Consent and divorce in the medieval world

One of the key claims made by Elisabeth van Houts, Married Life in the Middle Ages (OUP, 2019) is that the twelfth-century move to making marriages depend on the couple’s consent alone, rather than that of their families was driven by young women, rather than the church. Her evidence is a series of women (and to a lesser extent men), both in narrative texts and medieval fiction, who resisted their parents’ demands about whom they should marry, or who eloped with their spouse of choice. Van Houts argues that the church eventually realised that marriages were more likely to be successful if the couple were compatible and moved towards a consensual theory of marriage.

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Does studying history increase social mobility?

The question in my title is inspired by a recent article by Kenan Malik that discusses the decision by Sunderland University to stop offering courses in modern foreign languages, politics and history. Its decision to close its modern languages department isn’t unusual: many universities have been doing so since the late 1990s, long before high student fees were a key issue (see a summary from 2013 by the Guardian).

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Sunderland University (image from Paulhaustead)
But Sunderland’s closure of the history and politics department has aroused more concern, with many historians condemning it as philistine, reflecting a purely market-orientated philosophy increasingly common in academia. Kenan Malik, however, goes further by linking this move to a report on declining social mobility within the UK and on the growing divide between London and other regions and between cities and towns. He states:

All this explains why Sunderland University’s decision is so depressing. It’s a university that, like many in the north-east, caters to students from the local area. Its repurposing seems to suggest that the study of the humanities should be reserved for the children of the rich, who can afford to move, while local working-class students should be confined to “vocational” subjects. Existing divisions will only deepen.

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Black slavery and rural Britain

This summer I went to two places in Britain that had unexpected connections with eighteenth and nineteenth-century slavery. Since it’s Black History Month, I thought it would be interesting to talk a bit about what these places tell us about the impact of the slave trade on Britain.

The first place I want to talk about is Ullapool, a small village in the far north-west of Scotland. The current village was founded as a herring port in 1788, although there’d been a settlement around there much earlier.

Street in Ullapool

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Do Oxbridge students earn more (and how would we know)?

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am mildly obsessed with the UK government’s LEO (Longitudinal Education Outcomes) statistical set, which provides vast amounts of easily manipulable statistical data. The set measures what the UK government increasingly considers the key educational outcome of a university education: how much graduates earn. But this is not the post I originally set out to write, and the reason why interests me, and hopefully you.

Sundial with chronophage ("time-eating" grasshopper.
Like the Corpus Christi College Cambridge chronophage, the LEO dataset eats time. (image by Rror from

I wanted to check one of the basic assumptions being made about discrimination in university education (especially racial discrimination): that Oxford and Cambridge graduates earn more than those from other universities and so any discrimination in their intake causes major economic disadvantage right from the start of a career.

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Not teaching after all

A few weeks ago, I was on holiday telling some relatives about the hourly-paid lecturing work I’d be starting in October. The day I came back from holiday I found a really good quote I was going to use in the first seminar. The day after that I got an e-mail telling me that I wasn’t going to be teaching the unit.

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Boethius and Brexit

A few days ago, on holiday in Scotland, I was rereading the sixth-century author Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy. My family have been reading and talking a lot about the increasing likelihood of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal, so inevitably my reading of it was influenced by that. In my worry about the hardest of Brexits, was I reacting as a philosopher should?

Wheel of Fortune
Philosophy shows Boethius Fortune and her wheel

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Respect my priestly authority

Hincmar of Rheims contemplating Louis the Stammerer

This is going to be quite a roughly-written post, playing with some ideas on the manliness of medieval priests. So obviously, let’s start with chimpanzee politics. Frans de Waal who researches the topic says that alpha chimpanzees aren’t necessarily the strongest and meanest. Instead, they’re the ones able to build coalitions (because a group of chimpanzees can defeat and even kill a single chimpanzee) and these coalition-building males can have surprisingly long reigns in the top spot. Think of that as the start of personal authority in the prehuman world: an individual’s qualities as meaning others (including other males) willing to accept his decisions.

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