Mini post: new work on Durham, Cathedral Library MS Hunter 100

As noted in my last post, work is well underway on our project to study the computus volume, Durham Cathedral Library MS Hunter 100.

We’ve set up a new blog site especially for this work, which you can find here: and we’ll be updating this every couple of days while the work moves on until the beginning of June.

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Working through time, space, medieval medicine and history: Durham Cathedral Library MS Hunter 100 project takes shape

Bishop A new research project is brewing at Durham’s Institute of Medieval and Renaissance Studies!

This week I was pleased to have been invited to take part in a three-month spring research project on one of our best medieval manuscripts. Durham Cathedral Library Ms Hunter 100 is an early twelfth-century miscellany, housing various texts related to the study of time. It’s contents were compiled at Durham in the 1120s. They include commentaries on how to work out the date (in the days before someone just printed a calendar for you), chapters on medicine and medicinal herbs, and writings on the constellations (complete with superb illustrations). Below is a reproduction of the calendar, depicting the month of May.


Most importantly for my research on perceptions of the past in the medieval period, the manuscript also contains a series of tables through which it is possible to calculate the date of Easter. While this is useful, the most interesting part of this is that someone has also added short notes on important events which happened in the years featured. They are usually only very brief, noting the deaths of Roman Emperors or the elections of Popes, and so on. Some allude to events within the history of the Durham community, such as the arrival of Benedictine monks in 1083. I published an article on these annals in the 2013 edition of the Haskins Society Journal, so I’m looking forward to working with the team to learn more about the annals and how they relate to the remaining contents of the current manuscript.

Over the next few months, our team of researchers led by Dr Giles Gasper of the Durham History Department (whose Ordered Universe project on medieval science and the works of Bishop Robert Gosseteste continues to grow and grow) and Professor Faith Wallis of McGill University, aims to study the contents of the manuscript in detail, editing certain sections for use by other scholars. We aim to understand just how each section of the manuscript relates to its overall contents, and especially to make links between the study of time and space, the universe, medicine, and history.

There is an ambition to digitise and publish the manuscript online, which will provide a superb resources for students of medieval science, chronology and historical writing. We’re heavily influenced by the superb job done on a similar item by specialists at McGill, which can be seen here:

Stay tuned for more info as the project develops!

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Teaching With Medieval Manuscripts of Durham

Last week I had the pleasure of teaching on the Durham University institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies Summer School for medieval history. Among many of the fun things we did with eight visiting undergraduate and postgraduate students were visits to: Durham Cathedral,Fountains Abbey, and Lindisfarne. But far and away my favourite bit of the whole week was an afternoon spent in Durham University’s Palace Green Library, where we looked at six manuscripts from Durham Cathedral’s Library and two from the PG Library collection.

This was certainly a highlight of the week, and I think I won the students’ competition for ‘best thing we’ve done in the UK all month’ (trumping the London Eye, which had been dominant favourite up until this manuscript session!) It certainly helped that we’d been reading Bede and Symeon of Durham all week, because five of the manuscripts had additions by Symeon and one of them was the pre-1096 copy of Bede’s HE (with Symeon’s marginal note).

Some pictures included below to show just how much fun we had!

(Thanks due to Durham University’s Palace Green Library, Durham Cathedral Library, and Durham University’s International Office for helping to make this possible, and my partner in crime, Dr Gemma Wain for helping to teach the session!)

List of manuscripts viewed:

Durham, Dean and Chapter Library, MS B.IV.24: ‘The Durham Cantor’s Book’

Durham, Dean and Chapter Library, MS A.II.4: Bible of William of St Calais

Durham, Dean and Chapter Library, MS B.II.35: Bede’s Ecclesiastical History

Durham, Dean and Chapter Library, MS B.IV.4: Ambrose Commentary on Hexameron

Durham, Dean and Chapter Library, MS B.IV.14: Collection of Saints’ Lives

Durham, Dean and Chapter Library, MS C.IV.15 (Annals)

Durham, University Library, MS. V.II.6: Symeon of Durham, Libellus de exordio

Durham, University Library, MS. V.II.1: Lawrence of Durham


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Review Article: Rome a History of the Eternal City (BBC4)

A recent evening off gave me the chance to catch up on some history TV that I’d missed this week. Top of the list for me, as a devoted lover of all things Rome, was the latest offering from BBC4: Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Rome: a History of the Eternal City.

