On trying to be a better medievalist (and make the world a better place)

I spent a large chunk of the first few weeks of the new year away from this blog working on a funding application for my PhD research. Consequently, of late, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what I study, why I study it, and how I go about doing my research. The backdrop to this has been a political climate getting bleaker by the day, with all manner of worrying things being reported in broadcast, print and social media. 2017 may not be even two months old, but a few things are clearer now than ever before. Everyone is entitled to an opinion – nay, has a right to form and hold an opinion – but that does not mean everyone should expect their opinion to be treated as valid when they share it in contexts where its factual veracity is open to be examined objectively.

For me, those opinions that are more well thought-through and take in a broad range of information that tend to be of more value than those with a purposely limited focus. Not that this matters to some people and more importantly to some – how can I phrase this? – sources of what may or may not be news (you know what I’m talking about). Nowadays there’s a platform for every shade of opinion-dolled-up-as-fact, and what seems a lot like a concerted effort from some quarters to erase the distinction between what’s “real” and what’s “fake”. Hence some of the less-edifying aspects of the UK’s referendum on its EU membership (especially from the Leave side) and pretty much everything that’s emanated from the mouths and Twitter accounts of Donald J. Trump, Sean Spicer et al. in recent (and not so recent) times. And as if that wasn’t enough, there’s been a definite infiltration of certain viewpoints and language of the extreme right into some mainstream media and other cultural arenas.

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There’s been a lot of disquiet in my neck of the woods of late as a result of the discovery that an obscure local gallery/arts space played host to an alt-right exhibition and ‘conference on Reactionary and Neo-Reactionary thought’. I say discovery because these events were not generally publicised at the time they were held, which fatally undermines the gallery director’s claims that calls to shut the place down fly in the face of principles of free speech and open debate. To say nothing of the disgusting past statements of some of the invited speakers, and the fact press enquiries were directed to a Twitter account featuring some incredibly racist tweets. No platforming sometimes leaves me feeling uneasy, and likewise calls to run something out of town, but in this case I think pressure to remove this pathetic excuse for a gallery from Dalston is entirely justified. For more info, see Shut Down LD50.

My chosen area of research does not have direct resonance with contemporary politics, but in some aspects has the potential to become politicised inasmuch as being capable of misuse for political ends. I don’t pretend this will be in the sphere of parliamentary politics, but quite conceivably could come to pass in the context of the myriad groups, blogs, etc. that are the engine rooms of contemporary popular politics. Scarcely a week goes by without me noticing a spike in views of an old Surrey Medieval post or page, which my dashboard tells me is coming from Facebook, but not which private group or individual user has shared it and so generated the extra traffic. I’m sure that in most cases the source has well-meaning, constructive intentions in linking what I’ve written, but in this day and age you can never know for certain.

With all that in mind, I decided to write a post in which I did some scene-setting before making my case for how I approach what I study; predicting some key aspects of my subject matter that might be subject to misrepresentation; and explaining why they cannot be understood in simplistic, blinkered ways. Two months later, I finally hit the Post button – and then quickly realised that what I’d written was far too “overlongform” for anyone to be expected to read in full, no matter how many pictures I inserted to try and break up the monotony of paragraph upon paragraph. So instead, I’ve split the original post into two still-hefty pieces (but remember, there are images!). Here, I deal with the context: how it’s important in my eyes that practitioners of medieval studies are both aware of and kick back against past and future misuse/misrepresentation of their work by political extremists, and find ways (however minor) to influence non-academic discourse by sharing their knowledge and fruits of their research in wider circles. In the second post, I will identify three aspects of my own chosen area of research that sometimes I struggle to reconcile with my own personal attitudes and outlook on life, and explore the breadth of direct and indirect evidence that demonstrates its complexity – a characteristic that also happens to be the reason why I am so keen to study what I do.

