Branding the university

16 Dec

I’ve never been a Monday morning person. But today was worse than normal: I woke up to the news that my alma mater – Trinity College Dublin – has commissioned a ‘brand agency’ to work on the university’s ‘brand identity’. They tell me that Ireland exited the bailout yesterday. But for some people, it seems like the Celtic Tiger never left. 

Here’s what that brand agency said:

‘We are delighted to partner with Trinity on this project where the challenge is to build a strong, consistent and recognised brand which can be mobilised nationally and internationally in a competitive global higher education market.  Trinity wants to create a shared visual identity and narrative for the entire university that allows it to tell a more cohesive and powerful story, and celebrate the university’s excellence in education and research.’

Now, much of this is gibberish, but it plays to Trinity’s unease about its place in the wider world – witness the worrying attachment to global university rankings, a metric with all the subtlety and nuance of Vince Vaughn in a bouncy castle. It’s genuinely embarrassing that they feel the need to put in their Twitter bio that Trinity ‘ranks 61st in the top 100 world universities’. The old place is starting to look like an inferiority complex wrapped up in old stone and brilliantly affordable cans of cider, when in fact personal experience suggests it’s one of the few things that people across the world actually do know about Dublin. Guinness and Trinity is pretty much it – why change? 

And as for ‘a shared… narrative for the entire university’, I reckon that between the four centuries since its foundation by Elizabeth I (how’s her brand doing, by the way?) and its place – for better or for worse – near the heart of Irish life since 1592, we’ve probably got a fairly decent narrative already. Do you have a pen?

But leaving aside the marketing-speak, I find it terrifying that the university thinks this is the best use of their money. I was an undergrad at Trinity for four years and I couldn’t have been happier. I loved the place then and I still do – I was lucky enough to be taught by some of the most gifted and intellectually generous people I’ve ever met. I also (and this matters too) had quite a lot of fun.

But I could also tell you some horror stories – from my experience and from that of friends – about Trinity’s undergrad provision. There were problems then, and many remain. The idea that the ‘brand’ of the university is the thing that best deserves a wodge of cash pulled from an ever-shrinking pot is insulting – to students, to academics, and even to those people you’re hoping to tempt into TCD from abroad. A ‘student experience’ can’t just be a prospectus promise – if you don’t make excellence and student provision a reality on the ground, then people will see through you and your brand, and you’re a fool if you think they won’t. 

I’m not going to have a massive pop at the people they’ve hired, though having looked at their website I’d respectfully suggest that they correct the three glaring typos in the paragraph which ends ‘We live for the finer detail.’

My issue here is with the choice to spend university money on ‘branding’. Hell’s bells, Ireland’s experiencing a crippling recession and you genuinely think that the best use of money – rather than as a living wage for staff, or researchers’ stipends in a city that’s still madly expensive, or for improving undergraduate provision – is to pay a consultancy to come up with a new nickname you will unsuccessfully try to make the other kids call you by?

Maybe I’m naive (yeah, I am), but part of me thinks that maybe the best way – the only way – to improve your ‘brand’ would be by (stay with me here) actually being really good at what you do. Now I know this is a difficult concept. But it’s the difference between people in Shanghai saying ‘hey, neat logo! And such a shiny magazine of lies!’ and those same people saying ‘holy shit – a university with world-class academics and researchers, all paid a wage commensurate with the work they do – and the best undergraduate provision in the world!’

I’m just one alumnus, and not one with any heft to speak of, but I do know that when I get the next fundraising call from Trinity, I’ll ask how much they’ve spent on brand consulting in the past few years. If you get the same phone call, I hope you’ll do the same. Because if money given by alumni to go towards better provision for students is being funnelled so that some Fiachra in a consultancy office can draw up another mood chart, then I’m not buying. 

I know there are bigger problems here. I know that cuts and crises mean universities are being pushed harder and faster towards marketisation, towards viewing the education they provide as a product, and their students as consumers. I hate it – and so should you – but I don’t know how to fix it. Since raising this news on Twitter this morning, a few people have made the (reasonable) point that every university is doing this; that universities see themselves as having to compete in a global market; that they see professional help (albeit, in this case, professional help that can’t spell the word ‘its’) as the best way out.

To that bigger problem, I don’t have an answer. But I’m pretty sure that just hiring a brand consultancy isn’t it. Universities are under pressure to adapt and to change, and their staff and students are finding themselves competing for even the most basic services and resources. And if your response to that is to spend what little money’s going on your ‘brand’ rather than on the people under your nose, then I worry you’ll get back precisely what you deserve. 

