Interview with Marcus Meer

Augsburg

Our first MEMSA speaker of Easter term is Marcus Meer (Centre for Visual Arts and Culture), who will present ‘The Visuality and Spatiality of Heraldic Conflict in Late Medieval Augsburg’. This seminar will take place on Tuesday, 26 April at 6 pm in the World Heritage Visitors Centre. We discussed his research and latest adventures:

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from?

I’m originally from Germany, which is where I did my undergraduate degree in history and linguistics at Bielefeld University. Somehow I became more and more interested in medieval history, and suddenly I was doing a masters in medieval history at Oxford. The year after I was working as a research assistant at Münster University, Germany, but I soon felt like coming back to the UK.

What brought you to Durham?

It was a coincidence, really. I was reading a paper by Christian Liddy I really liked, and I was looking for more of his publications online. Then I found his profile on the Durham website, where the sidebar advertised Ph.D. scholarships for visual culture. So I thought, Why not give it a try and apply?

What do you love most about the medieval period?

I think the most interesting thing about the medieval period is its reception in the present. At the same time, it is referred to as a gruesome time what we have sort of overcome through a triumph of reason, or, whenever it suits the argument, it is referred to as the cradle of our Western culture. When I look at medieval sources, the actions and thoughts of medieval people are usually neither fully foreign nor familiar to me, but I enjoy trying to understand them, and the ways in which medieval people tried to communicate them.

What does your research focus on?

My Ph.D. research investigates and compares the use of heraldry as a means of visual communication in the medieval cities of England and Germany. Although heraldry was a ubiquitous element of medieval urban visual culture, it still tends to be seen as an aristocratic phenomenon, while heraldic display in cities remains underexplored.

What led you to your area of interest?

Again, it was quite a coincidence. I was interested in urban history for quite a while, and I came across a history paper which looked at the ‘diary’ of a medieval merchant from Cologne. Part of this diary was also a history of the family, which the merchant explained alongside the development of the family’s coat of arms. It struck me that the historian did not really discuss the use of heraldry in the historiographical argument, and that apparently townspeople were very fond of these signs.

What do you plan to focus on with your seminar?

I want to discuss the relation of heraldry and urban space. I will be looking at sources from mid-fifteenth to early sixteenth-century Augsburg, in which the display of heraldic signs of the commune within the space of the bishop became a matter of conflict. Heraldic signs were perceived as expressions of the affiliation and legal quality of spaces; and they were perceived and employed to claim and contest urban space.

If you were not in academia, what would you be doing?

Scary! I’ve always enjoyed organising things and for some reason I find paperwork quite soothing, so perhaps I could do something like conferencing and event management?

Do you have a favourite medieval/early Modern text?

I prefer any town chronicle because they appear so eclectic in terms of their contents. I think they are a great source to look at the things that mattered to medieval chroniclers, in particular things that they thought were noteworthy – so basically anything from urban politics, economic records, and accounts of revolts, to a horse that was hauled up the town hall to have an inside joust and ‘impress the ladies’.

Join us for Marcus’s seminar this Tuesday at 6 pm in the World Heritage Visitors Centre at 7 Owengate. Come out for tea and biscuits at 5:40 pm, and then tune in for the seminar at 6 pm. All are welcome.

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MEMSA Easter Term Card 2016

Check out our Easter term card! All are welcome.MEMSA Easter Term Card

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Interview with Niall Oddy

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Our final MEMSA speaker of Epiphany term is Niall Oddy (Department of French), who will present ‘Words as Windows into the Past: “Europe” in Early Modern France’. This seminar will take place on Tuesday, 15 March at 6 pm in the World Heritage Visitors Centre. He tells us about his research, favourite past times, and the wonders of Rabelais in our interview below:

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from?

