Sunday, 25 October 2020

A Use for Fennel and Other Successful Kitchen Experiments

This blog is called the barbarians are hungry for a reason: I love to eat! Here are some new recipes I have tried over the past few months.


  1. Aloo Gobi from Masala
  2. Fennel and Pork Stir Fry from Chicken and Rice
  3. Gavurdagi Salatasi from Persiana
  4. No-Churn Rhubarb Condensed Milk Ice Cream from Chicken and Rice
  5. Banana Pancakes from Good and Cheap

To keep things interesting: in August, I took a lot of walks, and on one of these I met Bert. Must check what Bert is up to for Hallowe'en...

A skeleton wearing a white lab coat and holding a sign 'Bert says...Feeling' hot, hot hot!'


  1. Extra-Fancy Egyptian Ful Medames from Home is a Kitchen
a woman wades in the surf on a sandy seashore
In September I saw the North Sea for the very first time.


  1. Life-Changing Cinnamon Tahini Cookies from Sweet Potato Soul
  2. Jingha Sukha Pulao from Masala
  3. Cornmeal Molasses Pancakes from Heartland
  4. Lamb Raan from Dishoom
  5. Caucasian BBQ Flatbreads from Mamushka
  6. Apple Oatmeal Cookies from The Hummingbird Bakery Cake Days
  7. Apple and Currant Oatmeal Bars from The Hummingbird Bakery Cake Days
  8. Potato and Leek Pizza from Good and Cheap 

Metal sculpture with a speech bubble reading 'Eeek'
Discovered a statue for our times in a park in my neighbourhood. Eeek indeed!
I've made the fennel and pork stir-fry at least twice since the first time I tried it, and recommend it highly. Don't go out of your way for fennel? Me either! I find it a tricky vegetable to use up when it appears in my biweekly vegetable box--I like it raw in salads, but haven't enjoyed it cooked, so I was delighted to discover it is delicious in the following southeast Asian-style stir fry.


Fennel & Minced Pork (Pad Ka Prao)

Minimally adapted from Chicken and Rice by Shu Han Lee. 

Serves 2-3 people.

You will need:
  • 1 small fennel bulb (I use both the bulb and the fronds, if they're attached)
  • 2 tbsp oil
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 200g minced pork (aka ground pork, 200g is roughly a cup and a half)
  • 1/4 tsp chili flakes, or a 1-inch square block of chopped frozen chilies from the freezer (I've never made this with fresh chilies, but suggest you go by your own spice tolerance in deciding how much to add)
  • 1 tbsp fish sauce
  • 1 generous tsp oyster sauce
  • a generous pinch of brown sugar (it's fine without it)
  • a big bunch of basil leaves (this is supposed to be Thai basil, but I use the only kind I can find in our grocery stores, regular old Italian basil, and it tastes good. You could also try fresh coriander/cilantro.)
  • an egg per person (optional)

To make:

  1. Put rice on to cook--I typically boil my rice, using a 3-to-1 ratio of water to rice grains. For a meal and leftovers, I typically use a cup of rice and 3 cups of water.
  2. Wash your fennel and chop it into bite-sized pieces. I usually chop off the fronds, set them aside, chop the bulb, and then add the chopped fronds after the bigger and thicker pieces have cooked a bit.
  3. Heat your oil in a frying pan and add the chopped fennel bulb. Add chopped garlic, and fennel fronds if you have them.  Stir-fry until it all smells nice, just a few minutes. If using frozen chopped chili, add it here.
  4. Add in the ground pork, using a spoon or spatula to break it into much smaller pieces. 
  5. When the meat is just abut cooked, add in chili flakes (if using); then add fish sauce, oyster sauce, and sugar. Add about 1/8 to 1/4 cup of water, which helps make a nice sauce.
  6. Remove frying pan from heat and add in basil leaves. Mix them in until the residual heat from cooking causes them to wilt.
  7. If you are using ordinary white rice, and started cooking it before chopping your fennel, it should now be finished cooking. Dollop some on a plate and top with stir fry. Fry egg(s) in the pan, and top each plate with a fried egg.

Sunday, 18 October 2020

What are wantos? An investigation of medieval mittens

Gentle reader, how are you doing? Is it cold where you are?

Here in the flatlands of England, it's been hovering around 10-12 degrees (the low fifties Fahrenheit) for the past few weeks--just a little bit colder and I'll be wearing mittens every time I leave the house. This week I'm trying to finish a review of Ian Wood and Alexander O'Hara's translation of Jonas of Bobbio's Life of Columbanus. Columbanus was a cantankerous seventh century Irish saint who spent his life founding monasteries, standing up to royalty, and deploring the state of Christian observance in Gaul (where he moved permanently early in his career). In this post, I want to leave Jonas' colourful and opinionated account aside, and focus on a question of true interest: is this the first medieval Latin text to mention mittens?

Our evidence from Jonas is the following:

Another time when he (the blessed Columbanus) had come to eat at the aforesaid monastery of Luxeuil, he laid his gloves, which the Gauls call wantos, and which he was accustomed to wear when working, on a stone which was outside the door of the refectory. As soon as it became quiet, a raven, a thievish bird, flew up and snatched away one of the gloves in its beak. After the meal, the man of God went outside to get his gloves. When everyone was wondering among themselves who could have take [the glove], the holy man declared that no one would dare touch it without his permission except that bird which was sent out by Noah and did not return to the ark. And he added that the raven would not be able to feed its young if it did not quickly restore what had been rapaciously stolen. Then, while everyone was waiting, the raven flies into their midst bringing back what it had stolen in its wicked beak. And it does not attempt to fly away again, but humbly in the sight of all and forgetful of its wild nature awaits punishment. The holy man instead orders it to depart. [Wood and O'Hara, Life of Columbanus, pp 126-7]

The thief! "Raven" by Sergey Yeliseev is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As Wood and O'Hara note in the footnote, the term they translate as gloves is literally tegumenta manuum ('covering for the hands'); they say that the local word, wantos, 'becomes the modern French 'gants'' and that Jonas remarking on this different shows 'that he was writing from an Italian perspective' (p 126 n 186). Jonas was a monk from the northern Italian town of Susa, acquiring the sobriquet of Bobbio as that was the monastery where he entered religious life, and later in his career he spent some time working as a missionary on the northeastern borders of the Frankish kingdom--so from his perspective Frankish vocabulary was new and interesting, and worth defining for someone who might not know it.

