I know it isn’t New Years Day yet but I have no idea what condition I’ll be in on Saturday. To tell the truth, I am going to a party Friday night but I’m not as wild and crazy as I was in my youth and I have to pick up hay Saturday morning; the nag will want to eat this winter. So I expect to be upright and functional on January 1 – and busy.
My “Medieval Year” really revolves around the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo. I always have a “to do” list of things to work on when I get home from that but I thought it would be interesting to do something similar for the end of the calendar year. Besides, this is the first New Year where I have had a medieval blog. I’m going to focus my resolutions on two separate areas; this blog and the direction of where I hope to focus my learning, at least a little. This may bore readers to death but I’ve found that I work more efficiently if I have a list and that in posting this publicly I’ll take it as something of a promise and work harder at achieving these things.
I’ve not been a total failure at blogging (I don’t think) and occasionally I’ve even put up some decent posts. Somehow I’ve made several best blogs lists. Not sure how that happened though I do appreciate it and hope I can live up to this. When I started I had hoped to reach a rate of 100 posts/year. I’m not going to achieve that but I think I’ll be close to 80 or so. I’m still hoping to get to the hundred for next year but as I’ve said, I don’t want this blog to be focused on me (at least outside of my medieval hobby) so it’s a matter of content. I didn’t have a goal of readership when I started but in analyzing my stats I seem to have settled in at 40-50 views per day with occasional spikes and lapses. I’m greedy and want more but I’m pretty sure if you’d told me last January that I’d be getting 1200-1500 views a month I’d have been somewhere between happy and ecstatic. Anyway, on to the resolutions:
1) Writing skills. One of the areas I’ve been least happy with is the realization that my writing skills are not where they were 20 years ago. This was astonishing to me but in reading my posts I’ve engaged in various practices including poor sentence structure, an over abundance of qualifiers in statements, a lot of passive-voice, using phrases such as, “Actually, so-and-so-says,” or “In reality …” and garbage like that. I had a period where I was flooding this blog with what I call a “faux em-dash.” My em-dash on this blog is already wrong because I use a single spaced hyphen rather than two hyphens. I’m not worried about that because I think people understand what I’m getting at but I was substituting this for comma’s and semicolons at a drastic pace this spring. I started fining myself $10 for each uncalled-for use and for the most part I think I’ve fixed it (my use of this in the opening paragraph is, I think, appropriate). The largest check I wrote to charity was $130 in June. Another issue I have is repetitive phrasing. I thought my post on books which have had a strong influence on me was pretty good until I re-read it and saw how many times I used the phrase “showed me” in describing a book’s impact. I was honestly embarrassed by this and thought of editing it the next day but decided to leave it in as a lesson for myself. This is not the only instance of this happening in my posts. A blog is not a formal piece of writing, though some of my posts, such as book reviews, are more in that direction, however that’s still no excuse for laziness or for being just plain sloppy. I can write much better; it’s simply a matter of focus.
2) Appearance. You’ll notice a change in my blog appearance and may see others over the next few weeks. I like the Earth tones for a background but my original format of gray type on a tan background made this more difficult to read than I cared for and the type was denser on the page than I liked. I think I like the current format better but I intend to experiment with it a bit more in the near future until I come up with a final layout and appearance. There is also the possibility of an accompanying Facebook page but I haven’t decided if that’s something I want to do. To those who have been regular readers, please let me know what you think of this compared with the previous format and I’d welcome any suggestions.
3) Images. I’ve been very sparse in using images to illustrate my meanings in posts. I need to work on this.
4) Content. I’ve not been completely displeased with my content, even when I use a double negative in a sentence such as here. (Is this fineable?) However my original intent was to serve as something of a Medieval halfway house. By and large, I thought I could point out some things I believed as fact when I first started learning about the period but later learned were far from the truth. I also thought I could take some academic information which was important but maybe had not been made available to the general public (that I’m aware of) and make some posts on it. I’ve done some of that and my Amateur Tips page is a step in the right direction but I need to take some medieval history themes and topics and write some essays. In order to avoid boring folks to death I’ll have to set some rules for myself regarding length and style. I do think there’s a stigma where popular history has often been equated with bad history. This is not always the case and I hope it doesn’t happen for my blog. I’ll likely set up a separate page for links to these essays (right now the simplest title appears to be “essays”) and my intention is to use a casual writing style with references noted at the bottom. Just because the writing style is casual doesn’t mean I shouldn’t use a lot of citations.
This does not mean I intend to do away with my more formal posts such as my book reviews (I really consider these to be semi-formal; sort of a “jacket, no tie” form) or analysis of journal articles (though I am not joining the Medieval Academy of America this year so I won’t be talking about Speculum articles). This creates a difficulty as I’ll have a somewhat inconsistent posting style, which I have a feeling isn’t recommended, but that’s the way it is.
