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Archive for June, 2013

This week has been graduation week at St Andrews. But the university has also been hosting a conference: The Middle Ages in the Modern World, whose subtitle is ‘A multidisciplinary conference on medievalism in the post-Middle Ages’.

Middle Ages conference programme

Middle Ages conference programme

Now the Middle Ages isn’t my main research period, indeed it’s one I don’t know much about at all. But it’s an interesting theme for a conference, and there were enough intriguing looking talks for me to sign up as a delegate. Coming over from Dundee the conference was almost on my doorstep, only half an hour away from home. It seemed daft to miss it. Also St Andrews seems like a perfect venue for a conference on this, given its rich history, including being a centre for learning since the Middle Ages, and its many medieval buildings, both intact and those, like the Cathedral and Castle, more ruined.

St Andrews Cathedral ruins

St Andrews Cathedral ruins

Unfortunately I couldn’t attend very much of it due to my MS-like illness. The conference runs over three full days, plus a plenary talk on the day before then. But I couldn’t ever hope to do successive days now. In the end I aimed for the plenary on the Tuesday, then would rest on the Wednesday, before coming back for much of the Thursday, and resting again (and missing) the Friday talks.

I’d arranged in advance for my husband to attend free as my carer and wheelchair pusher. He would be bored, but was essential if I was going to get through the time there. Although I don’t usually use my wheelchair I find now that when I attend an academic conference, and have the combination of needing to keep my brain in gear and juggle moving around for different panels and things, all for many hours, the wheelchair lets me keep going for longer, and thus stay and participate in the conference for longer too. We had a few hiccups with the disability support when we turned up to register for the conference on Tuesday, but they were eventually all sorted out. The best help of all came from a university porter at College Gate on North Street, who despite the closed-off university grounds and parking due to graduation waved us through, and walked us round to a suitable parking space, right near the Younger Hall where Terry Jones’s plenary was taking place later that day.

We killed time until the talk by wheeling along to the university’s Main Library, where there’s now a very comfortable cafe, that kept me topped up with hot chocolate, while I worked on an academic paper on my iPad and my husband read. I’d printed a floorplan of the library before travelling. It was renovated recently, and I’ve been a bit bamboozled by the new layout. It has changed enormously from the library I knew from 1990 onwards. My husband and I are life graduate members of St Andrews university library, and could have gone into the main area to sit at study desks, but it was more comfortable to kill time in the new library cafe with informal seating and hot drinks machines nearby.

Terry Jones’s plenary talk was being put on as a joint conference opening plenary and lecture to celebrate the university’s 600th anniversary. It was held in the Younger Hall, where I graduated with my husband in 1994, and there was a large audience of conference delegates – who got the good seats at the front – and other members of the public. The principal, Louise Richardson, introduced the speaker, and then he spoke for about 45 minutes on ‘Columbus, America and the Flat Earth’. Overall it was a very well presented talk: funny, educational, and challenging at the same time. It also had, appropriately, a very Pythonesque series of PowerPoint slides, making hilarious use of pop-up speech bubbles. And he got away with a very risque picture at the end. As the principal commented afterwards, it was unlikely that any picture like that had ever been shown in that venue before! It was thoroughly entertaining, and the appreciative audience enjoyed it immensely.

We’d booked a meal in my favourite restaurant, but because the plenary finished very promptly we were able to nip round first to a former computer science lecturer of mine’s home, and have a cup of tea and a chat and catchup with him, which was really nice. And then the restaurant meal was as good as expected.

Sadly of course I had to miss the Wednesday talks. That included a panel on furniture and furnishings, including a talk on the 18th century, that I had been really keen to go to, but then it was moved at a late stage in the programme from Thursday afternoon to Wednesday afternoon. Drat! And I knew I was also going to miss two other talks on the Friday that would have really appealed to me: one about representing the Middle Ages in computer strategy games, and another about weird fiction of M.R. James. Drat again! Still couldn’t be helped.

So rest (actually sleep all night and day) on the Wednesday, then back on the Thursday. We missed the opening plenary, to keep things manageable for me, and turned up around 10.30. The main conference is at the Gateway building at the North Haugh, not far from where my husband and I were science undergraduates in the early 1990s. I hadn’t been back to the North Haugh since I left my full-time computer science PhD in 1996, as my developing neurological illness got too much to battle on with. So it was quite a big thing for me to be back in the area. The Gateway centre is nice: modern, with some good facilities. But there were downsides as a wheelchair user. The lifts are tight if you are in a wheelchair, and I couldn’t have managed them on my own. And there are also lots of doors to negotiate, again something I couldn’t have managed without help. Also from the perspective of a conference venue we found, in theatre 3, that there was a lot of sound coming through from theatre 4 next door, and from the kitchen. Sound proofing in the building does not seem as good as it should be.