What exactly is he describing here? What are wantos?

Firstly, despite my initial excitement about mittens (I had just started knitting a pair when this passage caught my eye), Jonas probably isn't describing knitted mittens. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, Jonas never describes the specifics of the hand coverings. Clearly, it was something durable: the chapter this miracle is included in contains two other miracles, all of them concerned in some way with outdoor work: one of which involves the miraculous healing of someone who accidentally cut off his finger with a very sharp sickle, the second a man who was healed after being struck in the forehead by a bit of debris while splitting wood; and then finally the miracle we're concerned with, where the type of work isn't specified, but the fact that Columbanus left his tegumenta manuum on a stone outside suggests muck of some kind was involved.

Secondly, if the mitten was made of yarn, it likely wasn't knitted. As far as can be seen from archaeological discoveries of Viking-era and early medieval textiles, the most popular technique for making fabric out of sticks and string was naalbinding (or nålebinding), which uses a thick needle with a large eye and short lengths of yarn to form a knit-like fabric through looped needle netting. Below is an example dating from sometime between the tenth and the twelfth century.

Mitten made by naalbinding (looped needle netting) out of brown yarn
"Medieval mitten, National Museum of Iceland" by Lebatihem is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.

Jonas was writing in about 640--can we find a mitten closer to that date? The answer is yes--a woolen mitten dated from between 600 and 800 survives from Aalsum, in the Netherlands; and a mitten discovered at Dorestad, an important early medieval port near Utrecht, dating from between the seventh and the ninth centuries, was evidently deliberately felted to make it warmer and impermeable to wet and weather.

a brown woolen mitten

Mitten from Aalsum (Fries Museum, object nr. FM 33-374).  Picture from the Twitter feed of the archaeologist Annemarieke Willemsen, who has written extensively about medieval gloves and hand-coverings.

brown fingerless mitten from Dorestad

Mitten found in Dorestad (National Museum of Antiquities Leiden, object nr. WD375.3.1)

It's difficult to tell, but it looks almost like the Dorestad mitten has a top flap which might fold up over the fingers to allow the wearer greater dexterity. And there is a final consideration too: depending on the work Columbanus was doing, he might have found leather wantos rather than woolen ones a more comfortable and practical choice.

The waterlogged conditions at a sixth or seventh century Alamannic cemetary at Oberflacht, in southwestern Germany, preserved a wide array of wood, textiles, and leather--including, in the Grave 17, a set of leather gloves, described in William Wylie's translation of the 1847 German publication of the excavation,

No 17 contained a couch [wooden coffin]. In it were a singular pair of leather gloves, strongly laced on the back of the hand, and lined inside with a soft cloth, almost perished.

 Wylie's article is accompanied by engravings but the gloves are sadly not among them. For a few pictures of what they might have looked like, Tomáš Vlasatý's 'Early Medieval Mittens' rounds up some interesting images (here)

When I went looking for other uses of the word wantos in the Monumenta Germaniae Historica (a freely available collection of editions of late antique and early medieval Latin texts), I discovered that what few mentions of wantos there are also appear to involve stories of them being stolen. The word appears in the Life of St. Philibert of Jumièges, Ch 12, which seems to be from mid-eighth century; and the Martyrology of Wolfhard of Herrieden, Book Three, Ch Four, which dates from c. 895. Both stories involve the miraculous prevention of the theft of gloves. A further reference also gives the sense that wantos were valuable: the Constitutio of Abbot Ansegisus of Fontanelle, (c. 823/833), lists a pound of gloves (ubantos) as one of the items the abbot gave to the monastery.

We began with the question of whether Columbanus' wantos are the first medieval Latin text to mention mittens. The answer to this question is both yes and no. As far as I can tell, this is the first medieval text to use the word wantos--it clearly wasn't a common word, and all other uses seem to be later than c. 640, when Jonas was writing. On the other hand, it's not entirely clear whether wantos is best translated as mitten (or glove), as none of the writers who use the word reveal whether the hand covering has separate fingers. Surviving examples of early medieval hand covering suggest that it didn't, making it likely that Columbanus' wantos was a mitten.

One thing is clear from the unexpected theft and return of Columbanus' mitten (or glove). Like handknitted mittens today, wantos were valued, and it was a miracle indeed to have a missing one restored.

Further Reading

Elizabeth Coatsworth and Gail Owen-Crocker, Clothing the Past: Surviving Garments from Early Medieval to Early Modern Europe (Leiden, 2018)

Ferdinand von Dürrich,  and Wolfgang Menzel, Die Heidengräber am Lupfen (bei Oberflacht) (Stuttgart, 1847). Available from

'Gloves and Mittens from the Past', Medieval Histories (12 January 2016) Available from [accessed 18 October 2020]
Satu Novi, 'Viking and Medieval Nålebinding Mitten Replicas', Katajahovi (2017). Available from [accessed 18 October 2020]

Tomáš Vlasatý, 'Early Medieval Mittens',  Projektu Forlǫg (19 January 2019) Available from [accessed 18 October 2020]

Annemarieke Willemsen, 'The Geoff Egan Memorial Lecture 2013: Taking up the glove: finds, uses and meanings of gloves, mittens and gauntlets in western Europe, c. AD 1300–1700' Post-Medieval Archaeology 49:1 (2015), 1-36.