I don’t know if either of the two posts is an especially good idea, but I feel this is a time when people need to be seen to be doing something towards resisting the culture of rejecting complex arguments and explanations in favour of facile half-truths and falsehoods. So, here goes…

Medieval studies’ time is now

If I can be said to have had a New Year’s Resolution going into 2017, it was to step up and play a much more active role in helping to counter some of the deeply-regressive current narratives that have infected political and social discourse in the UK for the past year or so.* Barely had I shaken off my NYE hangover before, as an offshoot from a revival of the Icenian “proto-English” nonsense I blogged about before Christmas, I joined in a tweeted debate to unpack a claim made in a temporally-incongruous context about England being ‘substantially ethno-homogeneous’ for an extended period of time. It will come as little surprise to learn, therefore, that the person who made this claim duly revealed himself to be an Islamophobic nutjob with little interest in engaging in proper debate, and every interest in asserting his own riff on the “England for the English” trope (via a highly tangential cake-based analogy).

Actually, that’s not quite true – the first resolution I hit upon was to do a Baggio 7, only a quarter of a century late…

holland-replies

Here’s a run of early replies to a tweet sent out by Tom Holland (at the request of the fantastic Dr Levi Roach) in which he admonished those of his online followers who were trying to argue for some seriously bigoted readings of early medieval British history. You’d think it would be a more or less universally-acceptable sentiment, but it seems there’s no shortage of arseholes with Twitter accounts ready to state otherwise.

In its own tiny but intensely distasteful way, the spat chimed with a broader current trend in which the medieval period in Europe and the Middle East has come to gain much greater prominence – or even, to borrow a term from the UK political lexicon, become weaponised – through moves in some quarters to raise it up as proof of Europe’s supposedly deep-rooted homogeneity in the face of Islamic aggression. Medieval studies has long been stigmatised in some quarters as an irrelevance and/or extravagance, academia for academia’s sake, so it was quite something to discover that its new-found wider renown as an ideological battleground had been reported in an Economist article. (In fact, another medieval-themed article was published in the same newspaper around the same time, this time on a fairly traditional economic history tip but with a modish ‘Brentry’ title, something I can’t recall happening in recent years – at least outside of a Game of Thrones conjunction.) I won’t belabour this sudden “relevance” here, as there’s a brilliant and important series of essays dealing with some difficult subjects being published on The Public Medievalist at the moment – I implore you to read these for a better understanding of the issues.

aethelred-the-fuckwit

Here’s a little vignette of where we’re at right now – one of my favourite British MPs getting trolled by a tweeter with a clearly part-medieval handle (moreover, by someone who is (or claims to be) US-based). Surely no coincidence, and surely not something we’d have seen even a couple of years ago?

I don’t think it’s a gross misrepresentation of the practitioners and products of the various branches of medieval studies to say that eccentricity is a stock-in-trade. Let me be clear: there is absolutely nothing wrong with eccentricity – difference and idiosyncracy are things to be celebrated and encouraged. Nor is there anything wrong with sharing amusing vignettes uncovered in the course of research, be they idiosyncratic manuscript marginalia or funny-sounding place-names – heck, we can all do with some light relief and inspiration in this day and age! Of course, eccentricity is not a trait restricted to academic contexts. As was pointed out to me by a friend and extremely distinguished local historian over lunch just before Christmas, amateur local historical and archaeological studies are crucibles of eccentricity. But eccentricity is not immune from causing harm, through the pursuit of personal and shared agendas.

This is summed up by a news story that was doing the rounds a few weeks ago. Fella uses his life savings to buy a Welsh field on a hunch, digs it up and finds the remains of a “lost medieval city”. Initial reports shared online made it sound like a wholesome, feel-good sort of story. Then I read this Washington Post article and I got some all-too familiar shudders. Said guy (Mr Stuart Wilson, take a bow) self-identifies as a ‘militant archaeologist’, who digs with his ‘militant’ mates. Gleefully, he recounts how they ‘were more than happy to bend a few rules, and break them when no-one was around’ in the course of their excavations – to the point of trespassing on and apparently tampering with another dig site. Meanwhile, in his mind – and in a refrain I’ve seen and heard applied by other non-academics in a variety of archaeological and toponymic connections – the university-associated team digging at that other site were pursuing a narrow and self-serving agenda and ‘could not accept anything else’.

