Interview with Dr. James Ross (25th November, 2016 – University of Winchester)

Today we bring you our latest interview with Dr. James Ross who is currently at the University of Winchester, bringing the later middle ages in England to the heart of the medieval history students of our home institution. He has also recently secured funding for a research project focusing on Henry VII and VIII, therefore we took the opportunity to learn more about it. So we asked James to spare a couple of minutes of his time and tell us about his research and his opinions on diverse matters, and he very kindly gave us some excellent info. The whole text is below:

The Team: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us! To get things started here is an easy questions for you  – If you had to choose a single noble/gentry family to be the most fascinating dynamic contributor to English history, who would you choose?
Dr. Ross: Am I allowed the Plantagenets?!

The Team: Well, of course! The Plantagenets are one of the coolest, meatiest families of all medieval Europe, and we approve and support this choice: A few members of the team have done several posts on the subject! Now, another question so we can pick your professional expertise: can you recommend recent book/articles published recently that have piqued your interest recently?
Dr. Ross: Chris Given-Wilson’s new biography of Henry IV (Yale, 2016) is an excellent study of a king long in need of a fresh approach.

The Team: How do you think your previous work experience (pre Winchester) has helped your position as a lecturer/research supervisor? Are there any other upcoming research in your field that warrants public attention/would be of interest to current History students for undergrad dissertations?
Dr. Ross: I worked for eight years at  the National Archives, which gave me a great grounding in a broad range of medieval and modern records (in addition to my detailed PhD research), and this helps me a lot in supervising PhD students, in teaching palaeography (reading old handwriting) for MA and PhD students, and in informing my undergraduate teaching – using original documents is essential in teaching medieval history, and understanding their strengths and weaknesses key to a good understanding.

The Team: Now, excuse us for the slight controversial question, but considering that Richard III has had a lot of re-assessment in the past few years, do you think there should be any other monarch or noble that badly needs renewed fresh attention?
Dr. Ross: Although more work has been done on Henry VII in the last decade or so, that king is perhaps the least understood of any in the period I work in.

The Team: Excellent! That ties in slightly with our next question: the early Tudors have constant historiography being produced, what do you think your research will contribute most to the literature?
Dr. Ross: The Leverhulme project which I am running will publish freely online the Chamber Books of Henry VII and Henry VIII, 1485-1521, which detail both private and public expenditure of those two monarchs will allow more definitive answers to many questions about the early Tudors than has been previously possible, including, for example, just how wealthy Henry VII was, how different were the regimes of Henry VII and Henry VIII, how much did they spend on luxury items, what were the daily and weekly rhythms of the court. We hope to have a fully searchable text online by summer 2018, and a conference and publications exploring some of these themes will follow. By contrast, my work on the late medieval and early Tudor nobility looks to take a step away from a crown-centred view of England, and using the records of the nobility themselves where possible, provide a corrective to the old idea that the Tudors crushed the power of the nobility, by exploring the vibrancy and continuity of noble lordship in the regions, their continuing (and successful) exploitation of various sources of wealth, and the ways in which they served the crown (and why the crown needed the nobility).

The Team: I feel, following from your reply that the next point of query is rather appropriate then: why do you feel there is a natural divide/change in historiography upon the year 1485?
Dr. Ross: There shouldn’t be! Almost nothing structural changes in that year. A change of dynasty is a modern and artificial imposition. Much of early Tudor government and kingship was rooted in what the Yorkists were doing before 1485. There’s a much stronger case for saying that things really changed in 1529, with the start of the English reformation, than in 1485 – certainly for the vast majority of the population, changes in religious practice were of greater importance than which king or family sat on the throne.

The Team: Moving on to a completely different subject: the team also wanted to ask if you thought that the links that your period has with popular culture (for example Game of Thrones) have impacted the public’s perception of the era. And if that is the case, do you think the impact has been positive or negative?
Dr. Ross: Anything that gets people interested in medieval or early modern history is a good thing – be that the discovery of the bones of Richard III, The White Queen or Games of Thrones. The direct connection between Game of Thrones and the Wars of the Roses is overdone anyway, but by exploring what happened in England as well as Westeros more people can engage with shared culture and heritage. If the popular perceptions of the medieval era that emerge from GoT are perhaps on the more negative side (violence, war, betrayal) they are not exactly alien to, say, fifteenth century England.

The Team: Brilliant! I am sure that is something our viewers will be pleased to read! I think we are pretty much done with most of the questions, so just to round-up, if you could perhaps tell us what goals would you like to see the field of academic historical research achieve?
Dr. Ross: Academic research needs to be more accessible to a wider audience. Some research is couched in excessively technical language, seemingly simply for the sake of it, and rendering it unintelligible even to other academics. More accessible work would also allow academics to reclaim some of the ground lost to popular writers; the best of the latter are excellent but there is a lot of derivative stuff published just to make money for the authors.