Andrew Marr’s History of the World – a (belated) review

22 Oct

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a review of Andrew Marr’s A History of the World which ended up not seeing the light of day. I felt it was a bit of a shame to leave it at that, so I reproduce it below as it was written the first time around. Thoughts and comments, as ever, very welcome.  


Andrew Marr, A History of the World. Macmillan, 2012. 614 pp, £25 

The art historian Ernst Gombrich, in his global history for children, wrote that ‘The history of the world is, sadly, not a pretty poem. It offers little variety, and it is nearly always the unpleasant things that are repeated, over and over again.’ Any author hoping to take on so vast a story is faced with some pressing questions: whose stories to tell? Whose world to portray? And in these days of information overload, one question poses itself ever more urgently: is a history of the world something we can still try to write? 

These questions animate Andrew Marr’s new book, a companion piece to his BBC television series on our planet’s history, from creation to the computer. He acknowledges bluntly that ‘Writing a history of the world is a ridiculous thing to do’, but argues that ‘[the] case for doing it, and for reading it, is that not having a sense of world history is even more ridiculous’. This ‘sense’ of history, for Marr, is grounded in narrative, and the narrative he chooses is a traditional one. He offers no apologies for choosing ‘a kind of history-writing that is currently very unfashionable, the ‘great man/great woman’ school of history, albeit twisted into new shapes by environmental, economic and social histories.’

There’s already a tension here, between the great men – some of whom, Marr hastens to add, have been among ‘the biggest bastards alive’ – and these other histories, tacked on at the end. Of course we can’t understand some great changes in history without learning about Jesus, say, or Tamerlane, or Henry Ford. These figures have been at the heart of historical narrative for generations. But what to do when the actions of individuals are so frequently dwarfed by the vagaries of the natural world? In these pages, we see the sudden cooling of the earth after 200 AD, which led to famines, plagues, migration, and upheaval in the Roman Empire and in Han China, neither of which would survive the end of the warmer days intact. It was not a pope or emperor but the Black Death which utterly recast European society on the eve of the Renaissance. Marr’s narrative even gives the last word not to the computer, but to climate change – the result of myriad developments in economy and society which are nigh-on impossible to trace back to any one of the greats.

It would be absurd to expect any history of the world to provide whole new swathes of source material: instead, Marr’s aim is to provide a synthesis that draws together specialist work into a larger narrative structure. Where a book like this can innovate is in the way its story is put across – great works of historical synthesis can make us question the grand narratives we grew up accepting. They can make the familiar strange. Unfortunately, Marr’s history baulks at a rethink on this scale, instead peppering familiar tales of empires and religions vying for supremacy with some less familiar material – the fourteenth-century African empire of Mansa Musa, for example, or the bloodthirsty conquests and sudden Buddhist conversion of the emperor Ashoka in India. There are details here that will delight –  the Roman army covering pigs in fat, setting them on fire, and driving them at the enemy, to frighten their elephants; the Dutch seaman turned Muslim pirate who raided Cork and Reykjavik, and whose descendants reportedly included a handful of Churchills, Humphrey Bogart, and JFK. Unsurprisingly for a journalist whose historical output has included histories of Britain in the twentieth century, Marr is at his very best in the recent past. Here, far more comfortable with the sources and narratives than he is in, say, the middle ages; the journalist’s sharp analysis and questioning of accepted wisdom shines through.

One great problem faced by Marr’s book – and one he openly recognises – is that, as a global narrative, it can’t help but be compared to Neil MacGregor’s magisterial History of the World in 100 Objects. This combined radio series, website, and book used materials from the British Museum to present a history that was radically decentred, wrested away from kings and councillors, and placed in the hands of craftspeople, of factory workers, of tailors, hunters, soldiers, and thieves. It presented a view of history at one remove from Marr’s ‘characters, dates, actions’; and its parade of things, from stone tools to credit cards, suggested beguiling and affecting answers to that most basic of historical questions – what was it really like?

There are moments here when you sense that Marr might have written a totally different book. One paragraph offers a potted history of methods of contraception, from wet tea-leaves and sheep-gut condoms to the pill. Another gripping segment pans away from the majesty of ancient Egyptian royal power to consider the places inhabited by the pharaohs’ craftsmen and their families – still preserved, complete with the funeral monuments these pyramid-builders erected for themselves. Their writings, surviving on pottery shards, ‘record popular stories, legal complaints, love poems, books of dreams, gossip, feuds, wise sayings, the angry disinheriting of children by a woman who feels they did not look after her well enough in her old age, laundry lists, problems with defective donkeys, and even a cure for piles’. Marr argues in the introduction that ‘History is about change, and it makes sense to concentrate on the biggest change-makers’, but the spectre of MacGregor and his hundred objects looms large over this work, always making the reader ask whether this narrative, leaping from Genghis to Gandhi to Gorbachev, but rarely looking too far beyond them, is really the most revealing one there is. 