Ian Wood and Alexander O'Hara, Jonas of Bobbio: Life of Columbanus, Life of John of Reome, and Life of Vedast (Liverpool, 2017)

William Wylie, 'The Graves of the Alemanni at Oberflacht in Suabi' Archaeologia 36, (1855), pp. 129-168. (If you are interested in reading more about the Oberflacht gloves, I wasn't able to find a copy online, but Siegwalt Schiek's 1992 thesis Das Gräberfeld der Merowingerzeit bei Oberflacht looks like the best place to start).

For addutional roundups of archaeological discoveries, survivals, or depictions of medieval gloves and mittens, see the roundup at Medieval and Renaissance Material Culture (here); a shorter list can be found at The Viking Age Compendium by Gavin and Louise Archer (here)

And finally, because they're too amazing not to share, here is a pair of late medieval knitted gloves, made for a bishop in Spain.

pair of red knitted gloves with gold designs
Knitted Gloves, Sixteenth Century. Victoria and Albert Museum,

437&A-1892. More information here

Sunday, 11 October 2020

The Value of Learning Latin from Medieval Authors

Three and a half years ago, when I was planning my first ever Latin classes, I stumbled upon Dorothy Sayers' essay about her struggles with learning Latin. I am an enormous fan of Sayers' erudite and readable murder mysteries, in much the same way that I am captivated by the novels of Dorothy Dunnett; there is something wonderful about an author who wears immense learning visibly yet lightly. Also, they're just good stories, full of the complexity of humanity.

Sayers delivered the speech 'Ignorance and Dissatisfaction' at the 1952 Summer School of the Association for the Reform of Latin Teaching; it can be found in various places on the internet now, but few people who post it acknowledge that Sayers was confessing her ignorance of Latin to an audience of Latin teachers, not the easiest crowd in front of whom to admit mistakes, then or now.

Statue of a woman wearing a hat and skirt suit, with a cat brushing by her legs
Dorothy L. Sayers, with friend, in Witham, Essex

Sayers began learning Latin at six years old, taught by her clergyman father, who had previously been a Latin teacher to the small boys ('small demons with angel-voices') at the school of Oxford Cathedral. Sayers' recapitulation of her childhood reactions to moving from memorising the declension of nouns and the conjugation of verbs into more advanced features of the language, is worth enjoying in full:

...the Active Voice, always friendly, except for a tendency to confusion between the Future Indicative and Present Subjunctive of the Third and Fourth Conjugations (the rot always seemed to set in at the Third Anything); the Passive Voice always lumbering and hostile ; the Deponents lurking meanly about, hoping to delude one into construing them as Passives; verbs like fero, so triumphantly irregular as to be permanently unforgettable ; verbs with reduplicated perfects of a giggling absurdity — peperi was always good for a hearty Victorian —and defectives, which were simply a mess. It is a nostalgic memory that I could at one time recite the whole table of irregulars without more than an occasional side-slip ; and I still remember at utor, fruor, vescor, fungor are followed by the ablative, when any more generally useful fragments of knowledge have slipped to Lethe and vanished.

By this time, of, course, the girls, the poets and the roses had upped into the background. We marched with Caesar, built walls with Balbo, and admired the conduct of Cornelia, who brought up her children diligently in order that they might be good citizens. The mighty forest of syntax opened up its glades to exploration, adorned with its three monumental trees—the sturdy Accusative and Infinitive, the graceful Ablative Absolute, and the banyan-like and proliferating Ut and the Subjunctive. Beneath their roots lurked a horrid scrubby tangle of words beginning with u, q and n, and a nasty rabbit-warren of prepositions. There was also a horrid region, beset with pitfalls and man-traps, called Oratio Obliqua, into which one never entered without a shudder, and where, starting off from a simple Accusative and Infinitive, one tripped over sprawling dependent clauses and bogged one’s self down in the consecution of tenses, till one fell over a steep precipice into a Pluperfect Subjunctive, and was seen no more.

As a young woman from a solidly middle class Victorian clerical family, Sayers had a governess and studied other languages as a child and teenager--German and French. She recounts that her growing fluency in reading and speaking these languages led her to prefer them.

To do a degree at Oxford in Modern Languages (women were only officially granted Oxford degrees from 1920 onwards, so Sayers' 1915 degree was awarded retrospectively), students of the first world war era were required to pass examinations in Greek and Latin. Sayers recounts managing to scrape through these experiences, and then starting to forget large pieces of the language in being preoccupied with other things. At the same time, though, her participation in choirs which sang medieval music left her with an awareness of

the shimmering, spell-binding magic of the mediaeval Latin

After twenty years of learning Latin, Sayers writers, she was left uncertain how to pronounce the language (having been taught multiple versions), unable to compose her own Latin prose or verse, and unable to comfortably read Latin, let alone distinguish the characteristics of different authors. And yet, she robustly defends the usefulness of Latin, for four main reasons:

  1. Latin Grammar teaches its students how languages work: they are consequently better able to write clearly, since English grammar is far from intuitive
  2. Something like half of English vocabulary has Latin roots, so someone who knows Latin has access to a wider and richer vocabulary
  3. Knowing Latin makes learning other Romance languages, or indeed any inflected language (that is, a language where grammatical meaning is conveyed by varying the endings of words) vastly easier; or as Sayers puts it: 'Why should a child waste time learning half-a-dozen languages from scratch, when Latin would enable him to learn them all in a fraction of the time?'
  4. It helps the reader make sense of allusions and Latin phrases she encounters in reading older European and English literature. (Or indeed, for the modern students, the formulas of exorcism on Supernatural, spells in the Harry Potter books, or memorial plaques in churches or public buildings...)

Sayers concludes her speech with a series of recommendations for teaching Latin in such a way as to avoid her own difficulties with the language.

Of these, the least useful is her ironclad insistence that students must begin Latin at the age of six or seven, an age where she claims they are interested in the work of memorisation that is the backbone of fluency in reading. I didn't start learning Latin until just after I turned twenty; most of my students have been at least this age if not older. While scientific research on language acquisition has only gotten clearer since Sayers' day--it is easier, faster, and of longer-term benefit to acquire multiple languages as a child--the arrow of time flies only one way.

