Take your crusader medicine!

Have you ever heard of an idea called ‘bake your research’/’bake your thesis’? If you haven’t, it’s exactly what it sounds like: the challenge of interpreting your work through the medium of baked goods. (Not baking bits of your research into a cake. I don’t think picking bits of paper out of your teeth would be very nice).

We had a ‘bake your research’ challenge in my department very recently, for a very good charity cause. I’d recently come across a recipe, thanks to fellow historian of the crusades Guy Perry, for a Sicilian delight called fior di mandorla — literally, flowers of almonds. Various recipes are available online, but the one I used contained ground almonds, sugar, honey, cinnamon, lemon, and egg whites.

Anyway, Guy doesn’t call these little confections fior di mandola. He calls them ‘crusader sweets’ because the mix of ingredients is evocative of the fusion of cultures, culinary and otherwise, that characterised the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, and other locations where different Mediterranean cultures — Latin, Arabic, Greek — met, including the states of Outremer.[1] Almonds from France, lemons from Iberia, sugar from Outremer and Egypt, cinnamon brought along the Silk Road… perhaps, just perhaps, this recipe is the modern version of a medieval blending of the foodstuffs traded across the Mediterranean, to be enjoyed by those wealthy enough to be able to afford the ingredients?

Looking at the ingredients, though, something else struck me. Every one of the ingredients used in these fior di mandorla would have had significance in medieval medical understanding. Medieval medical theory was based on the idea of the four humours: that health was determined by the balance of four substances (blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm) in the body. Each of these substances was characterised in terms of heat and moistness, so blood was thought to be hot and wet, for example. Too much or too little of any of these substances was thought to cause ill-health. One way of treating such imbalances was by altering the diet, since foodstuffs were thought to have these properties of heat or moistness too (there’s a nice explainer on this here). To confirm my musings, I checked out one of my favourite books which itemises the properties foodstuffs were thought to have in the medieval period: Food in Medieval Times, by Melitta Weiss Adamson.[2] Here’s some of what Adamson’s book told me:

Almonds: humourally warm and moist, very nutritious and served to invalids.

Sugar: also humourally warm and moist, and good for invalids. Very expensive and therefore a luxury product.

Honey: a healthful food, though less easily digestible than sugar. Humourally warm and dry.

Cinnamon: a very expensive luxury product from Sri Lanka. Humourally warm and dry and used to aid digestion. An important ingredient in Arabic cookery.

Lemon zest: humourally warm and dry, and recommended to aid digestion. Another important ingredient in Arabic cookery.

Egg whites: humourally cold and moist. Good for the sensitive stomachs of convalescents.

A couple of other snippets bring the ‘crusader’ element of this ‘crusader medicine’ back into focus. We know that almonds were bought in quite astonishingly large quantities for consumption in the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem (managed by the Hospitaller Order during the crusader period).[3] And various chroniclers mentioned the crusaders’ first taste of sugar in the Holy Land in 1099. In fact, William of Tyre, who chronicled the crusades of the twelfth century, said that sugar was ‘most necessary for the use and health of men’.[4]

Oh, and did I mention that they were really tasty?

[1] Outremer, literally, ‘the lands over the sea’, is the preferred term for the twelfth- and thirteenth-century states often called the ‘Crusader States’: the County of Edessa, the Principality of Antioch, the County of Tripoli, and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

[2] Melitta Weiss Adamson, Food in Medieval Times (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004).

[3] Piers D. Mitchell, Medicine in the Crusades: Warfare, Wounds and the Medieval Surgeon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 68.

[4] William of Tyre, A History of Deeds done Beyond the Sea, trans. by E.A. Babcock and A.C. Krey (New York: Octagon Books 1976; first publ. New York: Columbia University Press, 1941), I 13:3, p. 589.