1066 and all what? A counterfactual history of English

19 Oct

Next week, I’ll be heading to the Sage Gateshead for the BBC Free Thinking festival, where all of this year’s ‘new generation thinkers’ (great gig, naff name) will be giving talks – it’s free in, and everyone’s welcome. My talk is here, and make sure you get tickets for the other talks too – there are some brilliant topics and speakers. If you don’t live nearby, consider marching north en masse in some bizarre reverse-Pilgrimage of Grace sort of deal. 

I mention this because I’ve been working on my talk, which is called ‘The language wars of early modern England’. It’ll be about the ways in which the English language – and, by extension, what it meant to speak and to be English – was contested in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and how these debates played out not just between the covers of books, but on the streets and in everyday social life. 

One thing I want to get to the bottom of is how we’ve ended up with this bizarre pride in the ‘mongrel’ nature of English. You’ll find fierce debates in, say, the prefaces to Elizabethan translations, about whether authors should add to the stock of English vocabulary by borrowing from Italian and French as well as Latin and Greek. To see how this pride in the somewhat ragtag character of English grew, I thought I’d take a survey of some writing on the history of the language between the early modern period and today, which is how I came across Richard Chenevix Trench. 

Trench was a Dubliner by birth, and went on to become the Protestant Archbishop of Dublin and the Dean of Westminster Abbey, where he’s buried. I came across the tenth edition of his English, past and present (London: Macmillan, 1877) and took a quick look before becoming ever more intrigued. 

First things first: Trench is a fan of English. A pretty big fan. On page three he’s already getting effusive: 

‘For, indeed, the love of our native language, what is it in fact, but the love of our native land expressing itself in one particular direction? If the noble acts of that nation to which we belong are precious to us, if we feel ourselves made greater by the greatness, summon to a nobler life by the nobleness of Englishmen, who have already lived and died, and have bequeathed to us a name which must not by us be made less, what exploits of theirs can well be worthier, what can more clearly point out their native land and ours as having fulfilled a glorious past, as being destined for a glorious future, than that they should have acquired for themselves and for us a clear, a strong, an harmonious, a noble language? For all this bears witness to corresponding merits in those that speak it, to clearness of mental vision, to strength, to harmony, to nobleness in them who have gradually shaped and fashioned it to be the utterance of their inmost life and being.’

Trench’s paean to the proud Saxon roots of the English language is nothing new, though. What caught my eye was a pair of lectures (the book’s made up of lectures given at King’s College School) in which he presents a counterfactual history of the English language if the Norman Conquest had never happened. 

For Trench, and for some of his contemporaries, 1066 seems still to carry a visceral sense of loss: the defeat of the English and their subjection to the ‘Norman yoke’ of William the Conqueror and his descendants, in their eyes, marked the moment at which the language departed from its sturdy, manly Saxon roots and took on the vocabulary of France. An account from 1952, C.L. Wrenn sees invasion, language change, and the subjection of the freeborn Englishman as all part of the same process: 

‘With the Conquest and the re-ordering of the Government and upper social life of England which soon followed it, we begin to find, at first only gradually, but with increasing abundance as the twelfth century advances, the kind of French words which the influence of an ‘occupying power’ would suggest. A man is caught shooting a deer in the New Forest (a royal prerogative), and finds himself quickly surrounded by a group of armed jabbering foreigners who arrest  him: and he quickly learns to recognize the new French term prisun (which is recorded in the reign of William the Conqueror): and terms like foreste, tur (tower), market, rent, justise, soon follow.’

For Trench, back in 1877, the Norman influence on English was perpetrated with all the manic glee of a Bond villain: 

‘there is a secret satisfaction, a conscious sense of superiority, in thus stripping the language of its grace and ornament, outraging its laws, compelling it to novel forms, showing, even while it is used, how little it is regarded, and making thus not merely the wills, but the very speech of the conquered, to confess its subjection.’

From the ‘Rich and expressive’ vocabulary of ‘the palmy days of Anglo-Saxon literature’, he argues, ‘those [words] pertaining to higher domains of thought, feeling, and passion, and to all loftier culture either moral or material, had in vast multitudes dropt out of use and been forgotten’. 