URGH. I’m sure, like grizzled old detectives who refuse to play it by the book, they think they get results, but in archaeology first and foremost results are measured in quality research outputs like books and articles – not clicks, column inches and how many thousands of miles a film crew has flown. What Mr Wilson and chums have done sounds little better than the antiquarian wall-chasing that recovered the ground plans of many Roman villas and medieval monasteries, but little information about phasing and small finds that makes properly-conducted archaeological research so enlightening. Unless they have an as-yet unannounced publication programme up their sleeves, this vital knowledge has been sacrificed in the name of headline-grabbing bunkum about a lost city. Despite this, their approach to investigating whatever lies underneath Mr Wilson’s field is treated as a valid alternative form of archaeology by what, if my social media feeds are any guide, right now must rank among the most prominent news outlets in the world.

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Talking of fields, here’s one in Surrey that I’m all but certain covers part of the site of a late 9th-century stronghold (a subject that has taken up another significant chunk of my time over the past few weeks, preparing an article for publication). If by some miracle I was able to afford to buy said field with a view to conducting excavations in it, rest assured I would not get all “militant” and start “bending the rules”. That would be stupid.

The problem with Proto-English

The same public exposure and unwitting endorsement has been accorded in recent years to ‘Proto-English’ – in short, the idea that what would become the English language took substantial root in Britain (as opposed to the temporary presence of individuals or small groups of people speaking an ancestral Germanic language) centuries, even millennia, before the 5th century CE. Subsequent to my post about Tom Holland getting it very wrong (which discussed the merits of a paper that could be said to postulate Proto-English language but in reality is somewhat tangential to the most commonly-encountered version of the idea), people kindly drew my attention to both a piece on Newsnight (a respected BBC current affairs tv show) and a more recent (TH-presented) segment on BBC Radio 4’s flagship history programme in which its advocates get airtime without any counterposing expert response. I’m not in the habit of BBC-bashing, it’s up to its programme makers (in-house or independent) to decide what they give coverage to. Notwithstanding, it is a basic error to give a platform to a non-orthodox theory but not to a proper authority who could provide the viewer/listener with an idea of how it sits with current prevailing theory.

To express it in the parlance of the present day (a turn of phrase that didn’t even exist when I began writing this post, just to give you an idea of how fast things are moving right now), Proto-English = alternative facts. As with any bullshit that can be filed under this banner, it’s not hard to find extensive expositions of the theory and its supposed evidential basis online. A prominent early advocate was Win Scutt, featured in the above Newsnight piece, and apparently still on retainer as BBC Radio 5’s archaeological correspondent. His assertions about a lost lake on the Upper Thames are blinkered, and his re-readings of Romano-British place-names are nothing more than ill-informed – and uniformly incorrect – guesswork. A more recent site in the same mould is proto-english.org, which presents its case in a more forceful and outwardly credible manner (and with less of the Web 1.0 vibes). Several pages set out Germanic readings of Roman-era place-names, throughout which there is at best intermittent recourse to phonology and philology, the cornerstones of onomastic study, and especially important for names formed in ancient dead languages. One word looking or sounding a bit like another is not proof in itself of a theory (and instead probably explains why the theory has never been expounded before). The site’s authors have also found an outlet for their ideas in the journal Archaeologia Cantiana, to similarly unconvincing and methodologically-flawed effect.

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A banner by the artist Conrad Shawcross made for the recent Bridges Not Borders protests in London, before being displayed (and tweeted) by the Institute of Contemporary Arts.