How I learned to stop worrying and give a paper without a script

My alma mater has a work-in-progress series: each year, every post-graduate researcher presents a paper on their current work for feedback on content and delivery. The idea is to hone your presentation style and ty out new methods and ideas before hitting a big conference. My technique throughout my PhD years remained the same. A carefully crafted script, and a whizzy powerpoint to go with it (my use of animations knows no bounds). Whenever it was my turn for a work-in-progress, I was advised to have a go at using these internal and informal sessions to present from notes rather than a script. But since I also received feedback to say that my presentation style was very good, and that although I was presenting from a script, it didn’t seem like it, thanks to making lots of eye contact with the audience, building in a little bit of ad libbing, and modulating my intonation. So I thought that there was no real need to go script-free, since I was doing just fine with one, thank you very much.

I’m doing an increasing number of talks for public audiences these days, and last July I did a short (10-minute) presentation at Leeds Central Library, on the medieval resonances of Game of Thrones (part of a very fun public engagement day which included colleagues from the University, local craftspeople, and the city librarians). For the first time, I felt that my script got in the way a bit and planted the seed that maybe it was time to try and present without a script. But my next public talk was a long one (45 minutes) and I scripted it because it was easier. After that one I got some feedback from, ahem, my mother and mother-in-law, who said that they were a bit surprised I had spoken from a script, and that I had perhaps tried to cover too much material. Once I got over the initial grump (didn’t they realise I was fishing for compliments when I asked them what they thought?!), I took this feedback on board and determined that my next talk would be script-free.

January rolled around and the time for my next talk approached. This time it was in a school, and the audience would be sixth-form students studying medieval history, some of their teachers, and other professionals from the local area who had a connection with the school. I had a few false starts putting the talk together. When not scripting, how does one prepare for a paper? I turned to twitter of course, and got some very, very useful tips from generous and wise twitterstorians:

My husband, who also gives public talks on his own specialism, had a great piece of advice too: he pointed out that I have no problem spending 5 minutes answering a question, so why not think of the talk as a series of questions, and plan to spend about 5 minutes answering them? This really helped me to structure the talk, and made me less apprehensive about spending 45 minutes speaking from brief notes. The talk I presented had much less content (examples, historiography, analysis) than I would usually present; instead I focused on a few really key case studies, instead of battering down my listeners by sheer weight of evidence! I think this was more appropriate for the audience and allowed me to really get to the heart of the methodology.

There’s no doubting that the scripts have been, for me, a comfort blanket. I knew how much I needed to write for a 20- or 45-minute paper, and when scripting I thought I could be much more eloquent than if I was speaking from notes. I also had a horror of forgetting my material, and not being able to precisely quote examples. But then I have never needed any form of scripting for teaching seminars or delivering interactive engagement activities, and yet I’ve managed to keep going with them. And that was exactly the case for this talk: I was able to speak for the right amount of time, I didn’t lose my place or go blank, and I did feel more connected to the audience. I’ve broken my duck now; it’s still going to take a bit of practice to really feel proficient at presenting from notes, but I predict a script-free future!

Medieval Bodies Ignored: Excursion to York

I may have taken December off from my extra-curricular/academic work, but I wasn’t completely idle. Belatedly, here’s a post I wrote for the folks at Medieval Bodies Ignored: Politics, Culture and Flesh (an innovative project run by postgraduates at the University of Leeds) reporting on an excursion taken to York in late November last year (featuring a public talk by yours truly!):



And so, into 2018. I took December off. Not in an employment sense – actually, I’ve changed jobs and so am now getting up to speed in a new role (and it’s awesome!) – but from my research, my ‘extra-curricular’ work, as I’ve taken to calling it; you also might know it as alt-academia. The second half of 2017 was a busy few months, and after I gave a public talk at the end of November, I decided that it was time for a little break and a regrouping of what comes next (another public talk at the end of this month, and some exciting writing/publication plans for the year ahead).

