Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Barking Abbey


My latest column for History Today can be read online here. It's about the nuns of Barking Abbey in Essex, and one specific text which I've been working on this year: an Anglo-Norman Life of Edward the Confessor written in the second half of the twelfth century.

Its author was an educated woman, able to turn a Latin source into engagingly chatty French verse, and Barking Abbey must have been a congenial environment for her. Founded in the seventh century, Barking was one of the foremost nunneries in the country, a wealthy abbey which was home to many well-connected aristocratic and royal women. Its abbesses were frequently appointed from the sisters and daughters of kings and, around the time our nun wrote her Vie d’Edouard le Confesseur, Thomas Becket’s sister Mary – herself a woman of literary interests – was made abbess of Barking in compensation for her brother’s murder.

Across its long history of more than 850 years, Barking Abbey was a centre for women’s learning. It has been described as ‘perhaps the longest-lived ... institutional centre of literary culture for women in British history’ and it had a strong literary and scholarly tradition that spanned the Middle Ages. In the early medieval period, authors such as Aldhelm and Goscelin of St Bertin wrote learned Latin works for the nuns of Barking; later, several nuns composed their own poetry and prose – even their own plays. In the 12th century, when women were increasingly becoming patrons, readers and, in some cases, authors of literary texts, Barking produced more than one talented writer. The first female author in England whose name we know, Clemence of Barking, was a nun there; she wrote an accomplished Life of St Catherine of Alexandria, a saint associated with female learning.
Read the rest here. There's a lot of excellent scholarship on the medieval literary culture of Barking Abbey, and if you're interested in following it up a good place to start is Barking Abbey and Medieval Literary Culture: Authorship and Authority in a Female Community, ed. Jennifer N. Brown and Donna Alfano Bussell. The description of Barking as 'perhaps the longest-lived... institutional centre of literary culture for women in British history' is from the entry on Clemence of Barking by Jocelyn Wogan-Brown in the Dictionary of National Biography, which is full of useful information. Those links will take you to the resources, but to access them you will need an institutional academic log-in (or £60 to spend on the book). That's one reason it seemed worth writing a little bit about this topic in a more public forum like History Today.

There are other reasons, and I feel the need to explain them a bit. I maintain this blog, and write publicly about medieval literature in various forums, because I believe in making academic scholarship open and accessible - and access is not, of course, just a matter of being able to log in to the DNB. Let me tie this up with my previous History Today column, which I haven't yet linked to here, in which I confessed (a little tongue-in-cheek) that I'm envious of archaeologists. Over the past few years I've learned a lot from following archaeologists on Twitter, both from projects sharing discoveries-in-progress and from specialists posting more generally about interesting objects and sites. The main reason I envy archaeologists is not just because they have so much cool stuff, and not really because they get all the media attention, but because so many of them seem willing and able to take good advantage of that attention for public outreach, education, and community engagement.

This summer I called in at Lyminge in Kent, where for some years an ongoing project has been investigating an important early Anglo-Saxon site linked to the Kentish royal family, particularly St Æthelburh. You can read all about the project here. They've made some exciting discoveries, including most recently the remains of one of the earliest stone churches built in Anglo-Saxon England. Back in August I was in Kent, and after seeing a report on the local news issuing a general invitation to the public at large to come and see what had been found, I went down to take a look. It was a beautiful summer afternoon - late on a weekday, so there weren't many people around in the village. Lyminge is a small place a few miles from Folkestone, never very busy. Volunteers and students were hard at work digging in the churchyard, and there were welcoming signs saying something like 'this way to the archaeology' - so we went that way, and asked them questions, and looked at what they were working on. They were happy to talk, perfectly relaxed about having us just wander in. From a public viewing walkway, it was possible to look at what had been uncovered.


It's really something special. The Anglo-Saxon church lies right next to the present-day one, under the path which leads up to the church porch, the main entrance. I've visited this church a number of times before, and in doing so had been walking right on top of the old church's footprint without knowing it. The people of the village, such as the locals we met who were volunteering at the site, must have walked across it hundreds of times, at carol concerts and on Sunday mornings, at baptisms and weddings and funerals, or just as a short cut on their way to the shops. No wonder they seemed so excited about what had been found beneath their feet, so glad to be helping, so ready to talk about it.


