Charters, women and networking

Yesterday, when inputting the details of a new book on early medieval charters and the laity into my bibliographical software, I was idly musing on the fact that you had to be unlucky to have a surname beginning with K and still end up as the fourth of four editors in alphabetical order. Then I noticed something else that seemed statistically implausible. There are four editors and six other authors in the book, and all ten of them are male.

I want to say at once that I’m not accusing Warren Brown et al. of sexism. As was discussed after one session at Leeds this year, you can end up with a noticeably unbalanced panel entirely by accident, if particular people you want to include aren’t able to participate. And in many subfields of history there is a bias towards one sex in the numbers of researchers, which may only exacerbate this situation. But it did get me thinking about scholarly networks more generally. Conference panels and edited books are often assembled largely via connections: your friends and contacts. They are thus always liable to bias in terms of geography, status and scholarly approaches taken, as well as sex. (Documentary Culture and the Laity in the Early Middle Ages is also an Anglosphere book; I don’t know whether or not that aspect of it was deliberate). And there is a potential danger with such reliance on existing networks : that those at less prestigious institutions or women or men, or those working in Holland etc can get shut out from conferences and publishing opportunities for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of their scholarship.

This is where the networking of my title comes in. Networking at conferences such as the International Medieval Congress sometimes gets regarded rather negatively, as if the whole point of it is just to suck up to the influential and further your own career. There are sometimes suggestions that it’s better, or somehow more authentic, to spend time mainly with your friends at such conferences. But my ideal of networking at such events is about creating intellectual networks: finding people there of whatever status whose research is relevant to yours in some way and from whom you can learn. And in turn, I see part of my role there as connecting other people together: putting someone working on facial disfigurement in contact with someone who’s just written a book on Merovingian attitudes to warfare etc. If we take such opportunities, we can help create contact networks that do cross boundaries of location, status, period and sex, and I hope that the result is that academics from all sorts of backgrounds get more opportunities to be involved in interesting collaborations.


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