Tagging and categorising historians

Pulling together a combined bibliography for all the chapters of my book has made me look at the intellectual influences on my research in a new light. There are some authors whose influence I would regard as fundamental to my work, who are nevertheless represented by only one or two books and articles. And there are others whose work I suddenly realise I keep on using, even though I would not particularly see myself as following in their tradition. There’s less Peter Brown than I’d have expected, and more Donald Bullough. And I’m surprised that I’ve ended up citing more works by Paul Fouracre than Kate Cooper and more stuff by Karl Ferdinand Werner than Guy Halsall.

The people whose works I cite most of all, like Mayke de Jong and Jinty Nelson are those who have not just written a lot, but written in many varied fields. Indeed, their research expands beyond standard categories. King’s College London’s page for Jinty lists as ‘keywords’ England, France, Germany, Europe, Medieval, Religion, Politics and the state, Intellectual History, Women, gender and sexuality, Cultural History, Digital Humanities, Prosopography, but that still excludes a fair amount of her work: there’s nothing about Vikings, or biography, or law, for example. Maybe talking about research is one time when tagging is better than categorisation. Categorisation can tell you factual information about what a historian works on, but not the flavour of their work. Tagging, at least by someone knowledgeable, might allow that more-rounded, slightly smudgy sense of what people do.

Yet one of the main purposes of categorisation of historians is for employment purposes: the university department needs ten staff, of which one should be a medievalist, preferably one who works on economic history, etc. The skill of job applications lies in being able to squeeze your own, unique research into such arbitrary categories, or somehow expand them. Some people have been very successful on this: I’m particularly impressed by those who manage to sneak across the arbitrary dividing line of ‘British’ and ‘European’ history. For the rest of us, categorisation can easily trap us into doing research that’s ‘more of the same’. I’m starting to think about what I’ll do after I’ve finished the next book, and will have to decide whether I want to do more work on gender history, or go off in a slightly different direction: honour, Hincmar, medical texts? I don’t want to get too boxed in or I’ll get stale. For all the complaints about ‘labeling’ of people, maybe that’s better for a historian than being carefully categorised:

Historians

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