Monday, 13 July 2015

Public Engagement and Personal Enthusiasm, St Mildred and Me

13 July is the feast of St Mildred, eighth-century abbess of the Kentish monastery of Minster-in-Thanet. Mildred is a fairly minor Anglo-Saxon saint, but she's of particular interest to me for various reasons. I wrote about her story here and about the legends surrounding the foundation of her abbey here; if you want to read about Mildred I recommend you follow those links, because today's will be a more personal post - just a ramble, really, about some things I've recently been thinking about.

My interest in Mildred is part scholarly and part personal, and it's not entirely possible to separate the two. First the scholarly. In the eleventh century Mildred's relics and the lands of her former abbey in Thanet came into the possession of St Augustine's, Canterbury (by grant of Cnut, according to St Augustine's tradition); this meant that at the end of the eleventh century the prolific hagiographer Goscelin, among various commissions he undertook for St Augustine's, wrote several works dealing with Mildred. Mildred's relics and cult thus played a role in Cnut's relationship with the English church and in post-Conquest interpretations of the Anglo-Saxon past, two of the subjects I'm most interested in at the moment.

As for the personal: I was born in Thanet, one of the few places where Mildred is still commemorated today. In Mildred's time Thanet was an island close to the north-east tip of Kent; the channel which separated it from the mainland has since silted up, but it's still known as the Isle of Thanet. It's chiefly famous for having once been full of seaside resorts, then becoming very run-down, and now enjoying a bit of a cultural renaissance. When I was growing up there it was still in the 'very run-down' stage of that process, and despite the renaissance it's still often treated as a joke, whose working-class inhabitants can be freely mocked in national newspapers. I'm proud of being from Thanet, but I'm conscious that I don't speak with a Thanet accent, and that if I did, I wouldn't have got very far at Oxford. But long before that story of boom-and-bust-and-boom, Thanet had a rich medieval history, especially in the early Anglo-Saxon period. Bede tells us that St Augustine landed on the coast of Thanet when he came to convert the kingdom of Kent, and the foundation of a royal monastery at Minster followed in the seventh century. St Mildred, although herself a rather shadowy figure, is a part of all this. My first school was dedicated to St Mildred - not that I particularly noticed it at the time! - and later, as a graduate student, I spent two years at Lincoln College in Oxford, which was built (as I learned at the end of my time there) on the site of a medieval church dedicated to St Mildred. I graduated with my doctorate on St Mildred's Day, 2013 (entirely by coincidence - it was the only date available). So her home and her name and her day have a range of personal associations for me which have very little to do with Mildred herself.

I can't say how far the personal inspired the scholarly interest, or the other way around - perhaps I was drawn to Mildred because I'm from Thanet, or perhaps studying Mildred has made me more interested in Thanet's Saxon history, which I didn't really know about or think about when I actually lived there. It's probably a bit of both. Who can explain why they're drawn to the subject they study? I suspect more academics than would freely admit it have private, personal reasons for their scholarly interests which wouldn't stand up to professional scrutiny, alongside the more publicly acceptable ones. We are human beings, after all, and are attracted to certain things by influences we ourselves don't necessarily understand. Struggling as I am with work and vocation right now, I sometimes think it would be nice if more people (not just academics) felt free to talk about what draws them to the work they do.

Over the past few months, as people keep asking me to explain why I write an academic blog, I've come to realise that one reason is to convince myself that it's OK to have a personal, emotional attachment to the things I study. It's even OK to talk in the language of enthusiasm, passion and (dare I say it?) love. Like everybody who isn't senior enough to get away with looking unprofessional, I strictly keep emotional attachment out of my academic work, but I don't feel I have to do that on this blog - and I think the blog is the better for it, and I'm the healthier.

