying how Irish art and literature represented and dealt with Christ’s crucifixion, both in an aesthetic and liturgical sense. The database takes its name from the Irish word for “body”. At the launch, Jenifer Ní Ghrádaigh, one of the investigators, said it was a play on corpus, the Latin for “body” but which is also shorthand for the figure of Christ on the cross as well as a body of work. Initially, they had tried to avoid puns related to corpus, but it was too suitable to ignore. They then managed to make it an acronym of sorts: Corpus Of Irish Representations of the Passion.
I was at a conference organised by CotC last year, Croch Saithair: Envisioning Christ on the Cross in the Early Medieval West, that was fascinating and intense. I look forward to seeing what else will come from the project.
The online database launched recently by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum is exactly the kind of thing that historians and public alike need and deserve. By digitally preserving the president’s archives and recordings, the library has opened up the material to the professional research and enthusiast for free. While I appreciate that the museum and library have other revenue sources that mean it doesn’t need to charge for accessing the database, it is also fully in keeping with the trend in information access and storage, as the director acknowledged.
“For young people today, if it isn’t on the Internet, it doesn’t really exist,” said library director Tom Putnam. “I hope this brings him alive to a new generation of Americans. [It offers] a fuller sense of the man.” It took four years to digitize the artifacts, photos and videos, and the process is ongoing, said Mr Putnam.
I would definitely recommend having a poke around at what’s available. I really like how the images are not only high-resolution, but automatically zoom in a separate pane as you move the cursor over them.
If you or someone you know is contemplating a PhD, you might want to consider this offer from King’s College London. To quote from the blurb:
the topic of the PhD will be palaeography, conceived as the study of medieval handwriting, in the context of Digital Humanities
Given that palaeography is in decline, bringing in the digital element, as this studentship does, could see it live on in a new form, and certainly help to disseminate the subject. So please spread the word!
I haven’t forgotten about you, Dear Reader, in fact you have been playing on my mind of late. My conscience has been acting up with a bad case of whyhaven’tyoubeenposting-itis. In truth, I have been ridiculously busy and been fit to bouts of exhaustion, meaning that writing anything outside of the thesis and associated papers has been minimal in real life as well as the blogging world. Information overload has also played a big factor.
The closer I get to refining my thesis work, the more I have that could be posted here; I have been cautious because it’s unclear if our university would view blog posts as previously published work. But I have a good number of random thoughts and musings on the likes of Tertullian and Augustine of Hippo that will definitely be worked into blog posts over the coming weeks.
I am currently writing two articles, one is a revised conference paper from Imbas and the other is a brand spanking new piece for Aigne. And then there’s the scholarship applications to be worked on, the paper for Borderlines 2011 to be put together, the wedding to be finalised…