Friday, 20 December 2013

American dystopia

This year's slice of pre-Christmas cinematic tosh was the second Hunger Games film, which was better than you had any right to expect, and immeasurably better than the tedious second Hobbit.

I confess to a liking for post-apocalyptic dystopias, as long as they make some sort of sense (goodbye, The Road). And this one does, as long as you can swallow the implausibility of a dictatorship transmitting its oppressed people live on television to one another. (The regime appears to have misunderstood the phrase 'reality TV'.)

What struck me with this instalment, however, is how profoundly American this particular dystopia is. I don't simply mean the echoes of the American Revolution: thirteen (yes, it turns out there are thirteen) hardworking districts being oppressed by the brutal, decadent Capitol. Nor the patterns of American political conservatism that can be seen here: the conviction that what tyrants do is deny their people weapons. Plus the nicely-judged decision, ever so slightly flavoured with anti-UN paranoia, to call the brutal, faceless paramilitary police 'Peacekeepers'. Because in fact this story is not so easily politically pigeonholed: the final part of the trilogy makes plain that the revolution is not necessarily much better than the regime it replaces.

The most remarkably American feature of the story, however, is what is not there: the rest of the world. The stories are plainly set in some future North America. Now you would expect a tyrannical regime of this kind to use external threats (real or invented) to bolster its control; and you would expect rebels to be seeking foreign help. But there is, to my recollection, not a single hint in either books or films that the remainder of the planet even exists.

That gives the story a certain simplicity and even innocence. But it also seems to me to speak to an underlying theme in American political thinking, which is impossible but at the same time also admirable and enviable: the conviction that, in the state of nature as it were, the US is and ought to be a world to itself, whose character is itself a kind of Monroe doctrine, neither colony nor coloniser, free of entangling alliances. I appreciate that if you were the Marquis de Lafayette, you might be a little sore about that. But as national myths go, what's not to like?

Monday, 9 December 2013

Glimpses of North Korea

The kind of history I'm used to doing involves people who've been safely dead for a few centuries. But this project on global Protestantism comes right up to the present, and so sometimes close to the bone. I've just been finishing my chapter on Korean Protestantism, which is a remarkable story, but the really chilling and compelling stuff relates to what's happening north of the 38th Parallel.

Of course, we know almost nothing about religion in North Korea. Even a decade or so ago it was possible to believe the official line: that there was an 'opening' in the late 1980s, with two churches built in Pyongyang, hundreds of house churches, and representatives sent to the WCC. But the accounts given by the increasing numbers of refugees to make it out contradict that line too consistently and too profoundly to be ignored. Their testimony is that these are sham organisations created as magnets for foreign aid; and that public profession of Christianity (seen as an imperialist front), possession of a Bible, or any known contact with missionaries is lethally dangerous.

From the testimonies I've read, two elements stood out. First, Kim Yong's detailed account in Long Road Home: Testimonies of a North Korean Camp Survivor (Columbia University Press, 2009). This account left me with the sheer lawlessness of the North Korean gulag, which makes its Stalinist cousin look like a model of due process. There are no crimes, charges, trials or sentences, merely arrests. Kim was suddenly imprisoned midway through a successful career in the regime's bureaucracy because it was discovered that his birth family (he had been adopted at a young age) had been deemed to be traitors during the 1950-3 war. He spent much of the 1990s in Camp No. 14, mining coal for twelve or more hours per day, and only very occasionally saw daylight. Sixty workers shared a bare concrete room with insufficient space for them all to lie down at once. After a day’s mining came an hour’s ‘political struggle’, that is, written self-accusation and criticism of other prisoners’ conduct. ‘There was really nothing to confess, but we all had to come up with something in order to avoid severe punishment.’

Meanwhile all of them were slowly starving to death: their food rations were simply insufficient. It is unclear whether this camp and those like it were deliberately designed as death-by-labour institutions, or whether that is merely their effect. One sign of the extremity is that the camp was almost free of rats. Once, Kim was lucky enough to catch one, in the mine. He killed and ate it ‘head to tail, raw, without skinning it. The meat tasted like honey.’ He was eventually, and very unusually, transferred to a less severe camp: he is, in fact, the only prisoner ever known to have left Camp No. 14 alive. The more lenient regime of his new camp was marked by the prisoners' being given permission to gather grass to supplement their diet: and its lower security eventually allowed him to escape, in the bottom of a coal truck.

Second, the research in a report produced by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2008. As well as interviewing 'ordinary' refugees, they interviewed former members of the Northern security services who had escaped. Their stories largely confirm the extent to which religion in general, and Protestantism in particular, is seen by the Northern regime as an existential threat, and suppressed ferociously. This includes the deliberate creation of fake underground churches in order to trap would-be converts, and of course to foment distrust amongst believers. This much is perhaps predictable, and fits into the agenda which one might imagine USCIRF would be keen to hear (not that I doubt it). But there are some glimpses of something more complicated. One former security official described a remarkable visit to a high-ranking official’s house, at which the two of them and a third official ‘worshipped together in his house with the curtains drawn’. They read the Bible aloud and prayed for Kim Jong Il. The newcomer asked how they reconciled their faith with their official position:
They said that it was a heartbreaking job to catch Christians while they, too, were Christians, but they had to stay in their positions because their situation could turn even worse if an evil-minded person was in that position to ferret out believers. So they keep their positions and sometimes advise people to run away.

Not heroic: but there is a certain kind of plausible courage there. These are the sorts of perilous compromises which are made under those circumstances. In practical terms, there is virtually nothing outsiders can do about these horrors. But it would seem appropriate - and indeed, deeply subversive - to pray.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Bedtime at Bishop

A long day at Bishop Auckland again on Friday, much of it on the nuts and bolts of the redevelopment, which is all exciting but not terribly blogworthy.

But then, at the end of the day, a glimpse of a truly jawdropping object, just acquired: the Paradise Bed, which now seems, pretty clearly, to be the bed made for the marriage of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York in 1486. It would be nice to say it was the bed in which Prince Arthur and Henry VIII were conceived - and it might be. But it clearly dates from that era, is very high-quality workmanship, and is topped with separate white and red York and Lancaster roses. The united Tudor rose only became a viable symbol once the marriage was made and the prince born.

Best of all, though, is the headboard:

Adam and Eve for a marriage-bed might seem obvious enough, if not subtle. It's been suggested that Adam and Eve's faces are carved to resemble the royal couple, which is possible if not exactly conclusive. But the best bit is the text on the cartouche: 'The sting of death is sinne / The strength of sinne is the law' (I Cor 15:56). Romantic, eh?

Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Bay Psalm Book

Just catching up with the news of this book's record-breaking sale. Clearly the first-American-book-ever thing is the key selling point, which is fair enough. The fact that the book is intrinsically the most valuable printed work ever is a little incongruous. The shoddy quality of the printing has attracted some comment.

I confess I have some affection for this book, though I think not enough to shell out quite so many millions for a copy. English and New-English puritans of that period were much exercised about the singing of the Psalms: they generally denied that anything else could be sung in worship. The Psalms, being part of Scripture, are inspired, and so why should anyone sing mere human ditties in their place? (The obvious answer being that human-composed prose is regularly used in worship - prayers and sermons - so why not poetry too? The Bay book's editors fulminate against that argument without ever really managing to refute it, which I think betrays how emotionally fraught an issue this was for them.)

The more serious problem was on the other side: was it legitimate even to sing the Psalms? After all, that entailed translating them into verse, and verse necessarily entails paraphrasing or rearrangement to fit to a metrical scheme. The early Protestant versions, indeed, presented themselves as free paraphrases, not translations. But that means they're not Scripture, and if you have scruples about singing anything that's not Scripture ... what are you to do?

Well, obviously, produce a new metrical version which is entirely accurate. Enter the Bay Psalm Book, published in Massachusetts in 1640. The translators deny any 'liberty or poeticall licence to depart from the true and proper sence of Davids words in the hebrew verses'. Indeed, they make an elaborate show of how precise they have been, fulsomely apologising for occasionally omitting the Hebrew word usually translated as ‘and’, adding the occasional synonym, or even (contentious, this one) expanding a phrase to make it fit the metre.

