The problems of English education 1: all or nothing?

Scope note: this is the first of a series of posts inspired by three recent publications/projects on UK universities:

The IPR Policy Brief, Diverse Places of Learning? Home neighbourhood ethnic diversity & ethnic composition of universities

Results from the Longitudinal Education Outcomes study (see discussion at Wonkhe)

Tim Blackman, The Comprehensive University (Higher Education Policy Institute Occasional Paper 17)

Since the education systems of the four parts of the UK differ on some ways and most of my experience is English, I’ve chosen to focus on that country.

Mathematical Institute, University of Oxford
The old Oxford Mathematical Institute: undergraduates were kept firmly in the basement
Discussions of higher education are inevitably bedevilled by the issue of perspective. We can have statistics from all UK universities, but when it comes to our own experience and knowledge, the sector is so varied that no one person really has a good overview. I do, however, have two reasons for claiming to know more than most about the breadth of UK higher education. Firstly, there is the wide variety of universities at which I’ve studied or worked. These are, in alphabetical order, Aberystwyth, Bedfordshire, Birkbeck, Cambridge, Hertfordshire, King’s College London, Oxford, Sheffield and the University of the Arts London. (To these I could also possibly add Plymouth College of Further Education which while I was there taught some degree-level students on a course franchised by Plymouth University). Secondly, I have degrees in three very different subjects: mathematics, librarianship and history. This range in both subject and HE establishment gives me some unusual perspectives on the topic. And it’s from that perspective that I want to begin this series of posts with one of the biggest difficulties in the discussion of higher education in England: its polarisation between all or nothing approaches.Read More »


IMC 2017 2: What would a feminist military history look like?

Session 914 at the Leeds International Medieval Congress was a roundtable on Crossing Chronological Boundaries, with a focus on gender history and it became a passionate debate that saw me narrowly avoid using the phrase “fuck context”. (This is inspired by a recently published sociology paper, “Fuck nuance”). But the highlight of the session for me was a single question from Julia Smith, who, reflecting on what feminist pedagogy meant, asked the question which forms the title of the paper.

This post is my initial inadequate attempt to answer the question. I’m not a military historian myself (although I have written a bit on the cultural history of war), so these ideas are based on bits and pieces of work I know about, with an obvious bias towards Western Europe and the Middle Ages; other people may well have better suggestions or actually be working on the topic. I’d also make the point that where I mention specific people’s work, they wouldn’t necessarily identify themselves as feminists: it’s the topics and approaches that I think are (potentially) feminist.

So, in my view, a feminist military history:

1) would make visible the women in and around armies and in supporting roles within the services: combatants, camp followers, wives like Juana Smith, nurses like Mary Seacole, entertainers, Air Transport Auxiliary etc. (see e.g. several of the papers in Susan B. Edgington and Sarah Lambert’s volume Gendering the Crusades).

2) would look at the “home front”, both in terms of the economic and motivational support provided to armies (think of Queen Fastrada organising prayers for Charlemagne’s army) and the social and economic effects on  families and communities of men away on campaign.

3) would take for granted that female rulers as well as male ones used military force, look at how they did so and include them as examples when discussing rulers’ strategy. (See, for example, the recent book by David Hay on Matilda of Canossa).

4) would analyse the strengths and weaknesses of female military leaders in the same way that they do male ones (see e.g. Kelly DeVries on Joan of Arc).

5) would look at the effects of war on combatants’ bodies and minds, e.g. the Towton Mass Grave project and Joanna Bourke’s Intimate History of Killing.

6) would look at the effects of war on non-combatants, and gendered differences in that (see e.g. the work of John Gillingham on women as war captives in the early Middle Ages).

7) would question the boundaries of warfare and combatant/non-combatant  and place warfare within a wider context of legitimate and non-legitimate violence.

8) would balance accounts of the beauty of weapons with the visceral experience of being attacked by them. (There’s an interesting recent lecture by Adam Tooze on the MG42 machine gun that talks about some of the disconnects between professional military historians and amateur enthusiasts discussing weapons).

