Monthly Archives: June 2010

Book Comments – Edward James and Wendy Davies. Books I Should Have Read Before Now

When I was beginning my Kalamazoo write-ups I looked for things to read that I would be interested in, but something that wouldn’t tax me too much because of how much time I knew I’d have to put into those. I wanted books that I’d be able to “just read” rather than study, think about new concepts, take bunches of notes on, etc. Also something I wouldn’t feel the urge to comment on, or write a review for.

I picked out two books I’d been aware of for a long time but had never purchased because I was involved in my own form of age discrimination. Then I bought them, as well as a few others, at a/two used bookseller(s) at Kalamazoo for a substantial discount. Both were clean hardcovers, showing just normal reading wear – no highlighting or markings on the pages. After reading them I feel compelled to at least comment on them – and I’m going to resist the urge to do complete reviews.

Edward James’ The Franks (Blackwell, 1988) shows up whenever people start talking about reading materials for Late Antiquity, particularly for the Franks and Gaul. By the time I was aware of it, having figured out what I was interested in, it was 2000, I’d read Wood, Geary, and was into more specialized stuff – detailed books, reading Early Medieval Europe, etc. James was old – over 10 years – and even though I continued to see it footnoted in new books and articles, I didn’t feel an urge to get it.

Wendy Davies’ Small Worlds: The Village Community in Early Medieval Brittany (University of California, 1988) suffered even more severely as not only was it older, but it was beyond the period I was most interested in.

My goal of using these for “light medieval reading” met with mixed results. James fit my preconception – very good book (better than I’d expected, actually) but most of the concepts were familiar to me and many had benefited from more recent publications, including some by Dr. James himself. Using my usual note taking system I ended up with 9 distinct notes, less than a third of a page. However it is interesting how well the concepts discussed in it have held up over time and how, for the most part, this book has not been contradicted, but “fleshed out” by more recent work. I think it remains valuable and is a new “first book on the Franks” that I’ll recommend. It’s very readable, interesting, and has a bunch of utility for someone just getting started. What makes this book a true, undiscovered treasure for me is the prodigious use James makes of charts, diagrams and images which are very helpful in illustrating his concepts. I regret my hubris in thinking this book had little to teach me ten years or so ago – I should have read it when I decided what I was really interested in. My loss.

Davies is an entirely different story. On finishing this I find myself with the urge to write a full-bore review, which I am determined to resist. There do not appear to be a lot of good, accessible reviews out there on it which adds to this impetus – however, unfortunately, this book appears to no longer be in print. If I thought writing a review would inspire a re-issue, possibly in a paperback edition accessible to those with a smaller budget (that thought would be hubris indeed), I would. This is an extremely good book. 1

I need to give yet another shout-out to Jonathan Jarrett – I seem to do that a lot but that’s just how this blogging thing has worked out. I’d had this book wishlisted for a long time but he brought it back to my attention in a comment he made in my World Lit Only by Fire Review. I have no idea if I’d have picked it up at Kalamazoo without his bringing it back to a more prominent part of my brain. Once again, thank you Jonathan.

Small Worlds is absolutely filled with information. Davies examined surviving documentation from 9th century Brittany, particularly charter evidence from the monastery of Redon, and uses it to reconstruct various aspects of life in Brittany – including a great deal of information on peasant life. She augments this with extensive figures and tables. For example, Table 13 on page 200 lists the documentary evidence for all of the annual rents due to the monastery of Redon which range from straight cash payments to one listed as, “2 big sheep, 2 small sheep(value 3d each), 1 pig(value 12d), 1-1/2m wheat, 1m rye, 6m oats, manaheda”.

I can get enthusiastic about this book and it’s a shame it’s not still in print (used copies should be available). This is another example of the kind of detailed, precise information I love – I don’t care if it is 22 years old. And in covering a small geographic region, I’m not aware of anything which has replaced it for information on Medieval Brittany.

