2016: The Year of Balance


By Jorge Cham (2013). From http://www.phdcomics.com


‘But all this year’s been a busy blur; don’t think I have the energy…’

The festive tune ‘Christmas Wrapping’ by The Waitresses struck a real chord with me this December. As the year drew to a close, I found myself tired, stressed, and with my energy reserves completely drained. 2015 was a perfect storm of activity – I did too much, and wore myself out. Frankly, I have never needed the Christmas break more than I did this year.

I’ve always enjoyed juggling lots of different things – taking on new challenges, learning new skills, visiting new places, having adventures. It’s that drive which has seen me do some really amazing things over the years – completing the Three Peaks Challenge, scuba diving in Borneo, even starting a PhD. Life is short, and death is long. Carpe Diem.

But this year was also the third year of my PhD, as well as the last year of my twenties: i.e. The Year It’s All Supposed To Come Together. Leaving aside the age thing for a moment, there are lots of pressures on Arts and Humanities PhD students and Early Career Researchers (ECRs) in terms of both time and effort.

We’re expected to teach undergraduates (and anyone who has taught knows how much time teaching prep, marking, emails, and other general admin takes, besides the actual teaching part). We’re also expected to publish our work in peer-reviewed journals, and attempt to get our thesis published by a reputable publisher as a monograph. Attending and organising conferences, seminars, and symposia is a given, as well as networking effectively at these events.

Increasingly, PhD students and ECRs are also expected to be digitally competent, and cultivate an effective digital presence on Academia.edu, LinkedIn, Twitter, blogs, Facebook, etc, etc. We’re sometimes expected to volunteer our time and expertise in unpaid work for societies, journals, museums, heritage organisations. If a particular PhD or ECR is really doing well, then they might also undertake commissioned translation work, or appear on radio or television, or write for magazines. Medievalists also have additional expectations on top of all of these regarding skills: we must be proficient in palaeography, languages (usually dead ones, like Latin, Old English, or Old French), codicology…

Oh and of course, the main thing is that full-time PhD students in the UK are expected to finish their thesis within three to four years.

This would (possibly?) be fine and doable to a fully-funded PhD student. But what if (like me) you’re not funded? What if, on top of all of the above, you also need to make money to pay for student fees, as well as for rent, food, and the general cost of living? What if you are also in the final year of your twenties, and have a lust for life, and don’t want to have to reduce your life to merely work and studies, but you also want time for friends, family, partner, self, and new adventures?

This is the issue I faced in 2015.

In terms of money, I was fortunate enough to land a fantastic part-time job as a Research Associate at UCL working on The Academic Book of the Future project. I know how lucky I am to have an academic role before completing my PhD, believe me. I’m incredibly grateful. Work of any kind, though, can bring its own pressures, and I’ll talk about this a bit later on in the post.

On top of all the stresses and expectations of being a final year full-time PhD student (as listed above) with a part-time job, I also moved house not once, not twice – but FOUR times in 2015. I also bought my first house with my partner – again, something I’m unbelievably grateful for, but the process is just as stressful as everyone says it is, and it certainly contributed to my rising stress levels as the year drew to a close. I ran my first marathon, because I wanted to run one before I was thirty and, well, time ran out to put it off any longer! I took an undergraduate teaching position in Bath to supplement my income for house-buying purposes, and to add more teaching to my CV. I spoke at or helped to organise far more conferences, symposia, or seminars than I meant to outside of work, as well as helping to coordinate a whole raft of events over the course of the year and during the inaugural Academic Book Week (9-16 November 2015). I had my first book published– a co-edited collection of essays with Samantha Rayner, entitled The Academic Book of the Future (Palgrave, November 2015). There was lots more, and I spent what felt like a weighty portion of my life on trains, between Bristol (for my PhD), London (for work), York (where we used to live), and Wiltshire (where we now live). Excessive travel, I discovered this year, is really, really exhausting.

On the whole I think it went pretty well. I look back and goggle at how much I managed to pack into this year, and I feel proud, as well as hugely privileged to have had these opportunities. It was only right at the end of the year that I really felt the strain. But I mean, I really felt the strain. It was a strange new sensation for me. I’m used to feeling overstretched, but I would describe the way I felt at the end of 2015 as emotionally and mentally thin. I felt stretched in too many different directions, with too many obligations to fulfil, and I was juggling far too many things. I felt completely raw, without my usual emotional padding. I ran out of time and sent a piece of work through a few days late, and dropped the ball with a piece of editing, and both things felt like the end of the world. I felt I’d let myself down, let my colleagues down, and that I was generally a terrible person. My mental and emotional selves had been grated down to such a level that my resilience to stress was non-existent. It was a scary wake-up call. You can only push yourself so hard for so long before the cracks begin to appear. And they did.

I never want to feel that way again – that way literally lies madness – so I’ve decided I’m going to have to make some changes going forward. This blog post is some of my advice to myself in 2016 and beyond – if you’re a final-year PhD student or ECR, then read on, and learn from my achievements and mistakes over 2015 (and do please leave your pearls of wisdom in the comments below too!).


Just Say No

As an early PhD student in my first and second year, I said yes to every opportunity that came along. This was fine, and was the right thing to do at that time. However, as I’ve become more established and have come to know more people in my field, it’s no longer necessary to say yes to every conference, every networking opportunity, every request. As a final year PhD student I’ve done the social grafting, and now my time is best spent on finishing the thesis – because there’s little point in making contacts and connections if you have no research to share with them and the world! It doesn’t mean I’ll say no to everything, but it does mean that I’ll be more selective and focussed in what I agree to do next year.


Carve Out Time for Research (and stick to it!)

There were lots of different pressures on my time this year. Sometimes (often) something had to give. There are only so many hours in a day, or days in a week, after all, and human beings all need to sleep and eat. Unfortunately, as my thesis is the thing with the least urgent time pressure attached to it (it has to be finished by the end of 2016, as opposed to Academic Book Week, or buying a house, for instance, both of which had very defined, very fixed time limits within 2015), it was usually the thing to be shunted to the bottom of the priority list when other tasks with more urgent time pressures presented themselves. This is a struggle I think all researchers face. It can be genuinely difficult to prioritise your own research to yourself, let alone to others – sitting and reading a volume for two hours for research purposes feels less frenetically productive than slashing through a heaving inbox of emails. It almost seems like a luxury. But it isn’t. It IS important. And I vow to honour this necessary and precious time in 2016.