I’m from Leeds, specifically from a town to the south called Morley. It was separate until it was swallowed into the big city by the 1972 Local Government Act. The British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith was born there but he didn’t stick around. Like Rome, Morley is built on seven hills. The similarities end there though. Unless Rome had a burgeoning Victorian textile industry?

What brought you to Durham?

The Cathedral, probably. I fancied moving to a city smaller than Leeds for my undergraduate degree, and I recalled how breathtaking the peninsula and how charming the streets around it were on a brief visit to Durham I’d made when on my way to Hadrian’s Wall. There was a history of air conditioning on Radio 4 as we drove up the A1. Anyway, there was the university’s good reputation too. So I came and stayed and I’m now approaching the end of my Ph.D. here.

What do you love most about the medieval/early Modern period?

Most historical periods interest me, to be honest: a desire for escapism and spending too much time on Wikipedia, I guess. What grips me most about the early modern period is the intellectual transformations that take place – the religious upheavals of the Reformation, new social and political settlements, and the ‘discovery’ of the New World – and people’s attempts to grasp the nature of a world that is changing around them. Whilst many of their responses seem to us traditional or archaic, these same people can appear strikingly modern. Rabelais, for instance, didn’t need Derrida or a post-structuralist to tell him that the nature of language is slippery.

What does your research focus on?

I’m working on a study of the concept of Europe in late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth century France. I investigate the surrounding ideas and related vocabulary in a variety of discourses – geographical, historical, literary and so on – in order to examine how Europe was thought about and how the various ideas of Europe were used for political and other purposes.

What led you to your area of interest?

I suppose my research was driven by a desire to excavate the dynamics of the little word ‘nous’ in Renaissance France.

I was interested in how communities define themselves and understand themselves in relation to others. And I was interested in travel writing. When reading Montaigne’s essays on America I was fascinated by his use of the pronoun ‘nous‘ (we) since he never explicitly defines who the ‘nous‘ were. Some critics have suggested that Montaigne was referring to a transnational, maybe European, community. But if that is the case why did he not use the word Europe? So I suppose my research was driven by a desire to excavate the dynamics of the little word ‘nous‘ in Renaissance France.

What do you plan to focus on with your seminar?

In my paper for MEMSA I’m going to be focussing on the methodology I’ve used in my thesis and hope to set out how, alongside an analysis of the uses of the word ‘Europe’ in French writing of the late-sixteenth century, we can understand and measure the importance of the absence of the word in certain contexts.

If you were not in academia, what would you be doing?

I’ve done a bit of teaching English as a foreign language and so maybe I would have gone further with that. Or I might have stumbled into a grad scheme. Who knows? I imagine I’d be leading a quiet, provincial life somewhere with a lot of books around me.

Do you have a favourite medieval/early Modern text?

If I were stranded on a desert island I’d want to have the complete works of Rabelais. There is an irresistible intermingling of the bawdy and the erudite, the comic and the serious. I’m not convinced that anyone has written anything better in the last five hundred years.

Join us on Tuesday, 15 March for Niall’s seminar. Come out for tea and biscuits at 5:40 pm, and then tune in for the seminar at 6 pm. We’ll have our Epiphany Social after the seminar. All are welcome.

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Interview with Sarah Gilbert

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Our next MEMSA seminar will take place this Tuesday at 6 pm at the World Heritage Visitors Centre. Sarah Gilbert (Department of History) will present her paper ‘Word Games, Codes, and Cryptography: Concealing Information for Privacy and Play in the Early Middle Ages’. We managed to catch up with our speaker to hear about her latest adventures:

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from?

I’m from Colchester, which is a small town in Essex, England.

What brought you to Durham?

My supervisor Helen Foxhall Forbes brought me here. I completed my undergraduate and masters degrees at Cambridge, and Helen was my Latin teacher there one year. I remember one class when she told us about what she worked on and her methodologies and motivations and I remember thinking, “Wow, I want to learn how to do that”. When I was drafting a Ph.D. proposal a few years later, I thought that it would be a good fit for Helen’s research interests, so I got in touch and asked her if she’d be willing to supervise me. Thankfully, she said yes!