The Team: That is all great and that will be all from us! Thank you for your time James, we appreciate you are an incredibly busy man. We have thoroughly enjoyed this, and we hope our readers do too!

The entire W.U Hstry team would like to thank Dr. Ross again for his replies, and we wish him the best for his upcoming project. We hope that his work will inspire many prospect history students and graduates to find new ways of exploring the late middle ages, and history in general.

 

Interview with Stardust Years owner, Karen Fitzsimmons.

Stardust Years is a brilliantly unique shop on the Winchester High Street, specialising in vintage and historical fashion items. I recently had the pleasure of visiting the shop for the first time and at once fell in love with the beautiful items on display. After my visit, I approached the owner Karen Fitzsimmons, and she kindly agreed to answer a few questions I had about historical fashion and the growing popularity of vintage-wear.

Q: When did Stardust Years open?

A: July, 2013

Q: Where do you get the items from?

A: That’s a bit like asking Tinkerbell where she gets her Magic Fairy Dust!  All I can say is that I go out and source all our stock myself.  We do not buy over the counter so, if you’re reading this and you have a treasure to sell please don’t come to us as you’ll only be disappointed.

Q: It must be hard to part with some of the beautiful items on sale, what has been your favourite item that you’ve encountered?

A: Oh, it is! I think there are too many to choose from but if I had to choose it would be some of the Rayne Shoes that I had when we first opened the shop.  As a result of researching Rayne Shoes, I met Nick Rayne, the son of Sir Edmund Rayne who steered the family business during its most successful years.  Rayne Shoes supplied many Hollywood stars with shoes, including Marlene Dietrich and Vivien Leigh. They also made the Queen’s wedding shoes.

Nick bought some of our shoes for the Rayne Shoe Archive (you can see some of our shoes – including the pair we donated) in the book, Rayne, Shoes for Stars which accompanied last year’s exhibition at the Fashion & Textile Museum. We were invited to the Book Launch at the Dorchester Hotel, held in the famous Oliver Messel Room. It was wonderful.  I was very sad at parting with the shoes so soon after I had found them – my husband took a photo of me saying goodbye to them when we were packing them for the courier’s collection!  However, they led me on an exciting journey and I know their beauty and craftsmanship will be enjoyed by so many more people in the future.

Q: When did your interest in vintage and historical fashion begin and why?

A: I loved Cinema from an early age and I grew up watching fabulous films from the 1930s, 40s and 50s which gave me my love for the fashions of the past.  They were so creative and glamorous.


Q
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Is there a particular era that you feel drawn to, and if so why is this? (Would you say it was based on the aesthetics of the era or a historical interest? Or both?)

A: My favourite eras are the 40s and 50s.  Across those decades there was so much diversity and creativity, even though we were plunged into a World War.  I love the tailoring, the detail and the care that went into the creation of accessories as well as clothing. Designers of some of the most glamorous fashions of the day were also involved in developing Utility Clothing (eg Digby Morton and Hardy Amies) and functional, eccentric items such as the Gas Mask Shoulder Bag (H Wald).

Q: What era of clothing is the most popular among your customers, and why do you think this is?

A: I think the 1950s is the most popular due to a number of factors.  There are the customers who are ardent vintage fans and attend a lot of vintage dances and weekend events.  The most popular period for vintage events seems to be the 1940s and the 1950s.  Then there are the customers who are looking for a dress for a special event and find the choice on the High Street limiting.  These customers find our 1950s rails attractive because of the diversity of styles that ran throughout the decade.  Whatever your figure, you can find something that suits you and looks wonderful.  The 40 and 50s were a time of great social change and these changes are reflected in contemporary fashion.

Q: What is the strangest/quirkiest vintage item you’ve encountered in the shop?

A: I can’t think of anything strange!  I always have to consider who would buy whatever I source. What I do love about vintage is that you can find quirky elements such as a 1940s clasp on a handbag or a clasp to a necklace.  We did have a marvellous 1920s bag with a mirror base and a large carved, enamel clasp which had to be twisted in a particular way to open the bag.  You can find lovely, unique accessories inside what appears to be a fairly plain handbag, too.

Q:  Do you have a vintage fashion icon or inspiration?

A: Too many to mention in terms of designers but Christian Dior is one of my favourites. I love those designers who also designed for the cinema such as Adrian, Edith Head and Irene Lentz and any of the actresses they dressed.


Q
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Equally, do you have a contemporary fashion icon or inspiration?

A: No.

Q: Can you see the influence of past styles on contemporary fashion? If so, what would an example of this be?

A: Oh, yes.  Nothing seems to be new.  There was a recent resurgence of 1950/60s fashions, as well as the 1970s with maxi dresses (which, of course were pre-dated by earlier fashions!).  I do wonder if future fashion will ever be as exciting as the developments that occurred during the 1910s – 60s.

Of course, fashion historians will be able to point to other great periods in history.  As the way we live changes, so will the way we dress so it’s interesting to see how young fashion designers will translate that into fashion and accessories.