Prioritise Your Mental, Emotional, and Physical Health

Running a marathon this year felt great. I loved every moment of it and smiled the whole way around the course (I know – but seriously, I did!). But the endless hours of training made me feel stressed – I felt like I could have been doing so many other things on my bulging To Do List. Then, once the marathon was over after October, I pretty much stopped exercising altogether, as I had so much work, research, and teaching to do. Having no exercise at all was terrible for my mental, emotional, and physical health, but I genuinely couldn’t see where I could squeeze it in without giving up sleep – and that wouldn’t have been good for me either. This all contributed to my feeling of mental and emotional thinness at the end of the year. Next year, I vow: healthy body, healthy mind. I’ll go for a small run each day, and do some Yoga, along with lots of walks in the country at weekends. I might even buy a bike. Because there’s no point getting so worn down that you’re useless to everyone, including yourself. A little time out each day goes a long way.


Don’t Feel Guilty For Doing Things That Make You Happy

In fact, write them into your schedule! This year, as you’ll have noticed, my blog got pretty badly neglected. I felt guilty whenever I sat down to write a blog post, because I felt I should be reply to emails, or writing my thesis. This meant that I pretty soon stopped prioritising it, because the feelings of guilt were too much. And it wasn’t the only thing to suffer in this way. I felt like I neglected friends and family too, as well as sacrificing important relaxation time. Without this opportunity to wind down I was a constantly coiled spring, ever tense. A thesis, or an inbox, can expand to fit all of your time, if you let it. This year I’ve discovered the sublime power of scheduled relaxation. It’s only taken a week off during Christmas holiday for me to start feeling like my old self again. It hasn’t always been possible this year because I overstretched myself, but next year I will try to remember that it makes a huge difference to my mental, emotional, and physical health to just STOP for a while. Think about something else. Go for a walk. Have a cup of tea. Do some Yoga. Whatever. Just do something that makes you happy, something you don’t have to do. Make time for this, because it is important.


No One Is Perfect – So Don’t Beat Yourself Up

I think a lot of other researchers struggle with this one too. We want to send off work that is perfect, and punctual, and that will dazzle its readers. The truth is that you could keep tweaking that article/essay/chapter forever. Just do your best, hit send, and then let it go (until you get comments back). Aim for your deadlines, but if something’s a few days late – well, the bottom line is that we’re in a sector where lives aren’t on the line. So if the choice is between your mental health or that article being in on time – choose your health. And don’t beat yourself up.

I could go on. There’s so much more to add (don’t have Facebook open in the background all day!), but I’m mindful that it’s New Year’s Eve and I have an evening of celebrations to get ready for!

Thank you, loyal readers. Thank you, Universe, for all the opportunities this year. But most of all, thank you to my colleagues, friends, family, and my partner, for all your patience, support, and help this year. We got through, we made it, and now let’s make 2016 an incredible (and balanced!) year.

Happy New Year!

1 Comment

Filed under Personal, PhD

An open letter to John Glen, MP (#DontBombSyria)

‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.’ – Edmund Burke. So here I am, doing something.


I don’t tend to get political on this blog, but perhaps it’s time to do just that. I disagree with the whole notion of war. I wonder how, as a species, we have not evolved beyond this outmoded, archaic concept. I also vehemently disagree with the brand of war that has been touted by our leaders in the UK in the past decade or more. Beyond this innate dislike of violence, murder, and death, I also strongly feel that war will not stop the issues we are having at the moment – it will almost certainly make them worse. There is a vote tomorrow on further airstrikes in Syria, so I lobbied my local MP (a Conservative), to ask him to vote ‘NO’ to more war. He replied saying, amongst other similarly patronising things: ‘when I hear talk about alternative paths, withdrawing arms from the region or working through Middle Eastern intermediaries, I am far from convinced. This narrative is at heart naïve…’


What follows in this post was my reply to him (originally via email).


Dear John (if I may),


Thank you for your response to my message regarding further strikes on Syria.


That was an automated email from a petition site, but I’d like to address you frankly, person to person, in the hopes that you will give some thought to what I’m about to say ahead of tomorrow’s vote.


I’d like to pick up on your ’fundamental belief that the first responsibility of government is to protect its citizens.’


This is indeed a key role of any government. Another is to protect the future of its citizens and the country they hold dear. However, the future of the UK, and all European states, is being put into jeopardy for the sake of knee-jerk reaction, for masculine bravado, for the sake of saving face. We are creating a monster with our short-sightedness.


I’ll explain what I mean by picking up on another of your points: ’It is plainly difficult for people to grasp that removing ISIL has an immediate impact on the motivation and resources associated with jihadi fighters who may already live among us in this country.’


We can airstrike ISIL until the cows come home, but it won’t stop the problem. You already know this. In fact, as you’ll also know, it’s EXACTLY what they want. They want antagonism, war, the vilification of Islam and Muslims by the West – because then they’ll have people flocking to their cause, a whole new swathe of extremists. With very little effort on their behalf, because we are literally doing all the work for them by playing the hero/villains in their set piece. Do you realise (I’m guessing that you must, as it’s your job to know such things) that this is the UK’s fourth war on a Muslim country in 14 years? Just let that sink in for a moment, and ask yourself why. But you already know very well the answer to that, too.


I’m going to say this very clearly: ISIL cannot be destroyed with bombs.


An idea, an ideology, cannot be destroyed using bombs. And that is what they are wielding.


Instead, it is up to us to work against that desire for war and terror, to nurture peace (yes, peace, that boring, unfashionable concept that seems to have been sadly forgotten by our politicians), oneness, support, caring. Yes, protect the UK – but by God do it with intelligence – both the military and emotional kind – not with bombs that are physically and emotionally tearing a country apart.