I'm encouraged in this belief by the knowledge that the medieval historians I study generally saw no problem whatsoever in being emotionally attached to their subjects. I like them all the more for it, and when I talk about them to the public, it's that which catches people's attention. As someone whose interests are primarily literary (I'm interested in the stories people tell about history, not in whether those stories are true or not), I find it endearing when medieval historians are biased and parochial and a little bit obsessive - all the things 'monkish writers' used to be criticised for by modern historians of the traditional stamp. Nothing makes me like William of Malmesbury more than his special fondness for Malmesbury's history, the fact that he can't resist being a bit extra interested in Aldhelm and Athelstan and anything connected to his own monastery. I love the thought of Eadmer at the Council of Bari, surrounded by the great and the good of the eleventh-century church but still getting most excited about a minor tidbit of local Canterbury history and the memory of some old monks he knew as a child. And there's something touching about the way Goscelin talks about St Edith of Wilton as if she were a personal friend, and associates her with a lost happy period in his life. These are emotional responses to the past which have little to do with the facts of history, and much to do with each writer's personal associations with a saint and the relationships, identities, or communities they represent for the writer. They're entirely 'unprofessional' reactions, from the best English historians of their day, of a kind which few historians now would admit to in public even if they felt them.

(Is there a little bit of self-conscious display in these accounts of emotional attachment, an attempt to persuade an audience to value the history the writer values? Well, of course, but that doesn't make them any less interesting. All writing is persuasion and self-conscious display - what do you suppose I'm doing right now...)

I think about this question quite often, especially as social media increasingly allows scholars to have a more open approach to displays of personal enthusiasm than is acceptable in a traditional academic environment. (Even if some will still squeak 'Oh no, enthusiasm!') What do we attach ourselves to, and why? These days academics, like many people, are encouraged or forced to live rootless lives, changing jobs often and not developing an attachment to any particular institution. There are few places we have time to know intimately and few communities of which we can become a permanent part. I'm unusual for an early-career academic in that I've been in Oxford for years now, although never in a permanent position or anything like a home - it's been stints of two- or three-year affiliations, while living in different types of rented accommodation (eight places in ten years). Even that precarious form of stability is a black mark against me in the job market (everything's a black mark against you in the job market!); and if I wanted to get another academic job I'd have to be prepared to leave at the drop of a hat, whatever that meant leaving behind.

That's a choice everyone has to make for themselves, of course, and one always has the option to opt out. But I wonder if it grows increasingly hard for people like me to understand what it might be like to count on living in one place your whole life - for instance, what it might be like for a monk or nun to spend his or her entire life attached to one monastery, living its communal life day after day in the physical presence of its saints and former inhabitants. Not that monks and nuns didn't travel, of course - and away from home, home associations pull most strongly. The three writers I mentioned above illustrate this, too: William of Malmesbury travelled around on research trips, Eadmer spent years in exile with St Anselm, and Goscelin, a kind of itinerant hagiographer who worked on commission, could almost be the patron saint of academics on contingent, short-term contracts. And anyway these monks would all have said that no one gets to have a permanent home in this world: Non enim habemus hic manentem civitatem, sed futuram inquirimus, however much we may love the temporary homes we do find in this læne lif. But I think that one reason I am drawn to studying monastic communities is that they offer a rootedness which seems impossible today - at least for people like me. The idea of settling down, finding a home, knowing you can live and work in the same place for decades if you want to - these are things people of my generation are told not to expect or hope for (by people who were able to do just that, of course), and it is difficult, even if we try to believe it's fun and exciting to be adrift in the world. I crave a sense of rootedness and belonging and if I project that feeling of security here on this blog, as people sometimes tell me I do, it's because I'm working hard to find it for myself where circumstances don't provide it for me.

One place I find it is in treasuring the roots I have in a small, unpicturesque island in the most out-of-the-way corner of Kent, and in tracing how disparate elements of my life have accidentally found common ground in an association with St Mildred. Mildred's Thanet looked very different from mine - no seaside resorts in her day - but much would have been the same: the huge skies, the noisy seagulls, the yellow beaches, the white cliffs, the great flat fields stretching out to the sea. Many features of the island were ancient even when Mildred lived in Thanet, from Bronze Age barrows to Roman walls and the very name of the place; they'd grown older still by the time I was born there, 1300 years after Mildred's foot stepped onto Thanet's shore and left its miraculous imprint.