The rest of the lecture is devoted to a thought experiment: how would English have developed had Harold won at Hastings and the French influence – on language, on politics, on daily life – been repulsed? Trench’s counterfactual history of English draws on German as a language which likes to make compound nouns out of its own word stock, and proposes a few that might have come into being in English – ‘threefoldness’ for trinity, say, or ‘shewholiness’ for hypocrisy. He would, I think have been happy to see that Wyclif’s use of ‘sourdough’ for ‘leaven’ has staged something of an unexpected comeback. 

In the end, Trench is reconciled to English’s hybrid vocabulary: the combination of borrowed terms and ‘Saxon’ remnants ‘gives the opportunity of weaving now a homelier, now a more scholarly garment of speech, as may seem most advisable for the immediate need’. In my talk next Sunday, I’ll talk a bit more about how people – early moderns and moderns – have tried to deal with a perceived tension between English roots and foreign inheritance. I’ll ask how they used language to think about identity, nation, and belonging – questions which, as these final words from Trench show, can be very hard indeed to pull apart. 

‘Looking at this process of the reception of foreign words, with their after assimilation in feature to our own, we may trace a certain conformity between the genius of our institutions and that of our language. It is the very character of our institutions to repel none, but rather to afford a shelter and a refuge to all, from whatever quarter they come; and after a longer or shorter while all the strangers and incomers have been incorporated into the English nation, within one or two generations have forgotten that they were ever extraneous to it, have retained no other reminiscence of their foreign extraction than some slight difference of name, and that often disappearing or having disappeared. Exactly so has it been with the English language. No language has shown itself less exclusive; none has stood less upon niceties; none has thrown open its doors wider, with a fuller confidence that it could make truly its own, assimilate and subdue to itself, whatever it received into its bosom; and in no language has this confidence been more fully justified by the result.’


If you want to read more, RCT’s English, past and present is available (though not, sadly, in the edition I’ve used) on Project Gutenberg, because Project Gutenberg is brilliant. Read it here

Travels in German food – Fire & Knives article

14 Jun

Yes, I submitted it with that title. No, I never thought they’d use it.


A few months back, a conversation about my wintertime desire for German beer-hall dinners resulted in me writing an article for Tim Hayward’s excellent Fire and Knives – home of the finest food writing and, as you’ll see below, some truly dire jokes. It was really lovely seeing my words on the page – the magazine’s a work of art in itself – as well as appearing alongside some great food writers. Tim’s very kindly let me reproduce my piece here for anyone who mightn’t have caught the print edition. Enjoy!


Hope for the best, prepare for the wurst: travels in German food

Middle England in midwinter. With a wind coming off the fields that cuts through coats, I’m struck by an animal craving for German food. Nothing subtle, nothing refined: just beer-hall fare, all sausages and schnitzel and pork knuckle and sauerkraut, washed down with great tankards of golden beer. This is what this cold little city needs, I think. But my idea for a British bierkeller falls on deaf ears. Johann G’s Pork Temple isn’t to be.

It’s a strange kind of solace you get from German food. Other culinary cultures offer you a hug in a mug. Some dinners – pillowy ravioli, chicken soup with dumplings – hold you to their bosom and promise you everything’s going to be OK. Germany, though. Germany comes around to your house with a six-pack and a DVD of Under Siege 2 and punches you in the arm so hard it bruises.


It’s 1999. I’m thirteen years old and I think I’m in love with Germany. It doesn’t take much: as ever, it’s all about three little words. Cheese. For. Breakfast.

This was sensual pleasure on a scale I had never experienced. Admittedly, as a pubescent boy roughly as wide as I was tall, I didn’t have much to draw on in the way of comparison. Some fleeting experience of internet pornography had taught me little other than leaving me with the distinct impression that sex was something that happened while your pizza got cold. Looking at the spread before me, I knew only that however great the other thing might be, it sure as hell didn’t come with tiny jars of preservatives. I’d take what I could get.

The German breakfast is glorious. Frühstück: literally, the early bit. The food, like the language, is gloriously straightforward: cobble together everything you’ll need to get you through to lunch alive, and then some. In the south they eat white sausage with weissbier before the sun’s fully up. You could march an army on this kind of thing, though I’m reliably informed it doesn’t always end well.


I went back at sixteen, with all the curiosity of a miniature Paul Theroux with a thing for lebkuchen. A guidebook talked me into my first taste of a local speciality, the Berliner Weisse – a repulsive dish of beer mixed with fruit syrup and served with a straw. Undaunted by the near-neon colour, I drank the whole, sugary mess. They’re making a film of my teenage years called ‘The Little Pancreas That Could’.