If you’re not up to date with historical biographies in your local Waterstone’s, it doesn’t take long to get to know the presenter. As his website is eager to inform you, Sebag Montefiore is a celebrated biographer of Stalin and Catherine the Great (his website even includes a tab named ‘Critical Acclaim’ ( In this series, Sebag Montefiore looks to build upon his well-received account of the city of Jerusalem (Jerusalem: the Biography) by offering an abridged history of another of the Western world’s most history-heavy locations: the city of Rome.

As a presenter, Sebag Montefiore is convincing enough. He adopts the well-worn middle-class-classicist persona, (the Telegraph called him a ‘natural raconteur’), appears complete with Panama hat and slacks, and backs this image up by his utter revulsion at the thought of venturing into ancient Roman sewer systems. (Panama) hats off to him for climbing into the dingy sewers, leading to some spectacular interaction with one of Rome’s understandably less well-known ancient landmarks.

Sebag Montefiore packages his three-part series as a history of the city of Rome, as viewed through and reflected in the various religious beliefs and practices observed within its walls. He takes us around some of Rome’s best-known monuments, offering up lashings architectural grandeur (with especially heavy servings of those ever-present columns for which Rome is perhaps most famous).

Although Sebag Montefiore ouches on ever stage of Roman urban history and tries to ensure that nothing is left out, this is perhaps the biggest problem with this first episode. Sebag Montefiore’s ostensible focus on the history of religion offers him an opportunity to consider a highly interesting aspect of ancient history that is certainly under-explored in modern broadcasting. Instead, what actually appears here is a fairly shallow exploration of only some of Rome’s religious history. While Sebag Montefiore names a great deal Roman deities, we are never informed of exactly who these Gods were or the various roles which they may be seen to have served. Similarly, although he notes a distinction between Christianity and Paganism, viewers must make their own inferences on exactly what types of beliefs this paganism entailed, and why Romans followed these beliefs.

I did enjoy this episode, but not really for what it taught me about the role of religions in Roman history. The strengths of this series appear to lie in Sebag Montefiore’s likeable and authoritative air, rather than the depth of his analysis. Although I couldn’t help thinking that Sebag Montefiore is perhaps missing a trick here, I’ll still look forward to episode two with relish, if more for how it looks, rather than what it says.

Episode two airs on Wednesday 12 December at 21:00 (GMT) on BBC Four. For a preview, see:

UK-based viewers can watch the first episode via BBCi Player, at:

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‘Don’t get it right, get it finished’: how to complete your thesis/essay/etc, and how to let go

Hi everyone,

First, let me please apologise for the inactivity in recent weeks. The curse of the researcher struck, and with a huge, all-consuming deadline brewing, I felt it best to leave the blog for a few weeks so as to avoid any hurried or otherwise below-par posts!

Happily, this huge deadline got me thinking for my next entry: ‘how to finish things’. Or, to put it differently, ‘how to get to a stage where you feel comfortable enough to let things go when you know more still could be done’! I think anybody who has ever studied or researched history will be familiar with this problem. For despite what was believed maybe a hundred years ago, history has indeed proved itself to be an imprecise art. There are innumerable ways of approaching the important topics in history, which all lead to different answers and more new questions. Trends, fashions and cycles in approach, interpretation and re-interpretation, ensure that a popular and well-received piece in one generation can be completely rejected by the next.

This makes it quite difficult to know exactly when to release a piece of historical research into the public domain. Even before you’ve ever shown it to peers, editors, or potential reviewers, it is quite easy to think about exploring an alternative methodology, or to muse on consulting a further section of evidence. The journey of self-evaluation and reflection is always a necessary experience. However, it is often very difficult to know exactly when to draw the line and be satisfied enough to move on to something new. With this in mind, I decided to offer some small tips from my experiences so far, on which I warmly welcome further advice or comments.