‘If therefore the verses are not alwayes so smooth and elegant as some may desire or expect; let them consider that Gods Altar needs not our pollishings. ... Wee have respected rather a plaine translation, then to smooth our verses with the sweetnes of any paraphrase, and soe have attended Conscience rather then Elegance, fidelity rather then poetry.’

They're not joking. Here are a couple of stanzas of Psalm 23:

The Lord to mee a shepheard is
want therefore shall not I.
Hee in the folds of tender-grasse
doth cause mee downe to lie:
To waters calme me gently leads
Restore my soule doth hee:
he doth in paths of righteousness
for his names sake leade mee.

Or my favourite, the incomprehensible verses 6-7 of Psalm 2:

But I annoynted have my King
upon my holy hill
of Zion: The established
counsel declare I will.

That is, they square the circle of accuracy and metre by discarding anything like standard English word order.

It is hard not to find a chink of amusement in this tortuous verse. But there is something more serious here, too, I think: a deliberate anti-aesthetic, the Puritan plain style taken to its extreme, an attempt to prove that beauty lies always and only within. The book dares you to laugh at it. And clearly, four centuries on, it is still managing to be taken seriously.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Farewell to REF2014

Like many British academics, the last year of my life has been dominated by the horrors of the Research Excellence Framework, the quinquennial competition by which the UK government decides which universities and departments should receive funding to support their research. Like democracy, it is the worst possible system, only excepting all the alternatives.

There is not much that's edifying that can be said about it. But one set of statistics did strike me, once we had collated them.

Since 2008, this Department has awarded doctoral degrees to 114 students, which is pretty good in itself. But the more impressive figures are these: we know of 55 articles submitted to and accepted by refereed journals by our doctoral students while they were still here, and even better, we know of 45 - Durham Theology doctoral students who have gone on to secure their first academic jobs since 2008, 18 in the UK, the remainder in 12 other countries. Given that a large number of our doctoral students are practising ministers, retired people or others who aren't actually looking for academic employment, I think that's pretty good.

For all the flannel about fundraising and publications, I think one of the best indices of the health of an academic department is its postgraduates: not so much the absolute numbers, but how successfully it produces the next generation of scholars. And so I want to give us just the slightest self-awarded pat on the back.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Sixteenth Century Studies in San Juan

An update from the Sixteenth Century Conference, this year in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where the debates are heated but the sea temperature is just perfect.

Of the many good papers so far, I'm going to pick out two - which is to pass over contributions from people like Paula McQuade, Jonathan Willis and Liz Evenden, amongst others, as good as I'd expect them to be.

Bradford Littlejohn, who's just finished a PhD at Edinburgh and is now looking for academic jobs from back home in Idaho, gave a really intriguing paper in the Richard Hooker session on the idea of certainty in Hooker. Against the Puritan argument that failsafe moral guidance can only be, and can in fact be, found in Scripture, Hooker made a very modern argument for the fluidity and provisionality of moral knowledge. Bradford made him sound immensely reasonable, as Hooker always does. It still seems to me that there is an authoritarian agenda behind this: since moral certainty is elusive, we must (as Thomas More was once told) weigh our doubts against the certainty that we owe obedience to our lawful sovereign, and so obey in good conscience. When I asked if this was really as reasonable as it sounds, Bradford (who is clearly used to being patient with Roundheads like me) pointed out that Hooker is not simply requiring obedience: he is carefully explaining why it is right. I still think that may even be worse, since that means we don't just have to obey outwardly, but submit inwardly. Great paper, though.

And then there's the one who got away: Leif Dixon, currently of Regent's Park College, Oxford, who was on the panel on religious doubt and debate that I organised, but who couldn't make it due to lack of funding. Peter Marshall read his paper, and it was a cracker. He was looking at the weird phenomenon of anti-atheist polemic, of which there was a great deal in the 16th and 17th centuries, despite a distinct shortage of actual atheists. His argument was dense enough that it doesn't summarise well, but it amounts to the suggestion that 'atheism' was the name that was given to a series of tensions and wrinkles in post-Reformation Protestantism, problems which he compared to a recurrent computer bug. Not that atheism was preparing to sweep all before it, but that it was an invaluable category with which to talk about a whole range of problems. - But then I think Leif (whom I have yet to meet) is one of the most talented young scholars working on Protestantism today, and I look forward very much to his imminent book.

And still two days of conference to go ...

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Extracurricular seminars

This scheme, which we launched as a Department a while back, has been drawing some criticism on the grounds that we are exploiting the postgraduate students, who are working unpaid. I understand that this is part of a wider concern the UCU has about unpaid work in universities, a dispute about which I know nothing, except that in general unpaid work is a bad thing. The problem here is that we don't think this is 'work' in that sense. There's been correspondence about it, but I want to try to explain how we see it at a little more length.

This scheme was my own brainchild, and emerged when I was working as director of postgraduate training, before becoming head of department.

It arose from a separate project of mine, a weekly extracurricular seminar in church history which I ran for undergraduates during the 2011-12 academic year. A small but committed group of UG volunteers took part; I was surprised and pleased by their enthusiasm for doing something above-and-beyond, and I enjoyed the freedom of having academic conversations with UGs outside any of the structures of credit, assessment or modules. This was, I suppose, unpaid work, in that it was not part of my job description or my contracted hours, and was done over and above my other responsibilities. But I and the other eight or so academic staff who took part over the year weren't thinking in those terms. Unpaid work? It wasn't 'work'. After all, sitting in a room talking about our subject with people who are interested in it is fun. And it seemed to be rewarding for all concerned.

I had to stop doing this once I became head of department in 2012-13, from sheer time pressure, but it fed into a problem I had been working at the same time. This is the problem that our postgraduates aren't always able to get the professional training they need. We were then (and still are) having a big push to ensure that PGs were prepared for the wider academic job market as well as writing excellent theses, and clearly teaching experience is a vital part of this. But the formal teaching work we can offer, as paid Teaching Assistants within the undergraduate curriculum, is limited. TAs can't design and deliver their own module or anything close to it. Nor could we allow relatively untrained PGs to take that much responsibility within our undergraduate programme. We needed to give them a chance to secure experience of this kind: but how?

Hence the scheme. PGs who were keen to try their hand at course design could have a chance to design a miniature, extracurricular course: four hours of class time over four weeks. A staff mentor would oversee the process. And brave undergraduate volunteers would be asked to come forward and take part. Crucially, they'd be asked to provide written feedback on the PGs at the end of the process. The PGs would secure valuable experience; the UGs would be stretched in new directions; and everyone would have won.

It's been a success: we ran six of these mini-courses in 2012-13 and have nine on the books for 2013-14. The PGs are queuing up to do them; UG takeup is a minority affair, but there has been some great enthusiasm for it and some very good feedback.

Now nobody could dislike that. The question is, should we be paying the PGs?

Three answers to that. (1) We can't. It's not just that money is tight - money is always tight. But if we were to be handed an extra pot of money and told to use it exclusively to support PG students, we wouldn't use it to pay these seminar leaders. We'd use it to increase the research funding available to our PGs for travel, conferences and other research expenses: that's where our students really feel the pinch.

The reality is that, if these extracurricular seminars could only happen if the leaders were paid, they wouldn't happen. Which would be a loss to all concerned. At one point in this the UCU asked that we cancel a seminar programme about to start the following day, after all the effort that a PG leader had put into designing and preparing it, and after a string of enthusiastic UGs had signed up for it. From where I sit that would have been simply a gross injustice.

(2) We don't need to. To emphasise, this is voluntary and extracurricular. No-one needs to take part. For the PGs, it is a training activity. For everyone concerned, it is about love of subject. I actually think that there is as strong a case for paying the UGs, since they are coming along to assist in a PG training scheme. But the point is: these people (UGs and PGs alike) are students, and they are learning, which is what students normally do at a University. We don't normally pay them to do that. The PGs are not doing 'work' on behalf of the University: they are not replacing any paid work that anyone else would have done. They are enriching the learning community, no doubt, but they do the same when they deliver papers to research seminars. Indeed, they do the same when they meet informally with other students and talk about subjects that interest them. Which is not too far from what they're doing in this case.