In Berlin, a few years later, I learnt that even if you can’t cure heartbreak with currywurst, it doesn’t hurt to try.


Munich, last Easter. Beer city.

We meet our host for the first time outside the massive Jesuit church, where he’s inexplicably agreed to come to a Good Friday service with us, on my promise of banging tunes. I’ve forgotten, though, that as this is the Friday when Himself copped it, His body is hardly going to be on the menu. No Communion ‘til Sunday. I’ve brought this poor Bavarian to the only Mass of the year that doesn’t come with complimentary nibbles.

We make up for it afterwards at the Augustiner Braustübe. Pretzels the size of your head, studded with salt; a whole ham hock braised in beer; bratwurst with sweet mustard. Bratwurst – bratwurst! Its very name says ‘bratwurst’! Bowls of rye bread appear at the table. I adore this stuff: doorstop-dense, it’s a bread you can rely on. You don’t play fast and loose with rye bread. Rye bread will change how you think about fast and loose. We wash the whole lot down with every beer on offer: fresh, golden lagers and dark, malty dunkels. Sadly, we’ve just missed Starkbierzeit – three weeks of strong beer drunk in the middle of Lent, and a cheeky way for half-starved monks to make up for a forbidden meal with a stein of the good stuff.

It’s not all insider knowledge and local haunts. We decide to drop in for a quick one at the Hofbräuhaus, often described as a beer-lovers’ Mecca by people who like a little bit of theological ignorance with their cliché. One pint turns into far too many. Later I think I’ve invited an elderly Bavarian man to my wedding (I’m not engaged). We skip upstairs briefly to see the hall where Hitler used to give speeches, trying to work out how long is long enough to linger for historical appreciation but without looking like we’re on a pilgrimage. Then downstairs, more beer, an oompah band, and at least one tourist vomiting in a bin outside, sounding for all the world like a sixty-foot Wogan trying to clear his throat.

Back to the flat, and it turns out our host’s broken up with his long-term partner, just days beforehand. He’s remarkably chipper, but the flow of Apfelwein and schnapps lends the evening a morose kind of feel. He puts on a record about an Eisbär – a polar bear. ‘I wish I was an ice-bear,’ say the lyrics, ‘because ice-bears don’t have to cry’.


As an Irishman and former Catholic, I found a lot to love in Bavaria. The people share some crucial cultural touchstones: a fierce devotion both to the Virgin Mary and to potato-based sustenance. There’s a monk on your beer, and if you tip the glass just right, he looks like he’s nodding his approval. I’ve always had a thing for monks, though. Once over bucatini all’amatriciana in Trastevere, I had a Benedictine deacon tell me ‘This isn’t a date’.


It’s February now, and that chilly wind’s still whistling. There’s a time of year here when, just as you feel winter’s about to give up the ghost, it comes back with renewed fury for about three weeks more. After three years I’ve learnt that the only way to beat it is black beer, big dinners, and a modicum of shouting.

The Reformation took our monks, and over time, the little breweries dotted around the town went the way of the monasteries. We lost a lot: ritual, memory, and a non-judgemental environment in which men could wear fabulous dresses. If there’s one thing Britain needs to take back, though, it’s the beer hall. Come one, come all, and worship at the Meat Pantheon.

We might need a new name.


Tall tales and teaching tongues

13 Jun

I posted a few weeks ago about infuriating sources – the ones that hint at fascinating stories but never quite yield up their secrets. Now, while I don’t want this blog to turn into a place where I just lambast the dead for refusing to talk to me, here’s an intriguing find from today’s rummaging in early modern language-learning texts. It’s from the address to the reader at the start of Francis Cheneau’s French Grammar (London, 1685), and manages to sketch a gripping life-story before switching abruptly to talk about language pedagogy. Don’t get me wrong, I love talking about seventeenth-century language pedagogy. But this one made me do a GOB Bluth and roar ‘COME ON!’ at the screen. Have a look for yourselves: 

“To the READER. 

You will be surprised that a man who has been a Traveller all his life, and in the mean time has been seven years a Slave in Turky, two years Governour of two great Islands, Naxos and Paros, in the Archipelago under his Pacha, Mazza-Mamma; then being escaped of many dangers, came hither to be a School-Master; But I tell you this short History of my Life, to give any one a good encouragement to learn the Tongues as much as he can, because they were the first Foundation of my Fortune in Turky; And to shew how that a Man who is ingenious, can live in all sorts of conditions God pleases to put him in.”

And that’s it.

Come on. 

