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.