Her suggestions for pronunciation, since this was her own insurmountable hurdle to the language, are helpful. In particular, she points to the fact that anyone who speaks a Romance language is likely to be guided in their pronunciation by the conventions of this language, and it gives the speaker something familiar to hold on to. Sayers discusses some of the practical difficulties (not very many) of English pronunciation for beginners, and suggests that the use of ecclesiastical pronunciation is the way forward. 

In my own teaching, I typically default to pronouncing Latin as though it were Italian, since this is the first foreign language I learned; occasionally I am influenced by Latin I've heard sung in churches. Some of the vowels are undoubtedly wrong, but it at least means I am saying each letter or syllable that I see on the page, which I personally find helpful. I find French a bloody nightmare to read or speak, since I can never keep straight which letters I'm supposed to say and which I'm supposed to swallow, never-mind what those letters should actually sound like...! Because pronunciation can be a sticking point for some people, I encourage my students not to worry too much about saying things 'wrong'; the important thing is to get them out aloud, and then we have something to work with. As Sayers advises, consistency is the main thing to avoid confusion.

Sayers is on to something with her recommendation that students start their Latin with texts that they can read comfortably--avoiding an immediate dive into Virgil or Ovid or other authors from the time of the emperor Augustus. Firstly, these authors are way too hard, and second of all, they are far removed, culturally, from anything with which students can reasonably be expected to be familiar. Sayers' suggestion, instead, is that the rich field of medieval Latin--over fifteen hundred years of literature, mind--is a sensible starting point. For one thing, it's closer to modern languages in sentence structure and construction, and particularly for adult learners, it simply makes more sense to start with the modern form of a language and then work one's way back to its ancient versions.

Sayers advocates for speaking and writing Latin as a way to learn it. As someone who is abysmally bad at crossword puzzles and could be beaten by a dog at Scrabble, this is the sort of mental gymnastics my brain flails at. But I was made to do it as an undergraduate, and make my students do it anyway--for one thing, it humanises the language, and for another thing, it is the best way I know to make one's understanding of grammar and vocabulary absolutely ironclad. Someone can come up with the correct Latin-to-English translation without really understanding what they're doing; it simply isn't possible to do the reverse. Plus, the sense of achievement it gives is unparalleled.

the metal base of a street lamp in Lincoln, painted green
A side benefit of learning Latin is that once you know it, you start to see it everywhere

 For students of Sayers' own generation, and the students of the teachers she was speaking to in 1952, language learning was a routine part of becoming an educated person. One thing I commonly hear from my students (especially British students) is that they just aren't any good at learning languages, as though one either has it the way some musicians have perfect pitch, or one doesn't, and without this gift access is forever denied. (One can see the ancestor of this thought in Sayers' speech, where she describes herself as someone with 'the gift of tongues.')

I don't like this thinking, not least because I consider myself to be in the same boat as those students. I am a native English speaker and can fumble reading or speaking five more: French, German, Italian, Latin, and Old English. And I wish I were better than I am at all of them. My issue is one that I expect actually lies at the root of many other people's insecurities about their linguistic abilities, a la this scene from Pride and Prejudice:

'My fingers,' said Elizabeth, 'do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women's do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault -- because I would not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman's of superior execution.'

Sayers emphasises this indirectly in her speech, although it is easy to miss since she is primarily talking about the benefits of daily individual tuition with a native speaker (the sort she got from having a French governess)--a key to language-learning is regular practice. One has to persist, even when it's confusing or boring. One of the things I address in my teaching is that a lot of students, especially ones who have never spent much time learning a language, don't know how to revise grammar or vocabulary.

I start by focusing on the value of memorisation. One thing I see with weaker students is that they insist on making sure to copy down 'the correct translation' of a sentence, so they can go away and memorise it for the exam. First of all, that memorisation energy would be much better spend on vocabulary of the sentence, and how the grammar works--this enables them to go away and read other sentences, not just regurgitate the one in front of them. Secondly, the idea that there is One True Translation is rarely if ever accurate--once one gets into translating sentences of any length or complexity, variations of the translation bring out different shades of meaning. And with really tough stuff, like the Life of Columbanus by Jonas of Bobbio or the Cosmographia of Aethicus Ister, that act of interpretation becomes an argument about what the author means and how the text works--which the reader can then take, leave, or challenge according to their own interpretation. Relying on someone else's translation as authoritative is deliberately choosing to see the world in black and white--you miss the richness of shades of colour and meaning. 

There are limits to this, and especially for beginners, striking a balance between accuracy (their translation has to accurately reflect the person, number, tense, and mood of the verb or it just isn't right) and flexibility (recognising that Latin words might have several English equivalents) can be a challenge. After all, medieval people spoke and understood Latin, and an overly literal translation turns Latin into a language it's impossible to imagine real people ever speaking or writing, which leads someone already feeling like they're drowning to stop swimming.  As Sayers rightly acknowledges, the right choice of reading is a great help--students are more likely to keep doing if what they're having to read is actually interesting.

When I was in high school, I played in the Rhode Island Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, which had occasional visits from an esteemed professional conductor, Larry Rachleff. At one point, when we were all playing something very badly, after repeated attempts to get us to play it right, he stopped us, took a deep breath, and said 'You all think I'm crazy because I care this much. I think you're all crazy because you don't.'

It's a perfect summary of what makes good teaching such a challenge--you have to think what you're doing matters, and you have to inspire other people to go along with it.

I love medieval Latin, in all its strange beauty and contradictions, and I hope that this year I will help at least a few of my students love it too.




Sunday, 4 October 2020

So how's your pandemic going?