It’s worth being very dubious about this. It’s a potentially great story, but Cheneau is remarkably coy about it – he used it in advertising Shortest way to write and speak Latin (1710?), which trumpeted him as “Mr. CHENEAU, Professor of Latin, English, French and Italian Tongues, these Two and Thirty Years in England; formerly a Slave, then Governor of NAXOS and PAROS”, and said broadly the same on the title-page of his Perfect French Master of 1716.  It’s a great hook – and my own research into captivity in North Africa suggests that he’s not wrong about the importance of linguistic competence for slaves. But until I get my hands on the records of Ottoman Naxos – which might be a while – I’ll stick to looking at Cheneau’s grammar. 

On the radio

12 Jun

Well, that was exciting.

As part of the AHRC/BBC New Generation Thinkers programme, yesterday evening I got to present an essay on Radio 3’s excellent Night Waves. I chose to talk about disguise and subterfuge in sixteenth-century travel, looking in particular at Fynes Moryson (1565/6-1630), whose massive Itinerary, published in 1617, is one of the most vivid sources for the realities of continental travel in the early modern period. Moryson’s travels took him ‘through the twelve dominions of Germany, Bohmerland, Sweitzerland, Netherland, Denmarke, Poland, Italy, Turky, France, England, Scotland, and Ireland’, and as far as Jerusalem – with his brother, Henry, dying on the road. I also tried to make it clear how debates on dissimulation in travel related to wider cultural and religious anxieties – something I’m looking at in more detail in the PhD research.

If you like, you can hear the essay here – it’s only five minutes long, and starts at 30 minutes in. The rest of the show is great, too, with a review of The Amen Corner at the National, and a discussion about conspiracy theories, all held together by regular presenter Dr. Matthew Sweet.

There was one more story I’d hoped to discuss in relation to disguise and dissimulation, but sadly time was against me and we didn’t manage to squeeze it in. So I thought I might pop it up here on the blog, like some bizarre textual extended cut.

Here you go:

“Henry Wotton, like Fynes Moryson, left university to spend a chunk of the 1590s on the continent. During a language-learning stop in Heidelberg, he wrote ‘I dare boldly say that before I visit Italy there is no German that shall not take me for a German. And I mean by God’s grace to be many degrees beyond an Italian’s discovery’. Wotton was after information and experience that were usually inaccessible to an English Protestant on the continent. He wanted, too, to show he could get places that others couldn’t. For this young Englishman, this meant Catholic Rome.

Protestant travellers could visit the eternal city, but had their movements and activities observed and restricted. Wotton decided to put his language skills to good use, and in the spring of 1592, he set off from Venice to Rome, in the guise of German. Apart from some fellow-travellers who were in on the scheme, Wotton seems to have fooled a lot of people, by employing the counter-intuitive but apparently effective tactic of making himself as conspicuous as possible, wearing ‘a mighty blue feather in a black hat’ and becoming ‘reputed as light in my mind as in my apparel’. No-one, he surmised correctly, would suspect an idiot German – and a badly dressed one, at that – of being a dangerous spy. The plan worked, until he narrowly escaped having his cover blown after a chance encounter with an English Catholic. He wrote home to boast that ‘No Englishman, containing himself within his allegiance to her Majesty, hath seen more concerning the points of Rome than I have done’, and promptly high-tailed it to Florence where, practising his Italian, he noted proudly that he was learning ‘to speak well and do ill’. It was a skill that would help to make his diplomatic career.”


Thanks to anyone who listened in and commented on the piece. I hope you enjoyed it, and am really looking forward to working more with the brilliant team at Night Waves (which is always worth a listen, in case you’re not already a fan) and to taking up the many opportunities that the NGT programme has in store.

There’s not a lot of freely accessible material on Fynes Moryson online, unfortunately, though you can get access to the Itinerary via – here’s Volume One. UCL’s digital collections allow you to view the original printed edition, too. If you’ve got access to the Dictionary of National Biography (most public libraries do), you can find his life story here. His DNB entry describes him as ‘without much literary skill’, which is inexplicable to me – I mean, he’s not Tolstoy but his writing is alive with detail, committed to debate, and not afraid of jokes. Ideal, really.

Henry Wotton has a bit more online information: his Wiki page is a decent introduction, and his DNB entry has more. An old edition of his letters with a biography attached is online here, but he really does deserve a brand-new up-to-date study. As does Moryson. So, if you’re a billionaire oil baron with deep pockets and a thing for the seventeenth century, do drop me a line.

A friend in Istanbul writes

2 Jun

Earlier this evening – a Turkish friend in Istanbul writes: 

“I’m about to head back to Taksim Square but I need to say two things:

1) Thank you for all those staying “stay safe” and the like. We are all trying to do that and 99% of us are just standing on our own streets. But we are basically waiting to get gassed. If they choose to shoot with something else, they shoot. We will just stand there.