You say: ’However, at the heart of terrorism is an ideology that hates Britain and the west. There is no interest in coexistence and no prospect of dialogue or negotiation with ISIL and, when I hear talk about alternative paths, withdrawing arms from the region or working through Middle Eastern intermediaries, I am far from convinced. This narrative is at heart naïve about the nature of the ideology and those who follow it. Their only strategy is to obliterate the west and lead us into ever greater war.’


Things are nowhere near as clean-cut and binary as you and the government would have them be. The issues are no longer black and white, but a very murky grey, with France, USA, and now the UK certainly not cast as heroes in this conflict. It would be naive, indeed, to think that they are. We are doing wrong, too. The naivety here is not mine, but anyone who can believe that further war is justified.


Do I have a solution? No, I’m afraid I don’t. But I know what I, and millions of others in the UK don’t want – and that is more war. Peace will always seem like the weaker, less glamorous option against decisive action and martial prowess, but it has its own beauty to those that strive to attain it, and I personally would opt for it every single time.


I note from the biography on your website that you are a Christian, and that you regularly attend your local church. I am not a Christian myself, but I know enough of the teachings of the Church to know that this is certainly NOT what Jesus preached. Not in the slightest. As we approach Christmas, bear in mind the destruction that will be wrought on families on the other side of the world if we vote yes to this. How will their Christmas compare to yours?


When you vote tomorrow, vote with your conscience. Consider whether more killing, more destruction is really the answer or whether – as has been proven to be the case – this tack is simply is NOT working. It has not worked in the past, and neither will it work in the future.


We must strive to find an alternative solution.


So ignore me if you will, ignore all of your advisors, ignore the Prime Minister – but listen to your heart, listen to your conscience, and do what you judge to be right.


Peaceful Regards,






Stop the War Coalition: http://stopwar.org.uk/



Filed under Personal, politics

Guest post: Medieval Colleges of the University of Cambridge

Today I have the pleasure to present a guest post on six of Cambridge’s medieval colleges, written especially for this blog by my very good friend Jonathan Goddard. Jonathan is a fellow Bangor alumnus, an almost Cambridge native (he moved there from Cornwall aged 3 and a half!), and travel writer – you can find him at https://darkhartetravel.wordpress.com/ and @DarkHarteTravel. Jonathan and I often spend time together in Cambridge, and there’s nothing we like more than exploring its colleges, libraries, and churches (and gorging ourselves on sushi!). This post was born of those explorations – I asked Jonathan if he’d share some of his knowledge and thoughts (not to mention his gorgeous photos!) on the medieval colleges – and he agreed! Enjoy!

The University of Cambridge was founded in 1209 by academics and scholars fleeing Oxford in the wake of trouble there between the rival factions of ‘town and gown’. Violent riots in Oxford had led to the deaths of scholars in the city. A group of Oxford academics established a university at Cambridge on the banks of the river. In the early thirteenth century Cambridge was already a market town with a castle, two hospitals (one for lepers and one for paupers), and several religious houses including a priory (which later became Jesus College).

The medieval colleges were predominantly situated along the old high street, which ran from the castle along Bridge Street and Trinity Street into modern day Trumpington Street. The bridge at Bridge Street was the original river crossing in the town, giving Cambridge its name. This post very briefly explores six colleges of the earliest colleges established in Cambridge in the Middle Ages.

Peterhouse, 1284

We begin with Peterhouse, established in 1284. With an unassuming entrance off Trumpington Street, Cambridge’s oldest surviving college appears a modest establishment and has the smallest intake of any of its colleges at 75 students per year. For a long time I wandered past it, wondering where Peterhouse actually was, because it is less noticeable than the surrounding Fitzwilliam Museum and Fitzbillies Cafe. It wasn’t until I was on a university bus that stopped directly outside it that I finally located this rather elusive college. In medieval times though, Peterhouse would have been on the main road through Cambridge


Including the very worn stone step under the entrance gateway, this college has many signs indicating long centuries of use, even if the architecture itself has been updated and re-fronted.


A staircase, Peterhouse, Cambridge.


High Table in the Hall, at Peterhouse.


This bricked up doorway in the college’s back wall shows where an old entrance used to be. The ground leading away from the old door is worn into a noticeable rut.




A view of Peterhouse from the river meadow behind. The long old wall shows the boundary of the college, with its main buildings behind.

Clare College, 1326

The second oldest college in Cambridge, Clare has perhaps the best location of all: a site that spans both sides of the river, and is right in the city centre off the pedestrianised and picturesque Trinity Lane. Set in the heart of the old University quarter and on the Backs (the beautiful riverside sites), Clare’s neighbours include King’s College, Trinity College and Trinity Hall.



Clare College Chapel

Endowed by Lady Elizabeth de Clare, a granddaughter of King Edward I, the college was known as Clare Hall throughout its history until 1966. In 1966 Clare founded a second college, which was then called Clare Hall, and the original community took the name Clare College.


The Scholar’s Garden at Clare, with King’s Chapel in the background.

The College’s founding statutes provided for a community of fifteen scholars, of whom no more than six were to be bound by ties to the priesthood, and ten ‘paupers’ – poor students who were maintained by the College until they reached the age of twenty. Today Clare College has a large community of nearly 800 students in many subjects, and the college is particularly known for excelling in Music.


View from the Fellows’ Garden, looking across the river towards Trinity Hall.

Clare College has lovely riverside gardens, which are the perfect place to wander around on a summer day.


Pembroke College, 1347

A remarkably friendly and open college, Pembroke is also beautiful, and very old. The delights of wandering its grounds – noticing another Gothic archway, a cat-flap cut into a modern door in a medieval building, or simply enjoying the gardens – do not diminish, however frequently you visit. This college lies directly on my route into town, and like Corpus Christi, is reliably open, free and welcoming – so I often bring visitors here, and I love it every time.



The grounds surrounding the college buildings are full of tempting archways and little alleyways leading off into new courtyards and secret gardens, often hung with old-fashioned lanterns and covered with creepers.


