Joinville’s Vie de Saint Louis

An incredible thirteenth-century  chronicle intersecting the genres of biography, hagiography, and autobiography. Ostensibly a record of the life of Louis IX of France, later canonized Saint Louis, eyewitness Jean de Joinville adds a good deal of his personal thoughts, experiences, and perspectives, making this one of the most interesting and personal of medieval primary sources.

Image: Saint Louis embarks from France in 1248 on the disastrous Seventh Crusade.


Oxford Colleges

The University of Oxford is made up of dozens of constituent colleges and permanent halls (see full list here).

On your postgraduate application, you have the option of putting down your college preference. After you accept your initial offer from the School, it can take up to eight weeks to receive your college assignment in the form of an official offer from the college itself (exactly how the selection process works behind the curtain isn’t very clear, nor are your chances of being allocated to your preferred college, although presumably your chances are higher at some of the less famous colleges).

Although college choice probably isn’t as significant for a graduate student as it is for an undergraduate, there are a few key features to bear in mind when choosing your preferred college: Continue reading Oxford Colleges

Lessons of History

Why does history matter? It is sometimes suggested that we should study history to learn lessons for the present. This strikes me as problematic. If we mean by this that history (or History) presents us with lessons to be learnt, I have yet to see any example of anyone paying attention in class.

John H. Arnold, History: A Very Short Introduction

The Poetry of History

History has its peculiar aesthetic pleasures. The spectacle of human activity which forms its particular object is, more than any other, designed to seduce the imagination – above all when, thanks to its remoteness in time or space, it is adorned with the subtle enchantment of the unfamiliar . . .

Let us guard against stripping our science of its share of poetry. Let us also beware of the inclination, which I have detected in some, to be ashamed of this poetic quality. It would be sheer folly to suppose that history, because it appeals strongly to the emotions, is less capable of satisfying the intellect.

Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft

Part I: Choosing a Postgraduate Programme

Who’s Who. When looking at British universities, especially from overseas, it’s tempting just to Google “best history programme UK” and pull up a list of rankings like this one. This can certainly be a helpful place to start, but keep in mind that, depending on what metrics are being used in the calculations, the rankings can change fairly dramatically from year to year. For history programmes in the UK, there is also a substantial difference between the global ranking lists and the national ones, possibly because global lists are more concerned with factors like research prizes and publications, favouring the larger universities, whereas the national rankings focus more on teaching quality and student experience.

A few of the factors you’ll want to keep in mind in your search:

  1. Faculty & Specializations: Although you might not have your dissertation topic nailed down quite yet, it’s helpful to think about your general research interests ahead of time, and to make sure that the programmes you’re looking at have faculty members interested in the same field. While most larger departments will have a fairly broad mix of periods and interests, many will have particular research strengths.
  2. Size & Facilities: How large is the department? How many faculty members doing research in your field or period? What are the library and manuscript resources? Does the university have a center for research in the period?
  3. Location & History: This last point will matter a good deal to some people and much less to others. Do you want to be near key historical sites? In a medieval town? In London? Definitely not in London? Ancient university or Plate Glass?

What’s in a name? Applying to master’s programmes in the UK from overseas can be a little confusing. For starters, there is very little standardization in terms of degree titles. A taught master’s course (on which more below) in history could be called a Master of Arts (MA) at one university, a Master of Literature (MLitt) at another, a Master of Studies (MSt), or even a Master of Science (MSc)! The variation is partly due to the differences between English and Scottish degree systems, but a lot of it comes down to whatever the individual university has decided to title its degree.

More significant is the choice between a taught master’s or a research master’s program. Compared to a taught master’s, the latter is less focused on courses/modules and more on your individual research, culminating in a longer dissertation than required by a taught master’s. Because of this, research master’s generally take around two years to complete.

Taught Programme Schedules. Most taught master’s programmes are just short of a calendar year, beginning in September/October and ending in August. They consist of taught courses during the regular terms followed by a summer in which to finish your dissertation (generally about 10-15,000 words). The course schedules vary quite a bit, but generally include some sort of core module, one or more “optional” modules (i.e. electives), and skills modules (Latin, other medieval languages, paleography, etc.)

Read MorePart II: The Application Process

Disclaimer: The above is based almost entirely upon my experience applying to taught master’s programmes in medieval history and should therefore be taken with liberal grains of salt. The best place to find information on individual master’s programmes is on the respective university websites.

Part II: The Application Process

Click here for Part I: Choosing a Postgraduate Programme.