Something common to both sites (see respectively here and here) are approving citations of claims made in paediatrician-turned-geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer’s 2006 book The Origins of The British (FYI, I have not read it). In it, as an extension of his various genetical propositions, it is argued that a Germanic language was well-established in Britain long before the centuries of Roman rule. You don’t have to go far online to find expert-authored critiques of Oppenheimer’s work, whether in terms of genetics or linguistics (both links are from the first page of my Google search results, no doubt there’s plenty more where they came from). What’s troubling for me is that the former of the linked responses begins by recounting how Oppenheimer’s work was indirectly cited by Nick Griffin, erstwhile leader of the reprehensible far-right British National Party, on national tv in 2009. That this is not addressed by the authors of proto-english.org (set up in 2005 but last updated in 2014) is a much greater problem than its failure to acknowledge the substantial and substantive critiques of Oppenheimer’s book, especially its reportedly duff treatment of the language. In fact, in my eyes, it’s a very big problem indeed.

To be crystal clear, I’m not saying that I believe those behind proto-english.org have any sympathies with the ideology of Griffin and his repugnant ilk. My criticism is that, because the work of one of their key inspirations has been used and abused in this way, it’s regrettable they have made no attempt to draw a clear distinction in how they view and apply Oppenheimer’s contentions – and ideally how their line of interpretation is incompatible with fascist ethno-nationalism. I’ve shown above how someone used an inadequately thought-through salvo of tweets from Tom Holland as a vehicle to assert just that; who’s to say Proto-English webpages haven’t been shared to the same end in far-right Facebook groups and subreddits? Thus, it’s no longer acceptable to sit on your hands and, if challenged, trot out a trite pseudo-defence of “Well, how was I to know someone would take it and use it in that way?”. Such shit needs to be actively and overtly disrupted.

alex-is-actually-a-viking

Every now and again I get emails like this one from Ancestry, a hangover from a bout of family history research a few years ago. What I really want to see is the look on Alex’s face when he finds out he’s not actually a Viking and has been taken for a mug. A mug who’s shelled out a stack of cash to be massively misled. Oh, Alex…

Let’s step back for a second and return the focus to linguistics. I know from email exchanges that the notion of Proto-English has gained traction and acceptance/adherence in some extra-academic quarters, even though it directly conflicts with some of the other viewpoints of my correspondent. It’s seen as a challenge to the starchy orthodoxy, and the works advocating it will seem credible to many. It will not be obvious to many that the authors responsible for those works pick and choose their evidence to fit in with the pre-ordained conclusions of their argument, substituting the trickiest yet most crucial areas of analysis, and the full gamut of current thinking, for some shiny-looking science. Pretty much everyone has heard of DNA, and know its analysis and interpretation is something best left to geneticists, who are clever people, ergo what they say must be correct. How many people, by contrast, are even aware of Celtic and Germanic phonology and philology, and their paramount importance to understanding much of the material behind advocations of Proto-English?

Even more to the point, how many have sufficient grasp of the finer points of both philology and phonology – not to mention any other disciplines that may be pertinent to the name(s) under discussion – to understand fully not just the basis of the arguments being presented, but more importantly the faults therein? I’ll hold my hands up and freely admit that I don’t, at least not (yet) to the levels necessary to understand the issues inside out, but I do know enough to spot when someone is deliberately and unforgivably skirting around the tough stuff. Of course, none of this will matter to the people out there who simply don’t care, if they think they have found something that can act as another plank for their numbskull theories about national “ethno-homogeneity” and such like.