Pembroke College was founded by Mary de St Pol, widow of the Earl of Pembroke, in 1347. The constituent parts of the original 14th-century college lay in today’s Old Court: dining hall, chapel, kitchen, Master’s lodging and student rooms. The college’s chapel was the first chapel to be built in Cambridge, and required the permission of the Pope. The original chapel still exists, having been converted to a library, and is now known as the Old Library. A new chapel was built for the college and consecrated in 1665. It was the first completed work of architect Sir Christopher Wren.


Inside the chapel built by Sir Christopher Wren, one of only two Wren Chapels in Cambridge.

A cloister built adjacent to the Chapel contains a war memorial to the many members of Pembroke who lost their lives in the First and Second World Wars.


Gonville and Caius College, 1348

One of the oldest and largest colleges in Cambridge, Gonville and Caius is today a community of 1000 scholars, including Professor Stephen Hawking. Its main site is a small island of sorts in the heart of the city’s old streets, surrounded on all four sides by Trinity Street, Trinity Lane and Senate House Passage. The location of Gonville and Caius at the heart of the city is confirmed by its neighbouring sites, including Senate House, where student graduations take place, the market, and Great St Mary’s Church.


Great St Mary’s was historically the centre point of the city, and University charters dictate that students must live within 10 miles of this church – a tradition that is still applied to this day. Gonville and Caius (pronounced Gonville and ‘keys’) is also adjacent to the old church of Michaelhouse, a remnant of the lost medieval college of the same name, made famous by Susanna Gregory’s books.


An impressive old vine shelters this turret doorway in Tree Court.

The college excels at rowing, and although Caius does not lie on the river, the Cam is only a stone’s throw away and can be reached by a short walk from its central site along Garrett Hostel Lane.


Gonville and Caius has some of the most picturesque buildings, like this sundial with an old door to the street.


The college wall, with the sundial, juxtaposed with the Georgian buildings of Senate House behind demonstrate the range of architecture in this part of Cambridge.

The college was founded as Gonville Hall in 1348 by Edmund Gonville, a Rector based in Norfolk. His dream of providing for twenty scholars to study arts and theology floundered due to financial problems soon after the rector’s death. Management of the college was then taken over by William Bateman, Bishop of Norwich, who founded neighbouring Trinity Hall in 1350. In 1557 the college was refounded and extended by John Keys, a former student and Fellow of Gonville Hall. He used multiple different spellings for his name, as was Elizabethan custom, and the Latin version ‘Caius’ was adopted to fit in with the college’s existing statutes, which were all in Latin.

Gonville and Caius has produced twelve Nobel Prize winners, more than any other Oxbridge college except Trinity College Cambridge. These include Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, Sir Howard Florey, co-discoverer of penicillin, and Sir James Chadwick, discoverer of the neutron.


Trinity Hall, 1350

Trinity Hall is often confused with its grander neighbour, Trinity College, but Trinity Hall is much older and (in my opinion!) prettier. Its late medieval chained library is a gem even in a city of beautiful medieval architecture. A compact site that uses its space well, Trinity Hall is a college of wonderful, immaculately-kept old buildings and pretty gardens, sitting on the banks of the River Cam.

Founded in 1350 by the Bishop of Norwich to teach canon law, Trinity Hall was one of the ‘plague’ colleges established to deal with the dearth of learned men in the aftermath of the Black Death of 1348. Unusually for this time it was not a theology college but a school for lawyers. A college with an inclusive, egalitarian ethos, provision was deliberately made for poor men to be able to train as scholars.

Trinity Hall

Trinity Hall

The Old Library at Trinity Hall is a very rare surviving late medieval chained library. The books were fastened with iron chains so that they could be kept in place and available to all students and fellows wishing to use them. The library still contains its chained books, and is the oldest library in Cambridge still in its original setting.

This floating door used to connect up to the Master’s Lodge opposite via a wooden walkway, so that the Master of the college could walk directly from his house to the library. The books were kept on the top floor of the building so that if the river flooded the valuable books would not be damaged.

Trinity Hall

Inside, the Old Library has a rarefied, musty atmosphere and a dark wooden floor warped with bumps and dips. It is all excellently preserved and it is hard to believe the surroundings are so old. The oldest book in the library dates from around 1066.

Trinity Hall

The waterfront at Trinity Hall, neighbouring Clare and King’s Colleges.

These oldest colleges (Peterhouse, Clare, Pembroke, Caius and Trinity Hall) are open to visitors most days and none of them charge for admission. Worth a visit!

Corpus Christi College, 1352

Unusually, Corpus Christi was founded by townspeople, the members of two Guilds, and it is the only college in Cambridge with this background. Corpus is another ‘plague’ college, intended primarily to train priests in the aftermath of the Black Death, which had killed many members of the clergy across Europe.


In 1381 Corpus Christi was stormed by a crowd of angry townspeople, led by the Mayor of Cambridge, in protest against high rents extracted on houses owned by the college. Many books and college documents were burned.

Thanks to a donation of manuscripts by Matthew Parker in 1553, Corpus’s library has one of the world’s greatest collections of Anglo-Saxon and early English books. Parker was an undergraduate at Corpus who went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury under Elizabeth I, and then Master of his old college. He acquired many books from monasteries that were cleared out during the Reformation, and donated them all to Corpus.

In 1573 the college passed new rules that required Latin to be spoken at all times during term. Students were punished for speaking English, including by being beaten.


Corpus Christi possesses one of the oldest sights in Cambridge in its Old Court, constructed at the college’s foundation in 1352.

Old Court bears a memorial plaque to the playwright Christopher Marlowe, a Corpus alumnus. Today the college is the smallest of the traditional colleges after Peterhouse, and has a community of around 500 students and Fellows.


Behind the college lies Free School Lane, the site of the famous Cavendish Laboratory for many years. The college sits squeezed between two churches, St Botolph’s to the south and St Bene’t’s on the north side. St Bene’t’s (short for Benedict’s) Church is the oldest standing building in Cambridge, and has a rare Saxon tower. St Bene’t’s churchyard joins on to the college and lies partly in the college grounds.


The old graveyard of St Benedict’s Church, part of Corpus Christi College.

