Category Archives: Postgrad Reflections

Conference Review – ANZAMEMS, Wellington NZ

Nearly a week has passed since the conference of the Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Studies (ANZAMEMS) at Victoria University, Wellington, NZ. This means I have now had time to process what was a stimulating, challenging, fun and mildly exhausting week, and have prepared a few thoughts. The nature of conferences of this size (there were 230 odd delegates) is that you attend a varied range of papers and the majority have little to do with your normal period or topic of study. This is very satisfying. It is nice to escape your own niche in the world of history and appreciate the breadth of work that is being done by other medieval or early modern scholars. This also provides new ideas and new approaches for your own work.  Just because something is outside of your usual frame of reference, it does not preclude it from providing new angles and frameworks within which to analyse your own topics.

Once again the brilliance of my peers has left me amazed and inspired.  Yet I am not going to provide a blow-by-blow account of papers I attended. For that check out the #anza17 tag on twitter. Rather, I will provide some highlights; furnish an assessment of my own paper (in the hope that others like me who are newer to the conference scene can learn from my mistakes); and summarise the postgraduate advanced training seminar (PATS) on manuscript (MS) marginalia I attended on Saturday. I promise to keep it interesting and, as proof, I provide this sketch of an angry catfish from an early modern MS in the collection of the New Zealand National Library.


The conference was four days in length, and I hit some real gems in there. On the first day I heard Lindsay Diggelman speak on the representations of grief in Anglo-Norman texts. Lindsay’s focus upon the transmission of grief motifs from the Anglo-Saxon into the Anglo-Norman worlds aligns conceptually with my own interest in the transmission of saints’ lives narratives across the Conquest. On day two I attended a panel – organised by Charles Zika – on Early Modern conceptions of witchcraft, atheism and vampirism on the vague suspicion that it would at least prove enjoyable! It was an extremely well planned panel with each speaker complementing the previous presentation, augmenting an overarching theme on post-Reformation concepts of active evil in the world. I enjoyed a similarly well-structured panel on the final day, organised under the auspices of the Royal Studies Network. Focused upon the application and evolution of Salic Law, the three speakers managed somehow to cover off 1,500 years of French inheritance law in 60 minutes. An impressive feat. The papers were wide-ranging in scope and looked at Salic law through the lenses of hagiography, genealogy, and legislation. There were additionally four excellent plenaries and to my count over 180 papers presented at the conference – so for a fuller summation I refer you back to the twitter feed!

My own paper was on the second day of the conference and it was nice to have it done reasonably early so I could relax for the remaining papers. It was not an overwhelmingly attended panel as it was in competition with one organised by the Early Modern Women’s Research Network and one organised by the ARC Centre for the History of Emotions. Additionally, the three papers in my panel were extremely varied and niche. I was dissatisfied with my paper – something almost every postgrad comes out of their sessions saying. So I will highlight why and explain what I learned for my next outing.

Firstly, this paper was based on an article I am writing up that currently sits at around 7,500 words. Yet for my mode of delivery a conference paper should be between 2,600 and 2,800 words. So I had to edit and edit heavily. Every time I went back to the paper I would notice streams of argument that had become out of place as I had removed earlier threads of discussion in my attempts to simplify and reduce length. I was editing right up to the night before the conference and I accidentally edited out my thesis statement. Yeah, I know. In addition, the paper remained too dense. This meant that I provided an information-heavy presentation without explaining why I was doing so. Which all sounds terrible, but discussing it with attendees, it was not an awful paper. Yet neither was it the exciting piece of narrative theory I had hoped to present. In future I will write new papers for each conference I attend, keep them to one or two major points, and limit my papers to around 2,600 words so I can slow them down and allow a more conversational style to creep in. Practice makes perfect, and it has been a year since my last conference paper.

I will close this blog with a summary of the Saturday PATS. It is the seconds PATS I have attended, and a nice compliment to the previous one on the ‘Manuscript Book.’ The day was dedicated to marginalia and understanding how past readers understood the texts that they read, or furthered the scholarship. It is mildly funny to me that many MEMS students are reluctant to write in the margins of their own books when there is an entire field of MEMS study dedicated to the practice. In the morning, our speakers looked to their own research, providing fascinating insights into the practice of annotation. Much as today, marginalia performed a range of functions from asserting document ownership, to devotional commentary in religious books, reference material in legal documents, study notes etc. The nature of MSS as artefacts – as opposed to the print book – also means they were open to manipulation through the removal of lines, the scrubbing of coats of arms, textual additions, and various other shady acts of manipulation. In the afternoon we saw some of these practices in place as the NZ National Library brought out a selection of their treasures for us to examine and analyse. Of particular interest (to me) were three medieval religious MSS – two annotated bibles and a miscellany containing biblical extracts and commentary. It was a day well spent, and a good way to end a very stimulating week.