Getting Ready to Apply. Many universities operate on a rolling admissions basis. Applications open in August/September for the following academic year, and you can receive a decision within as little as 4-8 weeks from the time you submit your application. Obviously, it’s a good idea to apply early, but make sure you read the fine print. Some universities only give you a certain number of weeks to accept an offer once they extend it and require a reasonably handsome deposit along with an acceptance, which might lock you in before you have the chance to hear back from other universities higher on your wish list.

Other universities, including Oxford, have a set deadline (or series of deadlines) by which to receive applications and notify all applicants of their decision at once (typically around March).

Particularly if you’re applying to universities with both types of admissions process, it’s worth doing a bit of hunting on the university websites so that you can draw up a “application schedule” with the opening dates or deadlines for applications, as well as any applicable response dates and deposits.

Submitting. Again, depending on the admissions processes, you may have to submit your applications fairly close together. If you can, though, it’s helpful to be able spread them out so that you can focus on the specific requirements of each application one at a time: some universities only ask for a short personal statement with general research interests in addition to your supporting documents like references and transcripts, while others ask for multiple writing samples and a general proposal for your dissertation topic, which will require more time and research.

Sit Back and WaitThis is the fun part. Not. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about it.

Getting Decisions. The application decision will come via email, either from the School or Faculty, or from a centralized Graduate Admissions Office, and generally follows the standard “Congratulations” or “We regret” protocol.  If they have decided to offer you a place, you might get an informal email first from someone in the School, followed a day or two later by the “official” offer from the Admissions Office. Some offers will encourage you to accept if there’s the slightest chance that you might end up coming, while others will ask for a deposit along with an acceptance. Most will specify some sort of deadline for replying to an offer, but that could be a few weeks or even months, especially if you applied and heard back quite early in the cycle.

If you do find yourself in the enviable position of receiving multiple offers, resist the temptation to hoard them. When you receive the second offer, weigh it against the first and reject one. Do the same with the third offer, and so on. Not only does this allow the programmes you turn down to offer the place to someone else on the waiting list more quickly, but it prevents you from finding yourself faced with three or four offers, trying to compare them all against each other at once in order to make your decision.

Disclaimer: The above is based almost entirely upon my experience applying to taught master’s programmes in the UK and should therefore be taken with liberal grains of salt. The best place to find information on applying to individual master’s programmes is on the respective university websites.

How I Ended Up Here

Of all the careers that one might choose, the profession of medievalist is not generally seen to be among the most promising.

I know this, because I have spent the past few weeks informing friends, relatives, and co-workers that I am leaving my brief (but, I like to think, promising) career in university administration to read for a master’s degree in medieval history at the University of Oxford. And amongst all the congratulations and best wishes (because the people I know are very nice and well-brought-up), my announcement has generally been met with looks of puzzlement and concern that my cheery declaration, ‘Oh, I don’t know what I’m going to do with it!’, surprisingly does little to allay.

I do understand their reservations. Bills must be paid, and gloriously un-pragmatic academic subjects like medieval history are showing increasingly less potential to assist in that effort. I have considered this. (In fact, I have resigned myself to the fact that at the tender of age of 20-something I have quite possibly just resigned from the highest-paid position I will ever have.)

On the other hand, while I do harbour hopes that my history degree will lead me in the direction of an academic career, my reasons for applying to the programme were relatively unconnected with being able to ‘do’ anything with it afterwards. One doesn’t climb Mt. Everest for the sole purpose of cementing one’s career as a mountain guide. For this next year, I am embarking on an expedition of my own, on an unparalleled adventure of the mind set appropriately amongst the magically anachronistic higgledy-piggledy of Oxford’s chain cafés and dreaming spires. (Of course, to those in the know, I may look more like a six-year-old setting out to explore the back garden with a compass and a magnifying glass. Whichever the case, it should be an adventure!)

And why medieval history? Every historical place and period has its own fascinations, and my attachment to the medieval era is admittedly as much emotional as it is academic. Frequently misquoted and often misunderstood, it seemed to be an era in need of as many friends as it could get.

In return, it offers rich rewards. The study of medieval history is the study of every foundation upon which our current society and civilization is founded. It is the root of our governments, our nation-borders, our universities, our faiths, our literature, our languages, and our wars. At the same time, it is a foreign counter-foil to the modern world, against which the ideals we barely knew we held can be tested and compared and brought to light. The medieval era is humanity in stark relief, struggling against every hardship and evil, recreating a world out of civilizational collapse, creating nations out of tribes, and warlords into kings, combining the loftiest of ideals with the basest of realities.

How’s that for a good day’s work?