There's no substitute for this kind of intimate connection with a place, and it teaches you things even as you don't realise it. I get most of my knowledge from books, of course, but I've found that one unexpected advantage of talking about my work publicly is that it brings me into contact with people who have that kind of love and knowledge for the places I study. They can correct me or give me hints I couldn't have found otherwise (the third comment on this post is an example I remember fondly). We can go astray in many ways when we get our knowledge only from books, and I've been noting one tiny example of this lately, especially at international conferences: perceptions of distance. To people studying an area by looking at it on a map, things often seem much closer together than they do if you're there – and it's easy to make airy statements about distance which just don't ring true if you know the landscape. I've fallen into this trap myself, and heard others do so when talking about places I know well. I remember reading a journal article once where the argument went something like: 'Canterbury is near London, so monks in Canterbury would have felt a special connection with the saints of St Paul's'. This is a shaky argument for various reasons but what especially pulled me up short was the idea of Canterbury being 'near' London - I mean, of course it is in one sense, on a global scale, and by the standards of US cities, but it certainly doesn't feel so. Now that we in deepest Kent have high-speed trains, you can get between Canterbury and London in less than an hour, but even today I wouldn't say it was 'near' in the way that author meant, such that an inhabitant of Canterbury would feel London's saints to be their own 'local' possessions. Canterbury has enough of its own medieval history to be proud of, I told the author crossly in my head, without piggybacking on London's! (Then I felt silly; but I'd bet you any medieval Canterbury historian would have said the same...) Or, when talking about Mildred's relics, academics sometimes say they were moved from Thanet to 'nearby Canterbury' or 'nearby Lyminge' – Canterbury I'll allow to be 'near' (though it probably felt a bit further away when Thanet was a real island), but try and get from Thanet to Lyminge, even today, even by car, and see whether you would say it was 'nearby'! Thanet is on the very edge of England, closer to France than to London, and on a grey day in January with the mist over the sea it feels like the edge of the world. Even the other end of Kent is very far away.

Did it feel the same 1300 years ago? I can't know for sure, but I can be a bit more confident than if I had never known the place; and that only makes me more aware of how much I don't know about other places, other experiences, other lives than the one I have lived, and how much there is to learn. So I'm not saying any of this to nitpick anyone else's work; obviously people don't and shouldn't only work on subjects of which they have personal experience, and I know I've made similar errors when talking about areas I'm not familiar with. (I'd written quite a bit in my thesis about Ely and the Fens before I visited the area, and as soon as I got there I felt I hadn't really understood the place at all.) But these are things we can learn from the places themselves and the people who live in them, and it does pay to be mindful about such things. If you don't walk the landscape and you don't live the life, you should at least be prepared to listen to people who do. It's about perception and perspective, not maps and facts - and this applies to more intangible matters as well. I gave a public lecture earlier this year which was partly about Mildred, and in the audience were two nuns from her own monastery, Minster-in-Thanet. This was incredibly humbling. I was supposedly the 'expert' in the room, and the nuns were very friendly and enthusiastic and said I'd told them things about Mildred that they hadn't known; but although in some ways they knew less about Mildred than I do, in other ways they knew much, much more – living in her monastery (on the same spot and in some of the very same buildings) and living the life she lived, they knew her in a way I could never fully understand.

Perhaps that's a rather unusual example, but I ponder this sometimes when thinking about the difference between the lives I study and the life I live, and about public engagement. Being prepared to listen to other people's experiences is one of the many ways in which public engagement can enrich academic study - and here I come back to my medieval historians. We could think of medieval saints' cults as a form of public engagement, in which an educated person with a scholarly interest in a particular historical figure - but probably also a personal investment in promoting that figure to the public - attempts to mediate a historical story in a way attractive to a whole range of audiences, talking about the past to people who might know very little about history, and who have their own intensely personal reasons for being interested in the subject. (Because they want a cure, or a local hero, or to prove someone wrong, or they don't like the monastery, or whatever it might be.) Accounts of saints' miracles are very rich social pictures, offering glimpses at many kinds of human experience - from sick little children with their worried parents to vulnerable elderly people with carers at the end of their tether, they tell stories of the ill and the dying, the proud and the frightened, the faithful and the sceptical, from all classes. Read enough of these and you see the generic patterns, but they are also at the same time unique, local, and specific. These narratives are scattered with place-names which would mean a great deal to a local audience and nothing to one further afield. For example, here's a list of some of the people whose stories are told in the first few Miracles of St Waltheof, which I happen to have to hand: a blind man from Luddington; a sick woman from Sleaford; a little girl from Stretton; a mentally disturbed boy from Whaplode; a blind woman from Skirbeck; and so on. The monk of Crowland Abbey making a note of Waltheof's miracles recorded the names and homes and afflictions of all these people who had come to seek a cure from the saint, and the list is geographically restricted (those places are mostly in Lincolnshire and the surrounding counties) but diverse in every other way. It's easy to think of scholarly monks as proto-academics - but if this was the range of people with whom a medieval English monk was interacting, was his experience really more restricted and narrow than life in academia, where scholars principally get together with other scholars from similar backgrounds and panic at the idea of talking to the public?