(3) And, actually, I think even if we could pay them, the scheme works better on a purely volunteer basis. I say that with some hesitation, because I know many of our PGs are financially very squeezed and I like to funnel money towards them when we can. But I don't think this scheme is the way to do it. To pay these PGs would be to put the courses on a contractual basis, which would instantly change their ethos. Anyone who participates in these courses does so for the joy of it: for sheer love of the subject. No credits, proformas, examinations: simply a community of people learning together. That is the sort of thing that a University ought to be about. There is, at best, something delicate and something beautiful here. We all need to earn a living, and the PGs who do this do so in part so that they will be better placed to do so when they leave. But we also need to remember that we are, or should be, in this first and last because we love what we do.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Ann Griffiths' hymns

Tom Schwanda of Wheaton College, Illinois, was in Durham this week past, in part to discuss the volume of essays on Puritanism and the emotions which he and I are incubating, but also to deliver a paper on eighteenth-century evangelical spirituality to Durham's Ecclesiastical History seminar.

Much of the paper was about hymnody, which he argued came, in the 18th century, to replace the vast Puritan manuals of pious practice that had dominated the 17th: which does a lot to explain how Protestantism broke out from its literate ghetto in that period. Some of the hymns were familiar; others not so. In particular, he introduced us to the work of the Welsh poet and hymn-writer Ann Griffiths (1776-1805), whose works were only translated into English in the 20th century and remain obscure. Undeservedly. Consider this, from her hymn XIV (in the translation of H. A. Hodges):

Earth cannot, with all its trinkets,
Slake my longings at this hour;
They were captured, they were widened,
When my Jesus showed his power.
None but he can now content me,
He, the Incomprehensible;
O to gaze upon his Person,
God in man made visible.

I am not sure I have ever seen so moving or economical a description of one of the core evangelical experiences: that submitting your desires to Christ not only satisfies them, but also intensifies them. A project at Cardiff is now making Griffiths' work more widely available and encouraging study of her as an important figure in the history of evangelicalism: more power to them.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The Uncurated

A family day out at Chillingham Castle in Northumberland on Sunday was, I think, one of the most enjoyable visits to a historic building I have ever made. The reason? It was almost entirely unlike a National Trust or English Heritage property, buildings which are carefully restored and preserved, and curated so as to give the visitor a series of passably accurate impressions of what different parts of the building might have looked like in different eras.

By contrast, Chillingham, in places, gives the impression of having had eight hundred years' worth of junk strewn around it. Not quite indiscriminately: most of the Arctic and Himalayan equipment is in one room, most of the Indian booty in another, the Georgian stuff in a third. But everywhere there are dead things - skins, horns (endless horns), the largest pair of moose antlers I have ever seen anywhere; and everywhere there are weapons, from the Gatling guns standing unremarked in two different rooms, to enough halberds and billhooks to restage the battle of Flodden. But then, there are prodigious quantities of everything. Each room is heaving with ancient tat, higgledy-piggledy. I don't recall ever seeing elephant armour before. And in one room, stuffed in the corner, was a wooden claw-footed bath that apparently once belonged to Marie Antoinette, and is now, naturally, used as a drinks cabinet ('Let them drink Coke!').

And I don't believe they violated any health-and-safety regulations, but in an NT property you never have a chance to trip on ragged carpets or stumble on a three-inch dip in a dungeon floor.

What is so refreshing is to visit a place which doesn't treat the past with exaggerated reverence. You're not protected from it, and it's not protected from you. You are allowed to touch things. The place felt alive in a way that properties owned by public bodies rarely do.

Of course, there are disadvantages. The house and the family's history was obscure (you would scarcely guess that it belonged to a prominent regicide); the objects were left to speak for themselves, virtually unlabelled. It could only be done like this because visitor numbers are relatively low.

But still, I could wish other curators would take something from a place like this. We want junk: we want rooms jumbled with surprises. And while ancient and precious things certainly need to be protected, they can be protected too much. Things don't last forever, any more than people do; and while most of us like long lives, we also like to live them.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

The sect called Anglicanism

When was the Church of England founded? This was a dangerously divisive question back in the 1630s, with daring Laudians favouring the year 597 (Augustine’s mission to Kent, sponsored by the Pope) and stout Puritans insisting on 1559 (the Elizabethan legislation which repudiated the Pope). A case could even be made, sentimentally if not legally, for Henry VIII’s earlier antipapal legislation of 1534. The reason the question mattered, of course, was not chronology but identity: was this a Reformed Protestant church built de novo on the ashes of papistical abominations, or was it the ancient Church of the English, ecclesia Anglicana, whose Reformation was not a clean break with the past?

Both positions remain defensible, but my recent spell working on the mid-17th century has persuaded me of another view. In the modern Church of England, ‘Anglican’ has become a denominational identity, not a geographical description. (Personally, I deplore this, and I am deeply uncomfortable with ‘Anglicanism’ as such; but I am ploughing a lonely furrow on that one.) This is, at the earliest, a 17th-century phenomenon, now entrenched by such deeply sectarian documents as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, which effectively turns episcopacy into a shibboleth for true Christianity.

So I’d argue that the real foundation date is 1662, when the Restoration regime decisively turned its back on the idea of a Church of England – that is, of a national Church, designed to comprehend all those English Christians willing to belong to such a body as best it could. ‘The Church of England’ was set on its route to what it is now, an organisational identity and even a brand name, rather than a simple descriptive term. It celebrated this turn by expelling some 2000 ministers who wished to remain within it.

And again, the point is identity, not dates. If the Anglican Church was founded in 1662, what is it? Neither the historic English Church nor the standard-bearer of the Reformation. Instead, it is a sibling of the dozens of other churches rooted in the same period: English Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, many Baptist groups, the Quakers, and other more obscure or shortlived sects.

Of course, that’s not quite the truth. The older roots are still there. So are the wider horizons which the residual aspiration to be (and legal obligation to be) a national Church impose. But I see this struggle underneath most of the CofE’s current squabbles. What will it be? The Church of England? Or the Anglican church, the largest of the Civil-War era sects?

Thursday, 26 September 2013

The interview game

After having sat on twelve academic appointments panels at all levels in just over a year – the deluge is now slowing, following our most recent and particularly pleasing appointment – I have seen lots of very talented people looking for jobs, and I have also seen some of them needlessly and spectacularly self-destruct during the process. Here follow a few hints on how to blow an academic job interview.
1. Fail to recognise the question with only one right answer. If you are asked, for example, if your approach to teaching is basically a passive one, do not say ‘yes’. Questions like that are not tricks: they are offered to candidates as a way out of a hole. If you have been describing an approach to teaching which sounds passive, that question is your chance to correct the impression. You need to take it.

2. Overdo self-deprecation and modesty. A little humility is becoming and charming. But do not give the impression that your language skills, or IT skills, or knowledge of the wider research field, is patchy. This is particularly unfair, since it rewards bravado and blarney, and penalises the conscientious. It can also be gender-skewed. But it’s true. You are there to sell yourself: don’t sell yourself short.
3. Pick risky referees. A good reference rarely makes much difference in an interview. A bad reference can sink you. And of course a ‘bad reference’ is a reference which contains one sentence expressing some reservations. If you suspect your referee may do this, either straighten him/her out or choose another referee.
4. Think small. Even with a junior post, we are looking for ambition, academic leadership, someone who will grow up to be a giant in the field and who will always remember this institution fondly for having given them that crucial first step. You need concrete plans for your research, of course, but have a big vision too. If you can convince a panel that your ideas are more exciting and more important than the competition, you’re three-quarters of the way there.