In contrast to James, this was not “light reading.” I took extensive notes – 2 full pages and 34 notations, some covering multiple pages. This for a book that is 213 pages long (not counting the forward and bibliography).

To summarize, both of these books have continued value – and I should have read them long ago. The Franks has become my new “first book to recommend” to someone just getting started on the Franks for its readability and quality. And Small Worlds has become an unqualified recommendation, period – a book filled with quality, well documented information. And her books on Medieval Wales have just moved up on my “books I should get” food chain.

NOTE: I anticipate being less active with this blog over the next 3 months. June-August is always a busy time in my real job and, because of weather and having to do some things around home, personally. I generally change my reading habits during this period too – I look for less specialized books because I may have several days running where I don’t find time to read and that’s a poor way to read a complex academic book. I expect to be able to jump back in sometime in September though. I’m hoping to be able to post something at least weekly in the meantime but no guarantees and I absolutely don’t want to “post just to post.”

1 The best review I’ve found is from 1990 by William Chester Jordan in The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 20, 469-471.

Davies, Wendy, Small Worlds: The Village Community in Early Medieval Brittany. Berkely: University of California Press, (1988). Pp. 227, xi. ISBN: 0-520-06483-6.

James, Edward, The Franks. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd., (1988). Pp. 265, xii. ISBN: 0-631-14872-8.


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I Might Just Nominate this for Post of the Year (at least in the Humorous Category)

I absolutely LOVE this post from Roger Pearse.

He closes with:

“Let us praise those selfless souls who refrained nobly from copying long and boring texts, and who generously gave of their libraries to the flames, so we would be spared wading through it!”

I know this is tongue-in-cheek – Roger knows better than I that nobody ran around burning books. Not on a large scale anyway. This goes back to my Mythbusters as to why ancient works failed to survive – nobody wanted ’em.

As a Greek classicist (with a fair amount of knowledge of ancient Rome) once said on a Library Thing discussion board, a bit less eloquently than Roger (paraphrasing), “You know why those books didn’t survive? Because they were crap.” *

* I’d cite this properly but then I’d have to wade through hundreds – maybe thousands of discussion board posts to find the exact quote and link. If he runs across this, hopefully the author (cough)Tim Spalding(/cough) will forgive my transgression.

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Posted by on June 2, 2010 in Humor and Games


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Final Kalamazoo Summary – or "I ain’t gonna do THAT Again"

Phew! OK, I’m glad I did it but I won’t be posting summaries like this at any future Congress. I’ve always written up a summary of sessions for my own use and those have taken 20-30 minutes per session to put together. I thought that was where I was going with this until I actually got into it – it’s a very different summary when it’s for public consumption, you have to keep checking notes to make sure you’re accurate and, to be honest, I’m worried that with the level of detail I went into that I would misrepresent what someone said or, particularly for papers outside my area, I might leave a crucial item out. If someone sees something in any of these, please comment. Things put on the web matter – if something isn’t right I’d like to fix it – of course that doesn’t mean I’m going to say I liked a paper when I didn’t.

So as a way to ease myself down, I thought I’d offer a few final Kalamazoo thoughts. This will be a somewhat rambling account and I’ll try to avoid repeating something I posted in any of the daily updates.

As always, I enjoyed it immensely. The sessions I attended were very good overall and I can honestly say I learned something from all of them and a great deal from most. I’ve noticed some comments from other attendees about no-shows among presenters. Interestingly, I noticed this last year but didn’t come across it in 2010. At one of Florin Curta’s 2009 sessions I attended only 1 of 4 was there and there were a few others who didn’t make it, usually no more than one in a session. I attributed this to the growing recession and schools cutting their budgets. This year only 1 presenter didn’t make it for one of my sessions and he was accounted for in the corriega.

Aren’t grad students great? The grad student papers I heard were every bit as good as anybody’s. And I enjoy getting to speak with them after sessions. Grad students always bring energy and enthusiasm – I don’t care what field you’re working in. They still think they can change the world – and some of them will, at least a little.