Do you know any other interesting facts about any of these colleges? Please tell us in the comments below!

All photos are by Jonathan Goddard and should be credited DarkHarte Travel.


Filed under Medieval buildings

Terrain and Topography: The Middle Ages as Home

On Friday I had a meeting on the Strand for The Academic Book of the Future Project. I decided to take the number 15 bus from my native East London, not just for reasons of practicality (it would essentially deliver me door-to-door for a modest sum, plus the weather was good for once, making the Tube even less appealing than usual), but also because I have a sentimental fondness for that bus route. The no.15 is London’s unofficial tour bus, traversing some of the city’s most historic streets and thoroughfares. It runs past Aldgate (Chaucer’s neighbourhood), the Minories, the Tower of London, the square mile of the City, St. Paul’s, Fleet Street, and on to Trafalgar Square and Regent Street. Sit on the top deck of the no.15, and London’s history unfolds before you. It’s pretty special.

Tower of London

The Tower of London, as seen from the top deck of the 15 bus. Credit: Bex Lyons

For as long as I can remember, my mum and I have set out on many happy adventures along this route. The journey and its sights are deeply ingrained in my memory and consciousness, an intrinsic part of who I am. On Friday, as I passed the Tower on the no.15, it suddenly dawned on me all the time I’ve spent at that royal fortress over the years. As a resident of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets (literally, the hamlets by the Tower), I have the privilege of being able to enter the Tower and its grounds for the humble sum of £1. That, along with its proximity to my family home (about a 15-minute walk) mean that I have visited at least once a year – if not more frequently – for, honestly, as long as I can remember.

Overflowing with history, mystery, and legend, the Tower of London has always held enormous fascination for me, both as a child and now, as an adult. I was awed and fearful when my mum told me how London would fall if the ravens ever left. Deliciously chilled when my dad told me how, as a boy, he’d snuck down to the Tower one evening. He swears he saw the headless ghost of Anne Boleyn at one of the windows, and ran away home in terror. When a Beefeater – one of the Tower’s historical wardens – regaled me with the tale of the poor princes in the Tower, about my age then, I felt the tragedy and mystery of it all very keenly – and immediately bought a book with my pocket money to try to get to the bottom of it all. As a teenager the gore of the Bloody Tower held cool appeal, and I was morbidly fascinated by the inscriptions of prisoners etched deep into the stone walls. As an adult I appreciate all of this, as well as the architectural and temporal layers of the Tower’s structure; the tragic inevitability of Anne Boleyn’s demise; the many roles the building has played over time – (including royal zoo!), and much more. The wonders of this place are inexhaustible.

As I sat on the bus, these thoughts and memories became interwoven with others around my recent trip to the US for a medieval conference. It had been my first trip to the States, and although I hadn’t consciously thought about medieval monuments and landmarks (or a lack thereof) whilst I’d been over there, looking at the Tower I realised that this was something I had subconsciously noted. Something had been missing. The structures of the Middle Ages had been conspicuously absent from my Stateside travels. Perhaps, I considered – given my upbringing in London, and my close relationship with its medieval places – my path was inevitable. Perhaps I was always going to be interested in the Middle Ages.

Stars and stripes and skyscrapers in Chicago.

Stars and stripes, and skyscrapers in Chicago. Credit: Bex Lyons

In the past when I’ve tried to retrospectively chart the course that led me to study medieval and Arthurian literature, I’ve tended to place the blame squarely at the foot of my mum in my early years (for telling me fairytales, encouraging my reading, buying me books); my secondary school English teacher Ms Waters (for introducing me to Chaucer); and my undergraduate tutors Dr Raluca Radulescu (for Malory), and Dr Sue Niebrzydowski (for enchanting me with Middle English, spoken aloud). But I have never held my gloriously medieval city and its pervasive influence accountable for my life and career choices.

St. Paul's cathedral from the bus

St. Paul’s cathedral from the no.15 bus. Credit: Bex Lyons

As I was thinking through some of these embryonic ideas on the bus, and how environment (at least in my case) has played such a significant part in my interests and passions, I happened to read an article on my phone (Ferris Jabr. ’The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens.’ Scientific American. 11 April 2013. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/reading-paper-screens). It discussed the different effects that hard-copy and digital texts have on reading and learning. One point that it made was that the brain doesn’t have a special ‘reading’ function concerned with such elevated things as ‘thoughts and ideas, tones and themes, metaphors and motifs.’ Instead, the brain ‘essentially regards letters as physical objects because it does not really have another way of understanding them.’ The article went on to discuss the physicality of the real, tangible, paper book – how physically moving through one as a reader, turning the pages, using the corners as aids to navigate through the text, give a sense of terrain and topography – of a real, complex object – that ebooks have not yet been able to replicate or reproduce. This in turn has a powerful effect on learning and memory. For the brain, objects are how we interpret what it around us, how we learn.

In one of those wonderful moments when many disparate thoughts and strands come together to merge and synthesise, it occurred to me that I have been embedded in the physical objects of the Middle Ages  – have been reading them – my entire life. Immersed in the terrain and topography of the medieval, my formative years were a lesson in object-oriented medievalism, in learning by objects. I visited medieval places (the Tower, for instance); travelled self-consciously through medieval spaces which have retained much of their names and shapes (Aldgate, Cheapside, Newgate); heard medieval tales being told; touched medieval objects (such as the Roman wall at Tower Hill), and so on. This sensory immersion in, and interaction with medieval spaces and places has, I think, seeped into the way I think about the world, how I apply meaning. It’s not all – but certainly a large part – of what makes me tick. The Middle Ages are home.

Temple Church, Fleet Street

The no.15 bus also passes Temple Church, hidden just behind Fleet Street. Credit: Bex Lyons


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The Academic Book of the Future: exploring academic practices and expectations for the monograph

Well hello there! Apologies for my absence – I’ve moved house, moved PhD (transferred to Bristol in order to follow my lovely supervisor), and started a new job – so it’s been an extraordinarily busy and exciting start to 2015! As well as a final year PhD student, I’m also now a Research Associate at UCL, working on a really exciting two-year AHRC-funding project called The Academic Book of the Future – perfectly balancing my interests in the book between the past, present, and future! This post introduces the Project that I’m working on. It originally appeared on LSE’s Impact Blog, and is reproduced here with their kind permission.