5. Use the phrase ‘fill a gap in the scholarship’. See under ‘Think small’. We don’t want a bricklayer, we want an architect.
6. Choose examples which don’t reflect the status you’re aspiring to. Often in interview you will be asked to cite specific examples of something you’ve done that demonstrates the qualities required for the post. Now if it’s your first job, or first senior job, you’ve not necessarily had the chance to do that, so you scrabble around for something else. Better to be tangential and impressive than on-point and underwhelming. If you are asked about your experience in academic administration, don’t talk about how you made sure all the speakers at a conference had fresh water glasses. I know you did it, I know it’s important and does show some skill. But again, see under ‘Think small’.

7. Don’t read the job description and further particulars. That way, when you are asked something about a particular facet of this job, you will not understand what’s being got at, you won’t have any ideas ready, and you will demonstrate to the panel both (a) that you are short of ideas and (b) that you are not someone who prepares carefully for an important event.
8. Don’t do any research on the institution or the panel. Panels like the sense that an outsider has made an effort to find out about their institution. More to the point, you can spot the agendas underlying certain questions. And it is always legitimate to ask in advance who will be on the panel. If they won’t tell you, they won’t tell you, but they won’t take offence at your having asked. A candidate who shows a keen interest in the process in advance shows him/herself to be an organised and capable person.

9. Blag something you clearly know nothing about. Yes, I know this is a core academic skill. But the panellists themselves have all been doing it for years and can spot the signs.
10. Ask too many questions. You will be given a chance to ask questions at the end, but in practice most of your substantive questions should have been resolved by that point. Some people use questions to try to show off (‘do you care as much about the welfare of undergraduates as I do?’), which is harmless if done subtly. But really, panels don’t pay much attention to questions unless (a) you ask something manifestly stupid or (b) you have too many. No questions is fine. One or two is fine. More than two and you begin to seem tedious.

All this aside from the numerous ways to self-destruct during the formal presentation … but that’s for another time.

UPDATE: If you found this useful, see also my notes on how to get shortlisted and how to survive the job presentation.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Flodden a dead horse-lasagne

In a lovely acted political metaphor, a cross-border group is celebrating the impending referendum on Scottish independence (and, incidentally, the battle's quincentenary next week) by unearthing the dead of the Battle of Flodden. It remains the eeriest and best-preserved battlefield in Britain that I know: the landscape is sufficiently unchanged that it is all too easy to visualise where and how James IV and his men were cut to pieces.

Whether recalling this particular slaughter now is helpful or not is hardly the point. I do wince at some of the BBC coverage: it was a nasty battle, but 'every bit as awful as the Somme' seems a bit steep, and while I know I should expect comments like 'the outcome of the battle led to the union of England and Scotland 90 years later', I still can't get used to them. For the record: it didn't. Indeed, apart from the deaths themselves, the award of a dukedom to the English commander, and giving the Scots nobility a settled aversion to invading England, the battle had remarkably few direct consequences. If Henry VIII had been a sharper political strategist and had been less obsessed with trying to restart the Hundred Years' War, he might have exploited it.

Still, the battle's context - a sideshow in a French war - is a reminder that Anglo-Scottish relations have always had a European dimension. As they do now. The two forthcoming big political battles - the Scottish independence referendum and the UK European referendum - are also intertwined. If (as seems unlikely) Scotland votes to leave the UK, the balance may well be tipped decisively against the rump UK staying the EU. If (as seems more plausible) a UK which still includes Scotland votes to leave, then I can see a second Scottish referendum being demanded very fast, and securing a different outcome. England may well want to leave Europe: Scotland, I think, doesn't.

The complexity of how these issues may interact is almost enough to make you wish for the days when these issues could be resolved with billhooks in a couple of hours. But if, like me, you want to preserve the UK whole and in the EU, the sequencing of the two referenda is a mercy. My hope is that the Scots will resist the siren lure of independence for long enough to thwart those in England who are enchanted by the same impossible vision.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The White Queen

Having now watched the final episode of this BBC adaptation, I have a new standard for bad historical fiction.

It is hard to know what kept me with this one to the end: the first half of the series was less bad than the second half, and some of the performances - especially James Frain as the earl of Warwick, and Rupert Graves as Stanley - did keep your attention. And the basic story of the wars of the Roses is one that's well worth telling, and too little known: again, especially the first part, up to 1471, where frankly this one should have ended. At least we now know, mercifully, there will be no second series. When it became clear that we were being told that the younger of the princes in the Tower had in fact survived, I started getting hot flushes and fearing a storyline in which Perkin Warbeck was not an imposter.

But the real question: what was it that made this particular series so bad? I haven't read the novels, so I don't know if this was a lousy book which screenwriters couldn't rescue, or a good book wrecked by a crass adaptation. For what it is, I'd pick out a couple of key flaws.

Naturally, I'm going to complain about the portrayal of religious life, which rang utterly false - the only pious character, Margaret Beaufort, was depicted as almost wholly deranged, and nobody else seemed to have any functioning Christianity at all. The magic made no sense at all. Still, getting religion right is really hard. Even the sainted Hilary Mantel, who sets the gold standard of historical writing, seems to me to fall short on that one (though there is falling short, and there is blowing up on the launchpad).

More strikingly: there was not a single character of any significance, and indeed scarcely a speaking part, who was not a member of the high nobility. We saw nothing of any real people (it didn't help that the battles seemed to have about ten people on each side). It made Downton Abbey look like gritty realism.

But did I say 'character'? Those nobles weren't really characters, just chess pieces who moved around doing what the historical outline said they did, with simple motivations inserted to get them from A to B. And when the facts didn't quite fit the rationalised motivations given, well, too bad, you just worked around it.

And that I think is the real problem: a chronic lack of inventiveness and imagination. What we had was a 21st-century soap draped over some 15th-century characters. None of the blanks in the story were filled in with anything that rang true.

Historians usually complain that historical fictions get things wrong, which does seem to me to miss the point a bit: they are fictions. This one had a much, much graver fault: it failed to make anything up.

Friday, 16 August 2013

The servingmaid and the sultan

I'm now leaving the mid-seventeenth century behind me, for the time being at least, but time to share a favourite Quaker story. As regular readers will know, one of my recent preoccupations has been early Protestant missionary efforts, or rather the lack thereof. But the early Quakers broke that rule as well as all the others.

It is very hard not to be impressed by the story of Mary Fisher. She and a friend were the first Quakers in the New World, going to Barbados and Massachusetts in 1655-6, where they were arrested, had their books burned, were accused of witchcraft and had the good fortune to be shipped home alive. For most of us, that would be enough, but Fisher and her friends were still warming up. In 1657 (all this from a terrific article* on her travels) she and five other Quakers, men and women, set out to preach in Jerusalem. This rather idealistic plan soon gave way to a marginally more practical, equally apocalyptic, and considerably more dangerous one: they would split up, with some going to Rome to convert the Pope, and others to Istanbul to convert the Ottoman Sultan. By no coincidence, these were the two individuals Protestants had traditionally labelled as the two great Antichrists. After all, why waste time with small fry?

We don't know (at least, I don't know) what happened to the Roman party. One hopes they never got there: it would not have ended well for them. Fisher, however, struck out for the east. And she did it. Despite a horrified English diplomat who tried to intercept her, in 1658 she reached Sultan Mehmet IV encamped with his army at Adrianople, and managed to wangle her way into an interview with him, at which she laid out ‘my testimony for the Lord’. The Sultan seemed to her to be a perfect gentleman (not that a Quaker would have used such a word):

He was very noble unto me, and so were all that were about him, he and all that were about him received the words of truth without contradiction, they do dread the name of God many of them … there is a royall seed amongst them, which in time God will raise.

He pressed her to stay, and when she would not offered her a formal escort to Constantinople. What he actually thought of this Englishwoman is another matter. Perhaps he and his courtiers simply appreciated a little comic relief. But equally, he was certainly not used to Christians telling him that he had the divine light within him. And perhaps he, like us, could not help being impressed by her drive and her courage.