Q: Why do you think vintage fashion is becoming so popular? In your opinion, would the popularity of programmes such as Downton Abbey or Mr Selfridge have anything to do with this?

A: Popular culture has always influenced fashion so it’s no surprise that very successful period dramas have contributed to the continuing popularity of vintage fashion.  There have also been a lot of anniversary events around the two World Wars and I think that has increased the interest in the 1940s, in particular.

The way in which we celebrate our lives has also been influenced by popular culture and social history.  We’ve seen customers buying vintage for birthdays, weddings and anniversaries.  Sometimes, it’s been a Mad Men birthday party or a 1930s wedding. I once had three ladies in one afternoon all going to the same 1940s party but none of them knew each other.  None of them liked to dress in unfamiliar clothing! (With each lady, I looked at our reference books, discussed what they already had in their wardrobe and accented it with an accessory or advice on hair).

Q: What would you say to someone with a newly found interest in vintage and historical fashion? Any tips or advice?

A: I would recommend joining the mailing list of the Fashion & Textile Museum in London.  They have some fabulous exhibitions. I would advise anyone wanting to buy vintage to be discerning – for me, there’s a difference between vintage fashion and old clothing.  Good vintage will cost more but it’s worth it for the superb tailoring and quality of the fabrics. I have some customers who come to Stardust Years because they’ve become collectors and buy investment pieces.  Others, are looking for a high-end piece of fashion that’s unique and won’t be identifiable as a “High Street piece.” Then there are those customers who just want to enjoy wearing the fashions and feeling a little closer to the past.

Also, always try on a garment – and never over jeans! I love wearing vintage but shapes have changed – plus, we’re all individuals!  I’ve never agreed with fashion sizes – we don’t fit a designated size. For this reason, I never buy my vintage wardrobe online.

Finally, remember there are no rules – you don’t have to go for the “complete” vintage look. Sometimes, it’s just as much fun and stylish to put the past with the present and create an individual look for you.

Q: Is there any era that you dislike in terms of the fashion trends? If so, why is that?

A:  The 1970s – I remember it the first time round – and I wasn’t keen on it then!
Though, looking back, I do admire what designers like Zandra Rhodes and Emilio Pucci achieved.

Q: What do you think we can learn from vintage and historical fashion?

A: The way people lived their lives, how our values have changed and how much effort went into creating something – whether it was a dress or a handbag.  People comment that our stock is in very good condition (most of it, anyway!) and that’s generally because, people didn’t have many clothes.  “Sunday Best” was exactly that.  Hardly worn and very well looked after because their “Sunday Best” was the only Best they had.

I’ve seen haute couture items by Dior, from the 1940s and 50s, which were constructed with wide inner seams so that as the wearer’s shape changed, the fashion house could alter the dress, accordingly. Nowadays, we live in “disposable” times – if something breaks, needs a part or needs letting out, we don’t mend it, we throw it away and just buy a replacement.

Q: Have you ever encountered an item with a really fascinating history attached? 

A: We have a costume once worn by actress Glenda Jackson in the film The Incredible Sarah, based on the life of Sarah Bernhardt. The designer, Anthony Mendleson was nominated for Best Costume Design in 1976 (but lost out to Danilo Donati’s Fellini’s Casanova).  It has a gorgeous circular train and would be a beautiful wedding dress. We also have a fur wrap believed to have been worn by actress, Vivien Leigh.

Sometimes, the most interesting items are the ones that come with clues to their owner/wearer’s life eg the 1930s clutch bag that has a theatre ticket inside it, dated the 18th of August, 1945.  When we find such clues to its past, we always keep the item with the vintage piece.  I once had a 1940s suit with a damaged skirt.  The jacket was priced but the customer had to take the skirt, too (at no charge, of course). I couldn’t bear to have them parted, not after they had been together for over 75 years!

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A: Just that if you find a vintage item remember, it is just like you; individual and unique – you won’t find anything like it anywhere else!

Q: Thank you so much for your time.

 

A great many thanks to Karen for taking the time to answer my questions, I loved reading your responses. Stardust Years will be celebrating its third birthday this weekend. To help celebrate in style, there will be free signature cocktails as well as the return of the TLC Rail, and vintage ‘Rescue Remnants,’ going free to a good home! On Sunday afternoon, between 1 and 3pm, Stardust Years will also be joined by Virginia Hannan, Bespoke Dress Design who will be available to offer tips and suggestions on dress design and alterations.

More information can be found on Karen’s Stardust Years blog, and on their Facebook page.

Interview with Danielle Sellers: Deputy Curator at the Royal Engineers Museum

I recently got in touch with one of the deputy curators at the Royal Engineers museum to ask some questions about museums. As an historian who has found his field of study in memory and nation making, I am very interested in museums and I thought you guys might be interested; so for all you who are thinking about a career in curating, and those who want to know more about how curators work, then go no further!

 

Could you introduce yourself?  What is your job title and what do you do at the museum, and perhaps what is the museum about? 