What does the future hold for academic books? Rebecca Lyons introduces The Academic Book of the Future, a two-year project funded by the AHRC in collaboration with the British Library in which a cross-disciplinary team from University College London and King’s College London explores how scholarly work in the Arts and Humanities will be produced, read, shared, and preserved in coming years, and investigates key questions around the changing state and modern contexts of the academic book.

  • What is an academic book?
  • Who reads them?
  • What can technology do to help make academic books more accessible?
  • How can we make sure academic books, whether print or electronic, are kept safe, and preserved effectively?

Some of these questions – for instance “what is an academic book?” or “who reads them?” appear deceptively simple. However, the academic book is changing – contexts and readers even more so – and therefore these questions have potentially very complex outcomes. As with all the best research questions, they also suggest a huge network of other sub-questions, some of which this two-year project will be addressing in the hopes of finding some answers.

Anyone who uses academic books will have noticed a change (or several) in recent years in the terrain. There is the obvious expansion in the range of available formats, from traditional hardback and paperback books, to the wide world of digital, including epub, HTML, pdf, and so on. These developments, aligned with others in technology, have had a bearing on the ways in which we physically read academic books and the devices we use to access them, from tablets to laptops, pcs to e-readers, and of course not forgetting the humble hard-copy or print-out.

book of futureImage credit: Electronic Book by Tim Noko (Flickr, CC BY-SA)


Consequently, our acts of academic reading have changed. As Andrew Prescott highlights: we can now download academic biographies of long-dead monarchs whilst ‘trundling through the West Wales countryside’ on a bus. Not only this, but with an increasingly urgent and complex set of demands on academics’ time, including admin, research, writing, teaching, and putting together funding bids, the style and level of academic reading itself may have also changed. Geoff Crossick suggests, in his recent HEFCE Monographs and Open Access Project report:

It is felt by many that today’s scholars lack the time to read books thoroughly, and it is feared that the academic skill of ‘deep reading’ may become, or have already become, devalued or lost. The emergence of new technologies for information production and retrieval, the ability readily to download book chapters and journal articles, and changing societal expectations around information being readily and instantaneously available, might be compounding these fears that the monograph, and the academic practices that surround it, are becoming an unloved relic of a bygone age. (p. 22)

The transition into the digital age has also brought with it some pressing questions about the traditional shape, size, and format of academic books. With more and more research taking an interdisciplinary, digitised, and innovative approach, new outputs are being produced by researchers which increasingly trouble the traditional the boundaries and definitions of the traditional arts and humanities monograph. Where, for instance, do blogs fit in? – and more importantly, how are they credited and recognised by the academy – if at all? Michael Piotrowski considers books vs blogs in terms of academic prestige in a previous post on this blog, and in doing so also touches upon some other topical issues with a huge bearing on the academic book in modern academia, namely impact and recognition. In a post-REF world where impact is king, and where departments and researchers are measured by the amount of research they can publish, how are non-traditional outputs weighed and measured in the Arts and Humanities? And what about non-traditional publication methods, such as open access?

It should be obvious from this incredibly brief introduction alone that academic books and their contexts have changed, and are still changing, dramatically. We are barely scratching the surface here. How are libraries and publishers working in these changing modern contexts? What’s happening with academic books in the global south? What about non-English academic books? The Academic Book of the Future Project aims to bring researchers, publishers, librarians, booksellers, and everyone with a stake in the academic book into dialogue with each other in order to get to grips with some of these issues, and to help inform forward steps (including REF 2026). The Project is, at its core, an investigative conversation that uses a wide range of mini-projects and events to prompt meaningful discussion.

The pinnacle of the Project’s activity for 2015 is Academic Book Week (9-16 November 2015). #AcBookWeek is a week-long series of events taking place across the UK and internationally to celebrate the diversity, innovation and influence of academic books, culminating in an Awards Ceremony at the British Library. If you are in any way involved with academic books – whether it is writing them, producing them, selling them, or reading them – we invite you to get involved with this week, and with the wider Project, too. Join in the conversation, and help us to identify – and even shape – the academic book of the future.

Email the Project: Rebecca.lyons@ucl.ac.uk
Tweet the Project: @AcBookFuture
Follow the Project blog: http://academicbookfuture.org/blog/
Project website: http://academicbookfuture.org/

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics.

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Interview: Arthurian Literature and Legend, Postgraduate Studies, Career Advice

When Georgie Norgate, one of my lovely undergraduate students, approached me to ask if she could interview me for a new student radio show she was starting up, I was flattered. 

Actually I experienced a whole range of involuntary reactions in quick succession, from horror (I HATE my voice); to curiosity (what’s it like being on the radio?); to fear (what if I say something stupid and it’s out there FOREVER?), to egotistical smugness (she thinks I’m interesting, how lovely!).

In the spirit of harvesting as many experiences as possible in life, I agreed.

And as it turns out, I DID say something stupid – I had an incredibly scatty moment about Geoffrey of Monmouth and obliterated Guinevere’s presence from his Historia Regum Britanniae entirely! Oops.

But apart from that blunder, and a bit of nervous giggling, the interview was actually a lot of fun! It was a great learning experience – better to make these mistakes now, than with Melvyn Bragg in a few years, eh? (There’s the egotism again!) It’s not the most polished or sophisticated of pieces (Georgie was fantastic – it was her guest who kept wandering off topic!), but I’m really glad I said yes.

We discussed Arthurian literature and legend – from the idea of a historical Arthur to later romance – and considered the enduring popularity of the legend into modern film and television adaptations. Georgie was also very interested in my unorthodox route to a PhD alongside a career in publishing and web editing, and asked about careers for English graduates. I was only too happy to share my story and impart some advice and encouragement to the next generation of undergraduates.

So, here’s my interview in all its glory on the University of York Radio website:

What’s that Topic? – with Rebecca Lyons:


Each interview in the ‘What’s That Topic?’ series will be with a different subject area specialist. Do keep an ear out for the next one!