The coming week is welcome week at my university, so everything is at sixes and sevens and so am I. Sending every good wish for the physical and mental health of anyone reading this who is also preparing to go back into the classroom or is already there. The UniCovid UK site is both terrifying and helpful reading, and that is all I want to say for now about coronavirus and universities.

Instead, I want to offer a piece of writing that I found helpful. In the May 2020 the Letters Page, one of my favourite periodicals, published a lockdown letter by the Canadian writer Aislinn Hunter. The following paragraphs profoundly spoke to me:

I worry about the usual things: my students, the economy, this awful and unsettling loneliness, the future. But I also worry about the potential for a gulf in understanding to take hold on the far side of this pandemic. It seems almost impossible to imagine what it’s like to wake up to the news that another, and then another, of your neighbours has died, to lose elder after elder in a community, to lose a family member who worked the front lines because that’s what they were trained to do. And I am a writer who spends significant amounts of time in the imagination… I’m someone who recently lost a husband of twenty-five years, though he died in my arms and it was only our world falling apart at the time, not everyone’s.

There’s a feeling you get sometimes walking through a city marked by tragedy – it’s a feeling I had standing in the cathedral in Coventry, in some of the German cities I travelled through last October, in Portbou in Northern Spain where my husband and I spent time after he’d gone though radiation and chemotherapy for his cancer. I worry those who have lost loved ones to Covid – who weren’t able to say good-bye, who live in villages and cities where relations and friends and neighbours were taken in large numbers – will end up standing on the other side of a veil from those who come out of this with a greater remove from the situation. I worry that we won’t be able to meet through language across the two sides of this divide. This is why I think stories and new forms of remembrance will become so important. To witness one event is no small matter but to witness something that sweeps over all of us in an uneven storm will require new forms of empathy; active listening.

Experiences across the pandemic have been so different. Members of senior leadership teams, programme leaders, catering staff, associate demonstrators, trainers at the university gym--even within groups of people who hold the same sort of job, let alone people who work for the same university but have different roles, there has been such an incredible variety of experiences. As the only non-European member of my team, having my entire family an ocean away, and following the coronavirus and other disasters in my home country, has been a different experience from everyone else's. Such differences have at times made me feel extremely alone. As Hunter says, even for someone whose work is literally exercising the imagination, the divide between communities which have been severely affected and communities which haven't is profound.

My own steps to acknowledge this divide have been small ones. Finding myself helplessly enraged whenever I received an email hoping that I had a nice or fun or relaxing summer ('I didn't, but I hope you did' doesn't feel very polite), I have tried to stop beginning emails with 'I hope this finds you well'. In normal times, this seems like an expression of good wishes--in pandemic times, I worry that this assumes the person I am addressing is fine, which is not a burden I want to put on them if they aren't. Instead I try to write things like, 'I hope this finds you and yours well and safe', or 'I hope you are hanging in there', or even 'How are you?' I've moved from closing my emails with 'sincerely' to 'take care'. Another small step that helps me is calling staying apart 'physical distancing' and not 'social distancing'. This reminds me that my social connections are taking some new forms for now, but they are still very much there.

A Sock Update and Other Coping Strategies

Wildflowers in various shades of purple, pink, and orange

Colourful wildflowers growing at a local cemetery

The sun is setting much earlier now, and I don't know what the next few months are going to be like. (Other than, of course, darker. November through February in the UK is a long dark teatime of the soul even in a good year.) One of the joys of taking regular walks through my neighbourhood has been paying attention to changes in the natural world--every few weeks I walk through a local cemetery to see what their wildflowers are doing lately.

It also helps to knit and watch a lot of science fiction & fantasy television. Which brings me to a cheerful place to end--I figured out my second sock.

The top two inches of a dark blue handknitted sock, on wooden needles, rests on top of a completed sock
Second sock success!

Somehow, in a pattern which read:

Rounds 1, 3, 5, 6: knit

Rounds 2 & 4: Knit 2, Purl 2 

I came up with:

Round 1: knit

Round 2: slip 1, purl 1

Part of what took me so long to work this out is I had utterly no memory of slipping stitches, let alone doing so for the entire leg of a sock. 

 Take care.



Sunday, 27 September 2020

First Thoughts on Vocational Awe in Academia

Do you ever read 'quit-lit'? 

For the past few years, essays written by someone who has left academic employment about why they did so have resonated with me. I work in a university but am not on a research or teaching contract, which sometimes matters not at all and sometimes matters very much. Sometimes I am grateful that my work still allows me access to a number of resources I can use to write history, sometimes I am frustrated that I don't have access to some of the resources, time, and respect I took for granted as a PhD student. 

I am one of the lucky ones. A month before submitting my PhD, in September 2016, I moved to my current city because my then-partner got a job here. After a year of putting together part-time jobs as a library assistant, associate lecturer (British for TA) at two universities, short-term early career researcher, part-time research administrator, in September 2017, I was simultaneously offered a permanent job as an academic librarian, and a one-year postdoc researching late antique saints. I chose the permanent job and three years later, with the world gone to hell, I am still here.

For the first year and a half, I didn't appreciate my good fortune. The other side of academic libraries was and is an eye-opening experience, and so too was the response of most academics: oh, they said, are you able to make time for your research and writing during your work day? (As though being a librarian was a job they could not imagine actually taking eight hours a day.) The fact that I have a PhD, and not an MLS/MLIS, was similarly baffling to many librarians. At one of the first library conferences I ever went to, a fellow attendee introduced herself to me by demanding to know where I went to library school. Finding Chris Bourg's blog post on feral librarianship was an immense help with my feelings of being, as the saying goes, neither fish nor fowl.