2) The Prime Minister has just given the most “other-ising” interview I have ever seen. I truly hope the “other” side doesn’t listen because if they do, this will turn very nasty very quickly. I hope that everyone in Turkey realises there are no others, only people who want to live their own lives in peace and without interference. 

On that note, I’m off. See you soon I hope!”

The Vocabulary Murders: some thoughts on brilliant, infuriating sources

22 Mar

So over the last week or so I’ve been involved in something properly exciting. In collaboration with CRASSH – the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities – I’ve been helping (along with the new-to-Twitter Richard Blakemore) to put together the first series of Cambridge PhDcasts. These are videos & podcasts of PhD students in the arts & humanities talking about what they work on, why it gets them excited, and why it’s important. We’ve recorded two already, and have four more to go – the first series should be with you after Easter. And after that, we’ll be looking for new volunteers, so if you’re a Cambridge PhD, get in touch! 

On Saturday, I spoke to Katy Barrett – who you might know as @SpoonsOnTrays (follow her!) – about her research into the cultural history of debates over longitude in the eighteenth century. She had some amazing stories and insights (just wait for the podcast) but one of the sources she brought got me thinking. It was – not to ruin the surprise – the story of a dispute over the word ‘longitude’ that came to blows and ended in a fatal stabbing. 

This vignette set me to thinking about a similar account in my own research into foreign language-learning in early modern England. It’s even from the same source – the ever-fascinating Old Bailey Online, a database of transcribed and searchable Old Bailey trial documents from 1674 to 1913. If you have a minute, head over and play around with it for a while. It’s always exciting and worryingly addictive, and it’ll turn you into an early modern primary source fiend really frighteningly quickly. 

When I was playing around (sorry, researching) on the site, I came across the following case. Have a read, and then we’ll have a chat about how it’s both amazing and infuriating at the same time. It’s a murder trial from the 17th of January 1676. 

There were two men drinking, and there arose a dispute between them concerning a Spanish word, one affirmed that it was not properly exprest, the other gave him provoking language for saying so, he reply’d, Sir I know not how to bear that affront; then said the other if you like it not follow me out; then he seemed willing, but was prevented by the rest of the company, who laboured afterwards to compose their differences, and they seeming well reconcil’d; the company left them, about an hour after they fell to quarrelling again, and being out of doors he that gave the unseemly language bid the other draw or else he would run him through; he thereupon unsheath’d his Rapier, and in the quarrel run the challenger into the arm, the neighbours soon put a period to their fighting, and parted them. But the wound proved mortal, and the other was therefore accused for the murther, but the Jury perceiving by the evidence that he was compelled to draw to secure his life, brought in their verdict, se Defendendo*.

On the face of it, this looks like solid gold for a researcher like me. A dispute about a foreign language that turns fatal – like Katy’s story, it shows vocabulary being used as a grounds for physical violence. Language is often crucial to records like these – harsh words being spoken, slanders being uttered in public places, rumours running out of control. Some great research has been done by people like Laura Gowing and Laura Wright on language, crime, and courts in the seventeenth century. In a society governed by ideas of credit and reputation, the spoken word had a power which can be difficult for us to imagine. 

But what about this bit of Spanish vocabulary, this word which goes unrecorded in the sources – where does it leave us? Without knowing what it was, or the relation between the two men, or the topic of conversation, it’s hard to say more about this case, except that it shows language and interpretation as serious business and, at times, as a matter of life and death. Sources like these are fascinating but can infuriate, too. I don’t quite know where or how this fits into my work so far. For me, this account poses far more questions than it answers. 


* The verdict of ‘se defendendo’ is one of self-defence. There’s a great joke** about this in the gravediggers scene in Hamlet, but that’s a story for another day. 

** Well, for a given early modern value of ‘great’. 

World Book Day! Some alternative suggestions.

7 Mar

Happy World Book Day! It’s a great day for people who love reading, as well as for those who really hate trees.

If you’ve got kids, I gather it’s the done thing to have them go to school in costume as their favourite characters from literature. This is, of course, charming and adorable. Within reason. Hermione, Lyra, the BFG: good. Patrick Bateman, Christian Grey, The Beast Of The Sea: bad. Anyone from Lord of the Flies: could go either way. Should spice up breaktime, at any rate.

But. There’s a worry that this might not be the best way to get kids into books. Over at the BBC, Dominic Casciani is worried that kids aren’t engaging with literature because they’re busy hunting him down with throwing stars. Or something similar.