And if you have any tips for speaking on the radio – please do share in the comments below!

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Filed under King Arthur, PhD, The Arthurian Legend, The Arthurian Tradition

Suffolk: A Medievalist’s Paradise

The end of last year was a whirligig of activity, with teaching, freelance web-editing, and thesisising all featuring heavily on the agenda. Plus a pinch of socialising, of course. Thankfully this year has already started to bear the fruits of my endeavours – including an exciting new job! But more on that another time. So whilst I’m wrapping up my freelance work and preparing for a new role, I have a moment to reminisce and finally write a post about a holiday I took with my mum last September (I really have been that busy!). Join us on a tour of medieval Suffolk via some of its key monuments and locations – it is a fantastic place to visit if you’re interested in the Middle Ages, and here are just a few reasons why…

map of Suffolk


Suffolk has an undeniably rich and impressive history. Its location on the south-east of England and the continental connections that this location afforded – first for Anglo-Saxon settlement and later for wool trading – as well as its proximity to London, ensured the continued importance of this area throughout the Middle Ages. Its extensive and prestigious history can still be seen in the monuments and coastline of this picturesque county.

Orford Castle

Orford Castle

Orford castle’s dramatic keep

A striking figure bounded by sea, gentle green countryside, the quaint village of Orford, and shimmering Orford Ness – all that remains of twelfth-century Orford Castle is its impressive keep. Built in the 1160s-70s by King Henry II of England, the castle served as a reminder to the rich and occasionally troublesome nobles of Suffolk and Norfolk of royal power and authority – particularly those pesky Bigods. According to English Heritage the castle cost £1,413 to build, and as the entire royal revenues were less than £10,000 a year, this is a testament to the importance of the project. The keep is visible for miles around. Big Brother was definitely watching the Bigods.

View from the top of the keep over Orford Ness

View from the top of the keep over Orford Ness

The round keep comprises several levels – a lower hall and upper hall encircled by several rooms and private chambers, as well as a cellar and a roof. It was a multi-purpose building – defensive and governmental, along with serving the requirements of an itinerant king and court.

Orford castle keep floor plan

Orford castle floor plan – From English Heritage’s Orford Castle Teacher’s Kit. Copyright © 2000 English Heritage. Revised 2002, 2008. Image © English Heritage Photo Library

If the outside of the keep and its now lost castle were intended as a display of royal power and authority, the inside echoes and recreates the hierarchical ideals of twelfth-century England on an architectural scale. Each level served a different purpose, and was intended to be used and accessed by a different set of guest or resident – the lower hall was probably a court or council room, and stone seating runs around the circumference of the room. The upper hall was intended for grander use, including the king’s visits, and has its own small side kitchen for preparing food and keeping it warm.

Lower hall fireplace of Orford castle's keep

Lower hall fireplace of Orford castle’s keep

The fireplace on one side of the round entrance hall provided heat to all the chambers behind and above it, running along its length up that side of the building – these would have been occupied by important figures such as the king, queen, and constable, and are incredibly cosy, with small windows and thick walls to protect inhabitants from weather, and any attacks. There is also a small chapel where Anglo-Norman decorative stone-carving is still visible, complete with a listening hole for people outside in the hall to also hear services. The roof houses a bakery – the ovens with their original medieval tiling are still extant – whilst the cellar has a well and space for food storage. Everything has been considered for comfort and convenience – the constable’s room even has a personal urinal in the wall just outside his door!

The constable’s urinal - Orford castle keep

The constable’s urinal – Orford castle keep

It really is a wonderful, characterful building, and with its extraordinarily clever and compact design and gorgeous surviving original features, it makes for a wonderful afternoon of exploration. Every time I visit I like to imagine Henry sitting in court, with his notoriously terrible wine and ordinary clothes, and Eleanor his queen beside him, in all her Aquitanian finery, enjoying this remarkable space.

See the English Heritage website for details on how to visit Orford Castle: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/orford-castle/

Framlingham Castle

Approaching Framlingham castle’s front gate

Approaching Framlingham castle’s front gate

Travel inland from the coast, head north-west towards the Suffolk-Norfolk border, and you’ll reach Framlingham castle. Built by the Bigod earls that Henry II was so concerned with keeping under control, the castle passed back and forth between Bigods and Crown in the wake of revolts against the king, and subsequent changes in monarch. Framlingham is a very different structure to Orford in the sense of what was originally constructed, as well as what has been left behind.

Internal view of Framlingham castle

Internal view of Framlingham castle – note the Tudor chimneys on each turret!

The castle had no keep, but a thick curtain wall protected the inner courtyard and its buildings, including a hall and chapel. The castle was surrounded by the Great Park – used for hunting and recreation – and lakes, which were added in the later Middle Ages. In 1476 the castle passed to the Howards. It remained an actively used building through the Tudor period, and it was the Howards who modernised parts of the castle and added the highly ornate chimneys that were so fashionable during the sixteenth century, and which characterise the castle so dramatically today. When Mary Tudor seized power in 1553, she did so from Framlingham Castle.

One of the Tudor chimneys at Framlingham

One of the Tudor chimneys at Framlingham

In the seventeenth century the castle was left to Pembroke College, Cambridge, and a poorhouse was built within its walls (below). The best way to see Framlingham Castle is by walking around the top of these curtain walls, and English Heritage provide an excellent audio guide which even highlights holes in the stones of the crenelated battlements where shutters could be lifted to fire arrows.

View of the poorhouse from Framlingham castle walls

View of the poorhouse from Framlingham castle walls

See the English Heritage website for details on how to visit Framlingham Castle: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/framlingham-castle/

St. Michael’s Church, Framlingham

St Michael’s Church, Framlingham

St Michael’s Church, Framlingham

Framlingham’s church is also worth paying a visit. It has undergone several phases of development and redevelopment, from the twelfth century (the capitals of the chancel arch date from this point), to the late nineteenth-century renovations that uncovered fifteenth-century murals on the walls.