5) Write a new “most-viewed” Post. Almost from the moment I wrote it (at least from April 10 when I put up a stat counter) my A World Lit Only by Fire review has generated the most hits of any post on my blog. 1 I suppose I should consider that I’ve done the world a service with this post and be satisfied with that but I’m really hoping to post something – anything – which will supplant it. Or at least have new posts “outhit” it for a full week after I put them up. Of course the best way to get readership is to post wild, controversial stuff so if, for example, I decided to post that Attila’s mother was really a gorilla which is why his skull was so deformed, I’d likely increase my readership. Hmmm – April Fools’ Day post maybe? I hope it’s obvious that I’m not going to do anything like that but I have hopes of some brilliantly written and articulated post which everybody will want to read. Part of this will be titling my posts to more efficiently target keyword searches. My essays may be able to help with this as well.
My History Studies
This has been a good year. I managed to get a lot of reading done, with 76 books read in my free time, 72 of those in either Ancient or Medieval History. I’ve read a few books for work too but I’m not worrying about that here; is anyone interested in a tech manual on radiological emergency response? I’ve learned a few things and in particular I’ve learned of some areas where I need to learn more. (I have a feeling using a form of the word “learn” three times in a sentence deserves a fine; it was a deliberate construct) I am very behind in entering my written notes into my spreadsheet. I need to fix that but I’ve found that when I want to look into Medieval History but not read about it, blogging has replaced my note-entering time.
1) Early Christianity. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before how important I believe the study of Christianity is to learning about the Middle Ages. Christianity was such a constant, dominant aspect of culture throughout the period that it is, simply, necessary to at least know something about it. NOTE: I do not mean by the use of the word, “dominant” that Christianity or the Church ran everything because this is not the case (this may be an essay topic if I can find some way to do it justice in a thousand words or less). I have a decent handle on some aspects of this such as hagiography, monasticism (though there are some works on the desert fathers I need to read) and religious-lay relationships during certain periods. However I need to learn more about the early Church. Up to about 16 months ago I was focusing on Christianity, working backwards chronologically and focusing on translated sources. I’ve gone in some different directions since then but it’s time to return. Right now I’m in the late 4th century. I’ve read a lot of Augustine and a fair amount of Jerome. Ambrose needs to be in my near future and I have John Cassian, Paulinus of Nola, Arnobius of Sicca, etc., on my shelves. I need to work my way back though folks like Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen, Irenaeus, and finish with re-reading the Bible (it’ll be strange reading later portions such as Acts and Pauline Books first) along with commentaries. I’m not sure how much I’ll get done this year but I need to work on it to get a better handle on this Late Antiquity thing.
2) Use of Evidence. There are dozens of directions this might take. As a person not in the field I doubt I’ll ever have complete mastery of this simply because I won’t be examining manuscripts or work a dig however I want to be able to determine the validity of an argument in a journal article or book, as well as I possibly can. Medieval history is all about interpretation and analysis of evidence. There are aspects of this where I’m simply unqualified to assess an argument. A good example is in the detailed examination of medieval texts to the level of sentence structure and a subsequent discussion of meaning. Anyone who’s studied a second language knows there are certain words or phrases for which no precise translation exists; you have to glean meanings and approximate. I don’t know Latin so I can not assess someone’s analysis of a Medieval Latin Text other than whether his or her argument seems logically sound (you can apply this to any contemporary language such as Greek, Gothic, Pictish, etc.). The problem is, someone may offer what appears to be a very substantive, reasonable explanation but it may be based on a flawed reading of a text, which I will not catch. One day I anticipate that I will set about re-learning Latin but it’s not today. There’s also the danger, when reading two opposing views, of being “taken in” by the more appealing prose. In the past I’ve fallen for arguments which don’t examine the evidence at all, or very little, but were based almost exclusively on logic. This may have worked well for the ancient Greeks but it won’t do today.
To escape from the above ramble, in the coming year I’d like to focus on archaeology and how archaeological evidence is analyzed when compared and contrasted with textual evidence. There are two aspects of this which, at the moment, I’d like to work on. One I’ve discussed previously is that of cemetery/mortuary remains. The other is archaeological finds related to the use of space. Kim Bowes’ book, Private Worship, Public Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity pointed out the importance of analyzing the use of space for religious ritual and how this shows that the evolution of Christianity in Late Antiquity was likely not so much of a “top-down” process, dominated by bishops and clerics, as I had believed from a reading of the textual evidence. These texts were, of course, written by bishops and clerics. 2
3) Whatever else catches my interest. This isn’t a true resolution but as this is my hobby, not my profession, I can decide to learn about whatever I want. Something will come up in the next 12 months. I don’t know what it will be but I’m sure it will be fun.
To each person who’s read my blog; Thank You very, very much. A double thank-you to those who have commented or e-mailed me. And for the professional historians who’ve taken the time to comment, or link to something I’ve written, I sincerely appreciate it. All of you have made my entry into the world of blogging a lot of fun and very rewarding.
1 William Manchester, A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age. New York: Little, Brown and Company (1992). ISBN: 978-0316545563.
2 Kim Bowes, Private Worship, Public Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2008). ISBN: 978-0-521-88593-5.