As well as this, there was an exhibition in the church of information about the project's findings - even a display about a new pilgrimage route, 'The Royal Saxon Way', which has been developed as a community project to offer new ways of engaging with the history of early Anglo-Saxon Kent. Take a look.


It was all so open. It was as if it was perfectly natural that the public should have a stake in what was going on, and should be allowed and encouraged to take an interest in it - not just the people of the church and the village, but anyone who wanted to turn up (and for anyone who couldn't physically go there, there's their online postings). It was an exemplary instance of community engagement, and I was so impressed.

It made me think a lot about my own field. For an academic who works on medieval literature and history, what's the equivalent of being as open as this - building a walkway to let the general public wander in and take a peek at your research? Since I started this blog as a Masters' student, a little more than ten years ago, I've tried to use social media like that - first my blog and Twitter, and then as a consequence of that other kinds of public writing and involvement with various projects, both online and offline. It has been immensely rewarding and has brought me into contact with all kinds of people, more than I can categorise or count; I can look back on years of wonderfully positive interactions, of people who have told me they've gained something they value from my work. People do 'wander in' - that's the best thing about it - looking for something else, or just by chance, and they stay and find something they like.

But in some ways it seems to be getting harder, not easier, in terms of the reaction it gets from other academics (hence, in part, my silence on the blog this year). As someone who is pretty shy in real life, is better at writing than speaking, and doesn't have the money or time to travel much, experimenting with different kinds of academic 'openness' online has generally worked better for me than the offline equivalent. But online spaces are increasingly toxic, the political climate in the UK and elsewhere is increasingly polarised, and in that context writing about anything at all seems increasingly risky. Writing about academic topics for a non-academic audience means being willing to compromise, and there's no room for compromise in a polarised world. The compromises are not so very shocking - really only a matter of recognising that different audiences have different needs, and that's not an idea you would think should be especially controversial. It means trying to say something useful in 750 words about a topic which could be the subject of a monograph, on the grounds that saying something, however brief, about an unfamiliar topic might be better than nothing at all. It means being alert to what your particular audience do and don't know, and the language and references they will best recognise and understand, and adapting your own language accordingly - not insisting on speaking in terms which only you and your colleagues comprehend. It means dealing with editors and fact-checkers and proof-readers who have their own priorities and imperatives, whose job is to produce something clear and useful for their audience, not something designed for academics who have studied the subject for decades. Those are small compromises and ones I'm very willing to make, because I think it's important; but I know I don't always get it right, and I've made enough mistakes to be unwilling to criticise anyone else who is trying to do a similar thing. Not everyone is going to have the same views on how much openness or adaptation is too much, but most people are just doing their best; when others make choices I personally wouldn't make, it seems kindest to give the benefit of the doubt.

So why write about Barking Abbey - to take one example? The main reason is that the subject itself in interesting and important, and not that familiar outside the specialists who study this place and period. You can't do much in 750 words, but you can just briefly introduce ideas which may seem obvious to specialists but emphatically are not: a medieval woman writing history; the suggestion that saints' lives are a kind of history-writing; the idea that twelfth-century Norman aristocrats took an interest in, and sometimes enthusiastically embraced, the pre-Conquest English past; the multilingual nature of medieval Britain; the social role of nunneries; even the fact that medieval nuns performed plays. These things aren't obvious, even to people with a general interest in medieval history, and that seems to me enough reason for writing about it. At the same time, it's also a 'walkway' past some of my academic work-in-progress - I've been looking at this text for a collaborative project I'm involved in, an open-access database of medieval translated texts, which has just launched.

St Edward in a manuscript of the Barking Vie (BL Add. 70513, f. 55v)

And then there's another reason. Besides the scholarly motives I just mentioned, there is a more personal reason why I'm interested in Barking Abbey, and why I chose to write about it. My mother is from Barking, and grew up there. To most overseas readers of this blog, the name 'Barking and Dagenham' probably won't mean anything; perhaps it just sounds like one of those funny British names, like something out of Harry Potter - not a real place where real people live. But a British audience will have a very different, and very specific, set of associations with the name. If I say that my mother was born on a post-war Barking council estate, most British readers will immediately be able to guess something about what that means in terms of my family's class background, level of education, and opportunities in life. They will know, or at least be able to make an informed speculation, about all such a background brings with it and how it forms you: the assumptions people will make about you, the accent you will be judged for and learn to hide, the places you will be made to feel unwelcome, the extent to which talent, education and hard work can - and cannot - overcome the limitations imposed by class and culture. A British audience will understand why History Today titled my article 'The Cultured Women of Essex' - to be the exact opposite of the sexist, snobbish term Essex girl. They might even be able to guess something of what it means for me, as a product of this family, to have come to a place where I have the opportunity to write about Barking in a magazine like History Today, and what it means to be able to speak about this, publicly and with respect: to praise learned women of Barking, who made the most of the educational opportunities they had - even if they were restricted by the circumstances into which they were born - and were creative and generous with their learning.