Among all the other things it is, medieval hagiography is local history, and that's one of the things which makes it easy to write about for a popular audience. You'd think nothing would be less accessible to a modern audience than stories of medieval saints (especially since I tell them fairly seriously, not in a 'here are some funny stories about weird miracles' way) - but when I post about such stories they touch people on a personal level, and I find that moving. When I look at the people who respond to my posts about saints here and on Twitter, there's always a strong local element, and it often seems to be people without any other obvious interest in medieval history who will say with most excitement 'oh, a story about my area'! I watch my links spreading through local networks of businesses, schools, churches and enthusiastic individuals: Norfolk networks love the Norfolk saints, Kentish networks seize on the Kentish saints, London networks are proud of the London saints, and so on. Place-names like those in the list above, which don't mean much to me, are to some people a word for 'home', and a part of their own personal history, as Mildred and Thanet are to me. It feels like a privilege to give people the chance to get these little footholds of personal connection to the past.

Such enthusiasm scares some academics, and they frown on anyone who appears to be encouraging it. But that dreaded enthusiasm is a lot closer to the experience of the people who believed in and the people who wrote about medieval saints' histories than the hermetically-sealed world of academia. Academic culture can be so narrow, and we narrow it still further by fostering a homogenous, 'professionalized' environment where 'professional' is defined in prescriptive, class-based, gendered terms which exclude many of the people whose lives and experiences we are supposed to be trying to understand. As I've said many times before, one of the advantages of talking about academic work in public is that the public will talk back - and since 'the public' is not one great mass dumbly waiting for you to pour knowledge down their throats, but comprises millions of individual human beings with a diversity of experiences, thoughts, and opinions, their reactions can immensely enrich academic work. (You'd really think this was so obvious it doesn't need saying, and I'm sorry it does! It's not controversial anywhere except academia, of course; I said something like this on Twitter a few days ago and the only snarky response was, naturally, from a senior male academic. Big surprise there.)

It would be best, of course, if such a diversity of experiences could be represented within academia itself, but as routes into the profession drastically constrict the less possible that seems. As I watch my postdoc friends quietly leaving academia, it seems to me it's not just talent which is lost but that very diversity: those who leave are the people who can't live rootless lives, because they have (and believe it's important to have) children, parents, and partners to think about; or the people who appear less 'professional' by academic standards (too working-class, too female, that kind of thing); or the people who don't come from backgrounds where constant rejection and job instability are things you just shrug off. The more academia becomes the preserve of people who are able - financially, practically or emotionally - to move countries every few years and to support themselves through extended periods of part-time work, the more socially and psychologically narrow a world it will become, the more detached from the wide range of human experience it claims to be able to classify and explain.

That's one reason why it needs to listen to the public, as much as the other way around. That's partly why I'm prepared to 'do history in public' in a personal way, and to talk here about my own experiences and my love for various authors and texts, even though I fear - quite a lot, actually - that it will come across as silly and unprofessional. I admit freely that my attachment to Mildred is utterly irrational, and not a bit diminished by the fact that most of what we know about her is 'just' legend. Even if she had never existed, never been more than a name, that name and her story would still represent a part of my life, a part of me: a connection to my own history, the institutions I've been a member of, the people I knew and loved there. Those things matter to me immeasurably, and they will remain with me whatever happens to my academic career. What I do on this blog (I've recently learned) is considered 'public history', but it doesn't feel that way; it feels like thousands of private histories, which interact and intersect and enrich each other. And mine is one among them.

All the pictures in this post are of Thanet's fathomless skies.


jwripple said...

One of your very best. I'm so glad that I follow you. Perhaps being raised just across the estuary from you and coming from a family with C15 Canterbury roots has something to do with that, but I doubt it. Wonderfully atmospheric images - thanks so much.

Heliopause said...