-Matt Firth

Further Information:

ARC Centre for the History of Emotions:


Early Modern Women’s Research Network:

New Zealand National Library:

Royal Studies Network:

The Black Friary, Trim Ireland (2) – The Irish Archaeological Field School

An essential skill within the field of history is critical analysis. Historians apply critical reading skills to primary source texts and to secondary analyses both, but often accept the content of archaeological reports without serious investigation. I believe this is largely as a product of necessity as the archaeological skill-set is not one normally taught within history syllabi. So I was pretty pleased this week that I got involved with the messy technical detail of planning, excavating, and cataloguing that enable archaeologists to build their conclusions. Which said, onto the second week of the IAFS two-week program, the adventures of the week, and what I have learned in my time at Trim (aside from the fact that potatoes go with everything). This week’s IAFS program looked like this:

Day 1 – A visit to the Hill of Tara and Bective Abbey

Day 2 – Excavation & Planning

Day 3 – Excavation & Community Archaeology

Day 4 – Excavation & Post-excavation

Day 5 – Planning & Post-excavation

Tara is, of course, a focal point of Irish identity both within and predating the historical record. Its status as the seat of the High Kingship of Ireland is built into the Irish mythological past of the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fir Bolg, permeates Irish medieval texts, and is an essential component of modern popular conceptions of Irish culture. Bective Abbey on the other hand is probably known only to the Meath natives, but is an impressively intact Cistercian monastery which helps contextualise what may have once stood in the field at the Black Friary in Trim, and make sense of what remains under the surface. However, before going on to what we found as we dug in that field this week, I will briefly outline the community aspect of the IAFS and the archaeological site in Trim, as it is a key aspect of the program.

Archaeology works best if it has buy-in from local people. It provides a sympathetic working environment that allows communal ownership of regional heritage, facilitates interest in a shared past, and fosters a desire to preserve it. It also enables archaeologists to gain alternative evidence for the history of archaeological sites through access to local stories and oral histories that may otherwise be lost. Thus the IAFS and affiliates have a strong community orientation. This week we assisted at the local primary schools, delivering an experiential lesson in the creation of medieval ink which, in one fun package, engaged students’ interest in the past, reminded them of the archaeological site on their doorstep, and reinforced the importance of literacy. The Black Friary dig runs around thirty such events per year. In addition, the site is an open one. Visitors can come see the progress of the dig at any time, access professional on-site archaeologists if they find any artefacts in their own wanderings, and walk their dogs and play amongst the grassy hillocks. All of which occurred during my time in Trim. It makes the dig a functional part of the community.

So we continued in cutting 7 this week. I gained some more experience in planning – taking levels, taking coordinates, drafting plans, and drawing the cobbled surface of the medieval flooring we uncovered. I also gained additional experience in post-excavation, which largely comprised of weighing and recording animal-bone samples, logging some metal and plaster artefacts, and processing around one-hundred pieces of stained glass. Because yes, we found stained glass. These processes are what really enable archaeological analysis. The meticulous cataloguing of the location, type of feature and nature of the sample or find enable archaeologists to build a holistic picture of a site that increases in clarity as more data is obtained. Of all the archaeological pursuits, this post-ex type activity suits my rather orderly mind best.

However, digging did take place and, as I noted, we did find the elusive stained glass, and lots and lots of it. Animal bones, the occasional nail, and pieces of polychrome plaster still rounded out our finds, but the stained glass was certainly a highlight. It was particularly interesting that, as this occurred late within the program, I was able to see how what I had been taught was coming together in my mind. If it had occurred in week one, I would basically have thought ‘cool – I found some glass.’ But instead I found myself interrogating the patch of soil. Why was the glass only in a thin layer? Was it part of the rubble we were cleaning out, or a separate feature? Was it at the interface between two layers of soil? Was it a one-time event – did someone just smash a single window at a single point in time in order to reclaim the lead frames? Why was there charcoal in the deposit? Were they melting down the lead on site, or were the seventeenth-century demolition workers just cold and making themselves some tea over a fire? I have my thoughts.

So in the end, was it a valuable experience abandoning my family for two weeks digging in the mud and cold of the Irish winter? Absolutely. I enjoyed myself immensely and feel that the IAFS has given me a solid grounding in basic archaeological practices. I certainly feel I now have the wherewithal to critically analyse archaeological reports, or at least understand how they reached their conclusions. That the IAFS faculty have been thorough in ensuring the experience encompassed all aspects of field archaeology, and have been extremely accommodating of our various foibles, has been a big part of ensuring the value of the learning experience. But I am not a convert to archaeology – just happy I know more about it!

-Matt Firth

Further Information:

Irish Archaeological Field School:

The Hill of Tara:

The Black Friary, Trim Ireland (1) – The Irish Archaeological Field School

I am a historian, not an archaeologist, yet here I am at the Irish Archaeological Field School (IAFS), excavating a medieval friary in Trim, County Meath, Ireland. Traditionally historians and archaeologists have tended to remain aloof from one another, but this is a perception that is changing and changing rapidly. So I want to explain why I am here before going on to talk a little about the program and this week’s adventures.