My name is Danielle Sellers and I am the Deputy Curator (Collections Management) at the Royal Engineers Museum, Library & Archive.  I have worked here for just over three years, starting as the Assistant Curator then moving into my current post about a year later.

As with any Museum the collection is at the heart of all we and it is continuously growing as the history of the Corps progresses. Collections Management is fundamental to our work preserving the collection and making it accessible to all of our users.

Collections Management is the term used for all of the work undertaken on the accurate recording and cataloguing, photographing and scanning, packing and storage, auditing and location control of every item in the collection. The role also involves managing donations offered to the Museum as well as all loans, incoming and outgoing. Hand in hand with these activities is the careful handling and conservation of items as well as the monitoring and controlling of the environmental conditions of our stores and displays.

I also line manage the Assistant Curator and supervise around 40 volunteers in my other role as the Volunteer Co-ordinator.

The Royal Engineers Museum, Library & Archive holds one of the foremost historical military collections in the country. Designated in 1999 as a museum of outstanding national and international significance, it traces the Royal Engineers roots from William the conqueror in 1066, through the Victorian period to modern conflict in Afghanistan. The story also includes the social and biographical histories of the men and women serving in the Royal Engineers as well as the history of their role, responsibilities and experiences within the British Army and the development of British military engineering.

 

What made you want to be a curator? 

There is not a singular moment that made me think this is what I wanted to do, it was more of a gradual realisation. I had a love of Museums and Galleries from an early age and eventually realised that I wanted to immerse myself in this world. Initially I had no clear idea of what area I wanted to focus on but volunteering allowed me to work in a few different areas. I seemed to gravitate naturally to Collections Management, a role that allows direct contact with the collection, the heart of the Museum.

 

What is the most rewarding thing about your job? 

The most rewarding part of my job is getting to work with such an interesting collection, apart from the obvious items you expect to find in a military Museum we also have quite a good World Cultures collection including Chinese Silks, Zulu jewellery and First Nations clothing. One of my favourite parts of the collection though is the photography archive, we have over 600 albums and thousands of loose prints dating from 1850s onwards.

 

What is your most favourite item in the collection? 

That is a very difficult question, it can vary depending on what I have been working on recently. I have already mentioned the photography collection and I am also fascinated by the weapons collection we have. However, there is one item that is always in my mind, it might not be what I would call a favourite but it is an object that has stuck with me since I joined the Museum. One of the first items I catalogued was a French prayer book from the Frist World War that had been used to record a Sappers thoughts and feelings. It was not a journal as such but somewhere he could record the horrors he had seen, he even noted down that if he died while at war he wanted this little book buried with him.

 

What does the RE museum try and present to the public? 

Our role is to preserve and present the military and civil heritage of the Royal Engineers, promote scholarship and provide an excellent, accessible, relevant and stimulating education experience for today’s audience, including the public, students, schools, the Armed Forces and the Corps and to contribute to the recruitment, motivation and inspiration of today’s soldier.

 

You get a lot of items donated to the museum, how do you decide what is valuable to the collection and what isn’t? 

 Yes, the Museum still receives a lot of donation offers, this peaked in 2014 with the Centenary Commemoration with an average of 30 individual offers a month. Deciding what donations to accept into the collection can be complicated and it is very difficult saying no to anything offered to the Museum. You are aware that the material being offered to you is normally very important to the person but unfortunately there is criteria that needs to be met and there is also a physical limit on the amount of material we can store. As such the Museum has a Collections Policy in place which states what we will collect and what we won’t, this also takes into account having the right staffing levels to allow the correct recording, storage and care of the material.

The decision process is taken by the Collections Committee that meets once a month to discuss all items that have been offered to the Museum. Before the meeting each item is looked at in relation to the Collections Policy and the Museum’s database, this is to check that it is in line with the former and that we do not already hold an example in the collection. This information is then taken to the committee and each donation offer is discussed and a decision taken.

 

Museums take on many volunteers, why are volunteers important to a museum? 

Volunteers are incredibly important to Museums due to the variety of experience and outlooks that they offer to the work they are involved with. I would like to think it is a relationship that is mutually beneficial, we can offer relevant experience and development of new skills for those seeking a career in the Heritage industry. While the volunteers provide the additional help to carry out projects that are vital to Museums. For example we undertook an audit of our stored collection and this involved training a team of volunteers in object handling, auditing, cataloguing, photography and packing. It worked very well and changed the way we approach volunteering. I really value the work volunteers carry out and having volunteered for 8 years prior to my first paid Museum role understand how important the relationship is for both participants.

 

What role do you think museums play in society? 

I think the Museum’s role in society is to provide a place to care and preserve national heritage for future generations, creating an environment that is informative and enjoyable, which can educate everyone.

 

Any advice for those wanting to go into the museum and heritage sector? 