9) would think more carefully about the usability of/training required for particular weapons and how that affected who fought in terms of sex, age and physical health.

10) would explore gendered and racialised  ideologies promoting willingness for war (e.g. the “effeminate Bengali” versus supposedly “martial races”), the Othering of enemies and the bonding of troops. (These issues are also considered in Edgington and Lambert).

As you can see, these suggestions aren’t simply adding a cultural turn to warfare. Instead, I’d say they’re fulfilling three important roles of feminist history more generally: putting women back into the historical record, denaturalising masculinity and male-dominated activities, and considering how particular activities and systems contribute to creating and maintaining inequalities of power.

As I’ve said, these are preliminary thoughts, so I’d be happy to have comments giving r examples of other research that you think could contribute to such a project or other aspects that I might not have considered.


IMC 2017 report 1: Other forms of otherness and the session 1414 controversy

I’m recently back from the Leeds International Medieval Congress, where as usual I encountered an overwhelming number of other medievalists and their ideas, as well as coping (or not) with variable weather, insufficient sleep and my tendency to eat far too unhealthily.

I want to try in the next few weeks (or months) to reflect on some of what I learnt, but I will start with posts on the two roundtables that I was a panellist on. One was session 914 on crossing chronological boundaries, some of whose themes I will try and blog about in my next post. The other was session 1414, The Medieval Concept of Otherness, a session which aroused considerable controversy on Twitter (see the hashtag #s1414 and a Storify of Dorothy Kim’s impassioned critique* before the session). Since I was one of the panellists, I want to talk about my experience of the session.

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Gene-culture co-evolution 1: the secret of cultural evolution’s success

I’ve just finished reading Joseph Henrich, The Secret of our Success, the first book I’ve read on gene-culture co-evolution, an emerging academic field. (I’ve also seen it described as evolutionary culture anthropology (ECA)). Henrich’s book is a very interesting read, written in a populist way, but with citations of a substantial amount of original research. It’s also the first book I’ve found which has me thinking that possibly evolutionary approaches could be of use to historians.

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Retrospective: twelve years a blogger

I started this blog twelve years ago (30th May 2005). At that point I was academically a Magistra, having just submitted my doctoral thesis, but not yet having been examined on it. As for the Mater, my only daughter was then two-and-a-half. Twelve years on, I have a doctorate in history, and a published monograph, as well as a number of journal articles and book chapters. My daughter is fourteen and has just decided on her GCSE options (which do not include history). But the concept of Magistra et Mater, as a place on the internet where I can discuss my research and also its wider interactions with my personal life and political events, has continued.

In my twelve years, I’ve written nearly 500 blog posts, so what follows is a very brief selection, one from each year, illustrating some of the main themes I’ve written about. (The formatting of some of these suffered in the move over to WordPress, but I hope they’re still readable).

2005: The hidden questions of Hide and Seek

Being a novice parent, I often found my young daughter’s behaviour intriguing. And while the parenting books may tell you about the more obvious milestones, they don’t necessarily discuss some of the more intriguing questions, such as: when does a child work out about how to find a hidden person in Hide and Seek? [However I failed to keep a record of my daughter’s further progress in the matter, so you will have to look elsewhere for the definitive answer].

2006: Ban the Bonnet

Unfortunately, this post, on calls to prevent the wearing of religious clothing (specifically Muslim women wearing the veil/niqab) remains all too topical more than a decade after I first wrote it.

2007: Masculinity and courtliness

I’ve written a lot about medieval masculinity (the subject of my PhD thesis) over the years, and this is one of many in which I informally try to tease out some of the issues, while also getting distracted by the thought of John Wayne in a mitre.

2008: Dead academic walking

In which I talk about my failure to get an academic post. [Ironically, I did finally get a postdoctoral research post a few years after this, but I am now once again in a non-academic job].

