I have spent a concerning number of hours over the past month or two puzzling over pages that look like this:
Anyone who has spent five minutes in Oxford knows about the Bodleian Library, but the university actually brims over with dozens of libraries, each with its own charms (admittedly, some more than others). The following are the libraries I tend to use most in the course of my various research tangents. (The unfortunate lack of decent interior pictures of my own is due to library regulations against wandering around like a tourist snapping shots of the ceiling.)
Le nez de Cléopâtre, s’il eût été plus court, toute la face de la terre aurait changé.
Blaise Pascal, Pensées
[As a child] I assumed that medieval people all believed what popes told them to believe, or got burned as heretics. Some historical misconceptions are 100 per cent fantasy. Other have an infinitesimal grain of truth and blow it out of proportion. My own view of the Middle Ages hovered between these categories.
Then doubts began. Putting the medieval church in a black bin bag to throw it away could do it no harm. The people concerned were long dead and out of harm’s way. But we might do harm to ourselves, I reflected, if misconceptions about the past were to distort our views of own places in the world, and where it was going.
So I encouraged the doubts.
– Alexander Murray, introduction to Conscience & Authority in the Medieval Church
New-dated from the terms that reappear,
More sweet-familiar grows my love to thee,
And still thou bind’st me to fresh fealty
With long-superfluous ties, for nothing here
Nor elsewhere can thy sweetness unendear.
This is my park, my pleasuance, this to me
As public is my greater privacy,
All mine, yet common to my every peer.
Those charms accepted of my inmost-thought,
The towers musical, quiet-walled grove,
The window-circles, these may all be sought
By other eyes, and other suitors move,
And all like me may boast, impeached not,
Their special-general title to thy love.
– Gerard Manley Hopkins (1865),
whilst an undergraduate at Balliol College, Oxford
At long last, Friday was dissertation submission day, and as I threw open the curtains I was delighted to find that Oxford had graciously decked herself out for the occasion in her best blue skies and sunshine. My own dissertation copies had been bound at the print shop on Holywell Street the afternoon before and had been sitting in their envelope addressed to the
Chairman of the Board of Examiners
of the Master of Studies in Medieval History
c/o Examination Schools
on my desk all evening, forcing me to resist the temptation to flip through them one more time to discover each typo that had inevitably made it past a dozen rounds of proofreading.
Unlike the last time we submitted at the Exam Schools, an August submission day is a relatively anticlimactic affair. Unsure of when others planned to submit, I just walked into the nearly empty Schools on the way into town, filled out my submission slip, and handed it to the lone woman behind the desk. As I walked out, my little yellow receipt was the only evidence that I had, in fact, just completed an Oxford master’s degree.
I found the rest of my classmates camped out in the upper sitting room of the Turl Street Kitchen, addressing envelopes and waiting to collect their various oeuvres from the binders.
‘You look very relaxed!’ was my welcome.
I waived my yellow slip triumphantly, bringing down a kindly stream of curses upon my head.
After a stop at the binders, we then processed back to the Schools, assuring each other along the way that it was fine, that we were fine, that it was all going to be all right. A picture on the steps with dissertations in hand, and then two minutes later we were all out again, suddenly feeling strangely bereft.
A celebration was called for, however, and we decided on true Oxford tradition: a picnic of the finest drinks and comestibles that Tesco had on offer, partaken in the dappled shade of Christ Church Meadow. A few of us tried to ban all talk of anything occurring before the 1950s, but that didn’t prevent a long discussion on popes, bawdy comments about monks, and a discursive on ancient college feuds.
Our attempts at punting then being stymied by the previous night’s rain, which had irremediably waterlogged our prospective crafts, we settled into lawn chairs in the garden of Balliol’s Holywell Manor, mixing slumber with desultory conversation on such things as colleges and croquet, letting the stress of the past eleven months slowly drift away with the breeze.
- Words: 15,000 (exactly!)
- Pages: 41
- Footnotes: 158
- Primary sources: 26
- Secondary sources: 67
- Mentions of the word ‘counsel’: 210
- Reading rooms used for research: 10
- Hours spent formatting footnotes and bibliography: 6
- Steps climbed up and down in the Bodleian: Countless
According to modern physics, nothing is as solid as it seems. Things that seem so turn out to be tiny points of energy, in precarious equilibrium, giving our rough senses only an impression of solidity … This truth in physics holds also in the fields of politics, law, and economics. There are plenty of things that seems solid enough, like ancient empires or modern armies or (in the economic field) money. But on careful inspection these, too, turn out to be points of energy, in temporary equilibrium, in the beliefs and feelings of individuals. When these change, the seeming solid dissolves into its constituent points, which then reassemble in new forms—with an equally deceptive appearance of corporeality.
– Alexander Murray, ‘Excommunication & Conscience in the Middle Ages’
Time is fickle to historians. They spend their lives trying to rescue other people’s achievements from oblivion, only to see their own vanish into it with humiliating speed.
– Alexander Murray
I’d dropped off my dissertation draft for my supervisor on Wednesday morning. Around 10:30 on Thursday night, he sent me an email asking to meet the following day. What he actually wrote was probably something very nice and polite along the lines of ‘Might you be free tomorrow at noon?’ What my paranoid state of mind registered was something along the lines of a summons to the principal’s office.
I was in his office at the specified time, waiting on tenterhooks as he settled into his chair, pulled out my draft, and glanced over it.
‘It needs some fine tuning.’