 Volunteer, volunteer, volunteer! It might seem obvious but volunteering is vital, qualifications are always going to come first but without volunteer experience you are unlikely to get through to the interview stage. Whilst I have an MA in History of Art I do not have an MA in Museum Studies which is often listed in role descriptions and I know that the practical experience I had was vital in getting my first role in a Museum in lieu of this. Also, if you are unsure what area you wish to work in, for example Collections Management, Exhibitions or Learning then volunteering is a great way of trying these out before embarking on your career.

 

A big Thank You to Danielle for taking the time to answer my questions, and I recommend that if you are ever in Medway, go check out the Royal Engineers museum, it’s a great place!

A Visigoth Interview: Daniel Gómez Aragonés

I met Daniel some years ago, as my parents were living in Toledo (Spain). He happened to frequent their workplace, and moreover, it would seem we were involved in the same Spanish medieval history magazine! What are the chances? Yet, it happened, and by chance I got to meet a formidable Spanish scholar, who is madly in love with the Visigoths! Daniel’s enthusiasm for the Visigoth culture is fueled with passion, and the fantastic atmosphere from where he lives: Toledo, the ancient Spanish capital. So I dared asked him if he would be so kind of sharing his research and true love with us and- although I had to do some translation- here it is. I hope you enjoy it!!!

Tell us about your Research

I was already interested in the Visigoth Hispanic past by the time I stated university and, in fact, as soon as I finished my degree, I started working towards my PhD in this period of history. So, I began my work for the DEA diploma (diploma of advanced studies) regarding the Visigoth and neo-Visigoth movement in Toledo from the 16th to the 17th Centuries, so I could investigate the actual image there was of the culture of Visigoth Toledo a thousand years after its apogee. This involved working with a lot of historiographical material and the earliest type of local histories produced in Toledo regarding every aspect that had anything to do with its culture, religion, identity and ideology. At the same time I started working in some of my first articles and sharing my knowledge about my specialty.

Once my DEA was approved, I jumped into my thesis, however this is currently work in progress-actually more in stand-by than anything else, as I was given the chance to publish my first book! This one was more focused on the actual Visigoths from a military and political point of view. And once I thought I was done with the book and could get back to the thesis, turns out that the editorial decided they wanted a second book, and then a third book…And so on and so forth until today, where I am in means of producing said third volume. All of this work is on the political/military subject- I do feel pretty confident about it and I do actually enjoy working on this area and sharing it with other people this distant but otherwise deeply fascinating time period. I am of the opinion that the dissemination of history is extremely important and necessary nowadays, so i have decided to follow this path, to provide exceptional and quality research for the public as well as good historiographical work.

So Why the Visigoths?

That’s an excellent question Lillian, and even though some may consider it rude to answer a question with yet another question, I say to you: and why not?! Certainly, this is something a lot of people ask me and have asked in the past when we have been in open discussions, interviews or forums, and my answer is always the same. I am quite fond of epic history (yes, epic), and I quickly found myself all tangled up with everything linked with the Visigoths. So I decided this was going to be my path- Plus, living in Toledo, it seemed natural to pursue this route. After all, it was during the Visigoth period that the pillars of the nation were settled, and I believe in these turbulent times we live in, it is important to know where we come from; return to the roots, to our identity and historic ancestry.

Now, tells us about your book success!

Well, I am obviously very, very happy with the success of my first two books. The first book was only published in 2013 under the title “La invasión bizantina de Hispania 533-625. El Reino Visigodo frente a la expasión imperial” (Ed. Almena) – trans. as The Byzantine invasion of Hispania 533-625. The Visigoth Kingdom against the imperial expansion- and then in 2014 I published “El esplendor del Reino Visigodo de Toledo” (Ed. Covarrubias) – trans. as The Splendour of the Visigoth Kingdom of Toledo. I am always thrilled when I get word that someone has read any of them, as I am aware they talk about subjects not entirely familiar to most. However, my exciting and entertaining way of approaching the time frame is helping to remove this barrier. In addition, the great reception of these two volumes has contributed to further dissemination as I have taken part in radio programs, press publications, all sorts, even activities such as tourism routes in Toledo and surroundings. Now, I am working hard on the third book, which I hope will be just as good as the other two, and I hope the audience enjoys just as much or even more. More importantly, I hope the readers will get my enthusiasm and will get imbued with a deep desire for historic knowledge.

What can you tell us about the current state of this field and its historiography in Spain, as well as in Europe?? I am ware, like you said, that it is not a particularly popular subject.