On the plus side I really enjoyed my time on Thursday. In the end I only stayed for two panels. Had the furniture panel still been on in the last slot I’d have hung on for that, but as it was it was better to head off before I got too weak. The first panel I went to was on Arthuriana in the Modern World, and included discussions of the Once & Future King, Tolkien’s epic poem Fall of Arthur, and some German Arthurian texts. All were enjoyable, and all prompted me to check what books I have on my Kindle (already Fall of Arthur, going to buy Once & Future King to reread, and bought an English version of medieval romance Parzival).

Lunch followed, and was tasty and well organised, and provided a welcome break before the afternoon panel. It also gave me a chance to look through the book Treasures of St Andrews University Library which I’d bought at a discount in the morning. I was particularly intrigued to read about the library borrowing records they hold, because I studied lots of such records for my history PhD investigating reading habits. And I also spotted that they have three manuscripts of Sir Isaac Newton, so immediately texted my physicist Dad to tell him!

Treasures of St Andrews University Library

Treasures of St Andrews University Library

The final panel I went to was on Modern War and the Medieval Past. I particularly liked Carol Symes’s talk about the Middle Ages of World War I, including the ways in which the Middle Ages was used by the various sides in propaganda. This was well illustrated and used PowerPoint well, showing us posters, postcards, photos and news reports from the time. Thoroughly well done. And then I also enjoyed Andrew Lynch’s talk about the Medieval in Children’s Histories of England. Though on the downside he declared up front that he was talking about four histories: one from the 18th century, two from the 19th, and one from the early 20th. In the end he only really talked about the 19th century ones, which for me as an 18th century book historian was a pity. But I can always try to get a copy of Oliver Goldsmith’s children’s history – another for the Kindle!

We headed off after that. I was quite weak by this stage, and it was better to head home. We took the chance to look at the museum exhibits on the ground floor of the Gateway, before driving round to Jannetta’s ice cream parlour, to have a treat, and use the 10% discount voucher I had from the conference (great idea organisers: thanks!). 52 flavours to choose from, which is really hard, but I plumped for some wacky ones: a 2-scoop tub of spiced peach and hazelnut ice cream. Was good, and served with a wafer.

Ice cream from Jannettas

Ice cream from Jannettas

Tonight the delegates are dining at University Hall, which the conference programme describes as a “turreted, gothic confection of a building”. I stayed there in 1990-1991, and that description just about sums it up, at least the older prettier bits. Lucky diners!

Am I glad that I went? Yes, though I wish I could have gone to more events, and I wish I could have attended some of the other talks I was interested in, particularly the panel whose day was moved. But I had to compromise, and I think I found enough things of interest to me. I also found the talks that I attended well aimed, so they would appeal to both specialists and general (like me) audience members. And my Kindle now has many more books to read. So thanks very much to the organisers, speakers and fellow delegates.

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My university degrees are a mix of computer science and history degrees. But I’ve maintained a healthy interest in archaeology, not least because of part of my OU BA(Hons), which included in the final year hefty chunks about Homer and possible Trojan excavations, and also a substantial course on the Roman empire, with much archaeological content.

But my real interest in archaeology is thanks to Time Team, which I watched from its very start in 1994. I saw almost all episodes over the following years, until its last one earlier this year. I particularly liked Time Team in the early days, when it was finding its feet, and Tony knew very little about archaeology, and asked all the good questions for beginners. In later years it became a little bit too knowing, a bit too smooth, and that was before the format was (badly) tinkered with in its penultimate year. But at least it went out on a high, returning in many ways to the old format which was best.

Of course there were lots of great elements to Time Team, and in particular the team. Carenza Lewis was an excellent landscape archaeologist and decipherer of maps, even before lumps-and-bumps genius Stewart Ainsworth appeared on screen. And Guy de la Bedoyere, their standard go-to person for Roman expertise, was always reliable too.

But the best for me was Mick Aston. He knew his subject backwards, but in a very unassuming, modest way. And he communicated an uncomplicated enthusiasm for archaeology that was hard to resist. It’s thanks to him that the series got off the ground, and it’s thanks to him that it lasted as long as it did.

I have one of his books in the house already, bought a great many years ago. Interpreting the Landscape: Landscape Archaeology and Local History was a classic text, and indeed still is, and introduces landscape archaeology and deciphering the history of towns and villages in an extremely readable way.