I think the first and maybe the most important point to realise, is that no piece of historical writing, whether an undergraduate essay, a dissertation, or even a published book, is ever perfect. I learned this the hard way whilst I was an undergraduate finalist. Having written 4,000 words for a tutor who didn’t mind us going over the 2,500-word ‘limit’, and having received an essay mark of 85 (which is almost as high as you can go in history in the British system), the essay still came back with a whole raft of suggestions for how it could be improved and what could be added next time (as if I had room). This same professor had a brilliant motto of ‘don’t get it right, get it finished’; the idea being that there’s no point doing research or writing about a topic if you don’t actually put it out there and share the things you’ve learned with others. For every published book that gets a second edition, you’ll still find several reviews which suggest possible areas of improvement. This is certainly an experimental discipline, with each and every one of us choosing to adopt different approaches and asking different questions, often of the very same evidence.

The second thing to remember is that whatever you’re writing at any given time is almost certainly not going to be the best thing you will ever write, nor will it have all the answers. Your newest work will always be your best, but that does not mean that you have to re-write your oldest work in order to catch up. If you do, you may find yourself in a never-ending circle of re-drafting. Particularly for a PhD or MA dissertation, it is valuable to remember that this work represents where you were then, and that you’ll get much more important feedback on how to improve it once you’ve finished it and get it marked or from your viva/defence, than you ever would if you don’t get it out there. Push that on a bit further and the same goes for the book, which again allows you to develop your ideas and approaches leading on from the thesis.

Don’t be overawed by others around you, whether peers or perceived superiors. Of course the chair of medieval history knows more than you – he’s the one who has been working on his topic for the best part of forty years, while you may only have a fraction of that experience. If he’s nice, he’ll remember that he was once there too. It is certainly a long process, and most historians only really come into their best work in their late 40s and 50s, so be patient! By the same token, don’t be put off by the more experienced graduate students/early-career academics. They are often loud like that just because they feel the same insecurities as you! Studying and writing history, like most sections of academia, is an open-ended process. Maybe one of the best pieces I’ve come across on this is from an anonymous maths professor, whose words I found within a booklet of potential teaching resources:

‘Perhaps I can best describe my experience of doing mathematics in terms of a journey through a dark, unexplored mansion. You enter the first room of the mansion and its completely dark. You stumble around bumping into furniture, but gradually you learn where each piece of furniture is. Finally, after six months or so, you find the light switch, turn it on, and suddenly its all illuminated. Then you move into the next room and spend another six months in the dark…’

Hands up who has been here more than once in their time!

I’ve not been trying to argue here that everybody should go publishing the first findings of their work left, right, and centre. It is certainly true that it takes time to present, digest, and then present the findings of historical research for dissemination. However, I feel that many historians and especially those in the earlier stages of a career, feel this reluctance more than they perhaps should.

In order to be able to finish a project in history, I think you have to realise from the outset that it will never actually be as finished as you want it. However, if you don’t learn to let go, nobody will ever read your work. If this happens, you can never get feedback (remember this can be both positive and negative) nor can you ever contribute to the wider research community.


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Recent Work: History in the Liturgy of Twelfth-Century Durham

Dear all,

I must apologise for the lack of recent posts. This has been caused by a: impending work deadlines and b: really interesting research! By way of an apology, I decided to include a little bit of this work in a new post, so that regular readers might be informed on (perhaps) cutting-edge historical research! I apologise if this is perhaps too academic, although I did try to make things as friendly as possible. Tried to keep it short and sweet!


Modern scholarship has long identified a marked increase in English historical writing between c.1080 and c.1154 (Gransden, 1974; Southern, 1973; van Houts, 2002). More histories were written here in these years than in any preceding hundred-year period. However, although historical narratives increased dramatically in number in these years, previous research has struggled to ascertain exactly how much history was actually being read in these years, and for what reasons.