What do you love most about the medieval/early Modern period?

I love lots of things, but mostly that you can see the origins of so many of our social and cultural beliefs and customs in the early medieval period. You can feel like you’re reading about an alien society at one moment, and then the next source places you in the mind of a person whose emotions you recognise, and whose ambitions, hopes, and aversions are similar to your own.

What does your research focus on?

My research focuses on finding Anglo-Saxon medical recipes that were recorded in non-medical manuscripts, and thinking about how and why they might have ended up there.

What led you to your area of interest?

When I discovered that such a thing didn’t exist, I was filled with a) frustration and b) a burning need to catalogue things, so I decided that I would track down all the Anglo-Saxon medical recipes and charms in non-medical manuscripts.

If I’m honest, frustration. My MA thesis focussed on an orphaned Anglo-Saxon leaf that preserves five medical recipes in Old English. The recipes on this leaf are outside the ‘established corpus’ of Anglo-Saxon medicine, so I went in search of a list of all the other Anglo-Saxon medical recipes and charms preserved outside of the main collections, with the hope of providing some helpful comparative examples in my masters thesis. When I discovered that such a thing didn’t exist, I was filled with a) frustration and b) a burning need to catalogue things, so I decided that I would track down all the Anglo-Saxon medical recipes and charms in non-medical manuscripts.

A slightly more scholarly answer than the above is that my Ph.D. topic allows me to carry out research in the history of the book, and also in social history and intellectual culture. I’m examining how and why the Anglo-Saxon added things to manuscripts and I’m able to formulate hypotheses about interest in, and access to medical treatments.

What do you plan to focus on with your seminar?

I’m going to discuss early medieval codes and cryptography. I’m particularly excited to tell you all about two very short codes in a Durham Cathedral manuscript, and we might also have a chat about runes as well!

If you were not in academia, what would you be doing?

I’d probably be working in a library, or fixing other people’s computers.

Do you have a favourite medieval/early Modern text?

Either the Navigatio sancti brendani  because it was the first Latin text I could read by myself without diving for a dictionary and a grammar every third word, or Bede’s De temporum ratione because it’s such an extraordinary and methodical piece of writing from someone living at the edge of the known world.

Sarah’s presentation will take place this Tuesday, 1 March. Tea and biscuits will be provided from 5:40 pm, with the lecture beginning at the usual time at 6 pm. Check out our other seminars here. All are welcome.

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Interview with Diane Rego

Peasants Revolt
Our next MEMSA speaker is Diane Rego, who will join us from her adventures across the seas. Diane will present her paper ‘The Peasant Elites: A Social History of Medieval Villages on Both Sides of the Channel’ this Tuesday at 6 pm at the World Heritage Visitors Centre at 7 Owengate in Durham. We managed to catch up with her to hear about her latest adventures:

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from?

I am from Normandy, France.

What brought you to Durham?

At the end of my first year of Ph.D. research, I met Professor Chris Gerrard (Head of the Department of Archaeology at Durham University) during a summer school in Southern France where I gave a presentation about my research. As I am working on both France and England, he offered me to guide me through English data, and in turn he offered to supervise me in a joint Ph.D. with the University of Caen.

What do you love most about the medieval/early Modern period?

I think it is a period that most people (at least in France) do not really understand. They generally still think of it as a really dark and dirty period, and I love to show them how they are wrong, and particularly how this time is bright when you take the time to look at it.

What does your research focus on?

I am a specialist in medieval archaeology. My research focus on the social distinction within the medieval village. I am trying to determine the social category which functions as the intermediate between peasants and their lord by studying the archaeological remains of a village and its houses.

What led you to your area of interest?