The interior of St Michael’s Church

The interior of St Michael’s Church

The ceiling is particularly impressive, dating from about 1521, with intricate fan tracery, concealing hammer beams. It feels like standing in the hull of a vast ship.

The church ceiling

The church ceiling

The church also has an interesting collection of tombs. They include those of the Earl of Surrey and his wife, Frances de Vere, as well as two of the wives of Thomas, 4th Duke of Norfolk. But my favourite is that of Henry FitzRoy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset , the illegitimate son of Henry VIII, and his mistress Elizabeth Blount – one of Katherine of Aragon’s ladies-in-waiting. By all accounts, Fitzroy was a fine young man of whom Henry was inordinately proud – especially as he was his only son except Edward to survive infancy. However, he died of consumption when he was only 17.

The tomb of Henry Fitzroy – Henry VIII’s illegitimate son

The tomb of Henry Fitzroy – Henry VIII’s illegitimate son

For information on the church’s history and how to visit, see the website: http://stmichaelschurch.onesuffolk.net/welcome-to-st-michael-s-framlingham-website/

Leiston Abbey

Leiston Abbey

Leiston Abbey

Easily missed, tucked away down little lanes in the Suffolk countryside, are the ruins of Leiston Abbey. An abbey of Premonstratensian canons, it was moved, stone by stone, from its initial swampy location elsewhere in Suffolk in the fourteenth century to its current location – meaning that the newer fourteenth-century structure also contained elements of the original Anglo-Norman structure.

Colourful stones in the walls of Leiston Abbey

Colourful stones in the walls of Leiston Abbey

The ruins make for a pleasant hour or so of exploration. Its remote location means that, despite the pleasant day, we were the only visitors. Having a whole abbey to yourself is a peaceful experience, and many of the original structures remain, including a refectory, abbey church, and cloister.

Rambling around the ruins

Rambling around the ruins

See the English Heritage website for details on how to visit Leiston Abbey (entry free): http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/leiston-abbey/

Aldeburgh Moot Hall

Aldeburgh Moot Hall

Aldeburgh Moot Hall

My mum and I stayed in Aldeburgh during our visit to Suffolk, using it as a base for our medieval explorations. It really is a wonderful little place – great pubs and restaurants, quaint boutique shops, an extensive seafront, and a sixteenth-century hall. The Moot Hall – which wasn’t called this until much later – was a central building used for several purposes – prison, town hall, council chamber, market centre. It now houses the Aldeburgh Museum, which tells the story of the hall, the town, and the local region. Amongst the tales are those of seven unfortunate ‘witches’ imprisoned in the hall. The Museum’s website offers a chilling glimpse of the witchfinding hysteria that swept through East Anglia during the seventeenth century:

“Matthew Hopkins, self-styled Witch Finder General, and widow Phillips, his search woman, were employed by the Burgesses to find out witches in Aldeburgh. Seven women were incarcerated in the Moot Hall’s prison in the middle of one of the coldest winters on record. They were prevented from sleeping and watched for proof of their guilt – that is for the coming of their familiar spirits. Eventually, cold, hungry and exhausted, they must have confessed. They were all hanged in February 1646.”

The walls of the Moot Hall

The walls of the Moot Hall

The hall now stands in fairly close proximity to the beach, with no buildings between it and the sea. This wasn’t always the case. The map below shows the hall – the red-coloured structure – in 1594 in the centre of the town, with two sets of buildings quite securely wedged between it and the sea.

The Moot Hall in 1594 – Credit: http://www.aldeburghmuseumonline.co.uk/

The Moot Hall in 1594 – Credit: http://www.aldeburghmuseumonline.co.uk/

The Moot Hall houses Aldeburgh Museum, which is open to the public. See the website for details: http://www.aldeburghmuseumonline.co.uk

Lost places and the sea

The Moot Hall’s perilous position by the ever-encroaching sea is emblematic of the story that has been playing out along the Suffolk coastline for centuries. Harbours silt up and move – such as the one at Orford Ness – and villages and towns change, and even disappear.

The retreating coastline of Dunwich – Credit http://www.aldeburghmuseumonline.co.uk/

The retreating coastline of Dunwich – Credit http://www.aldeburghmuseumonline.co.uk/

Aldeburgh owes its earlier affluence to this process. The harbour town of Dunwich, pictured above, was a wealthy, prestigious settlement – the capital of the kingdom of the East Angles in the Anglo-Saxon period, and in the High Middle Ages it was an international port. But repeated storms silted up its harbour, and opened one up near Aldeburgh. As you can see in the image above, the sea has attacked Dunwich aggressively since the Middle Ages – leaving little of the town uncovered by water. There is still a small town there, more like a village really, but very little remains of the medieval grandeur of this settlement.

Other places like Slaughden, a village just along the coast from Aldeburgh, have disappeared completely. The last resident was born there in 1922 and the sea swept it away completely in the 1950s. You can read an interview with this last resident here: https://holdingbackthetide.wordpress.com/2008/12/05/the-last-child-of-slaughden-interview/. There’s something very haunting about these sunken towns. There is a myth that in Dunwich, as in many other lost places in the British Isles, church bells can be heard ringing beneath the waves on stormy nights.

These are just some of the places that we managed to squeeze into one week – but there are so many other sites in Suffolk to entice medievalists, including Ipswich, Sutton Hoo, and a plethora of medieval churches and monuments. Visit this year – you won’t regret it!

The Lyonesses by Orford Ness

The Lyonesses by Orford Ness

Further Reading and Links

Mark Bailey. Medieval Suffolk: An Economic and Social History, 1200-1500. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2007.

Orford Castle: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/orford-castle/

Framlingham Castle: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/framlingham-castle/

St. Michael’s Church, Framlingham: http://stmichaelschurch.onesuffolk.net/welcome-to-st-michael-s-framlingham-website/

Leiston Abbey: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/leiston-abbey/

Aldeburgh Moot Hall: http://www.aldeburghmuseumonline.co.uk

Note: Unless stated otherwise, all photos on this blog post are my own and should be credited Rebecca Lyons.

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Filed under Medieval buildings, Medieval history