In some ways, the aristocratic nuns of medieval Barking Abbey are worlds away from my working-class family, and have nothing in common with them (generally speaking the medieval nuns were probably better off). But in physical space, it's not worlds away at all; only yards away. My family's lives were lived very close to where the abbey once stood - sometimes literally in the ruins, which are now a public park. They didn't know anything about the abbey. On its own, without explanation, it wouldn't have meant anything to them, and there was no one to tell them that it could. The ruins were there, the abbey and all its history were there, but its story was not accessible to them in any meaningful way. If you take that into account, you might understand why it was such a wonderful surprise to me when in the course of studying medieval literature I started coming across references to the idea of Barking as a centre of women's learning. And specific details about the women who lived and worked there! It interested me from an academic point of view but of course it spoke to me personally too. How could it not? I was able to share that with my mother, to whom it was completely new. I was able to make those nuns part of her story - our story.

You have to understand what it's like to be from a place which no one seems to value to understand why this matters so much. If you have lived all your life with conflicted feelings about the place you come from - part proud and loving and fond of your home, part self-conscious about how people will judge you for it - it's a strangely empowering thing to learn it has a history you never knew about, which is worthy of respect. Very little connects my family in Barking with the women of medieval Barking Abbey, except the place - but when the place is inescapably part of your identity, for good as well as ill, its history is yours too. This isn't about some vague sense of ancestral link to the past; my family were new to Barking (and second-generation immigrants to England). But the place became part of their lives and their identity, and that means all its history matters to them. I've written before about what a surprise it was to me when I learned at university that the place where I grew up - whose very name, like Barking, will evoke for a British audience specific stereotypes about working-class culture, or would have done twenty years ago - also has a significant medieval history. Why did no one ever tell me, I wondered, at 18 years old. Why didn't we learn about this in school, when we were all bemoaning what a cultural wasteland we came from, and telling each other that no one from such a backwater could achieve anything in the world? I learned about it in my first weeks at university, because it's literally point 1a in the basic undergraduate introduction to early medieval English history. I learned it along with a group of other students who were already at university, already succeeding, to whom the name didn't mean anything at all - but the people back home, the people I went to school with, were the ones who needed to hear it. They were the ones to whom it might have meant something.

For me this is an important personal context in almost all the writing I do publicly. What I experienced myself, I know I've been able to provide for other people - to help them access a history which they have a right to know about, which they should never have been denied. My academic research is partly about stories of place, and my first book was about a variety of different regional histories about the Vikings. The histories I was writing about have been overlooked in part because they deal with regions of the country, particularly in the north of England, which are often unjustly ignored and marginalised; these accounts have been taken seriously by local historians, but not always by the mainstream of academic history. (I chose to publish my book in the venue I did because I just couldn't stand the idea of writing a book about popular and local histories which was beyond the financial reach of anyone without access to a university library.) Regional economic and social inequality - distinct from, but often related to, issues of class - has long been and continues to be a serious problem in the UK, and has become an increasingly pressing one in the past few years. I've written before about how medieval English literature, because of its regional character, can offer something powerful to parts of the country which are now treated as marginal, and I see this again and again in how people respond to my blog.

But it's not only about place, by any means; there are so many other ways in which the structures of academia hoard knowledge and information, and fail to connect it with the communities for whom it is personally and culturally meaningful. In many ways - social, racial, religious, geographical - the academic establishment is on one side of a deep divide, talking about, but not to, people and communities who have every reason to be invested in their research, if anyone ever bothered to tell them about it. It has always seemed to me fundamentally wrong. The only reason I started this blog was that I could never exactly see why the kinds of medieval texts I was reading as a student shouldn't be made accessible to non-academic audiences who might be interested in them - and I still don't, really. But 'accessible' doesn't only mean 'available'; some degree of interpretation, mediation - translation in the broadest sense - is necessary too. Some compromise.