Interpreting the Landscape book by Mick Aston

Interpreting the Landscape book by Mick Aston

More recently Mick co-authored a book about a long-standing Somerset archaeological investigation: Interpreting the English Village: Landscape and Community at Shapwick, Somerset. This is on my Amazon wishlist, and I hope to get a copy sometime.

Interpreting the English Village book by Mick Aston

Interpreting the English Village book by Mick Aston

The news of Mick’s death initially broke on Twitter, long before it was picked up by conventional news outlets. It’s been really touching reading the tweets tonight, both by those who knew him, such as colleagues Francis Pryor, Raksha Dave, and Jonathan Foyle, and by the many more people who had never met him but were hugely grateful for the widespread enthusiasm he inspired for archaeology and the past in general.

Thanks for everything Mick.

Mick Aston (centre) with Tony Robinson and Guy de la Bedoyere

Mick Aston (centre) with Tony Robinson and Guy de la Bedoyere

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I blogged recently about how useful I find using a traditional pen and paper notepad. In my case it’s more a case of jotting down ideas and brainstorming when out and about, rather than for writing any type of extended drafts.

I’ve just been listening to an interview on Radio 4 with Neil Gaiman, who is one of my favourite writers. And even though he is highly technical in terms of using a MacBook Air, and active on social media such as Twitter and Facebook, he still prefers to write his first drafts in a pen and paper notepad. He says that he was finding that when he wrote directly on the computer his words had a tendency to bloat, whereas when he writes in a notepad it is better quality writing. And it also prevents him from getting distracted while writing, for example ending up buying something unneeded on eBay.

I know that many other writers still use traditional notepads in this way, but it was really interesting to hear some of the reasoning and thoughts behind this process. Of course my own writing is somewhat different: not fiction, but non-fiction, which leads to different structures, and a somewhat different writing process. But I still found it an interesting insight.

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Early this morning I sent off the revised version of an accepted journal paper to the editor. So that’s taken care of. Good. But I thought for my own benefit I’d make a note here of other things I’m working on, as an aide-memoire.

I’ve agreed to write a book review for a Scottish history academic journal. I was approached for this, because of the specific book, and my research interests. So that’s next on the list. I have the book in the house – my own copy actually – and just need to read it, and pull together some thoughts. That shouldn’t take too long, fingers crossed, and should be fun. The review is needed by the end of this year, but I should easily finish it many months ahead of then.

In September I’m hoping to go to a Guild of One-Name Studies regional meeting at Perth, and have offered to give a short talk about my Cavers one-name study. I’ve jotted down some ideas in a mind map already, but need to finish writing it, including the PowerPoint presentation I’ll use.

I’ve a series of articles ongoing that are a cross between historical pieces and roleplaying game ideas, and need to resume writing these. They were put on hold, as I battled the illness and completing other things. I’ve done seven articles so far, and am part-way through one on Montrose, with more planned. I’m hoping to publish them as a PDF booklet, once completed.

My interactive fiction game work in progress needs to be picked up again. I’d completed the prologue, and was at a point where I was going to start coding up the main middle section. I should be able to make good progress with this. I find writing the dialogue and interaction quite hard, but the coding side, in Inform 7 – a natural language programming language – is much easier for me. It’s funny, I can’t do much computer programming now, since the brain damage got really bad. But I get on well with Inform 7 – yay!

I have two other academic articles currently with journal editors and reviewers. One was derived from part of my PhD, the other from my MPhil. And I could hear back about those at any time. With luck I’d be offered some sort of revision, even a revise and resubmit would be good. But even if these editors reject the pieces outright I’d want to revise them myself before submitting them to a different journal. So I need to allow a little bit of space to be able to work on that.

I need to put together a proposal for the Community Libraries: Connecting Readers in the Atlantic World, 1650-1850 project. I can’t attend the colloquium in Chicago, about digital approaches to library history. But I hope to be able to attend the London colloquium in 2015, which is looking at libraries in the community. I could put together a good discussion piece for that, based on what I did for the library in Haddington, researching the readers using a huge range of genealogical and historical records, to be able to contextualise their borrowings properly. I’m also planning similar research in future for the Balquhidder Parish Library in Perthshire, and to that end am currently in the middle of a small-scale pilot study of another set of library borrowings. But I need to put something together for the London meeting, and submit it before the September 2013 deadline for abstracts.

I recently blogged about the 17th century poem I’m transcribing. I’d like to publish the transcript in an academic journal, with a suitable introduction and text contextualising it. So that’s another paper idea I’m working on. But I need to finish transcribing the poem first. For the record it’s massive. Three pages of two columns of tight text. Many many lines of poem.

I have another couple of paper ideas in progress, but they are at early stages, and unlikely to reach editors anytime soon.