There are two key events that led me there. The first was an article I read when I was a third-year undergraduate student, written by S. Smith about Wharram Percy and the resistance of the peasantry. It opened my mind to theoretical archaeology, which is not really practised in France. The second element is a very interesting case study in the periphery of Caen, the village of Trainecourt, but I will talk about it in my presentation. I do not want to spoil it!

What do you plan to focus on with your seminar?

I will focus on the presentation of the peasant elites (the people I am looking at), their identity, how I am trying to identify them in villages, and the novelty of my approach.

If you were not in academia, what would you be doing?

I think I would be an English teacher in high school or working a job related to food!

Do you have a favourite medieval/early Modern text?

I would say the Historia Ecclesiastica by Orderic Vitalis. Like him, I am interested in the history of England and its links with Normandy.

Diane’s seminar will take place this Tuesday, 16 February. Tea and biscuits will be provided from 5:40 pm, with the lecture beginning at the usual time at 6 pm. Check out our other seminars here. All are welcome.

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Interview with Jitka Štollová

The next MEMSA seminar will feature a presentation from Jitka Štollová, who is a Ph.D. candidate at University of Cambridge. Her talk ‘Beyond Shakespeare: Richard III in the Seventeenth Century’ links both the medieval and early Modern worlds. The seminar will take place this Tuesday at 6 pm at the Durham World Heritage Visitors Centre. We interviewed her about Shakespeare, Richard III, and more. 

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from?

I am currently completing my Ph.D. at Trinity College, Cambridge, where I started my studies after finishing a B.A. and M.A. at Charles University, Prague. However, I spent part of my Master’s degree as a visiting student in Durham. So in a way I am also from Durham – a little bit.

What brought you to Durham?

On this occasion, it is a talk I am giving for MEMSA. But I keep coming back to Durham a few times a year. Teachers at the English Department are among the most supportive and encouraging people I have ever met. They were, after all, the ones who suggested that I try to get a scholarship to do my doctorate in the U.K. Durham is a very special place for me and I always enjoy being back.

What do you love most about the medieval/early Modern period?

I love the diversity of topics one can explore, something I greatly appreciate because I am certainly not a person focusing on a single research topic.

What does your research focus on in particular?

My dissertation examines the reputation and representation of Richard III in the seventeenth century. I am looking and works written after Shakespeare’s play which, to certain degree, shed a new light on this controversial character. However, because these sources could never match Shakespeare’s highly engaging depiction, they gradually sunk into oblivion.

This being said, I have a range of research interests that are not related to Richard III. Another area I am very interested in is early modern paratexts and the material side of playbooks. I have published on character lists in early modern playbooks. My essay on the London book trade in the Civil Wars came second in the annual Review of English Studies competition and will be published in this journal this year. And finally, I am interested in the influence of Shakespeare on modern drama, especially the works of Václav Havel.

What led you to your area of interest?

What I find much more fascinating is how his literary portrayal was developing under the influence of particular historical events as well as cultural fashions.

I have an amalgamation of interests that keeps me busy and engaged. I suspect I would grow a bit bored with my topic if I only had one interest. Richard III, however, is my long-standing interest. I previously examined this character in my B.A. dissertation. There is something fascinating about the changing portrayal of a man who ranks among the most notorious tyrants in English history. It is not really the historical truth that captivates me. I am not trying to determine whether he killed the Princes or not. What I find much more fascinating is how his literary portrayal was developing under the influence of particular historical events as well as cultural fashions.

If you were not in academia, what would you be doing?

An interesting question. Perhaps working in the Václav Havel Library in Prague. Or hiking somewhere in Siberia (again).

Do you have a favourite medieval/early Modern text?

I am always keen to read anything by John Ford, who remains, much to our shame, an unjustifiably overlooked playwright. Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi is a wonderful piece. I am pleased to say that I still find delight in reading Shakespeare’s Richard III, even after all these years.

Jitka’s seminar will take place this Tuesday, 2 February. Wine and nibbles will be provided from 5:40 pm, with the lecture beginning at the usual time at 6 pm. Check out our other seminars here. All are welcome.