Many academics, individually and collectively, work hard to bridge these divides, but it has to be done sensitively, in different ways appropriate for different contexts. I know that much of what I'm saying here will be incomprehensible to many non-UK medievalists. It's clear from the way some of them they talk about this stuff online that they don't get it, and why should they? To them Barking and hundreds of places like it really are just funny names, nothing more. If they are still hazy about the difference between 'English' and 'British' (and worse, don't think it matters), if their only knowledge of modern British culture comes from Downton Abbey and an occasional research trip to London, the rest of the country might as well as be Middle Earth for all the reality it has for them. They don't know what British poverty looks like; they don't know what British social divisions look like (not like Downton Abbey!); and they literally can't see the ways in which medieval history speaks to, and is bound up with, many issues which are of immediate importance in this country: in class, in race, in religion, in the relationships between the different nations of the UK, or with Ireland, or the rest of Europe. Fair enough; how could they be expected to see it? I don't expect them to know or care about these things, and they have their own problems to deal with. But here the globalised nature of online discussion becomes a problem. I'm a British academic writing primarily for British audiences (not that I'm not glad to have other readers too!), but online those distinctions are blurred; other academics will pass judgement, from half a world away, on conversations they only half understand, and some of them are very resistant to the idea that in different contexts it might be necessary to speak in different languages, to ask and answer different questions. Even the basic idea that words have different connotations in different varieties of English seems to surprise them. In their particular cultural context, medieval history intersects with questions of identity and exclusion in very different ways, and they won't listen to anyone who tries to tell them things don't operate like that everywhere in the world. Some feel entitled to demand that every discussion which touches on 'their' subject should address their own immediate social and political concerns - not those of (for instance) the people of Barking, of whose existence they are so loftily unconscious. Since they don't follow British and Irish politics, they really can't see why this is such a particularly bad time to go blundering in to questions of how to use words like 'English' and 'British', without any understanding of the contemporary sensitivities surrounding those terms; and they are completely ignorant of the wider social context in which UK medievalists have to consider the issue of public engagement. I think some of them would genuinely prefer it if you could stop the public taking any interest in medieval history at all, because that interest is, to them, always inherently problematic; but while they can decide for themselves if that's the case in the US, it's absolutely out of the question here. Every single town and village and region of this country has a very long and complex history, of which the medieval period forms an important part; and so it is one force which has shaped the place and the people who live there today. I will simply never be persuaded that those people, most especially the people who don't have access to the privilege of a university education, don't have a right to learn about that history if they want to - and many of them, as I've learned, want to very much, for all kinds of diverse reasons. The online medievalists who are unable to see or imagine why anyone other than academics might have a stake in medieval history are just acting like new versions of the old academic gatekeepers (and there are plenty of the old kind still around as well) - determined to police the boundaries of anyone else's interest in 'their' subject, anywhere in the world. One reason for my continuing discomfort in academia is that I feel much closer, in all kinds of ways, to the non-academic audiences I write for, who are my neighbours, my family, my students' families, and the people I grew up with, than I do to academics like that. (I don't suppose these academics like me much, either.) And more importantly, I feel a greater ethical obligation to them, and a confidence that my work can do them some good.

When I think of that walkway at Lyminge, of the ruins of Barking Abbey, and of all the less tangible mental and cultural 'places' which they might be taken to represent, I simply can't feel that their history should be controlled and fenced-off by the academics who study it away from the people who live in, care for, and have been formed by it. Other audiences have a stake in the questions academics discuss, and they don't have to be merely passive consumers of what academics decide to tell them. For me it comes down to this: I've had educational opportunities which no previous member of my family could have dreamt of, for generations and generations back; but that doesn't make me better than any of them, only luckier. I couldn't have got them, or made the most of them, without my family and lots of other people who have been very good to me, though they never set foot in a university. My mother, in particular, never had the opportunity to do what I do, but all the things which make me any good at it, I learned from her: love of language, excitement about knowledge, a passion for teaching and an urgent desire to communicate to other people things which matter to them. The main reason I do any of this, teach or write or lecture or anything, is because when I learn something new and interesting, I can't be satisfied until I've passed it on to somebody else who values it - and I get that from her.