Narrative Histories and Annals

Richard Gameson (1999) has shown that none of the most popular histories in England between 1066 and 1130 were written in the period. Reviewing the character of collection patterns, Gameson concluded that only a small group of very well-established historical texts were acquired in large numbers. These included Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica (nine Anglo-Norman copies); Eusebius’ Historia ecclesiastica (five); Eutropius’ Brevarium historiae Romanae (six, plus one abridgement), with no sign of more recent works by near-contemporary authors.

If we wish to know more about the ways in which and the reasons for which scribes and scholars experienced history in this period, we may turn our attentions away from dissecting the minute pool of canonical texts by currently well-known authors like William of Malmesbury, John of Worcester, and Henry of Huntingdon, which do not actually seem to have been widely read until later centuries. It is more useful to study the copying and compilation of other classes of more widely-ready historical texts, and in particular, historical annals. Gameson (1999) noted the production or acquisition of ten sets of annals in Anglo-Norman England, while Paul Hayward identified eight English breviate world chronicles, and six sets of Norman annals from the same period (2010, vol. 1: 13-15). These figures suggest that Anglo-Norman scribes and scholars were far more likely to have engaged with contemporary historical writing through the study of the annalistic chronicle than through narrative history.

Reasons for compilation

How does a textual source containing material relating to the past earn the label ‘history’? We might today define a written historical source, as anything containing information useful to the study of the past. But in the medieval period, the conceptualisation of historical studies was very different from our own. Notable ‘historians’ including William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon, were in fact polymaths, not specialists in history alone (Black, 2006; Thomson, 1978).

This realisation may be extended towards the study of the annalistic chronicle. Almost all Anglo-Norman examples appear in manuscripts housing a variety of other materials which do not relate to the study of history. Two examples from twelfth-century Durham illustrate this point. One set of annals appears within Durham Cathedral Library manuscript Hunter 100; the other in Glasgow University Library, manuscript Hunter 85 (T.4.2). Both annals have been shown to have been originally housed alongside a variety of other texts relating to the study of computus (the calculation of time) (Gameson, 1999: 86-9). They are not given their own space, but instead appear in the margins of numerical tables used to calculate the moveable feast of Easter.


To what extent may these two collections of annals be understood to have represented the study of history? The most obvious point is to note that they all certainly provide information about events from the past: in most cases, a single historical fact alongside the year in which it happened. While it cannot be argued that either source enabled the Durham monks to study the theory and practice of narrative historiography, they might nevertheless be seen to have facilitated the construction of a skeletal historical narrative. For example, entries relating to the Carolingian dynasty inform readers that Charlemagne died in 814; that he was succeeded by his son, Louis, and that Louis reigned for twenty-six years until he died in 840. Further along, the tables record the series of civil wars that dominated the reigns of Charlemagne’s sons and successors. Although it would require knowledge of the systems used to construct the tables, it is perfectly possible to compile an outline of Carolingian succession using the Durham Easter-table annals.

However, the locations of these records suggest that the study of history was not their primary intended purpose. The lack of later continuations and additions suggests that both annals were compiled in one sitting. Furthermore, listing the years and dates of many of the same events in these two, and at least two other known Durham annals at that time, does not suggest that these sources existed merely to record events. The original location of the Durham annals confirms that history was not the prime motivator. Both manuscripts collected many extracts and short texts as possible relating to the calculation of Easter and the organisation of the calendar, including Bede’s De temporum ratione; Isidore’s De natura rerum; the computus of Abbo of Fleury; Robert of Losingia’s Expositio de computo, and Dionysus Exiguus’ letter on the dating of Easter. Could it be that the Hunter 100 annals do not represent history at all?