Hmmm, that is a tricky question. In case you didn’t know, the Visigoth period has suffered, and I think still suffers, from an acute stigma within Spanish culture. I think this is mainly due to the educational system in Spain, and how polarised history is within this system. Effectively, the Goth and Visigoth period of Spanish history is barely mentioned in school texts books, nor even in high-school or college, were the knowledge should be in more depth. And this is very sad, considering that many of the aspects that built our society, sparked from the Visigoth period. On the other hand, we do count with some of the best experts in the subject, such as Garcia Moreno, or Orlandis whose works are simply spectacular. However, in Europe the period of Migration after the fall of the Roman Empire is in good shape. There is a lot of work invested in the Germanic tribes. I think as we are finally moving away from the concept of the Dark Ages, we are eventually obtaining good results regarding this area- although with and after a lot of work and effort, that goes without mention. It is true however, that little by little this discipline is become more widely available in Spain, not only from an academic point of view, but for the everyday consumer too. But there is a lot of work to do, especially in what regards the education of our own youngsters, and within my area of influence- the dissemination press. There is still a long road ahead of the Visigoth Hispania, to put it back in the books and on the spotlight it so well deserves. Therefore, I’ll take this opportunity to invite everyone to have a look and get into our long but interesting Visigoth king list!

Thanks a lot for this opportunity and for your attention.

A Visigoth Hug!

We would like to thank Daniel for a fantastic interview and the best of luck with his next book!!!

Alfonso Boix & El Cantar de Mio Cid: An Interview

Today I bring you an interview/self-reflection that I acquire from Alfonso Boix, a Spanish scholar, writing from Valencia, about his true love and passion: the epic Iberian romance El Cantar de Mio Cid. I met Alfonso some years ago and had long deep discussions about medieval literature, but he always manages to bring it all back home. It’s all about El Cid: El Cid here, El Cid there, he just can’t help himself. And that passion is what has driven him to become and international, knowledgeable mind about this topic. With a PhD and several awards for his excellent work, here I present you a fantastic piece of research.

So, what is your research about?

I usually doubt if I deserve to be called a ‘medievalist’, as sometimes I believe ‘cidaist’ would be the proper adjective to describe myself as a researcher. I have been researching on the Cid’s life and legend for almost twenty years and, though I have also written articles and books on other literary fields –the Romantic period, or women in the Middle Ages–, these works have been nothing but daring intrusions which I enjoyed though I always knew they were just short ‘love affairs’. I have mainly dealt with the Cantar de Mio Cid, its structure and its inner symbolic code, and then spread my activity to other aspects such as the Cid’s real life or other texts –Historia Roderici¸ Crónica Particular del Cid…–. My most ambitious project is focused on a research to find a second manuscript of the Mio Cid –only one has been identified up to now, which is guarded at the Biblioteca Nacional de Madrid–.

Why this obsession with El Cid?

 

I began researching the Mio Cid when I was 21, after reading a text from an Arthurian book which reminded me of some lines of the Cantar I had read when I was 8 or 9 years old. I want to believe it was not just something ‘at random’ and that my destiny was written since I was a child. This research led to others and, after finding Alolala –a castle which had remained lost for almost a thousand years–, I decided to develop more ambitious researches, combined with some ‘minor’ ones which would help me to reach the main targets.

This is the reason why, when I began my PhD studies, I decided to work on the Cantar de Mio Cid again: I had already been working on it for almost a decade and I knew the essential bibliography quite well. On the other hand, I did not want to get my PhD thanks to a different literary work of art: I began my career with the Cantar so, for me, my thesis was not just a research but also an homage to the epic Castilian poem.

After the compulsory courses to obtain my DEA –‘Diploma de Estudios Avanzados’, the Spanish equivalent to the MA in those years–, I developed my thesis dealing with the structure and literary gender of the Mio Cid, which I finished almost four years ago. It allowed me to reach some of those ‘main targets’ I had decided to undertake, as it proved that some ‘traditional’ concepts related to the Mio Cid which had been considered ‘unique’ were not so. Thus, the structural scheme of the poem, which resembles a ‘W’ (fall of the hero – rise – new fall – new rise) is indeed the famous Doppelwegstruktur identified in many chivalric works such as Chrétien’s Perceval; the poem itself had been compared to those of the French ‘rebellious vassals’ but, as Menéndez Pidal observed, the Cid is not a rebel against his lord, so the famous researcher believed the Cid was a unique character which showed features belonging to the Spanish ideal of a male hero. However, this ‘non-rebellious hero’ also exists in a minor group of French poems, a fact which allowed me to classify the Mio Cid as a chanson d’aventures, breaking some topics traditionally accepted by researchers and opening new perspectives on the epic poem.

Why do you think literature studies is so popular amongst medievalists, and other historians?

 

We should bear in mind something as simple –and sad– as the fact that no one who lived in the Middle Ages has survived to explain us how life was in that period. I have always believed that texts –not just Medieval ones, but from every age– are the messages people wrote and put in bottles (i.e. books) that crossed oceans of time till we found them to know they existed, what they did, their legends and everyday life. Archaeology is another crucial science to know how the past times were, but the importance of written texts is obvious: they’re not just the remains of civilizations, but the people who lived in past times explaining those remains. And it is our duty as philologists to read and understand those texts, helping historians who, on the other hand, also allow us to understand the texts better thanks to their researches and findings. So, this circle of mutual influence allows us to understand a period which, on the other hand, seems fascinating thanks to Romanticism, a movement which offered an idealized view of the Middle Ages, and which evidently makes us feel especially attracted by the so-called ‘Dark Ages’.