One thing that’s not helping matters right now is the notable lack of published rebuttals of Proto-English from those with the requisite skills. Should they be inclined, anyone can string together a bunch of facts (or things that look like facts) and create what seems to them to be a coherent, credible narrative, particularly when it comes to a topic like place-names that are by there very nature not simply linguistic phenomena. It is only when that narrative is exposed to responses from others with expertise on the subject(s) in hand that, for better or worse, the credibility of that narrative is established. Without such checks and balances, you’re simply making your case into a vacuum, and there’s no honour in winning a one-sided debate. But a culture of experts rolling their eyes or snidely muttering “Where to begin?” is nothing to be celebrated. Actions speak louder than Facebook comments.

bob-and-roberta-smith

Another apposite bit of art I saw somewhere on Twitter recently, this time by Bob and Roberta Smith. While its basic sentiment is hard to begrudge, from an early medievalist’s point of view some of the wording is fraught with complications (British? Culture? What do they really mean?!)

My years working tedious corporate jobs has left me a bit too apt to start talking about “silo mentalities” and how to overcome them, but in this connection there is some merit in contemplating how to initiate constructive dialogues and exchanges across institutional/disciplinary/geographical boundaries. Without a filter (personal or algorithmic), it’s all too easy to find dodgy research online masquerading as robust scholarship and accept it as gospel, because counterpoints are not so readily accessible: the journals are (almost) all behind paywalls, the best books are hyper expensive (as much for cash-strapped libraries as for individuals), and the gatekeeper institutions (I include publication-producing societies here) are lagging behind in making their content more freely available. And if what I was once told about Academia and copyright is true, then that may not be an alternative for much longer; I can tell you that right now it’s the sole thing giving some people working on topics related to early medieval England outside of academic institutions topics access to scholarship more recent than Sir Frank Stenton and John Morris.

Leaving aside the economics of publication (a subject I don’t claim to have a detailed working knowledge of, although certain aspects do make it seem ripe for disruption #freebusinessidea), new channels for the dissemination of high-quality research need to be opened up, and existing ones reinforced and replicated. This Prof Howard Williams blog post on the Pillar of Eliseg and early medieval assembly sites more generally shows how it could/should be done; an invigoratingly thorough yet engaging run-through of a research project and the many angles from which a monument was considered, written by a leading academic in their field. It can’t help but convince, and moreover inspire further interest on the part of the reader (such as reading through the Project Eliseg website). I’ll draw your attention to the fact the Pillar of Eliseg is situated in Wales just like Mr Wilson’s “city-in-a-field”, but otherwise refrain from further comment, as I think it should be obvious enough what I’m trying to get at…

Playing my part

At an individual level, I can try to help challenge certain inaccurate narratives by keep doing what I’ve been doing for over half a decade now and blog about medieval subjects with the main agenda being the careful, objective use of the best scholarship available to me at the time of writing. More than that, however, I can use the modest online platform I’ve built up over the years to be more overt in explaining how I approach what I study, and why it would to be inappropriate to construe it in certain limited ways. In the future – starting with the counterpart to this post – I will endeavour to show the advantages of examining things from multiple viewpoints and, just as importantly, that you cannot hope to make a compelling revisionist case when dealing with certain types of evidence without having a firm grasp of the primary methods for their analysis; arguments founded on a rag-tag assortment of secondary disciplines can never hope to convince to the same extent.

Corollary to the above has to be an awareness that aspects of the material I work on, and the conclusions I draw from it that I choose to make public, could be misused to support particular agendas through their selective presentation. The subject matter of my one published peer-reviewed (and co-authored) article to date, earlier medieval pig husbandry, is fairly inert (unless you are enough of a fascist loon as to really want to foreground the non-proscription of keeping and eating swine as a cornerstone of British identity), but my ongoing PhD research is a different proposition, dealing as it does with the formation of collective identities in a pivotal period in the history and archaeology of Britain. My next post, therefore, is intended as a pre-emptive strike on anyone who thinks they can take what I do and refashion it to suit their own twisted racist/nationalist/sexist agenda.

This is Surrey Medieval v.2017. Who knows what the future holds, but in the shorter-term at least I’ll be continu-ingas as before, and certainly the ongoing existence of this website is not predicated on any active institutional association on my part. In drilling down into the various forms of evidence in the months and years to come, I hope to be able to draw upon the knowledge and opinions of others working in the same field(s), but I want this to be reciprocal, and not just limited to those within academic institutions such as the one I am based at. But how to achieve this?