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Early this morning I got a tweet from @TwBirthday to say it was my 5th Twitter birthday. I’d joined the site on 5th June 2008.

Initially I followed astronomy tweeters, such as the team behind the Mars Phoenix lander. I studied astronomy for two years as part of my science degree at St Andrews in the early 1990s, and would have continued to honours level had the university not just scrapped the joint honours Computer Science and Astronomy degree option (my husband would have too – he ended up choosing the space side, I went for the CS route). Then over time I followed others: fellow Call of Cthulhu gamers and enthusiasts, archivists and historians, professional writers (I find the writing process fascinating), and later computer scientists.

It’s been an interesting 5 years. I tweet a lot now myself, but mainly use Twitter as a source of finding out interesting new things. For example I often learn of relevant academic conferences through it, or interesting new archival resources. I also find it a good medium for chatting to people. For example I’ve been able to contact quite a few of my favourite authors with queries or comments, and get tweets back quickly from them: something that would have been impossible in the pre-Internet era.

I’m currently in the middle of analysing the 1000 or so tweet streams that I follow on Twitter, to see how they break down in terms of numbers of historians, archivists, gamers, astronomy, etc. I’m curious about this myself, and was able to extract the list of Tweeters I follow using BirdSong. Now I have a big spreadsheet that I’m slowly categorising, as the mood grabs me, to work out the numbers. It’s very similar to what I did during my PhD for books: having a big spreadsheet of titles, and categorising roughly by subject, then looking at the overall statistics.

Meanwhile I will close with some words I wrote here on 23rd May, in a blog post reflecting on the pros and cons of various social networks:

The most useful social network I find for following academics is Twitter. This only works for academics who tweet regularly, but I follow a lot of historians, and archivists, and many of them tweet about their research in progress, interesting conferences, and new publications. On the downside following these tweets takes time, regularly. I follow nearly 1000 people on Twitter (not just academics), and given how knocked out I am I can’t see all their tweets. But I put a bit of time in each day to follow them, using Flipboard on my iPad to browse hours of recent tweets in a nice way. And I find the time put in is well rewarded with the info I get back. I also tweet myself. I describe myself on Twitter as an “Academic historian, genealogist, former computer scientist, and Doctor Who fan”, which pretty much sums up the subject pattern of my tweets. But I find tweeting rewarding, and often make good contacts, and have good discussions on Twitter, with fellow academics and researchers.

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Before I discovered the joys of book history and researching historic reading habits, which I studied for a PhD, I did a part-time taught postgraduate Masters (an MPhil) in Cultural and Urban Histories 1650-1850. This was taught at Dundee University, mainly by Professor Charles McKean, ably supported by other members of staff, and was superb. The closing part of the Masters saw students do a dissertation on a topic of their choice. And I chose to study the local court records of Melrose in Roxburghshire between 1657 and 1706. These had been transcribed and published, and so were easy to work with. I built up a very large database of cases, pursuers and defenders. There were thousands of cases heard at the Melrose court in the period, and huge numbers of the (small) local population involved with the court. It was a very unusual type of local court, dating from the pre-Reformation Abbey control of the area, and provided low-cost convenient access to legal solutions to problems.

The Melrose court went through a lot of upheaval in the 1680s, after the Earl of Haddington who controlled it refused to agree to the Test Act, a measure by King Charles II to try to reassert royal authority, which was resisted by many peers in Scotland. As a result the control of this court passed to the Earl of Roxburgh, who appointed as his bailie-depute, in other words the sitting judge, local man George Pringle of Blindlee. Pringle would become one of the starring characters of my dissertation, as I showed how he changed the purpose of the Melrose court to now be primarily to root out conventicles, secret meetings for worship by people opposed to the imposed Episcopalian religion. And significantly Pringle also used the court to line his own pockets, as he fined the local population heavily, and seems to have taken deliberate steps to – wrongly – keep the money for himself.

So it was a delight to discover a contemporary poem written about Blindlee’s appointment to the Melrose post. It’s held in the National Records of Scotland, and as the catalogue says it’s called ‘A strange truth, a recommendation of Blindlie by the laird of Meldrum to the earl of Roxburgh, to be his depute in Melroseland’. The poem is undated, but looking through it looks to be pretty authentic to events of the changeover of 1682 as I know them already, and presumably was written by someone who knew the facts well.

I’ve started to transcribe the poem. It’s lengthy, not great poetry, almost McGonagall-like in places. But the rhyming helps as I battle to read the faint handwriting. I’m hoping to publish it in the form of a journal paper in future. I already have a paper with reviewers based on my Melrose court research in general, and hope to get that published in a good journal.

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