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Interview with Dr Andy Burns and Dr Alex Brown

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Our first MEMSA seminar of Epiphany term will take place this Monday at 6 pm at the Durham World Heritage Visitors Centre. This seminar will feature a special dual presentation from postdoctoral researchers Dr Andy Burn and Dr Alex Brown in the History Department. We interviewed them about their latest adventures.

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from?

Alex: I’ve only ever lived in two places – Derby until I was 18 and then Durham after I came to university here to study history.

Andy: I’m originally from Warrington in the North West, birthplace of the DJ Chris Evans and the social historian Steve Hindle. Oliver Cromwell stayed there once, but they still built a massive statue of him, so you can see why I left. I mostly grew up in two villages just outside Brussels.

What brought you to Durham?

Alex: The son of one of my former history school teachers studied history at Durham, so when I was picking universities to apply to, I naturally chose to apply here. In true small-world imagery, said son also went on to doctoral research at Durham and taught in the History Department.

Andy: A combination of the visual draw of Palace Green and the reputation of the History Department hooked me, and I don’t regret it. Like Alex, I came to Durham a full decade ago and never left – though strangely, we didn’t really know each other as undergraduates.

What do you love most about the medieval/early Modern period?

Alex: I suppose what interests me most is how medieval/early modern society changed – how and why did serfdom decline? Why did North-Western Europe experience unprecedented industrialisation, commercialisation and urbanisation across this period?

Andy: Likewise, I’m particularly interested in the social change underway during the period, and the speed of it; I think the seventeenth century in particular was one of striking contrasts. The early Modern period feels familiar in many ways, but it’s often very alien too; you might draw interesting parallels between, for instance, the treatment of poverty in early modern England and today, but the way they thought about inequality was also very different.

What does your research focus on?

Alex: My previous research focused on how rural society responded to the fifteenth-century recession and the consequences of these changes for their sixteenth-century counterparts. My current research explores the fear of downward social mobility in late medieval England and the role of institutional memory in the English countryside.

Andy: I’m interested in the social history of work, and my research so far has focused on Newcastle, which saw very rapid industrialisation in the seventeenth century. By the 1660s, a third of adult men in the whole town worked moving coal around in small boats.

What do you plan to focus on with your seminar?

Andy: We’ll briefly introduce a book we co-edited (with Rob Doherty) about economic and social crisis in medieval, early Modern, and modern history. We’re planning to talk more about how and why the book makes very long comparisons across a thousand years of history, rather than about crisis itself – there will be no graphs, no tables, so don’t worry! The book started at a big three-day conference we organised as Ph.D. students, so we’re also very happy to discuss the process of putting on a conference and editing a book through to publication, if that interests anybody.

If you were not in academia, what would you be doing?

Alex: Probably living and working on my grandparents’ small farm in the Peak District – living out the experience of a modern smallholder rather than writing about their medieval counterparts!

Andy: I’d open a microbrewery. I once stupefied my supervisor with twenty boring pages on seventeenth-century home-brewing, so I could put that knowledge (sadly culled from the thesis) to good use.

Do you have a favourite medieval/early Modern text?

Alex: It would probably have to be Froissart’s Chronicles – as an undergraduate studying the Hundred Years’ War, his writing on the period was probably what cemented my interest in medieval history.

Andy: Can I go for a source? I love probate inventories – room-by-room accounts of a deceased person’s moveable possessions. They give a fascinating but maddeningly fleeting snapshot of life for a variety of early Modern people (not just men, and not just the rich, though the sample is biased), and there are hundreds of thousands of them in the archives on Palace Green.

Join us this Monday, 18 January for Andy and Alex’s seminar. Wine and nibbles will be provided from 5:40 pm, with the lecture beginning at the usual time at 6 pm. Check out our other seminars here. All are welcome.

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