The reason archaeology and history are disciplines that need to work in symbiosis boils down to the simple fact that they both seek to answer the same question: what happened in the past? Obviously there are differences in approach, and the specific questions may change, but ultimately history and archaeology advance our understanding of the worlds our ancestors inhabited. A historian may painstakingly piece together a history theorised from documentary evidence, but if that history defies the material evidence it must be treated with scepticism. Likewise, if an archaeologist uncovers evidence of human activity at an archaeological site, it is the historical record, where it exists, that contextualises that material data. So in an effort to become a better historian, here I am in Trim; learning the basic processes of archaeology; learning how artefacts are found and understood; how samples illuminate the social history of a site; and, ultimately learning to read archaeological reports. My hope is that this will enable me to produce more holistic and rigorous historical analyses that work from a broader set of data and a wider understanding of historical context.

But I am also at a Dominican Friary, the home of scholars and scribes who produced in their scriptorium those manuscripts I love so much. So I also get to feed that specific fascination (they have uncovered some lovely manuscript prickers on site, so MS production was certainly in place, though vellum production was likely undertaken elsewhere).

A protected national monument, the Black Friary looks like a paddock in the middle of a bustling market-town. Founded as Dominican Friary in the thirteenth-century, the institution gradually declined into the early modern era. It remained as a physical relic on the landscape until extensively quarried for its stone in the seventeenth-century – yet the evidence of the past lies beneath the grassy tussocks.

The IAFS offers a range of options for students who wish to gain field experience in archaeology within the context of an operational archaeological site. As I have recently completed my Masters I have no need of accreditation for my time here, so have opted for the two-week program. Those doing the short program are integrated with students doing a longer program for university credit, and it is worth noting that this is facilitated by the IAFS. While this necessitates some differences between programs regarding assessment and project work, the bones of the program remain the same for all students. The schedule for the week first week I have just completed involved:

Day 1 – Site orientation and the context of medieval Trim

Day 2 – A visit to Slane Hill and Newgrange

Day 3 – Excavation

Day 4 – Excavation

Day 5 – Post-excavation

I am going to skip past the first two days – orientation being what it sounds like, and Newgrange being a famous prehistoric site that is well described elsewhere. So straight to the excavation, and the hole that I have become rather attached to in the past three days. Cutting 7, section C, and feature 734 for those playing at home. I have been working in a group of three to examine the extent of the feature. This has meant practice in surveying, planning, trowelling, and a great deal of time swinging a mattock. Understanding the processes of surveying and planning in particular are of great value to a historian as these are the contextual markers of any archaeological report – the things that enable analysis of any sample or artefact uncovered. Trowelling and mattocking not so much, but it is the fun bit.

So did we find anything? We are working through reasonably modern layers, but yes we did. Alongside the now subterranean abbey walls previously uncovered in cutting 7, we discovered three pieces of glazed medieval pottery – part of the rubble in the modern layers. We also found a plethora of butchered animal bones, some modern glass, a nail, some seas shells, a fossil, and so, so many rocks. It is a little bit addictive. You sort of just want to keep trying to find the next thing – provided it is not another rock. Did I stuff up? Yep. Was it a problem? No. The IAFS faculty are very understanding of the ineptitude of the bumbling amateurs who show up at their door-step, and our mistakes are teaching opportunities.

I will end here and report back next week. We are currently working in an area where stained glass has previously been uncovered, so I am looking forward to going deeper in the week ahead.

-Matt Firth

Further Information:

Irish Archaeological Field School:


Here goes nothing…

So the time has finally arrived to get the ball rolling and introduce this little history blog to the world – well, a tiny part of it anyway.

The Postgrad Chronicles is the brain child of Matt and myself; two postgraduate history students from Australia. Both medievalists, yet centuries apart in our interests. Within our rambling procrastinatory chats, Matt and I identified a need for an easy to navigate and reasonably comprehensive collective medieval bibliography. This need, we noted, was not currently being met in the world of online medieval history. Eventually our concentrated laziness, and high level of skill in putting things off, was overcome, and we decided that maybe we should be the ones to fill the gap. Add to this our own little reviews of relevant scholarship, some comments on postgraduate history study, and some thematic history blogging, and you have the basis of The Postgrad Chronicles.

Through the blog, Matt and myself will endeavour to provide a place for historical information, mild entertainment – if you share our…interesting sense of humour – and most of all, resources for the study of medieval history. We have already begun compiling a list of relevant online sources – follow the links on the left – which will continue to grow. The bibliography feature is requiring an extensive amount of work, but you will soon see the lists taking shape – once again follow the links. Wherever possible, we have attempted to create lists that are extensive yet at the same time specific. Due to the nature of our topics, and the range in our studies, these lists will be a constantly evolving section of the blog. We are always open to questions and comments, especially suggestions for either work to be reviewed and included in the bibliography, or even for new sections or lists to be added.

Join us for random nonsense intertwined with flashes of brilliance and an abundance of sarcasm – and somewhere in their you might find something interesting and/or useful!

– Jamie Gatehouse