*Sylvia Brown, ‘The Radical Travels of Mary Fisher: Walking and Writing in the Universal Light’, in her Women, Gender and Radical Religion in Early Modern Europe (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 38-64.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Trenches and kidneys

My number came up to preach on the parable of the Good Samaritan last weekend, which is a tough one: what more is there to say? But what struck me is that we normally concentrate on the social barriers which the story describes being overcome, and use it implicitly to congratulate ourselves on our liberal-mindedness. We pay less attention to the inconvenience, expense and risk to which the Samaritan in the story exposes himself in order to help a total stranger. The old allegorical reading of the parable, which saw the Samaritan as a type of Christ and the robbers' victim as ourselves, was obviously problematic, but it did at least get that point.

I was reminded, though, of a recent episode of the delightful BBC statistics programme, More or Less, which featured a young man who had decided to donate one of his kidneys to a total stranger - not even a particular stranger, just into the donor pool. He was very matter-of-fact about it, but I was struck by the Samaritanish, which is to say, the Christlike magnitude of this. It made me ashamed still to be in full possession of two kidneys. Will think about that one.

And this made me reflect - which was part of the burden of my sermon - on the churches in modern Britain and their public image: an image of, let us be clear, a shrinking, ageing and largely incomprehensibly weird community, which is widely seen irrelevant, self-serving and self-righteously hypocritical. 'Moral authority' is not the phrase that comes to mind.

My personal theory is that the Church of England in particular never regained that authority after the First World War, when it was widely seen as complicit in a slaughter which is now generally seen as merely pointless. (Whether either of those perceptions is correct is a different argument.) I don't think that England has forgiven the C of E for that yet, nor am I sure that the C of E has earned it. (Is one of the reasons the USA is much less secularised than Europe the fact that it stayed out of the war until 1917?)

Still, we have an anniversary coming up. It would not be a bad thing if the Church of England used it to become known as a community of people who give blood (or indeed kidneys) rather than cheerfully sending other people to shed theirs - or, indeed, arguing about sex the whole time.

... On which note, I am going off-grid for a couple of weeks.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

The applications game

As UCAS season is on us, I was asked by a journalist from the Guardian for some thoughts on what makes a good 'personal statement'. I ran away with myself a bit: for what it's worth, here's my thoughts in full. I should add, this is an entirely personal take on the process: caveat emptor.

There's no formula for a good personal statement: the opposite, in fact, because if it looks like you're following a formula that can sink you. It's relatively easy to say what you shouldn't do. Don't write a list of things you've done, or (worse) of exciting places you have been: that makes it look like you've been deliberately trying to amass CV points in order to bolster your personal statement. If you must talk about how a holiday (especially an exotic holiday) sparked your love of your subject, keep it to a minimum: it can sound as if you are saying, 'I was bored and indecisive, and then my parents took me somewhere expensive, and I thought, yeah, history (or whatever), that could be fun!'

Remember that admissions tutors are reading these things by the hundred: they all blur into one. You want to be one of the ones that stands out - not for being crass, cheesy or embarrassing (we have seen plenty of those) but for being fresh and genuine.

The kind of personal statement that warms an admissions tutor's heart is the kind which is honest: which describes, in genuinely personal terms, quite why the student loves the subject, and conveys something of their passion for it. We, as academics, think our subjects are wonderful: we like students who give the impression of thinking that too. When we sift through personal statements, we are not looking for someone who can tick every box but for someone who has that spark: a real sense of engagement with their subject, and of thinking and reading about it. So do talk about what made you love your subject, even if it was a foreign holiday: but tell us why it made you love it, and why you think you need to study it more. Tell us what about it excites you, and make us feel that excitement. Don't write a miscellany of disconnected facts - I volunteered for this, I worked for that - but tell us a story about yourself; make us feel that you are a person of vision and imagination, for whom your outstanding A-level performance is just the beginning.

So there are no rules as to what goes in and what doesn't: everything that needs to be part of the story should be in, and anything that doesn't contribute should be out. Though if you really do have a Paralympic gold medal, there's no harm in mentioning it in passing.

And don't get too stewed about it: it's not the be-all and end-all of your application. Most applications are decided on the predicted and actual results. Almost no amazing personal experience is worth dropping a grade for.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

England and Japan: Rome and America

Now recovering from a marathon of three conferences and a public lecture in, respectively, Stratford, Durham, Durham and Lambeth. Normally I'd like to pick out papers given by some of the graduate students at these, but there is a limit to how much I can go around praising my own current or former students (Aude de Mezerac-Zanetti, Anna French and Susan Royal all spoke to great effect). And the other papers that really struck me were from two more well-established scholars.

In Durham, Anne Dillon (of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge) spoke about how English Catholics in the 1630s were devouring martyr-stories from the near-extermination of Japanese Christianity: so we were given a tour of the breathtaking brutality of the persecution, and of how the stories gained in the telling (importing a wild tiger, for example). The sucker-punch came at the end: apparently, there is a strong case that the shift in Japanese policy from scepticism and discrimination to active persecution was triggered by the arrival of an English commercial mission in Japan in 1613. The English were all too ready to spread tales of Jesuit duplicity, and to relate conspiracies such as the Gunpowder Plot. This apparently sparked the beginning of real persecution in Japan.

Anne was inclined to read this as an irony: the conspiracies of one generation of English Catholics ended up inadvertently feeding their children's hunger for martyr-stories. I'd see a bitterer pattern at work. Isn't this absolutely typical of English imperialism: not exactly to commit large-scale atrocities, but to create the circumstances in which other people are going to do it for them? And to do it deniably, with some degree of justification (these were half-truths, not lies), and not entirely inadvertently?

The other paper that stays with me addressed another empire, or empires: David Anderson of the University of Oklahoma spoke about Shakespeare's Coriolanus, a grim play which has been a favourite of mine ever since studying it as a teenager. The point of David's fascinating paper was to read the Christian symbolism of the play, which - he argued - used its setting in the pre-Christian era to depict Rome as the Augustinian city of the world, the opposite of the city of God: the city of the wolf (who suckled Romulus and Remus), not of the lamb (of God). 'Pray you, who does the wolf love?', Menenius asks in Act II scene 1: the answer being, of course, 'the lamb'.

And in this light, it seemed to me and to some others (David was cautious about this), Coriolanus himself looks like an anti-type of Christ: the man more virtuous than the whole city, but who therefore despises the city rather than having mercy on it. When he stands for election as consul, he has to humble himself before the people, and show his battle-scars, in grotesque parody of Christ showing his wounds and inviting doubting Thomas to put his hands into them. 'If he show us his wounds and tell us his deeds,' one of the plebeians comments, 'we are to put our tongues into those wounds and speak for them'. Later, Coriolanus, enraged by the humiliation of having to pander to the crowd, says with vicious irony, 'I have wounds to show you, which shall be yours in private. Your good voice, sir; what say you?'

Which fits with my own longstanding instinct about Coriolanus: that this is a play, not about Rome nor about Christianity, but about the USA: the new, ever-so-classicist republic, where, from George Washington, through Jackson, Grant, Teddy Roosevelt and Eisenhower, and even to John Kerry and Colin Powell, war heroes are expected to cash their reputation into a political career, and to do by kowtowing to the whims of the electorate regardless of the cost to their dignity. Mercifully, the US has not yet elected a Coriolanus, but you can imagine it, can't you? What I'm now thinking about is the US's place as the new Constantinian empire, as well as the new Ciceronian republic: the self-consciously and genuinely Christian power, which also sits askance to Christianity, both because of its plural and secular identity, and also because, as Augustine knew, a truly Christian state is an impossibility in this world.

So far, I think, the US has negotiated these contradictions better than the Romans did. But when someone (please!) makes a film of, or based on, Coriolanus set in modern American politics, I'll be first in line.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

UK student loans

Even I can occasionally be roused from my blithely Panglossian view of British higher education policy, and this is just the issue to do it. Possibly this is mere scaremongering: in which case, what harm could there be in petitioning against it?

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Swedish Scots and Oliver Bonaparte

As a newcomer to studying the Civil War era, one thing has been bothering me: how on earth did the Scots win the Bishops' Wars in 1638-40?

