Thursday, 4 June 2015

I become an Historian

The die is cast.  I'm now an historian.  I've been accepted to do an MA in Medieval History at King's College London, happily the finest university for medievalists.  Now in my 50s, I choose to voluntarily sit exams in Latin again.

The main motivations for doing a further degree (I already have a bachelor of arts and a juris doctorate) are to gain credibility as a translator and historian and acquire the methodologies of modern historians.  No matter how inspired, accurate or disciplined my past efforts, the lack of a degree in history from an English university impairs acceptance of my translations of the Carmen of 1066 and other medieval works.  I'm proud of the transcription and translation I've produced as an 'independent scholar', but without an academic affiliation the resulting book is denied credibility among serious academics and the discoveries expressed in the introduction to the book will not draw further academic enquiry as they deserve.  Credibility demands a university affiliation and adoption of conventional methods of publication and citation.

I also want to be able to provide my evidence as a database, searchable by geography or the many different place names in Old English, Saxon, Danish, Frankish, Romanz or Latin, which requires more skills and technologies than I currently possess.  A year from now, with luck and determination, I'll have a degree, more resources and a new skill set, as well as an extended network for collaboration and review of my further works.

After accepting the place at KCL my next acts were to register with my new affiliation for the International Medieval Congress in Leeds and the Battle Conference in Cambridge.  While I won't be presenting papers this year, I will be learning a lot, mixing with other historians, and broadening my conception of historical disciplines beyond my own interests.  The tag of 'independent scholar' that I wore at earlier conferences meant that I was kept at a distance by the academic historians and regarded as suspect at best, nutcase at worst.  With a KCL name badge, I may not be embraced, but I won't be warily repelled either.

Academic affiliation also means I have access to more and better resources, and at reduced cost.  As an independent scholar I often had to pay for access to records, even public records, at commercial rates.  With a KCL affiliation the rates are reduced, and in some cases waived.  I've been wanting the ancient (pre-1300) archaeological records for the Brede Valley for some time, but was put off by the cost.  Now I can have them as academic research.

I will have classes in Latin, materials and methods, philology, and, of course, history.  They will be hard work, but it's exciting to be facing new challenges.  I hope it will also prove fun.

My most significant work during the MA is likely to be a re-evaluation of the four Anglo-Saxon charters in favour of Saint-Denis of Paris.  Believed to be forgeries by most modern English scholars, I think they might be genuine and might make a significant contribution to understanding the connections between Briton and Angle royals during the Merovingian era when what is now England was a set of rival kingdoms subjected to a long period of contested rule before the Saxons triumphed.  Saint-Denis clerics administered early markets, trade and taxation at ports, cantons and customs posts throughout the Merovingian empire.  These institutions were about the only way to raise gold and silver as portable wealth, and gold and silver were the means to raise armies.  Inviting Saint-Denis to administer ports in London and Sussex would have strengthened cross-channel commerce and encouraged skilled emigration from Paris and Gaul.  Trade would mean more money for Briton and Angle kings and more and better-armed Gallic mercenaries to fight the encroaching Saxons.

The earliest Saint-Denis charters are during the 8th century reign of King Offa, who was married to a kinswoman of Charlemagne and fancied himself as imperial too.  I blogged about his charter for port strand at Londonwick and Portus Hastingas et Peuenisel back in 2013.  King Offa introduced religious, monetary, commercial and legal reforms to England on the Frankish models, and clerics of Saint-Denis may well have played a key role in reforming and administering these institutions to commercialise England.  During Offa's long reign England not only exported wool but also finished cloth and even manufactures.  Charlemagne wrote Offa a letter to ask that the next shipment of cloaks be made longer in keeping with the Paris fashions.  Offa may even have been the model of the king depicted as King Arthur in Wace's 11th century Roman de Bru, a king who similarly tried to bring unity, Christian principles and enlightened governance to early England.

Wish me luck.

And yeah, I did get "The dye is cast" wrong initially.  I of all people should know to always go back to the Latin original!  The Latin phrase is iacta alea est meaning a singular die or game piece is thrown.  Still being schooled . . .


  1. What is the evidence that Cynethryth, wife of Offa, was a relative of Charlemagne? I'd be interested to know.

  2. Hi Susan. Good question. All the evidence for Cynethryth's heritage is speculative, but a 13th century manuscript has her as a Frankish kinswoman of Charlemagne. The acts of Offa in promoting reforms to the church, coinage, charters, markets, etc. all follow a pattern that is common to early English kings who marry noble Frankish brides. Recognition of her as "regina Merciorum" means the church approved the marriage and invested her as queen. And her appearance on Frankish-modeled coins in likeness to the Empress Irene signals significant nobility and power. Alcuin called her "the keeper of the treasury". She may have been the more literate and commercial half of the ambitious power team of the 8th century which would be very Frankish, but not very Saxon.

    1. The inspiration for Cynethryth's coins may have been the 4th c. coins depicting the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. Legend has is that Helena was the daughter of King Coel or at least a noblewoman from Colchester. She was the first Christian in the imperial Roman family and secured her son's conversion to Christianity. Saint Helen was revered by Frankish tribes as a powerful symbol of a European empire united in Christianity, which may explain Offa and Cynethryth's attempts to marry their children to the children of Charlemagne.