2009: History matters 1: patriarchy and intentionality

During March 2009, I took part in an event blogging about Judith Bennett’s book, History Matters, with a series of posts inspired by reading it. This not only ended with an invitation to contribute to the Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, but the posts I wrote were also the seedbed which eventually led to my latest project, on the long-term persistence of patriarchal structures.

2010: What can the vulgus do? Crowd sourcing for medievalists

Most of my time since 2005 has been spent working as a librarian. I haven’t blogged much about librarianship, except in 2010 when I took part in the University of Cambridge libraries “23 Things” Web 2.0 programme, which involved blogging about social media tools. This post was inspired by the programme, and reflects my increasing interest in the digital humanities.

2011: Why gay monks are good to think with

Although I don’t think of myself as primarily a historian of sexuality, it has often been a theme of my blog posts, especially puzzling over what kind of historical categories we might use when discussing sexual acts and identities.

2012: Framing the Early Middle Ages 7: Peasants going Galt

One of the most influential books on early medieval history I have read since starting the blog is Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages. Or rather, it’s one of the most influential books I’ve partially read. In order to work my way through its nearly 1000 pages and keep my bearing, I started blogging the book chapter by chapter as I read it. Although it helped my focus, it has also revealed to everyone, including Chris, that more than seven years after starting reading and blogging his book, I still haven’t finished it.

2013: Female pleasure and social approval

Having started my academic career researching masculinity, I’m now working more on women’s history and this is one of a number of posts I’ve written picking away at ideas of female agency, domesticity, emotions and patriarchal structures in the Middle Ages.

2014: Overcoming my trans prejudice

I’ve often tried to show how my academic research overlaps with my personal life: here I wanted to provide a case study of how my views changed on a particular social and moral topic.

2015: Political smears then and now

Once again, modern and medieval events collide in my mind in bizarre and resonant ways, here bringing together David Cameron’s Piggate scandal and the ninth-century difficulties of Louis the Pious and Lothar II.

2016: Bigamy and bureaucracy

One great advantage of a blog post is that you can easily bring together very different historical periods and bounce them off one another without having to do extensive historiographical footnotes. Here Victorian novels meet late medieval France, with a bit of Martin Guerre thrown in.

2017: The Cherokee and the Anglo-Saxons

As well as different periods bouncing off one another, it’s also interesting to bounce different cultures off one another. One of the things I still enjoy about blogging is that it will let me play around with ideas in this informal way and keep a record of them, in case any come in useful later.

My blogging frequency has varied a lot over the years, depending partly on what other writing and paid or unpaid work I’ve been doing as well. And I’m conscious that it’s becoming easier for me to repeat myself, especially when I’ve revisiting ideas on gender I’ve been considering for a dozen years or more. But I’m still mostly finding blogging interesting, and I plan to keep on doing it, if not for another twelve years, than at least for a few years more.

The Cherokee and the Anglo-Saxons

I found the most interesting part of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in North Carolina, which I visited recently, to be the section on the Cherokee Nation before European contact. In particular, because the displays divided up this time into various dated periods, it offered a fascinating opportunity to compare Cherokee material culture with that from other cultures elsewhere in the world at the same time. Given my background, that immediately got me juxtaposing the material culture of the Cherokee in the Woodland period (1000 BCE – 900 CE) with that of the Anglo-Saxons. In the late-seventeenth century, the descendants of the Anglo-Saxons invaded the territory of the Cherokee (and eventually destroyed or relocated the vast majority of the Cherokee Nation). But could you have predicted that back around 900 CE, at the time of King Alfred?

Museum of the Cherokee Indian exhibit: Stone pipe in the shape of a bird

In some ways, Woodland period Cherokee and Anglo-Saxon material culture seem quite similar. Both societies were of settled agriculturalists, with construction either predominantly or exclusively in wood. Indian culture probably had more effective weapons around 900 CE, reflecting a society where hunting played a more vital role in food provision. The Cherokee had very high-quality bows and arrows, as well as spear-throwers, improving the accuracy and distance of a spear cast. Like the Anglo-Saxons, the Cherokee had skills in pottery and textile-working; unlike them, they also had a particularly developed craft of basket-weaving. Some small stone-carvings of theirs survive. In terms of what we can deduce about their non-material culture from later sources, the Cherokee also show parallels to the Anglo-Saxons in their development of complex religious myths and laws.

