Thoughts on English military affairs, prosopography, dissertation-writing

Posted: November 8, 2011 in Uncategorized
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[So much for November 1…]

Part…whatever…of “How the Blog Suffers When Serious Work is Happening.”   SO much piling up and so many interesting things happening, but how on earth to get to it all.  I envy scholars such as Jeffrey J. Cohen and his associates at In the Middle, who manage to balance a lot more than I do and still turn out fascinating posts on a regular basis…   It’s long past due that I write posts that do more than give the ubiquitous calls-for-papers, especially, as the work has progressed to the point where my thoughts are clearer on some of the topics at hand.

First, a short recap of recent happenings, just in case you were curious.  October was one exhausting month…I got back from the Texas Medieval Association conference at Baylor just past midnight on the 3rd, and promptly went off to teach at 8 that same morning. The conference itself was a really great experience–lots of great new people met, and new ideas heard, presented, and discussed, especially in the field of crusade studies.  AND then finally got my truck repaired–great feeling (it was one of those oil leaks that keeps you feeding the truck a few quarts of oil every week. Which gets very expensive).  Then had to ramp up my training schedule again, as it was announced that previous week that there would most likely be testing in 14 days or so, and training always suffers when the work gets intense.  Fortunately, while I’m no longer 21 or so, I’m in quite good shape, and getting back “into the groove” isn’t that much of a struggle any more. I can  run a 5k whenever I feel like it, train for hours every week (I average about 10 hours of training–both martial arts and conditioning–per week), and deliver a reverse punch or a roundhouse kick with a reasonable amount of confidence.    And in due course I did pass my exam, despite being very nervous, exhausted, and suffering mildly strained ligaments in both shoulders (don’t ask).  Finally, it’s job season again, and all those application deadlines, at the which I thought a few weeks ago “I have time,” well, they’re fast approaching.  It just doesn’t end.

But I wouldn’t be doing anything else.  And that, so I’ve been told, is a good sign, a small indicator that perhaps I am cut out for this after all…

ANYWAY, so much for the personal update. On to professional items…I’ve been wanting to talk about my dissertation experiences for a while now, but the prospect seemed almost as daunting as the dissertation itself.  The more one writes, however, the clearer things become, ideally (ok, it doesn’t always work like that, but in something as data-heavy as my project, time = clarity.)  It’s not helped by the fact that a project of this scope is not a linear process.  Discoveries in one chapter affect the other chapters, and quite often I have to have 3 or 4 Word docs open, plus a couple spreadsheets, and perhaps a map or html coding program for the database I’m slowly cobbling together.  It’s nice to be reaching the stage when the tables, charts, and the data itself begin to make sense, to show patterns that haven’t been observed before. But I’m reminded every day why someone has yet to do a project along these lines–it’s labor-intensive, requiring the sifting of vast quantities of material in order to find the one reference to Norfolk or Suffolk therein. Even if I didn’t have a nice German crusading project ready to go after the defense, I wouldn’t be out of article material for some time.

Back in 2001, a quirky article came out in the Guardian, about local history and why it’s really fascinating. The tone of the article is somewhat misleading, I think, since it sets up “local” history as a small enterprise opposed to the much of the academic discipline, when in fact that is seldom the case.  But here’s an extended example from the article:

Nothing happened around here. No battles or assassinations like in real history. It all had to take place somewhere.

Obviously, but what’s your point? Local, from “locus”, the Latin word for a place, simply means having to do with a place. Local history in one sense pays attention to the places where things happened in the past. So, all history is local history, because everything that was done in the past was done in some place or other.

Why bother to call it local history, then? Good question. Because it pays attention to the places where things happened. And so we look at a local history of a royal court, the office spaces of a ministry, or the boardroom of a giant company.

Sounds riveting. That’s not all. The other main strand of local history has turned aside from the kings, prime ministers, parliaments and boardrooms to concentrate on places away from the centres of power and control – the localities where ordinary people live, work and play, and on the people themselves.

Don’t historians write about that sort of stuff, too? Most historians do not write “local history” about ordinary people. Many tend to write about an elite, public world of actions controlling ordinary people in their living and working places. They often write rather abstractly about “forces” which shape the life of the nation, and the lives of ordinary people are often overlooked.