It is, I think, the only genuinely successful Scottish invasion of England ever. Before that date, Scottish invasions of England had normally either failed catastrophically (1346, 1513, 1542) or been blocked by the Scottish nobility before they could happen (1557). This was not just because of the balance of populations and of wealth, but because the Scots forces consisted principally of feudal levies, that is, men raised from the lands of particular noblemen and bound to serve for specific, short periods. They could be seasoned fighters, but they weren't professional soldiers, and in any case they worked much better as a defensive than an offensive army. The further they got from home, the unhappier they became.

Worse, in 1638 Scotland
had enjoyed sixty-plus years of unprecedented internal peace. So those local levies would not have had even that level of experience. I know the English were divided and the Scots furious, but how hard can it have been to see off an army like that?

But now a twenty-year-old article by Edward Furgol* explains it to me. Turns out the Scots had spent the previous 15 years serving a brutally effective apprenticeship in modern warfare: from the mid-1620s, something like 25,000 Scots - around a tenth of the adult male population - had served in the armies of Denmark and Sweden during the Thirty Years' War. When they came home, they weren't just battle-hardened: they had learned the hard way how best to fight a 17th-century war. The Scots Covenanters, raising their armies in the late 1630s, deliberately put Swedish veterans in charge. This didn't just mean that these armies were far more professional and formidable than any previous Scottish army, and indeed more so than the English forces. It also meant that, using Swedish methods of conscription, the Scots were suddenly able to field huge numbers: again, some 24,000 men in the field in 1640.

Which is interesting in its own right, I think, but it connects with one of my wider hunches: that we do not take the connections between the British wars of the 1640s and the European war of 1618-48 nearly seriously enough. Could the one have even happened without the other?

It's not just training and personnel. David Trim pointed me to this wonderful woodcut from a 1659 representation of the European wars:

There is one wing of the Habsburg eagle, symbolic of ravaging Catholic armies, in the Netherlands: the other wing in Yorkshire. There was a case, some at the time thought, for seeing the wars on either side of the North Sea as the same struggle.

And if the Catholic threat could spill over from the Continent to Britain, why could Protestant vengeance not do the same? By the early 1650s, the New Model Army had become more formidable still than that Swedish-inspired Scots host. Was there an army in the world which was a match for it at that date, man for man? Some of its supporters were keen to take the battle to the enemy. In 1653 the Fifth Monarchist John Rogers was asking, ‘how durst our Army to be still, now the work is to do abroad? Are there no Protestants in France and Germany (even) now under persecution?’ Others pondered an invasion of Rome.

Big talk. But when the French revolutionaries talked of setting Europe alight, that seemed ridiculous too: till they did it. Could the English revolutionaries have done the same? Cromwell as Napoleon, or as a latter-day Alexander the Great? Well, no. But it is, I think, just about imaginable. For us: and more importantly, for them.

*Edward M. Furgol, ‘Scotland turned Sweden: the Scottish Covenanters and the Military Revolution, 1638-51’ in John Morrill (ed.), The Scottish National Covenant in its British Context (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990).

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Sin and Salvation

My new Ranter friends would insist that you didn't have to choose between those two, and in this case at least they turn out to have been right. Registration closes on 14 June.

A brief history of Protestant orgies

Perhaps it's just me. But as I spend time dabbling around the wilder edges of the Protestant world (using the broadest definition of 'Protestant'), this keeps coming up. Radicals of all kinds, from Anabaptists to Quakers, were regularly accused of wild sexual license; so too were magisterial Protestants, under some circumstances. Most of the time this is plainly prurient, hyperventilating scaremongering. It's linked to the blood libel (the claim that Protestants secretly murdered and ate babies, just as witches, Jews and early Christians had been accused of doing): after all, orgies are hungry work.

But then consider the case of the conseiller de Pleurre, which Penny Roberts and Luc Racaut have uncovered for us. He was a city councillor in the French city of Troyes, arrested for heresy in 1562 after he had been reported for attending a secret Protestant meeting. He admitted the offence before the court, but added that
he had attended a Protestant assembly and sermon to fulfill his carnal desire and have sex with the woman of his choice, thinking that the rumour was true, that women gave themselves freely at those assemblies. But having seen and understood that this was false, and not having found what he was looking for, he had resolved not to go there again.1
The court, 'trying hard not to laugh', let him go. And clearly this proves that real sects are usually duller than people imagine them to be. But it also proves that there was a real constituency for religious or quasi-religious orgies out there?

So what are we to make of marginally more circumstancial or well-evidenced cases like the Thuringian sect known as the 'Bloodfriends', who gathered outdoors for clandestine nocturnal meetings, which ended with the command 'be fruitful and multiply’ – whereupon they would pair off discreetly? Or indeed the English 'spiritualls' known to the morally panicky as the 'Ranters'? One ex-Ranter claimed to have once believed that 'till you can lie with all women as one woman, and not judge it sin, you can do nothing but sin'. Another claimed that 'I can if it will be my will, kisse and hug Ladies, and love my neighbours wife as my selfe, without sin'.

Now of course the first quote fits a sensationalising agenda, and the second was not a call to licentiousness but part of a wild, profound attack on the hypocrisy of structured religious life. No doubt formal mass orgies were only ever imagined. But de Pleurre reminds us that they were imagined, and not only with horror. It does seem pretty clear that there were some eyebrow-raising practices in and around some of these groups.

As various professedly radical and alternative groups discovered in the 1960s: if you boldly throw off the shackles of convention, but you still leave the men in charge ... well, is it any surprise?

1. Luc Racaut, Hatred in Print: Catholic Propaganda and Protestant Identity during the French Wars of Religion (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), p. 62.

Friday, 24 May 2013

The Spirit descended from heaven like a ...

I know exam bloopers are the lowest form of wit. Even so, some are irresistible. I discovered this morning that England in the 1650s was troubled by the appearance of an alarming new sect: the Quackers.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Aude de Mezerac-Zanetti

A piece of unalloyed good news: this former doctoral student of mine has landed a permanent academic job, at Lille University.

Aude's PhD was a really outstanding piece of work on the liturgy in Henry VIII's England. Everyone has known for a long time that Henry VIII got his clergy to scratch the Pope's name out of the service books. What Aude did, which no-one else has done before, is actually go through all (well, almost all) of the surviving service books to see exactly how they were defaced. What she might have found was evidence of a consistent policy. What she did find was much more interesting: the lack of any consistent policy, with local bishops, magistrates and individual priests working out how best to interpret the vague instructions coming from the centre.

So one result is that she can track the changing perceptions of Henry's perennially unclear religious policies in the books. Take this one, for example, which she found in a missal used in Salisbury diocese:

Here the word 'pope' in a prayer for him has been blotted out completely, with the word 'metropolitan' inserted instead: this priest thought he might pray for the Archbishop of Canterbury in place of the Pope, as indeed the king briefly considered in the spring of 1533. But the king, and then this priest, quickly thought better of it, lining through the whole prayer to replace it with a simpler prayer for the king.
More excitingly (for me at least), Aude's work has shed light on official policy itself, and drawn our attention to liturgy as a means by which that policy is expressed. The fact that Henry's regime never settled on an official text for the liturgy, nor indeed (as she points out) ever formally defined the doctrine of Royal Supremacy over the Church which it insisted on so ferociously, points to a deep instability at the heart of Henry VIII's government, and indeed probably also at the heart of Henry VIII.
It's a terrific piece of work which will, I think, change the way we understand the period. The book should be out before too very long, I hope. In the meantime, it's very satisfying when talent is recognised on the job market.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

London's burning, fetch the theologians

Andrew Spicer was in Durham a couple of days ago to give the first of a new annual lecture series on Protestantism in the British Isles, hosted in very civilised fashion by Van Mildert College. As he often does, he approached the subject architecturally, with gems I'd never heard of like the earl of Leicester's church in Denbigh, in North Wales:

If it had ever acquired a roof, it would have been the largest church built in Britain between the Reformation and the Great Fire of London.