This is all rather a contrast to how my working days were being played out this time last year. I completed a full draft of my thesis for Christmas Eve 2016, but in the run-up – all of November and December – I was doing fourteen or sixteen-hour days, including weekends, and the only time I was officially taking off was Sunday mornings (I wasn’t quite bad enough to take my laptop to church with me…!) Long weekends were spent at the University library, long evenings tapping away at home. It was an amazing period of productivity. Never before have I been able to just sit down at my laptop and work. I wasn’t inclined to procrastinate, my concentration levels were amazing, my writing flowed, and the thesis just came into being. Reading this over, it sounds very positive and like I was in a transcendental state of perfect working. I really wasn’t – I was a total mess! – but I can’t deny that something magical happened to my writing.

And now here I am beating a path to an alternative form of academia as 2018 rolls around and the anniversary of my submission approaches. I’m not the only historian doing this – far from it – but my expectations of myself are still based on the more straightforward academic routes (teaching fellowships, post-docs, and such). I feel a certain amount of pressure – entirely self-imposed, I must emphasise – to produce work at a certain rate, to go to a certain number of conferences, and to turn my thesis into a monograph in a certain time period. I can’t help but look at the activities of ECRs who are in academic jobs and take that as a model. This is probably exacerbated because I still work in a university, and I’m not really outside the academic system, just a bit parallel to it. But then I take a step back and think “what’s the rush? What do I have to prove to anyone other than myself?” That’s a reassuring thought. I just need to take more notice of it sometimes!

Happy new year, everyone.

A Historian’s Halloween: ‘Skeletons: Our Buried Bones’ at Leeds City Museum

This is an accidentally apt post for Halloween (i.e. I didn’t plan to write it for Halloween – circumstances just happened that way!). I don’t really understand the commercialisation of this season set aside to remember the dead; the folklore of Halloween, together with the importance of the two feasts of All Saints Day (November 1st) and All Souls Day (November 2nd) in the Christian calendar – both medieval and modern – seems to me to be rather diluted with plasticky decorations, fancy dress, the waste of perfectly edible pumpkins, and overconsumption of sugar. Maybe I’m just bitter because my mum wouldn’t let me go trick-or-treating as a child, but I don’t get it.

I’m especially mindful of the deeper significance of All Hallows’ Eve just at the moment because this weekend I made my second visit to the ‘Skeletons: Our Buried Bones’ exhibition at Leeds City Museum (my first was during the War Through Other Stuff workshop, which I blogged about here). This time I was part of a group treated to a tour of the exhibition courtesy of curator Ruth Martin, set up by the ‘Bodies Ignored/Obsessed’ initiative at the University of Leeds. Organised by four postgraduate researchers all working on topics to do with the body in history (Rachael Gillibrand, Sunny Harrison, Rose Sawyer, and Vanessa Wright) there are a series of events – seminars, excursions, and a conference – planned in the Bodies Ignored/Obsessed series this year, designed to get people thinking about human and non-human bodies; do check it out. The tour of ‘Skeletons: Our Buried Bones’ was an opportunity to get researchers and members of the public together to explore, view, and discuss the exhibition of human remains.

A bit of background. ‘Skeletons’ is a touring exhibition, based on an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in 2008 of human remains held by the Museum of London; it has since toured to Glasgow, Bristol, and now Leeds. In essence, the exhibition is very pared down; the main exhibits are skeletons dating from the Iron Age to the nineteenth century, with photography of the sites the skeletons were found in. Each host adds to the exhibition with skeletons from its own collection, or from nearby institutions, which gives a local dimension to the exhibition. In Leeds, an addition has been made to the exhibition in a second room with some artefacts related to death (including, for example, a Roman cremation urn found locally, and a local burial register), plus some interactive activities aimed at families to help visitors understand what can be learned from a skeleton, and a really interesting video about the excavation of some of the skeletons which were found in West Yorkshire.