So what did the Anglo-Saxons have that the Cherokee didn’t? Some stone buildings, but relatively few. Cherokee pottery incorporated admixtures of additional elements to improve its strength, but it was purely handmade, rather than using a potter’s wheel. And there are some conspicuous absences to an early medievalist’s eye. The Cherokee didn’t have domesticated animals (including horses). There’s no glass and very little metalwork (a few copper objects, I think obtained by trade); there was no mention of coinage. Although they had canoes, they didn’t have ocean-going ships. And, of course, there were no books, inscriptions or any other kind of writing.

Though some of those differences may not have much effect, collectively in the long-run (600-800 years), they allowed Englishmen with guns and horses to appear in North Carolina, rather than the other way round. Even if it was mostly diseases that killed the early modern Cherokee, rather than British weapons, there was still a considerable difference in material culture by that point. Why is that?

As Jared Diamond has pointed out, there weren’t domesticable animals in North America (the only one in South America is the llama/alpaca). And it’s a lot easier to develop ocean-going ships in England, where it’s impossible to be more than 70 miles from the sea, and where it’s actually useful to be able to cross the Channel, than a region where you’re 300 or more miles from the sea and you could just follow the coastline anyway for days to contact other communities. But the other key point is that the Anglo-Saxons were at the tail-end of technological developments that they adopted from other civilizations, in a way that the Cherokee weren’t.

Parts of Anglo-Saxon England were aceramic for a while; in the fifth century; at that stage they were having to recycle metal from Roman remains, because they’d lost the ability to smelt iron. The early Anglo-Saxons also had no writing. Much of the material culture they did have by 900 CE had been adopted from other nearby cultures (or specifically brought to England by outsiders, as with the Roman/Celtic missionaries and writing). Vast amounts of the material culture the English had by 1700 CE had also originated from elsewhere; some innovations, such as paper and gunpowder, had come from as far away as China. In fact, it’s difficult to think of many important technological innovations first developed in England before 1600 CE, although by the seventeenth century, English science and technology were more inventive (we’re getting to the era of Francis Bacon and Robert Hooke).

In other words, the real advantage that the Anglo-Saxons and the English had over the Cherokee was their proximity to other societies with more complex material culture. And their great luck was that they never faced invading forces that were technologically more advanced and wanted to remove them from their land. The Vikings had something of a technological edge in terms of military equipment, but even when they conquered parts of Anglo-Saxon England, there’s not much evidence of complete population replacement. In contrast, despite the fact that the Cherokee were regarded as one of the “Five Civilized Tribes” by English settlers and later the US government, that didn’t prevent most of them from being expelled from North Carolina, on the infamous Trail of Tears in 1838.

Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel argues that the Spanish defeated the Incas because of geography: Eurasia had more domesticable animals and crops and such innovations could spread more easily east-west than north-south (because of climate change at different latitudes). Europe (and Western Europe in particular) later benefited from a coastline nearer to the Americas than other parts of Eurasia. But there’s always been a counter-claim that Europeans were simply more innovative in some way than Native Americans.

If you compare the Cherokee and the Anglo-Saxons, that claim’s not really convincing. In terms of inventiveness, for example, there’s no Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the development of the Cherokee syllabary, within a couple of centuries of contact, even though the Anglo-Saxons and their Continental ancestors must have been aware of Roman writing for centuries. The English technical innovations of the seventeenth century came on the back of a millennium or so of borrowed technology. If English people had had only the Mississippian Culture to borrow from (as the Cherokee did until Europeans came), rather than China, India, Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean, I find it hard to believe they’d have come up with the Golden Hind or the balance spring. The real luck of the Anglo-Saxons, which the Cherokee didn’t share, surely came in the form of their Eurasian neighbours.