One of the lecture's themes was the feedback between architecture and (with apologies to OMD, not morality but) theology. The post-Reformation English church inherited a stock of Catholic church buildings, which were adapted more or less thoroughly to Protestant use but whose history could not be shaken off. When Protestants designed and built new churches for themselves - as they did of necessity in France, and as they sometimes did in Scotland, where the existing church buildings were often very inadequate - they came up with very different buildings, preaching houses which would not have tempted anybody to reintroduce a ceremonial life. Take the one in Burntisland in Fife, for example (Andrew spent a while on this one with us):

So did the English church remain relatively conservative and ceremonial in its Protestantism because it was adapting existing buildings; or did it adapt existing buildings because it was relatively conservative? Both, no doubt. But I was left with a counterfactual question:

Imagine that the Great Fire of London had happened in 1566, not 1666. And that half of the city's churches had needed rebuilding in the later 16th century. English Protestantism would have been forced to develop an architectural style of its own, which given London's importance, would have become a model for the rest of the country (as 'London style' did after the Great Fire). - How would that have changed English Christianity? I suspect, profoundly: the country would have been set on a more explicitly Protestant, even Puritan course culturally. And given the huge tug of inertia which architecture exerts, it would have been difficult to divert it thereafter.

Alternatively, given the financial starvation of the post-Reformation church, the penny-pinching penury of the Elizabethan regime, and the known fact that old St Paul's was left half-ruined for more than a century before the Great Fire, fifty historic parish churches might have been replaced with a handful of jury-rigged barns, of which we'd be ashamed down to the present.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Common Awards

Despite the ghastly photo, I think this is actually a big deal.

It's been one of the big things which has chewed up my time over the past few months, so I would think that. But if it works, it could potentially be more than just a reorganisation. It could help to make scholarship and intellectual life seem less toxic in the Church of England: I am inclined to take the very fact of the contract as a hopeful sign that the wave of Anglican anti-intellectualism that was so visible in the 1990s is passing. And it could help to make the C of E a little less institutionally partisan. Of course each college and course will continue to have its own ethos, and nobody expects to see Wycliffe Hall and St Stephen's House dancing cheek to cheek (bad mental image, I know). But having a common structure for theological training across the C of E is not a bad thing. It may help to make the idea that 'the Church of England' is actually a single entity slightly less laughable.

And the ecumenical side of it is more important than it might seem. True, the Anglicans are the elephant in this bathtub, but the small numbers of Methodist, URC and Baptist students are important beyond their numbers. Apart from anything else, the Anglicans seem to play more nicely with each other when there are grown-ups from the other denominations in the room.

And it's all on us to make it work.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Book book book!

Shameless self-promotion here, but the new book is the main thing I've been working on since 2005, and it's just out, so, hurrah. Particular thanks to Peter Jewitt for the beautiful photo used for the cover.

Being Protestant in Reformation Britain
And since I'm blowing my own trumpet, you don't get reviews like this one every day! It can only be downhill from here.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Who ate all the gold?

Now back, and catching up on my podcasts, I was enjoying the ever-reliable BBC More or Less on the subject of how much gold there is in the world. The answer, apparently, is that no-one has the faintest idea: the estimates vary wildly. Even some of the apparent certainties stated in the programme don't seem to be to stand up: notably the claim that 'all the gold that has been mined throughout history is still in existence in the above-ground stock'.

I'm not just talking about buried treasure, though I confess to having always enjoyed the possibility that Alaric the Visigoth may have had half the gold of the ancient world buried with him in the bed of the Busento in 410. The programme referred to the use of tiny quantities of gold in modern electronics - quantities so small as to be effectively unrecyclable and therefore irrecoverable - as a novelty. Which of course it is. But exactly the same thing applies to one of the common medieval uses of gold: the decoration of food with gold leaf. I've eaten gold leaf myself at a fascinating session on medieval food we held at Durham a few years back. (It doesn't really taste of anything.) Gold leaf can be made so thin that it doesn't use much of the stuff. And it is the ultimate form of conspicuous consumption. But once gold has entered the food chain, I don't think it's coming back.

So the ancient world's gold didn't get buried, or stolen, or exaggerated. We just scoffed it.

Friday, 29 March 2013

An Easter break

I'm going off-grid for a couple of weeks so forgive me if there's no posting till mid-April.

In the unlikely event that you are hungry for some of my thoughts in the meantime, I cannot but mention this YouTube video, released today.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Soft furnishings

Nothing to say about the Reformation today: my week has been consumed by nail-biting (and exciting) senior appointments processes. But in the meantime my wife Victoria has published a website for her newly launched small business. If you have had enough of Anabaptists and papal names, and would prefer a cushion or to get a dining chair recovered, look no further.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Anabaptists, witches and terrorists: who's next?

I keep thinking (it's not an original thought) that the Anabaptist kingdom of Münster and the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US have a lot in common. Both were immensely shocking, immensely newsworthy atrocities which permanently changed the worldviews and the policies of a lot of people in or close to positions of power when they happened. The Münster episode, for those who aren't familiar with it, was when this German city was taken over by an apocalyptic sect in 1534-5: they declared the end of the age, imposed polygamy and community of goods, killed or exiled their opponents. The city was beseiged and in the end they were all slaughtered. And 9/11 ... I take it we all remember that one.

The reason both episodes had such an impact was not because of the immediate damage they did. If the twin towers had collapsed in some sort of accident, that would have been awful, but it wouldn't have transformed Western politics for a decade. But in both cases, the political establishments thought they'd glimpsed the future. These were warnings of much worse atrocities to come, and so it was essential to strike against the ideology responsible, hard and relentlessly. Otherwise Anabaptists / Islamists were going to destroy civilisation.

Now maybe those counter-strikes were in fact decisive in neutering existential threats: we'll never know. But in retrospect both atrocities appear like ghastly one-offs, rather than the beginnings of some new paradigm. Of course violent Anabaptists and violent Islamists both continued to exist, but with the passage of time the one event no longer looks quite so world-shaking.

OK: so what? Here's where a book I much admire, and have been re-reading, comes in: Gary K. Waite's Eradicating the Devil’s Minions, published back in 2007. Waite's book tackles one of the big mysteries of early modern history, the great witch-hunt, in which 60,000 or more people, mostly women, were put to death for an imaginary crime. It's long seemed obvious that there must be some sort of connection between the witch-hunt and the Reformation - the two coincide pretty closely - but what? Catholics and Protestants killed witches with equal enthusiasm.

Waite's theory, which I find very persuasive, is that the Anabaptists are the link. Catholics and establishment Protestants alike hunted Anabaptists, and (literally) demonised them as a diabolical conspiracy. And once they'd driven them underground, the paranoias of demonic conspiracy which had been legitimised took on lives of their own and began to look for new targets. In fact, the more the Anabaptist threat was eliminated, the more fear it engendered. After all, the fact that it had disappeared only proved that it was hiding more effectively.

So my question is: now that the Islamist terrorist threat to western societies has, mercifully, been both contained, and exposed as much less serious than was originally thought, what new victims will we find to satisfy the fears which we have conjured up?

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Of course what's most interesting about the new Pope ...

... is his name.

Yes, I know all the stuff about being the first Jesuit, first from the Western hemisphere, first from the Southern hemisphere, all matters, but for all you ecclesiastical trivia-hunters out there, this is the best bit, isn't it?

Full disclosure: I was saying in a meeting on Monday that my personal wish for the new Pope was a new papal name, knowing that we haven't had a new papal name since the oddly Star Wars-ish Pope Lando, who was elected just a few months short of 1100 years ago. (Unless you count the composite John Paul.)

In other words, ever since the emergence of the papacy in something like its modern shape in the 11th century, Popes have always wanted to present themselves through their names as being part of a succession. So I thought I was as unlikely to be granted this wish as I am to be granted my wish one day to be a subject of King Henry IX. Hurrah!