I’m not especially squeamish about the idea of human remains on a medical level, and the skeletons are presented in such a scientific way that it’s (I think) actually difficult to be squeamish about them. Certainly, what I observed in other visitors was curiosity, not the ick-factor. The over-riding interpretation is of the pathology of the skeletons: each is laid out in an identical case, in anatomical fashion, with an accompanying caption explaining the visible pathology, e.g. signs of osteoarthritis, fractures, trauma, venereal disease, and infection. There are also photographs and interpretation boards on the wall, giving a bit more detail about the excavation of the remains. It’s actually quite beautiful, and not macabre at all; you can see some images here. Unusually, the Leeds exhibition allows the use of photography of the human remains on display, and the curators are actively encouraging visitors to engage with the ethics of the exhibition by contributing to the visitors’ book, or through social media.

On one level, I found the exhibition absolutely fascinating; I’ve never done any archaeology, and the chance to learn about how osteologists and palaeopathologists interpret human remains was fairly new for me. There’s an element of allowing visitors to interpret the remains for themselves; diagrams displayed next to the cases show where on the skeleton certain signs are to be seen (e.g. the site of a healed fracture), so visitors can discover these the signs for themselves, without having any obtrusive labels on the skeleton. I really enjoyed (if that is the right word?) having the opportunity to see this.

But the exhibition raised all sorts of other thoughts for me, and not all comfortable. The anatomical presentation of the skeletons seemed to rather flatten out the historical differences between them; to the untrained eye there is little to distinguish one from another in terms of age. Maybe it’s the historian in me, but I felt that this mode of display, plus the very scientific captions, occluded the interpretation of two factors which are of great importance in my own research: bodily experience, and ritual and religion. By bodily experience, I mean how the people whose remains these are actually experienced their health: what did it feel like, how might they have been cared for, how would their life have been affected by their health conditions? One skeleton on display is of a man who at some point in his life had experienced a wound to his back; an arrowhead can be seen lodged in his spine, with healed bone around it, indicating that the wound did not kill him (nor, remarkably, was he paralysed, since the arrowhead narrowly missed his spinal cord). Both times I have visited the exhibition, visitors commented on the pain he must have suffered. Such awareness of how the people whose remains are now on display may have actually lived is not (I felt) especially explored in the presentation of the exhibition, or on the accompanying interpretation boards. It’s problematic, because discussion of this could easily veer into speculation, and I’m not a fan of assuming that health conditions have been experienced in the same, unchanging way across time (having a tooth abscess now is a very different experience to what having a tooth abscess one thousand years ago would have been like), but still. That being said, the bald interpretation of the exhibition creates an opportunity for visitors to contribute with their own understanding of health; I overheard people discussing the captions with observations of ‘Aunty so-and-so had this’, and observed a family listening attentively to a relative with archaeological training explaining the mechanisms of the human body; the exhibition is a real site for to co-creation of knowledge and for visitors to generate their own interpretation.

I was particularly struck by the limited presentation of ritual and religion in the exhibition. The Iron Age man and women buried together in a double crouched burial, the medieval anchoress, and the man whose skeleton was buried in the cemetery of a Methodist Chapel in the nineteenth century are worlds apart in terms of belief and practice, and it would have been very interesting to be able to explore this more deeply. Then there’s the ethical question of displaying the remains of people to whom their final resting place was a matter of great importance (since different belief systems place emphasis on bodily resurrection or other forms of afterlife, the disturbance and storage of such remains is somewhat problematic). But perhaps these thoughts are more about me than the exhibition. I’m preoccupied by these issues, but they aren’t really the point of the exhibition, which is fundamentally about pathology. Science and religion are not really a binary, though (and wouldn’t have been to many of the people whose remains are on display), and I think consideration of ritual and belief is of fundamental importance to studies of death and the dead.

Since the exhibition is curated in such a way as to invite such musings about the ethics of displaying human remains, I don’t feel too bad about airing my thoughts, and I’m sure other visitors to the exhibition will have their own perceptions which differ from mine! Overall, I think the exhibition is an unparalleled opportunity for people not working in archaeology, osteology, or palaeopathology to learn from human remains, and to get a glimpse into the lives of people who lived before our time. I’ll be returning before the exhibition closes in January 2018 and would highly recommend that others do so too.