Contextualisation of these annals supports Paul Hayward’s thesis on the nature and purpose of contemporary annalistic histories. Hayward argued that annals were deployed towards the needs of communal religious life, and in particular the accurate observance of the liturgical cycle. To deliver the correct prayers on the correct days required the study of computistical treatises and the mastering of schematic diagrams, including Easter-tables. Hayward argued that the addition of historical information provided ‘a basic map of what had happened over the longer term’ which ‘supported the teaching of computus’, and provided a visual representation of the passing of time (2010, vol. 1: 37). He thus concluded that such sources were ‘controlled by the needs of religious life (and the institutions that supported it) rather than by those of history as a forensic discipline’ (2010, vol. 1: 60).

Historical information within the calendar and Easter-tables of Hunter 100 thus made the study of computus more interesting and perhaps more relevant, and inevitably more easy. For example, if you know that Charlemagne died in 814, you know that the section above is 813, and the year below is 815. So the delivery of the liturgical cycle and the maintenance of the calendar are assisted by historical information. As such, these sources cannot be seen represent history, but they most certainly have history in them, and it can be argued with some conviction that this history allowed readers to orientate themselves within the broader patterns of world history, and to acknowledge the anniversaries of important historical events, and to thus gain a deeper sense of historical awareness.


Black, Winston (2006) ‘Henry of Huntingdon’s lapidary rediscovered and his Anglicanus ortus reassambled’, Mediaeval Studies, 68, 43-87.

Gameson, Richard (1999) The Manuscripts of Early Norman England, (c.1066-1130). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gransden, Antonia (1974) Historical Writing in England (3 vols.). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Hayward, Paul A. (2010) The Winchcombe and Coventry Chronicles: Hitherto Unnoticed Witnesses to the Work of John of Worcester (2 vols.). Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

Southern, R. W. (1973) ‘Aspects of the European Tradition of Historical Writing: 4: The Sense of the Past’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fifth Series, vol. 23, 243-263.

Thomson, R. M. (1978) ‘William of Malmesbury as Historian and Man of Letters’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 29: 4, 387-413.

van Houts Elisabeth (2002) ‘Historical Writing’, A Companion to the Anglo-Norman World, eds., C. Harper-Bill and E. van Houts. Woodbridge: Boydell, 103-21

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Research-Led Public Engagement? Bravo, English Heritage at Framglinham Castle, Suffolk

If it is possible to have research-led teaching, is it possible to use this for research-led public engagement? Following my last post on the uses and problems of the former (which you can read here), I was thinking about this topic for some time. Last weekend, I travelled for a much-needed weekend away back to my family home in Suffolk. While there I did the usual medieval-themed visits, which included a surprising visit to Framlingham Castle

As a kid, we visited Framlingham all the time, mainly because alongside Orford (English heritage: Orford Castle) it is one of only two castles in Suffolk. Although I always enjoyed ‘Fram’, as you can see from the picture above, it really only consists of walls and a largely-empty interior. English heritage are therefore pressed to make the visit as interesting as possible, and I remember doing this as a child by watching things like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for kids, and the odd medieval re-enactment.

This time, English Heritage really impressed me with their interactive museum display. Located within the one surviving building, a sevententh-century poor-house, the exhibition charts the history of the castle and its surroundings. There is nothing overly innovative, but things are just done really well. What impressed me most, was the level of research communicated in the display. For example, the picture below shows that EH have clearly done thier bit to find out what was there before Framlingham castle, with notes on the description of the settlement in the Domesday Book, and a short history of the market, created by the actions of the Earls.

Framlingham, History

Elsewhere, a really fun cartoon video tells the general overview of Framlingham’s history, giving the room a sense of humour, and also of ‘newness’ in the displays. There’s also a description of the Howard family, who owned the castle in the Tudor period, and provided Henry VIII with two of his six wives.

Regular readers will be pleased to hear that this is a short post for me! However, I was motivated to communicate my views, and really pleased that English Heritage are doing their bit to spread a deeper knowledge of history, and a more developed sense of where their visitors are, and what it is that they are seeing. Whether you call it ‘research-led public engagement’, or just a highler level of attention to detail, it is nevertheless welcome (especially if, like me, you paid over £6.00 to get in!).

😎 Charlie

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