Now, tell us, what is your favourite part of El Cid?

 

It would be very easy for me to say I enjoy reading the whole Cantar de Mio Cid: it is true indeed! But I have a favourite episode, of course: the moment in which the Cid meets this young girl in Burgos who tells him the king has forbidden the citizens to help him. She is the first spark of hope in the poem, the first light in the Cid’s way to exile, and the contrast between the warrior and the child is extremely powerful. Battles, love and comradeship scenes are usual in the poem, but this episode is absolutely unique. I love it.

What advise would you give students getting into this sort of specialisation?

If I had to give some advice to new medievalists, I would tell them the only one that can make you ‘survive’ when you become a researcher: love what you do. It does not matter if it is the Cantar de Mio Cid, the Nibelungenlied or Beowulf; you can choose the 5th, the 10th or the 14th century… the only important thing is to choose it because you love it. Becoming a medievalist –or a researcher in any scientific field– is something similar to a marriage: you are going to spend long hours with your love, so you better feel real passion! And, if you ever decide to get divorced, your books are not going to ask you for some compensation while you leave them for another intellectual love. So, indeed… it’s better than a marriage!

After you decide to ‘get married’, you should attend conferences and meet people with common interests, especially those researchers who are well-known by their influential careers and that will give you advice for your specific interests. Don’t be shy to ask them, the wisest are always humble and open to give any suggestion if you are ready to listen to them.

And, finally, and most important of all: stay hungry! Never lose your passion to learn, discover new things, feel thrilled to know you are the first in centuries to read / know / understand whatever you discover. And let this passion become a drug that makes you crave for more. And, if you ever lose that passion… look for a new one. But never stop learning and feeling surprised by the path you follow: it’s got lots of treasures for those who accept them.

We hope you enjoyed Alfonso’s story and we would like to thank him for taking the time to share his passion with us!

Interview with Elton Medeiros on postdoctoral research

So we have a very interesting interview for you here today. These are some questions we asked Elton Medeiros, who has come from the University of Sao Paulo to do postdoctoral research here in Winchester for 2013-2014. As he is returning next week we decided to ask him about his experience and research topic…

Why did you decide to do a post doctoral research? And how different is it to doing a PhD?

I think it was – in some way – a natural choice at the end of my PhD. When I was finishing the writing of my thesis a whole group of new ideas based on the research I was developing came to me, but that would have been impossible to explore properly at that time. Therefore, afterwards, talking with my former PhD supervisor (Professor Nachman Falbel), meant I could organize all these ideas and formalize a project of research.

I would say that in practical terms the main difference between my actual research and my PhD is the fact that I do not have to submit my final work to a group of other scholars. I don’t need to be approved on a viva. The reason for this is that a post-doc is not actually an academic title. E.g., when I have done my research I will not receive a title of “Post-Doctor”. The goal of a post-doctoral research is actually to deepen previous research and/or improve your general expertise in the subjects to which you are dedicated (in my case, Anglo-Saxon England history, especially Late Anglo-Saxon period).

Why did you choose your topic (and explain what is it that you research)?

As I said, my decision to do a post-doctoral research was a sort of a natural choice. Actually, I couldn’t find any reason to not do this. And the reason for this is based on the fact that I realized that in doing this research I would “close a cycle” of researches in my academic career. As an undergraduate student in Brazil we have the possibility to do what could be called a “scientific initiation”. It is a scholarship given to undergraduate students with the purpose of putting them in contact, for the first time, with the environment of the academic world and academic research. This results in the writing of reports every six months for the funding agency involved and a final essay or monograph. In my case, I had gotten this scholarship for one full year and decided to do research on the presence of the Scandinavians in England and the politics during the reign of King Cnut the Great. This research – actually the questions that it brought to me – lead me to my Masters research, concerning the importance of the regal figure in Anglo-Saxon England as represented in its literature. For this I used as the main primary source the poem Beowulf (which eventually I decided to translate to Portuguese), and afterwards this lead to my PhD. In my PhD then I decided to explore with much more attention the representation of the figure of the king in this society but in a broader view, not just limited to the characters of Beowulf. Thinking on the representation of God during the Late Anglo-Saxon period as a “Heavenly Monarch” and particularly as the “Lord of Hosts” and its importance as part of a kind of ideological or political-theological ideal that would be present during the times of King Alfred the Great and king Edward the Elder. This is an ideal which would create a parallel between the Anglo-Saxons of the medieval times and the Hebrews of the Old Testament: both fighting against pagan foes and under the guidance of a “God of Battles”, what would transform them (i.e., the Anglo-Saxons) into a “New Israel”.

All of these are part of the background that brought me to my post-doctoral research here in Winchester. A post-doc which is supplying me with very interesting elements to join with my previous PhD research, and enable the writing of a monograph that will serve for a forthcoming book, which for now I am calling “The Kingdom of Holy Wisdom”.