Plus, I was actively applying for the academic jobs and early career research grants, to the point where that was all the writing I did, outside of preparing conference papers. I had a number of interviews, but none resulted in an academic job. In between a few of the more devastating rejections, I came across Dr Erin Bartram's essay on her experience of leaving academia. I read the following paragraphs and finally found words for something I had been feeling but unable to articulate:

Quit-lit exists to soothe the person leaving, or provide them with an outlet for their sorrow or rage, or to allow them to make an argument about what needs to change. Those left behind, or, as we usually think of them, those who “succeeded”, don’t often write about what it means to lose friends and colleagues. To do so would be to acknowledge not only the magnitude of the loss but also that it was a loss at all. If we don’t see the loss of all of these scholars as an actual loss to the field, let alone as the loss of so many years of people’s lives, is it any wonder I felt I had no right to grieve? Why should I be sad about what has happened when the field itself won’t be?

Even in our supportive responses to those leaving, we don’t want to face what’s being lost, so we try to find ways to tell people it hasn’t all been in vain. One response is to tell the person that this doesn’t mean they’re not a historian, that they can still publish, and that they should. “You can still be part of the conversation!” Some of you may be thinking that right now.

To that I say: “Why should I?”

Being a scholar isn’t my vocation, nor am I curing cancer with my research on 19th century Catholic women. But more importantly, no one is owed my work. People say “But you should still write your book – you just have to.” I know they mean well, but actually, no, I don’t. I don’t owe anyone this book, or any other books, or anything else that’s in my head.

“But your work is so valuable,” people say.  “It would be a shame not to find a way to publish it.”

Valuable to whom? To whom would the value of my labor accrue? And not to be too petty, but if it were so valuable, then why wouldn’t anyone pay me a stable living wage to do it?

I don’t say this to knock any of my many colleagues who write and publish off the tenure-track in a variety of ways that they find fulfilling. I just want us to be honest with ourselves about who exactly we’re trying to comfort when we offer people this advice and what we’re actually asking of those people when we offer it.

Dr Bartram goes on to write about the fact that a PhD in History trains those who earn it to be a history professor and nothing else. My own PhD programme only started running events where alumni came and talked about their careers, let alone talks on how to apply for academic jobs, in the last year I studied there--and even the careers events were tailored towards academic work.  (Professors' biographies and departmental webpages list former students who have gained academic jobs, but no other alumni.) Even PhDs don't know what else you do with a PhD...

Even with all the stars aligned to keep writing: a stable job, healthcare, good internet, a safe place to live, decent (but not great) access to paywall-protected academic databases and journals, and excellent alumni library access through one of my former universities, I struggled with the question Dr Bartram asks. If producing academic writing is not part of my employment--and there is an excellent piece, here, about the fact that historians don't typically make money for this sort of writing--why do it? If you want to be a writer who specialises in history, you don't need a degree that trains you to be a history professor. Most trade nonfiction about the past is not written by authors with history PhDs; and a doctorate doesn't typically train its recipients to write well. 

I moved halfway around the world to become a historian, I didn't earn a PhD so I could write (unpaid) in my spare time. The degree was my entry ticket into the profession, neither a hobby project nor the sum total of my life (shout-out here to everyone who advised, in my first two years of librarianship, that I should spend my evenings and weekends writing in order to maximize my chances of academic employment). When I read Fobazi Ettarh's article on vocational awe in librarianship, it felt like I finally had the words to express some of what I saw and felt about academic work--the emphasis on teaching and research as a calling, the framing of the academic community as a sacred space, the endless job-creep of publishing expectations and student satisfaction, and more. 

The fact that I have chosen to resurrect this blog and produce academic and hopefully other kinds of writing, seems to fly in the face of all that I have just written. Quit lit, after all, is about quitting. Being done. Finished.

And yet.

No one is owed my work. I used to find the W.H. Auden quote 'You owe it to us all to get on with what you're good at' a source of inspiration when I was working on job applications. Now, thinking these things through, it grates. No one is owed my work.

I am uneasy with the idea that I am writing for my own fulfillment--once more for the folks at the back, I did my PhD as a professional degree. And I struggle with the idea of my writing as a historian being useful to myself or anyone else, a question the following poem raised for me when I stumbled across it.

To be of use

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

~ Marge Piercy

From Circles on the Water: Selected Poems of Marge Piercy (Alfred A. Knopf, 1982). Available online at the Poetry Foundation, here

For now, the only answer I have come to is that I owe it to myself to keep writing, and I owe it to others to keep learning, and extend help and welcome however I can.

Sunday, 20 September 2020

Weaving Words

How does one describe the process of writing? At the moment, trying to overcome my fears and finish editing an article I want to publish, I would mostly reflect on its emotional challenges. Someone who has just published a book might think of what they learned along the way. Late antique authors turned to textile metaphors, using language of spinning or weaving to describe the writing process. In the mid-sixth century, the Merovingian poet Venantius Fortunatus wrote an acrostic poem for the bishop Syagrius of Autun, as a gift to accompany a plea for the bishop's help ransoming an anonymous man from captivity. At the beginning of the letter, he describes casting about for a poetic subject with a textile metaphor: reading seemed to be as neglected as my practice went to waste, I found no opportunity from any subject that could be turned into poetry, and, so to speak, no fleece could be sheared to card into verse. (Venantius Fortunatus, 5.6, trans. Michael Roberts)

 When a man came to the poet begging for help freeing his son from captivity (like a lot of medieval vignettes, we begin and end in media res--the poet never gives the name of father or son or his captors; nor do we know what happened next), the poet had found his subject, and determined to write something as a Thank You in Advance for the bishop's help. He settled on a poem as a suitable gift but it had to be special.

What then should my modesty offer as a gift? As I was hesitating to decide, in my inertia the words of Pindaric Horace came to mind: 'Painters and poets have always enjoyed equal sanction to dare anything.' In pondering the verse, I wondered, if each artist intermingles whatever he wants, why should not their two practices be intermingled, even if not by an artist, so that a single warp be set up, simultaneously a poem and a painting?