I nodded nervously.
‘But really, it’s all there.’
My sigh of relief was audible. Once you’ve reached the point that you can’t even bear to the look at the words anymore, let alone try to figure out whether they create a comprehensible argument, any outside confirmation of value is a welcome benediction.
‘Let’s see,’ he says, running his eyes down a list of probably illegible notes on my cover page that I will spend hours trying to decipher later. ‘The main thing you need to avoid is parataxis.’
My mind blanks on a definition. Wasn’t parataxis covered in a Latin lecture at some point?
(Apparently, he means that I need to build my points into a connected argument, instead of presenting them as a series of points beginning with ‘Another evidence for …’, which by the end of the process had been all the transition my exhausted brain could come up with.)
My attempts at creativity in the first sentence are dismissed as ‘trite’, but I get a ‘good’ for my last sentence, which I interpret as high praise. The rest of the supervision is given over to a discussion over various minor structural changes, the highlighting of important points, and strategic footnotes in defense of the examiners’ vagaries.
If I were leaving Oxford, the end of this supervision would have been the point for gratitude and a mutual exchange of good wishes. As it is, he just tells me good luck and to email him in a couple weeks when I am ready (gulp!) to start discussing my DPhil research.
From frying pan to fire?
A summer that once looked invitingly long and leisurely has since sped mercilessly by, week after fleeting week. In less than nine days’ time, we are due at the Examination Schools, dissertations in hand.
My own dissertation is finished, in the sense that I have 15,000 words that run in more-or-less coherent a fashion from the first page to the last. What I no longer have, after a long series of 8- to 10-hour days in the libraries, madly typing and deleting and typing some more, is any true sense of whether those words manage to say anything in a reasonably intelligent fashion.
There are over 100 steps, not to mention a very long corridor, between the Lower Gladstone Link and the Upper Reading Room in the Bodleian (I did try to count the steps exactly, but I got mired in a group of tourists outside Duke Humphrey’s and lost track), and I have climbed them many, many times over the past two weeks in the seemingly never-ending quest for citation information, bumping in similarly harried classmates in various reading rooms along the way.
But the worst of it is now over and I badly need a break to recover some perspective, so once I dropped my draft off for my supervisor, I decided to enjoy the day in true Oxford style. As a sop to productivity, I started by fetching an essay I had been meaning to read by Alexander Murray (quickly becoming one of my new favourite historians) and took it up into one of Oxford’s most quintessential places—the little gallery of the Duke Humphrey’s Library—to read it in the glow of a little reading lamp, perched high above the room’s medieval splendour.
Then, as it was beautiful summer day—the sort that Oxford can do so very well, if only she puts her mind to it—it was obviously time for a picnic. I recruited a friend, poked around the Covered Market in search of comestibles (like bacon and brie quiche!), and set off for the Oxford Botanic Gardens, a charming place of riotous colour into which University members are admitted free of charge. We strolled around the grounds and greenhouses, watching the punts go by on the Cherwell, then laid out our blanket in the shade of a leafy tree and ate and drank and chatted the afternoon away.
Gallica is the digital library of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF) and is one of the best freely accessible digital archives online, crammed full of brilliant historical sources. It’s fairly easy to navigate, and you can register to save documents and books to your digital workspace.
I’ve personally been using it a lot lately to access all the 19th-century editions of my medieval primary sources from the comfort of my bed, instead of having to trot all the way out to the Bodleian Upper Reading Room!
At 11am on the dot, I climb the creaking staircase to my supervisor’s office and knock on his door. After a moment’s silence, there are sounds of movement from within, and the door opens a crack as he pops out his head.
‘Ah, I’m not finished yet. Five pages left. It’s not raining, is it? Fine, come back in fifteen minutes.’
The door is already closing, but I feel the need to call after him, ‘Really, you don’t need to read it all that carefully.’ In fact, I think I’d rather you didn’t . . . ‘It really was just a very rough draft!’
His head pops out again. ‘I have a clear line. Fifteen minutes!’
A quarter-hour later, then, I climb the stairs again and am admitted into the half-jungle, half-library he uses as an office, picking my way over the papers strewn across the floor to plop down on the low couch by the window opposite his armchair.
Having dropped off 13,000 words of something in my supervisor’s pidge in lieu of a rough draft (more-or-less a prose version of my notes which I hope to shape into an actual argument at some later point in time), I packed my bag and headed off to St Pancras to take the Eurostar south for a much needed break in sunnier climes.
Technically, of course, Trinity Term is all finished up now, but it’s a rather anticlimactic finish for those of us with months of work left to go. My first draft is due to my supervisor in a couple weeks, but I’m still grappling with the general shape and scope. Still, at least there will be plenty of time for amendments and revisions.
The weather has not been a help. After too short a glimpse of just how lovely English summer could be, the sun has retreated behind thick clouds for weeks, with almost daily rain showers. This is properly stay-home-beneath-the-covers sort of weather, not the get-up, go-to-the-library and do-brilliant-historical-research sort.
I am forced to emerge from the covers, however, because I’ve started a short office assignment through the university’s Temporary Staffing Agency, a sort of internal temp agency with which one can register and then receive offers of various short-term and/or part-time assignments. It’s a great, flexible way of taking on some reasonably well-paid work without making a big commitment. At the moment, I’m working in the mornings at one of the university schools and then spending my afternoons in the library – all I can say so far is that I have a whole new appreciation for the weekend!