A note on maps. I happen to build maps as part of my real job using GIS and GPS. And I’m not an expert – there are folks who can make ArcGIS dance. I learned what I needed to do my job. However, PLEASE, if you have a map or diagram in a paper – either as a visual or handout – and it’s not oriented with North at the top, PLEASE (again) put a directional indicator on your map or diagram. There are three things necessary to make a “real” map – a spatial diagram, a directional indicator (usually a north arrow) and a distance scale. Now if your map/diagram is oriented with North at the top, fine, but if not, throw in a little compass with the 4 compass directions. Several presenters included maps/diagrams or used a visual which had things laid out a bit different directionally – when they made directional references – “we found a cemetery to the west” or “there appeared to be some excavations indicating a canal to the south” – it took me a while to figure out what they were talking about. I may be a bit anal about this since I work with maps but it really would be helpful.

A few other observations.

  • The free coffee continues to improve and even the free wine wasn’t horrible
  • Temperature control in session rooms needs to be looked at – not sure there’s much that can be done but I was in several sessions where it was excessively warm
  • I know it’s a medieval conference but is the exhibit room ever getting wired so we can use debit cards?

I always come back from Kalamazoo with a list of “Medieval Resolutions.” OK, maybe not a list but ideas of things I need to work on. Here are this year’s, including one I always ignore.

1A. Re-learn Latin. I knew Latin 25 years ago. Can’t say as I was great at it but I got along OK. I can BS the average guy on the street that I know what I’m talking about but the reason I put “no latin” in my profile is that from the perspective of medieval history, being able to study source material, it’s no Latin. I’m ignoring this just like I have every year – maybe when I retire and have time to really devote myself to it I’ll change my mind but what would I use it for? It’s not like there’s some mystery archive waiting to be discovered by someone without a history degree. And when I look at Wheelock’s or a Latin grammar I feel like I never saw it before in my life. I can live with staring blankly when someone passes out a handout in Latin at Congress – I have so far. And to be honest, I can handle the ones that are a bunch of one-line statements. It’s getting an entire paragraph that leaves me in the dust.

1B. Read some books in Spanish and French. It’s strange how quickly I can pick these back up compared to Latin. I have been pretty decent in both these languages. I am not at the moment but with either of these two, if I pick up a book, the first 20 pages or so are murder, the next 40 are tough, the next 40 a pain but manageable, and by 100 pages in I’m pretty much reading along with occasional assistance from my buddy Larousse. For what I do, reading books and magazine articles – and blogs – in French and Spanish will do me more good than Latin. The next step is writing/posting in them but reading comes first. Unfortunately, no German – REALLY no German.

2. Beef up my historiography. Not only do I not have a history degree but I haven’t taken a formal history course since my junior year in HS – I took an Anthro course in college which I enjoyed. I need to work on general concepts. I’ve picked some things up along the way but I need to take a little time and actually work at it.

3. Use the library more. I was sitting at lunch with a faculty member of a SLAC and started talking about what I could find at our library. He said, “We can’t get those here.” If my employer ever takes a look at what I check out they’d be shocked but having a major research university library system to work from is something I need to utilize. There are five books, all priced at over a hundred dollars, that I want to read in the near future – they’re all in our library with the word “Available” under status. I’ve taken advantage of JSTOR and MUSE, not enough of the books. I am very fortunate in so many ways.

I’ll be putting up a new web page, “Kalamazoo 2010” and will include a link to all my ICMS-related posts. I think I’ll put some internal links so all the session summaries, daily updates, etc., are together.

It was fun – to everyone I met, it was great seeing you, to those I didn’t – sorry but maybe next year. And if you presented and have an issue with something I put in a summary, or you attended a session and see something you feel isn’t right, please either post a comment or e-mail me.


Posted by on June 1, 2010 in Uncategorized


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