Public history in that you give it freely to all of us, not hoard it up for conferences and subscription-only journals! For which I am very grateful. :)
I've just been very much enjoying following the story of Mildred through the older entries as well as here.
You're dead right about the value of knowing(or at the very least, attentively thinking about) the actual reality of place - distance and topography and boggy soil (or the agglomerated rock your correspondent noted - that brought so much depth to that story!) - it all is so vital to actually understanding the meaning of the words on the page.

Mark Hausam said...

Your blog is one of my favorite blogs. I am constantly impressed, as well as inspired and encouraged, by your perceptive take on medieval history and literature and academia and life in general. I strongly think that your holistic approach to history and literature is a wonderful model of how it should be--disciplined research not separated from but entangled with life. You do a greatly valuable service by putting your thoughts and insights out there for all of us to gain from. If the ethos of your approach better permeated the academic world, it would be a much more beautiful, richer, and effective institution.

David Wilson said...

AS ever you get to the heart of why we love history. Your insistence on local attachment is bang-on. I feel it all the time I wander round London with the ancient streets in mind.
Thanet though is something else. A place to put strange and exciting things while they cool down, like Phoenician imports [see Caitlin Green] or strange cults like Christianity. I spent five years on the North Foreland in my youth with the fogs and the foghorns, the pack-ice, the summer sun and the pervading smell of cabbage. I love it still, especially the way it subsides into the Wantsum...

@follysantidote said...

Thank you for a lovely post - I don't know Mildred or Thanet at all but feel like I've been given a little window on a different life.

Perhaps I will never be a truly successful traditional academic but I have chosen that rooted life. My partner and I wanted to have one part of our life as stable as we could and bought a house in a small village within an hour's commute from several universities. We've been there 13 years and I can't count how many short-term contracts between us and different employers. But we are part of a community and our work has been shaped by being part of it. It does bring a particular kind of "knowing" and commitment to our work that is part of us. I'm grateful for it and feel confident that I am doing good work, however others may judge it. And I, and my family are happy, (and so far surviving career-wise) which is the vital thing.

Sally said...

I love this post in myriad and difficult to enunciate ways. I'm from the American Midwest and have never been to the UK, so your place of humble connection looks, to me, wistful and endless (wow, ocean!). Still, I've never felt that sense of rootedness with my own hometown, and rarely with the many places I've lived since, and this reminded me of all the small ways of knowing a place that are denied when you're still searching for that connection. I find my connection, to my own history and to others, in the ideas and stories I love, and the interests that I have always been drawn to without being able to explain in concrete sequences. And so, yes to more enthusiasm in scholarly work. I know it's still an uphill battle, but now that neurological and cognitive studies are beginning to show that emotion and attachment are not just sentiment and are actually essential to how we figure out what's important in our lives, perhaps we can hope for more respect for those aspects of the human experience.

liz read said...

Have been dawdling through your posts after only recently discovering your blog. This last caught me off guard - the enthusiasm for St Mildred I totally acclaim/comprehend - but shaken to think academics might shudder at your revelations to the plebs. Now that is small minded! I look to your world/people such as yourself after I became fascinated with with medieval mss and writing about two years ago. And not just the superficial, the sense of it too. No degree, no reason, just fell into it. And its the rare people like you, your blog, that leads me on. I cannot say a greater thank you...your frank posts on your enthusiasms, the quotations PLUS their english text and all else - they are extraordinary gifts.

R J Keefe said...

Many thanks for this plea for restoring humanity to history. The critical disciplines for assessing evidence over the past two centuries are vital, but they do not transform history into a science. Perhaps as "physics envy" recedes, not only from academia but from politics and economics as well (and it must!), more room will be made for the layering of the rigorous and the personal.

Little Black Sambo said...

Wonderful to read something appreciative about Thanet. I was brought up on the other side of the Wantsum, looking across at the tower of St Nicholas at Wade. I used to walk there from Marshside following various drove roads, or bicycle along the sea wall from Reculver. Your post reminded me of the landscape: Sarre mill, now in working order; the landing-place of St Augustine at Ebbsfleet; the lonely marshes on the way to Richborough and Sandwich... Many years ago my relations had a steam laundry at Minster-in-Thanet, and my brother's house there was reputed to be joined to the abbey by a tunnel. Thank you.

Kate Thomas said...

I love this, and entirely agree about the value of passion in historical blogging. I'm linking to this in my new post on the same subject.