Maybe there are better ways to instil kids with a true love of reading – to help them understand that books are the gift that keeps on giving, a joy and a solace that’ll be with you all your life.

So, with that in mind, here are some suggestions of alternative activities you might like to pursue with your child this World Book Day.

Introduce them to the pub. 

Surely there is no greater pleasure than settling down at the corner table of a quiet, wood-lined pub of a spring afternoon, pulling a paperback from the jacket pocket, and sinking into an afternoon’s reading. Teach your kid this early, and they’ll be a reader for life. They’ll need a pint, though. And some pork scratchings while you’re at it.

Start a row. 

You can both enjoy this one. Ideally, the child will learn that you can use books and the information they hold to illustrate a point. Or, at a pinch, to hit someone round the head with until they agree with you. You might also show them how useful dictionaries can be for finding definitions of contentious terms, and dropping on your enemies.

Leave them in a waiting room. 

For this one, you may need to infect your child with a non-fatal disease – a bad flu or tonsilitis should do it. Rabies would normally be too far, but do feel free to work with what you have. What you want to do here is teach the child that a book – any book – is crucial if they want to succeed in adult life’s main activity, Avoiding Speaking To Other Humans.

Take them to a library and teach them to hate. 

There are few things in life quite as invigorating as a good solid hatred – and the library is the perfect arena to develop your very own. Quiet, it means you’ll never hear the one you loathe say anything that might contradict the character you’ve built up for them in your head. It’s fair to say that I would probably never have got through the library hours needed to get a degree if I hadn’t developed a loathing almost beyond purity towards a chap who used to sit near me. We never spoke; I never knew his name; he might not have been the worst. But for me, he was the tight-jeaned dickhead military historian with shit hair that I needed right then. So, this World Book Day, bring your child to the library. Let them choose whatever book they like, and find them a special chair just for them. And then, a few minutes later, point to someone across the room and whisper “See her? What a douchebag.”


And there you have it! Try any of these cheap and easy activities and your child will be a reader for life. One thing, though: if at any point they become the kind of person who claims to love books because of how they smell, remember you can always do as the Spartans did, and leave them on a mountain to face starvation and wild beasts alone. I’m pretty sure there isn’t a jury in the land who’d convict.


St. David’s Day. Or, ‘every one a Leek upon his Head’.

1 Mar

Happy Saint David’s Day!

If you’re Welsh (or if you habitually bedeck yourself with alliums), you’ll be wearing a leek today. Here’s an early modern explanation of the practice, taken from Guy Miège’s Nouvelle Methode Pour Apprendre L’Anglois (London, 1685) – this comes from a dialogue (in English and in French) between two French emigrants. The author (M) is a Frenchman who’s been living in England for years, and is explaining the many quirks of English behaviour to his newly-arrived compatriot (C). This follows a discussion of the Valentine’s Day practice of stuffing the hatband with a rolled-up piece of paper containing the name of one’s Valentine.

I like this not just because of the curious survival of saints’ days in the service of national tradition, but also because of the lovely image it leaves us with, of Charles II with a leek in his hat.

Dydd gwyl Dewi Sant hapus!


‘M. But you will see a stranger Thing on S. David’s Day, the first of March. Instead of rolled Papers upon the Hat, you will see green Garden Leeks.

C. They are, I suppose, Gardeners that wear ’em, to shew their Joy to the World for the nearness of the Spring.

M. No, you han’t hit it right. Tis a kind of Trophy amongst the Welsh. Their Liberty was once hard at stake; and they must either be victorious, or lose it. In that Extremity they called upon S. David, their Patron, for Help. Armed with Confidence in that Saint, they crossed Fields sowed with Leeks, before they came to engage. Every Souldier took up a Leek, for a mark of Distinction. The Welsh got the Victory. And now, to render both the Action and the Saint immortal, they made a Law amongst themselves, that the Memory of the Thing should be transmitted to all Ages, by wearing that Day every one a Leek upon his Head. Which they do here every one inviolably. The King himself, according to the Custom of his Predecessours, do’s in Compliance of that People, wear that Day a Leek on his Hat. But his is not (you may think) a Garden-Leek. His Majesty has the same Compliance for the Scotch, and the Irish. On S. Andrew’s Day, the Patron of Scotland, the Scotch wear a blew Cross on the fore part of their Hats.The King wears one likewise. Upon S. Patrick’s Day, the Patron of Ireland, the Irish wear, in the Honour of that Saint, a red Cross on one side of their Hats. And, if you be here, you will see the King wear one.’