Firstly, by sharing and sharing alike. It’s important to underscore that there is – or else should not be – a split between an academic elite (did I really get this far without using the e-word?!) and those working outside of academia. There’s a diversity of people undertaking research, and a spectrum of research outputs accessible; regardless of background, some of it is good, and other pieces, well, not so good. Wherever I sit on these scales now and in the future, I will always extend the invitation to anyone to contact me if they’re writing on a topic I’ve covered before, or are simply interested in something or somewhere they think I might know something about. I endeavour to respond to emails as quickly as I can and, because I genuinely love receiving them, will try my best to do so as fully and helpfully as possible. That said, I cannot pretend to be the best person to answer questions on many topics, and in such cases I will make sure to point a contact in the direction of someone I know who is better qualified or experienced than me. (Also, I have my limits! I recently had to cut contact with someone because they were using me as a weekly peer-reviewer and reference-mine without really responding to my suggestions and criticisms, which made a mockery of the time and effort I’d been putting into helping them. Naivety on my part really, and a valuable lesson learned.)

medieval-jews-owning-it

Fascist shutdown goals c/o Towards a Bibliography of Medieval Anglo-Jewry. I hope never to receive any comments or emails as vile as the one that prompted the above, but if I do I’ll be ready to bite back.

Second, I’ll continue to use this site and my Twitter account to draw attention to things I think are worth people knowing about. On the place-names side of things, it may not come as a huge surprise to learn there’s not a superabundance of websites dedicated to English toponymy or otherwise carrying significant amounts of trustworthy content on the subject, but at the same time there’s more than you might imagine. For starters, we have the Institute for Name-Studies at the University of Nottingham, home of the English Place-Name Survey as well as one-off projects like the useful Key to English Place-Names (KEPN). The Society for Name Studies in Britain and Ireland (SNSBI), as its name suggests, has a broader outlook; its journal Nomina is full of relevant works, and so too its website (notably the Gelling-Cole landscape photograph archive). Some county- or local-level place-name projects have a commendable online presence: shout outs to the Essex Place-Names Project and the Archaeox Place Names Group (with the EPNS Staffordshire Place-Name Project in its early phases). Top-drawer place-name analyses are also available on scholarly personal websites – the two that spring to mind are those maintained by Dr Keith Briggs and Dr Caitlin Green. (NB. I will use this paragraph as the basis for a proper page under my Links tab cataloguing all such resources in due course.)

Finally, the past few weeks have got me thinking about other means of creating an inclusive space in which positive discourse from different sides of the debate can happen. To this end, I’m now seriously toying with the idea of trying to organise some kind of conference that takes a long hard look at the origins of Old English in Britain, not just from a linguistic angle but factoring in current perspectives from fields like archaeology, history, and genetics. (Anyone who would like to work with me to make this happen please drop me a line!) Enabling exponents and opponents of ideas around Proto-English to come together, present their research, and discuss it outside of the silos in which things have been taking place over the past few years would be one ambition for it. Another (and for me the most important) would be the opportunity to spur those involved in Old English (place-)name studies to engage with cutting-edge thinking about the Adventus Saxonum, given a lot of pieces of published (top)onomastic research still deals in models and thinking that archaeology and history has long since moved on from. It may not yield any great accords or unanimity over issues, but I think it’s important from a broader standpoint to try and start talking to as many people as possible, regardless of background.

Except fascists. They can fucking do one.

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About Robert J S Briggs

Back to being a part-time early medievalist; Surrey born, London based, been known to travel
This entry was posted in Anglo-Saxon, Annals, Archaeology, History, internet, Language, Literature, News, Old English, PhD, Place-Names, Politics, Publishing, Soapbox, Twitter and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to On trying to be a better medievalist (and make the world a better place)

  1. Pingback: Conference part 3 – wordeswif

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