I’d love to hear what other people have thought about this exhibition! Leave me a comment, below.

Conference Report: War Through Other Stuff, Leeds City Museum, 30.09.2017

I love going to conferences. I was bitten by the conferencing bug very early in my historical career, since as an undergraduate I spent a couple of summers working for the International Medieval Congress (for anyone who has been, you know the folks desperately trying to get the yellow feedback sheet off the moderator at the end of the session? That was me! And I still get a sense of achievement thinking of the thousands – yes, thousands – of delegate information packs I helped to put together). Whether giving a paper or not, I find conferences so stimulating. They always help remind me why I love doing history, I like getting away from the university for a bit, it’s brilliant to meet new people, and I’ve had some of my best ideas at conferences – usually during papers not on my specialism in any way (out of period, different geographical context, or sometimes a completely different topic altogether!). It’s good to get out of your comfort zone; you never know what thoughts it might spark off.

Two weekends ago, I attended the ‘War Through Other Stuff’ workshop in Leeds. ‘War Through Other Stuff’ is a new society for researchers studying the history of warfare in unusual and exciting ways. Set up by three enterprising postgraduate researchers, Catherine Bateson (Edinburgh), Laura Harrison (Edinburgh), and Lucie Whitmore (Glasgow), WTOS is not a forum for traditional military history (strategies, logistics, and such) but instead showcases research on the cultural aspects of war through and in society, art, or literature; as the WTOS website succinctly puts it: ‘alternative histories of conflict’. I’m not going to summarise the presentations here, though I would encourage you to read the first-rate Storify put together by the workshop organisers, which brings together the live reactions of delegates on the day. Instead, being the frequent conference flier that I am, I’m going to talk a bit about the composition of the workshop.

Firstly, a moment to appreciate the infrastructure. The workshop was held at Leeds City Museum, thanks to collaboration between the organisers and Leeds City Museum curator, Lucy Moore. This would maybe not be the most obvious place to hold an academic event, but it was an inspired idea. For one thing, it wasn’t anybody’s ‘turf’; when a conference is held at your university, it’s too tempting to slink away at breaks or lunch to check emails, pop to the library, or just do those couple of jobs you intended to do during the week (I work at the home of the IMC; I know this to be true because I’ve done it myself!). Full advantage of the museum setting was taken after lunch (which was really excellent – up there in my top three conference lunches) with a WTOS-themed tour of the museum galleries (this was just one of two activities on offer; delegates could also choose to take part in a story-telling workshop). What a great way to combat the post-lunch slump!

The structure of the workshop programme was innovative: the organisers did away with the traditional 20-minute papers, and instead had two sessions of ‘lightning talks’ – 8 minutes maximum – and two longer keynotes. I really enjoyed this format. The quickfire presentation helped me to make connections between the papers that I might not have spotted otherwise. Presenting an 8-minute paper does require a different approach from the speaker and having done shorter papers myself, it’s certainly a challenge, but as a member of the audience I loved it.

I found the ‘lightning talk’ format especially appealing because most of the papers presented were way out of my range of expertise. This is one of the reasons I attended the conference; it was a brilliant opportunity to benefit from exposure to different methodologies and perspectives, which I do find hugely valuable. But, in this regard, the fact that the workshop was in my home territory (even if not at the university itself) was a major factor in my attendance; I may not have been inclined to travel far for an event where the content was, on the whole, so out of period, even though I do extol the benefits of getting out of the comfort zone. But the WTOS presentations were so inspirational that I am resolved that I should be more outgoing again in the future, and take some risks n my conferencing.

Huge thanks to the WTOS organisers for putting together such a fabulous day. There are exciting times ahead for the (alternative) history of conflict.