Accordingly when I wished to make representations for the captive in verse, bearing in mind the lifetime of the Redeemer and Christ's age when he set us free, I wove a poem of just that number of verses and letters. Consequently what was I to do or where was I to go, deterred, as I was, immediately by the difficulty of the task or rather in difficulties because inhibited by the constraints of meter and the restraints on the number of letters? By a novel calculus the limit on numbers expanded my limitations, because once a boundary was set amplitude could not give itself room nor brevity be constricted and because of the check imposed by the verses read vertically the texture allowed no free movement. For in this weave it was not possible to disrupt or slacken the threads by adding a letter lest by exceeding the number it throw the warp into disarray. And so I carefully strove that two complete verses be read at the either end, two diagonally, and one running through the middle. A further element remained, what letter I should set among them all in the very middle that would be so welcoming to everyone as to offend no one.

Accordingly, after I had computed numerically the strands of this warp, once I started to weave, the threads broke both themselves and me. I began to be bound by a task undertaken for a man to be freed, and with a reversal of roles, I enchained myself as I sought to remove the captive's ties. The difficulty of this task can be estimated from the following: if you add whenever you wish, the line grows in length; subtract, and it loses its charm; make changes and the acrostics are awry. You set a letter in place and you cannot escape it. And so when this warp was set as a trap for me in verse, so that if I escape two times I would not evade a third, like a reckless sparrow I flew through the deceptive clouds into a net, because I was caught by the wing in what I sought to avoid...

...each letter that is colored in the vertical verse both retains its place in one sequence and enters into another and, so to speak, stands as a warp and goes ahead as a weft, so that the page becomes a lettered loom. Lest we be troubled that we seem to intertwine coloured threads with the art of an Arachne, in the books of the prophet Moses, as you well know, a fine-weaving artist wove the priestly vestments. So since there is no scarlet here, the text has been woven with red. The verses, however, that run from the corners downward at an angle are stable in meaning, if inclined in stance.  (Venantius Fortunatus, 5.6, trans. adapted from Michael Roberts)

image of a manuscript page
A ninth century manuscript of the poem. British Library, Add MS 24193, f. 30r

As Brian Brennan notes in a recent article, this wasn't the only time Fortunatus used metaphors of weaving in his work, and his writing of ekphrasis (an exercise in classical rhetorical writing which focused on detailed description), tended to pay particular attention to lavish textiles. At the end of his four-book poem about the life of the fourth-century saint Martin of Tours, Fortunatus contrasted the quality of his writing with the worthiness of his subject in explicitly textile terms:

The thread having been unraveled is making many rucks and the disjointed fibers with their knots make a rough cloth like that carded from harsh camel hair, whereas it was fitting for Martin to be given a silken cloak with a border shining with an interweave of twisted gold thread or a toga where ran purple, intermixed with white.(Venantius Fortunatus, Life of Martin, 4.621-7, trans. Brian Brennan, lightly adapted)

There were no camels in sixth-century Gaul, so the fact that the poet assumes his audience knows what camel-hair yarn and cloth feels like is intriguing. There are two possibilities: one is that, like so many late antique authors he, his simply hearkening back to what some poet he read in school says about camel hair yarn and cloth (having knitted with yarn made in part from the hair of baby camels, I assure you that it is among the softest fibers I have ever had the pleasure of handling). And secondly, in order to make sense to their audience, poets choose relatable metaphors, so this could be a reference to an actual textile familiar to his audience.

Just a metaphor?

We tend to think of textile work as done primarily by women but the more I read about the history of spinning, weaving, knitting, lace-making, tapestry, and embroidery, the more it becomes clear that this work was not restricted by gender. (If you, too, are interested in such things, I highly recommend Piecework magazine.) Indeed, in the late Middle Ages, the great tapestry-weaving workshops were run by men, and the male professional embroiderer is not the exotic creature modern prejudices might think him. When scholars say that Fortunatus' metaphors of weaving are just literary language, they dismiss textile production as 'unofficial art from the domestic sector' (in the words of a book on late antique textiles), something divorced from the high culture of poetry.

Yet textiles and poems were closer than we might think. The weavings of the fourth-century noblewoman Sabina were the subject of a number of epigrams by her husband Ausonius: 

LIII.—Lines woven in a Robe

Let the proud Orient extol its Achaemenian looms: weave in thy robes, O Greece, soft threads of gold; but let fame equally renown Ausonian Sabina who, shunning their costliness, matches their skill.

LIV.—A Second Set

Whether thou dost admire robes woven in Tyrian looms, or lovest a motto neatly traced, my mistress with her charming skill combines the twain: one hand—Sabina’s—practises these twin arts.

LV.—On the same Sabina

Some weave yarn and some weave verse: these of their verse make tribute to the Muses, those of their yarn to thee, O chaste Minerva. But I, Sabina, will not divorce mated arts, who on my own webs have inscribed my verse.

(Ausonius, Epigrams, translated by Hugh G. Evelyn White, Ausonius, Vol II (Cambridge and London, 1921). Note that in Roger Green's edition and numbering of the epigrams, these are Epigrammata 27-9.)

tapestry image of a female figure wearing a green cloak
Square Panel from a Furnishing with Bust of Spring
ca. 5th– 6th century CE
H. 21.6 cm; W. 19.7 cm
Tapestry weave of dyed wools and undyed (?) wool
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of George F. Baker, 1890 (90.5.848)

Aside from textile metaphors, one of the other things late antique poets appropriated was female personas--a poet writing in the voice of his wife is not unusual in late antique writing. This epigram, however, stands out as an instance were the two are combined to show a woman herself as artist and creator. 