Very generally speaking, the theme of my research here at the University of Winchester is based on the analysis of the practice and nature of the Christian royal power presented in the texts related with King Alfred and his court (as the Old English versions of the Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius and the Pastoral Care of Gregory the Great). The construction of an ideal and a practice of power elaborated and guided by the discourse of the sources and their responsibility within the historical process that will result in the formation and administration of a unified kingdom of England in the mid-tenth century. The main principle of a successful ruler, for the “Alfredian thought”, would be the search for wisdom and due to a “wise government” the kingdom would receive the divine blessings. Such wisdom would be the manifestation of divine Wisdom, responsible for the administration of Creation. Through it would come the power of kings, the fate of nations and people’s lives. Therefore, for example, one of the manifest forms of Wisdom through rulers would be through the laws. The laws of Alfred, thus, were not just forms of social regulation, but representations of his ideal of the practice of power. Within this idea we would have the old codices of the ancient Anglo-Saxon kings linked to those of the Old Testament in order to demonstrate the continuity between the divine laws of Moses and those of his own authorship.

Within this paradigm, we have the identification of the Anglo-Saxon world with the one described in the biblical books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, whereas characters like Moses, David and Solomon served to the Alfredian political thought as practical examples of authority, kingship and wisdom. Authority that was also expressed through the image of the earl, the local lord, as a reflection of the royal authority. So, every local lord and bishop was responsible for the men of his land, as the king was responsible for the kingdom and God for Creation. Expressing the idea that the authority, the power to command and administer, was a key element of social order and royal power, and an emanation of divine Wisdom.

Therefore, the main purpose of my research is to show that King Alfred wanted to bring the Anglo-Saxon society back to the divine order in the new kingdom that was arising. Thus, the path to be followed by their leaders should be the search for Wisdom as the only true way to real power. Hence, a new ideal of Christian royal power was also forged in Anglo-Saxon England.

 

What is your historical background, and your experience of doing research back in Brazil and here?

[Hmmm… Here I don’t know exactly what to say. What do you mean by “historical background”?]

I would say that after this time here in Britain doing my research and in contact with other researchers, especially other Anglo-Saxonists, my return to Brazil will be very interesting. Generally speaking, due to a bunch of different reasons, in Brazil there is a tendency for medieval studies to be very “theoretical”. It is very common to see Brazilian researches going deep into the theory. That is good! However, it can produce researches which you feel can lack a certain more empirical approach with the evidence of primary sources. Especially in areas like Early Medieval History and Anglo-Saxon England which are not so “popular” among Brazilian medievalists. In the case of the second, mainly because this is a subject that just a couple of years ago started to call the attention of undergraduate and post-graduate students; actually, surprisingly, the first PhD thesis in Brazil about Anglo-Saxon England is from 2011 (and it was my thesis). Today, at least until before my coming to Britain, I was aware of the existence of three Masters dissertations finished (or close to be finished) and the development of two PhD researches (besides a possible Masters research to begin maybe still this year or at the beginning of 2015 and a PhD research that is going to begin next September). Nevertheless, I can claim to be the first Brazilian Anglo-Saxonist to come to UK and that is now returning after having done research on this subject. I think that my experience here in Britain will be very useful for my own future researches and – I hope so – for other students and researchers interested in this subject that, for example, don’t know where to begin.

 

Intrview with Dr. Chris Aldous

SO! Ali and I ventured out to ask Dr Chris Aldous about his life and career. Chris is a very interesting person. As a historian he specialises in eastern history, mainly Japan, and apparently there are not many historians in the UK that study such thing!

So we asked him plenty of questions about this as well as some other general things related to history as an academic discipline, the students, changes and future.

Here is the result! Please listen to our video on You Tube or here:

Note: the recorder run out of battery right at the end of the interview. However, Ali has typed up a summarised answer to our time machine question. And here is it:

In response to our traditional time machine question, Chris said he would like to travel back to the moment that the Japanese emperor Hirohito publicly announced the Japanese surrender on August 15th 1945. Chris said he would be interested in being amongst the average Japanese civilians to hear their responses to the announcement, as the topic has long interested him in his career.

Anyway, we hope you like it! We will have more soon!

INTERVIEW WITH PETER AND SANDRA FROM MEDIEVALISTS.NET!

Today we are bringing forward for you the most amazing pair of the medievalverse in the net! You all know them! HERE WE HAVE THE TEAM OF MEDIEVALISTS.NET! https://www.medievalists.net/

Please say hi to Peter and Sandra, who are a wonderful source of inspiration and have always been really supportive and nice to us!Here are some of the questions we asked them and what they replied!
 

WE HOPE YOU ENJOY IT!

Could you explain to us how did the medievalists.net initiative originated and how it was developed since. What were your aims/goals? have they change? what do you expect the project to evolve into?

Continue reading “INTERVIEW WITH PETER AND SANDRA FROM MEDIEVALISTS.NET!”