Who wants to know about ordinary folk? Lots of people do. There has been a tremendous surge of interest in the past 50 years into nearly all aspects of the lives of past women and men. The attention on place has spawned studies of “social space”. How are public spaces arranged to provide settings for different kinds of communities? How is domestic space arranged in houses and their surrounds?

I don’t know. It still sounds a bit parish pump. The aim of local history is to shed light on the small details of a larger picture, to find the significance in the parts so as to give greater meaning to the whole.

Perceptions count for more than reality, I’ve found–there can be some tension between local historians (whether in state, county, or regional organizations)  and those in academic institutions–and I do think that in order to make an effective local study you have to have a grasp of larger issues and themes beyond the boundaries of your town, museum, county, or institute.  But many scholars move from one academic landscape to the other without much difficulty. J. R. Alban, now at the Norfolk Records Office after a distinguished career at various institutions, is an excellent example of a scholar who negotiates the national and the local with aplomb. Perhaps it’s just my scholarly generation, but I’ve always seen local studies (and general altägliche Geschichte for that matter) as going hand-in-hand with analyses of political and military structures. It’s about context, it’s always about context, and anything that helps establish that context–of a decree, a piece of literature, an event, a deed, an entity, an idea, is all good. That’s partly why I’ve warmed to literary analyses in the last few years.  To draw on a paper I’ll be presenting at Fordham in March (part of chapter 5 of my diss), it’s the combination of contextualization methods that yields the most fascinating insights.  Take the Guy of Warwick romance. Any number of possible themes lie therein–chivalry, kinship, crusade, national identity, and so on. Much ink has been expended in fine studies elaborating these themes.  But it is when we move into the realm of reception and representation–not strictly within the purview of literary studies–that we begin to see new connections to how different communities interpreted the themes of Guy, bending them to create new or modified discourses of power, identity, a sense of purpose and faith in difficult times.  A monastic community illuminating a decretalist collection with its (or its abbot’s) interpretation of the romance; King Edward’s public discourse with the county communities on the dangers threatening England at the same time; the memoranda of the royal council, debating issues of national security and identity–put these together with the Auchinleck manuscript version of the romance, and we have a very dynamic and contested view of what, within the text itself, is both more static and self-contained (or even self-referential, since relating the romance to Auchinleck’s other materials is a task in itself).   Well, that was a  long sentence, and I somehow went from local history to the values of interdisciplinary endeavor…

To return to where I was originally going…one of the most basic problems with reconstructing local medieval communities, I’m finding, is simply establishing with reasonable certainty who knew who. It’s really as basic as that, and it requires a grasp of local details and local relationships. And it impacts any level of regional and national analysis. If more gentry are participating in military campaigns under Edward III, and we want to know why that is (beyond the accepted answers of plunder, opportunity, pay, etc.), we have to establish who was going to war before Edward III’s reign, who continued to go to war, who stopped going to war, who started going to war, where everyone went to war, and finally what the connections are among all these people (revealed in business transactions, patronage, lordship, intercession, associations, etc.). And that’s just for the gentry. County levies and naval service are their own stories.  Why is all this important?  Because I would argue that, on some level, it is local connections, local motives, locally embedded desires and wants, that impact national endeavors such as military mobilization, as much as royal procedures of mobilization and war-fighting.  You could say that it is the interaction of royal policies with local life, forming a (frontier) zone of consciousness (what does the average subject think about in a given day?), that gives such great scope for contextualization.  You can’t achieve results without the local, without (dare I say) prosopography. No matter how abstract or imagined, history always comes back to people, their experiences and the way they translate their experiences into subsequent word and deed. I guess that nearly summarizes chapter 3 of my dissertation…

So, that’s about it. In the mean time, training, my wonderful girlfriend, and my two new favorite songs (I’m Yours and Rhythm of Love) have kept me going.

  1. Sir Gawain says:

    History is indeed made by people. In my day, without significant maps and with little perception of aerial geography, relationships must be conducted at ground level. In my search for the Green Knight I was compelled to wander across the Kingdom of Logres to find my goal; this was no different from many others whether mustering an army or conducting trade.

    In understanding history, we must look to the visible horizon, forget we know what is beyond it, and then attempt to understand how societies could work effectively. This is why localism must be significant and why works such as Montaillou (Le Roy Ladurie), From Memory to Written Record (Clanchy) or indeed Writing the Map of Anglo-Saxon England (Howe) are so significant.

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