My top tip for new University students

Freshers’ Week is all wrapped up and lectures and seminars start this week. I had some really lovely encounters with students last week: so many excited to be starting their new courses, keen for Induction Week to be over and done with and for the course to be underway (students after my own heart!), some perhaps a bit nervous, bewildered by their new surroundings and exactly how to work out the new department. I was particularly struck by postgraduate students who confessed how strange it was to be starting again – to make friends, find their way around a new campus, work out a new library system; they had forgotten how they did those things the first time around. Freshers’ Week is such a mix of experiences, but now it’s finished and the academic business of University begins.

There are some great guides on how to navigate the first few weeks of term. But, because I am a super-nerd, I’m going to talk about something a bit different, which is directly influenced by a question from a student last week, who wanted to know what I thought the best way to organise lecture and seminar notes is. This is something which has much improved my working habits over my years as a University student at all levels, and which has made writing and researching much, much easier now.

Taking notes on a laptop.

In almost every case, I think it is better to create your materials in digital, rather than paper, form – and I believe this for both taught and research courses. This means taking lecture and seminar notes on your laptop, plus taking notes from your reading on a laptop. Doing this has many advantages. If you, like me, type faster than you write, then taking notes on a laptop means that you will catch more of what is being said. Yes, the notes you take during a lecture or seminar will be messy and probably full of typos, but it is quicker to tidy them up after class than it is to type up your notes from scratch. Notes taken on a laptop are searchable (very handy when you just can’t remember where you read that really important quotation!) and a laptop (even a heavy one) weighs less than two or three A4 files full of paper. And think of the environmental benefits – all that paper saved by keeping notes digitally rather than on paper!

My own software of preference for this is Microsoft OneNote – it’s designed for work exactly like this, and is much more flexible than Word. Once you have opened up OneNote, all your class notes or reading notes are just a click away, without having to navigate to a new document or wait for a document to open. It’s really easy to organise your notes by class, but also to set up links between documents if you have topics which tie together. Plus, it autosaves as you go. (This is not a sponsored post, by the way – I just really like this programme, and very few people seem to find it without being told about it!)

Something that will hugely improve any experience of taking notes on a laptop is learning to touch-type. When I started university, I was a two-finger typist. I thought I was fast enough, but I knew that I could be better, and was also aware that I would be doing a *lot* of typing. I used this BBC Kids course – it’s incredibly cheesy, but so, so worth it!

There are some caveats to all this. When redrafting written work, there is a lot to be said for doing some of it longhand, on paper – something I will talk about in another post. And remember that, for most students, exams are taken on paper by hand – so don’t forget how to write! In fact, spending a bit of time each day writing by hand to improve handwriting wouldn’t be a bad idea at all – you don’t want to be called in to type up or read out your exam if the marker can’t read it! If your lecturer has provided you with a handout, then that is a really good backbone to your notes, and you might be better off annotating that handout rather than reinventing the wheel by creating your own notes ex nihilo. And if you just really like taking notes by hand, then do that! Personal preference is very important – but do try out different ways of working; sometimes other people’s methods might be really good.

I’m very aware that not all students have a laptop; they can be a very expensive piece of kit. Investigate to see if your University has a rental scheme; this can be cheaper than buying one. It’s also worth checking out refurbished laptops, which are a lot cheaper than buying new, and will be perfectly serviceable for Uni needs – the laptop I finished my PhD on (and which I am writing this on) is third-hand, and has been brilliant!

Another caveat is that your lecturer or seminar tutor might not love presenting to a room of down-cast eyes tapping away. It’s also very noisy to be in a lecture theatre of keyboards! And, for goodness sake, make sure you have the volume muted, and are fully charged before coming into the class. Don’t disrupt things by having to get up and find a socket half-way through, or by suddenly emitting music or sounds!

And finally, if you commit to digital note-taking, back up, back up, back up! Do I need to say it again? BACK UP, BACK UP, BACK UP!!!