Seeking A Fine-Weaving Artist

One of the assumptions people commonly make about late antique history is that there are few sources. An exciting thing about working on this period, though, is that that's absolutely not the case--as the amazing textiles presented in the exhibitions, 'Textiles of Late Antiquity' (1996) and 'Designing Identity: The Power of Textiles in the Late Antiquity' (2016) clearly show! What we sometimes don't have is the daring and imagination to put different types of information together--to imagine a world, for instance, where a mischievous young Venantius Fortunatus was given a drop spindle and a basket of camel's hair and told to make himself useful for a change, producing a lumpy, scratchy yarn he later used as a metaphor for struggling to write beautifully. When scholars relegate textiles to the domestic sphere, it sometimes feel like they are saying 'women made this so we don't have to worry about it'. And yet, textiles had such a powerful hold on the imagination of late antique writers that they turned to them when trying to express what writing was.
One of my dream projects is to join forces with a multi-media textile artist to imagine what Sabina's poem actually said. And simply to explore the metaphor of weaving with words, warp, weft, golden thread, and all.

Further Reading

 Brian Brennan, 'Weaving with words: Venantius' Fortunatus' figurative acrostics on the Holy Cross' Traditio 74 (2019), 27-53

Adolfo Salvatore Cavallo, Medieval Tapestries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993). Available from [accessed 20 September 2020]

'Designing Identity: the Power of Textiles in Late Antiquity', Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, February 25-May 22 2016, Available from [accessed 20 September 2020] 

Michael Roberts, Venantius Fortunatus Poems (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017)

Anne Marie Stauffer, Textiles in Late Antiquity (New York: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1995). Available from [Accessed 20 September 2020]

Jane Stevenson, Women in Latin Poetry (Oxford, 2005)


Sunday, 13 September 2020

A Personal Chronology in Sock Knitting

The last time I left my city overnight was in late February, and among other things that means that my knitting time has changed. Previously, I strongly associated my sock knitting with two things: travel (especially on trains, airplanes, and buses), and meetings where I could get away with toting needles.
I started knitting socks as a high school and university student, as part of my regular attendance at knitting classes with my mother and sister. The teacher was one of the best I have ever had at anything: patient, kind, vastly knowledgeable, and generous with sharing what he knew. No matter what everyone was working on, he began each class by teaching a short stitch pattern, usually one he had made up--even if one of his student knitters was determined to make the same thing over and over, he was determined to share the joy of the things knitting can make. Curious and opinionated (he believed in the Gospel of Wool, and didn't have much truck with novelty yarns), he also didn't take himself or his craft too seriously--I can still hear him saying, with a laugh in his voice, 'it's just sticks and string, it all comes apart'. I learned to make socks in his class, and nearly fifteen years later, that first pair is still going strong.
A red pair of socks hands on a drying rack
The first pair of socks I ever knit

 My sock knitting habit really kicked off in college, where I managed to carve out regular knitting time during the various meetings that the student groups I joined required. Like countless the knitters before me, I discovered that plain socks are a useful meeting-companion: they are small, portable, discreet, and can mostly be made without full attention.

A pair of blue, green, and red striped socks hands on a drying rack
The second pair of socks

When I studied abroad in Oxford, in 2009-2010, I brought a pair of socks with me. I still remember bringing them on trains and trips around the country, as I explored on my own and with visitors. During my PhD I began to travel regularly, and discovered that I LOVE to knit on trains. By 2014, the time the photos below were taken, I would rarely get on a train without a sock project in my bag. My collection grew accordingly!

5 pairs of colourful handknitted socks hang on a drying rack
My undergraduate socks

Socks knitted while I was an MPhil and first year PhD Student

two rows of colourful handknitted socks hang on a drying rack
My sock production up to 2014...

I started to give socks as gifts--beginning with a pair for my college boyfriend, whose size 13 feet marked the largest pair of socks I have made to this day (he and I aren't in touch anymore, but I hope they have lasted), and starting a tradition of giving members of my family, and close friends, socks as birthday presents, Christmas presents, or because I wanted to presents. Handknitted socks last for years, and so after a few years of steady knitting, my sock production shifted to being mostly for myself to being almost exclusively for other people. These days, I only keep a pair of socks if they, or the yarn, have particularly special memories attached.

I couldn't write out a list of all of the socks I've knitted--after over two dozen pairs, I can't remember them all at once--but put scraps of the yarn in front of me, or the socks themselves, I can tell you roughly when or where I was making them, sometimes in great detail. Knitters sometimes talk about how what we make is a vessel of our love for the recipient of our knitting, and when I gift socks to loved ones I like to think about this, but for me, they are also vessels of memory, capturing the time I spent on trains, or my first visit to a particular place, or something significant that was going on in my life at time.

Like a lot of people in the pandemic, I have found myself spending a lot of time at home. I have watched a lot of television, which for me is prime knitting time (a former housemate, watching Kill Bill with me, joked that I don't watch TV, I listen to it). The items below aren't all socks--I branched out to a pair of fingerless gloves, which are the purple item in the centre; and three of them were knitted in the autumn and winter of 2019, and blocked during quarantine. By now I have my teacher's simple sock pattern memorized, and a pretty good sense of what needles to use, and how many stitches to cast on, to get an appropriate size.

Socks of the Pandemic, May 2020. I have knitted two more pairs since taking this photo.

I make some hilarious mistakes. Those green socks in the centre are of great length in the leg and the foot (sometimes, if I am anxious while knitting socks, I keep going for awhile and end up with long legs or feet, and apparently, in times of special stress, both). Occasionally, a particular combination of skinny yarn and relaxation will mean that no matter how many stitches I cast on or what size of needles I use, the sock still ends up enormous; conversely, I have sometimes made socks of slightly different lengths--funnily enough, it's usually the second sock I'll make longer than the first!

Over the pandemic I have stumbled upon a new problem--I tried one of my teacher's patterns while watching TV, not looking at the pattern very much, and ended up with a beautiful textured effect. 

textured blue sock, summer 2020

I have not yet succeeded in making the second sock look like the first--attempts to follow the pattern as written have produced a very different-looking sock, so my task for the next few weeks is going to be to figure out my own knitting so I can produce the second sock! 

All of socks I have made during the pandemic will be things I remember as having produced sitting at home, rather than on trains or airplanes as usual. More than ever, those I keep and give away will have love and memory tangled in every stitch.