But here's the thing. Pope Francis is being referred to across the media as Pope Francis the First. Uh? He won't be Francis I unless and until Francis II comes along. Queen Victoria, for example, isn't called Victoria I. Perhaps it is simply that we expect papal names to take the form 'Pope Someone the Somethingth' and without the second part it doesn't sound complete - as if the number has become a kind of surname.

Or perhaps the media know something we don't ... are there plots afoot, murder being planned, and Francis II is already waiting in the wings? Where's Dan Brown when you need him?

In the hope that that is not the case, and in a lonely act of defiance: I shall continue to refer to him simply as Pope Francis. Join my struggle.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Teaching: not simply the poor relation

My colleague David Gehring sends me this article, one of several things I've seen in recent weeks which remind me that American academia can sometimes take teaching, especially undergraduate teaching, a little more seriously than is the case in Britain. In this vein I've also enjoyed reading, with a group of postgrads and staff in Durham, Ken Bain's wonderful What the Best College Teachers Do, which is a good antidote for academics like me who tend lazily to think, yeah, I'm probably quite good at teaching. (That said, part of this American discourse valorising good teaching also seems to be to describe its polar opposite: I am glad to say I have never come across teachers as jaw-droppingly crass and awful as those who feature in Bain's horror stories.)

So at the risk of sounding pious: yes, this is good. Read the article.

But it also makes me question this widespread assumption that academics' work can be divided into neat boxes called 'research' and 'teaching'. 'Research-led' teaching is a mantra in Durham now, and quite rightly, on the grounds that research feeds teaching in a whole range of ways (this is supposed to mean teaching students to be researchers, not just teaching them about your research). But that is just the beginning. Equally there's teaching-led research: the idea at the heart of my very first journal article arose from teaching I did as a postgrad.

And more than that, isn't all research teaching anyway? Writing a monograph isn't all that different from writing a lecture: whether you're teaching students physically in front of you or those who are consulting your book, it comes to much the same thing. We only research in order to digest, interpret and share our findings. And the process of doing so is an essential part of clarifying our own thoughts.

So perhaps the trick is finding ways to teach research less didactically and more discursively, less lecture-wise and more seminar-wise. Or at least to recognise that when I deliver a lecture, it may be that the only person whom I am teaching really effectively is myself.

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Tito sailed the ocean black

As an old romantic brought up under the shadow of the Moon missions, I can’t but warm to Dennis Tito’s bonkers project to send a middle-aged couple to Mars. Clearly it’s entirely impossible, and if they ever set off they are most unlikely to come home safely. But I hope they don’t let that put them off.

It reminds me of Columbus. The point about Columbus is not that he thought the world was round. (Everyone knew that.) Rather, he was badly wrong about the world’s size. The best astronomers of the age had calculated the world’s total size and got it more or less right. So they knew that reaching Asia from Europe by sailing west was an impossibly long way: as indeed it is. No fifteenth-century ship could have managed an open-water voyage of that length.

The point is, the sceptics who told Columbus his voyage was impossible were right. It was. But what neither he, nor they, nor anyone else expected was that he would bump into another continent en route.

I am not suggesting that the Tito mission will stumble on a previously undiscovered planet. But I am suggesting that when you attempt the impossible, you are courting not only disaster, but also serendipity. When you stray off the reservation, unexpected things happen.

And who knows? They may, just conceivably, pull it off.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Henry VIII, genealogists, Anabaptists and Mormons

Back for a moment to my old stamping ground, Henry VIII's Reformation: for a realisation which seems like it ought to be embarrassingly obvious. I've not noticed anyone spell it out before. So apologies if this is old hat, but tortoise here has only just caught up with it.

One of the oddities of Henry VIII's reign is the appearance of parish registers. In 1538, Thomas Cromwell's second set of royal injunctions required every parish to keep a register of baptisms, marriages and burials: for no very obvious reason. There was some suspicion at the time that he was proposing to tax these things, but there's no evidence that was the case.

But we don't ask too many questions, because the documents themselves are so fantastically useful: they're the basis for English genealogical work (a subject in which 1538 is Year Zero) and for lots of other historical stuff too. So we tend to assume - or at least I have - that this is somehow part of Cromwell's general drive for administrative efficiency and to turn England into a clockwork bureaucratic machine. Quite how these registers would serve that purpose, well, who knows?

Marking a student essay on Swiss Anabaptists yesterday made me realise what's up. 1538 was, amongst other things, the year when Henry VIII's regime was at the height of its panic about Anabaptist infiltration. We know it never happened, but this was only three years after the terrifying and bloody takeover of the city of Münster by apocalyptic Anabaptists, an event which hung over Europe not unlike 9/11.

... And then they require every parish to keep a record of all its baptisms. Well, duh. What better way of flushing out any Anabaptist tendencies, given that Anabaptists are marked by their refusal to baptise infants?

If I'm right, there's a lovely irony to this. The parish registers that resulted have been used by a great many genealogists, but most assiduously and systematically by the Mormons, who as I understand it use them for the practice of posthumous baptism of believers' ancestors, and who as a result have collated and analysed the registers more thoroughly than anyone else. If Henry VIII was shocked by Anabaptists, what would he have made of that?

Friday, 15 February 2013

The Taiwanese exception: or not

In the work I've been doing recently on early Protestant missionaries, one point has consistently emerged: there weren't any. Or hardly any. You can list the ones who were serious about it quickly: Baldaeus in Jaffna, Eliot and Mayhew in New England, Campanius in New Sweden (I was very excited about New Sweden for a while). Once you're into the 18th century, things change: but before then, Protestants just didn't do missionary work.

So I thought. Then I stumbled across the Dutch missionary effort during their time in charge of southern Taiwan (which they called by its Portuguese name, Formosa), from 1627-62. This was on a different scale. It seems largely to have been two dedicated individuals who got it moving, George Candidus and Robert Junius, both of whom set themselves seriously to learn the languages. But they created enough institutional momentum that the effort survived their departure, however haltingly. There was a genuine mission there, with all its problems; and with some real support from the Dutch East India Company and from the church back in the Netherlands, albeit never as much as the missionaries on the ground wanted.

Which is all very interesting, but it does leave all my explanations for the lack of missionaries holed below the waterline. When you read the accounts of the Dutch mission in Formosa carefully assembled (and, mercifully, translated into English) by the Victorian missionary William Campbell, it seems like it was all going well. Despite the stringent tests imposed for baptism, thousands of candidates were being admitted. Large numbers of converts were being employed as schoolmasters, and as such were being made pivotal to the whole conversion effort. The Dutch openly admitted that these indigenous Christians were better at their job than many of the Dutch incomers. Being good Calvinists, the Dutch were also setting up 'consistories', quasi-courts to oversee the morals of the people: they ensured that there was a good indigenous representation on those too, avowedly so that we may accustom them to manage the churches’. In the final years of the Dutch presence, they were actively planning a seminary in order to train indigenous boys as ministers. To involve so many of the native population in church leadership was unparalleled either in the Protestant or the Catholic world.

But then you read more closely, and discordant details keep hitting you. It is not simply the casual reference to the Dutch schoolmaster whose loose living was setting a bad example to the natives, and whom the government therefore had decapitated. The plan for the seminary suggested siting it in a valley enclosed by swift-flowing rivers, to prevent the students who have been taken from their families absconding to return to them, which seems a little less like a university and a little more like a prison camp than is usual at such institutions. The discipline which was imposed across the whole island - whipping or banishment for 'idolatry', for example - shocked the Dutch authorities in Indonesia when they heard about it. And when the Dutch were expelled from the island in 1661-2, by a Chinese adventurer and his army, their converts did not defend them. Quite the opposite: one observer mournfully noted that the native church-elders ‘now speak with much disdain of the true Christian faith which we had endeavoured to plant in their hearts, and are delighted that they have been exempted from attending the schools. Everywhere they have destroyed the books and utensils, and have again introduced the abominable usages and customs of heathenism.’

So it looks like it wasn't really working. It was chiefly a matter of main force, and in the end that wasn't enough. I am still trying to work out whether this makes Taiwan an exception that proves the rule, or simply a unique and bleak story in its own right.