Talking Conference Tips and Medieval Spain with Hélène Sirantoine

A few days ago I spoke at the annual conference for the Society for the Medieval Mediterranean. The University of Ghent was this year’s host, and the medieval trading city was a perfect setting for a group of medievalists.
A view of St Nicholas’ Church in Ghent, taken just around the corner from our conference HQ.
It was a wonderfully diverse set of attendees (Austria, Beligum, Canada, Cyprus, Czechia, Egypt, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, San Marino, Serbia, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States … and Australia). The diversity was matched in the presentations, with sessions ranging from the Cairo Geniza to religious minorities in medieval Iberia, Islamic and Christian accounts of the crusades to the circulation of intellectual culture across Mediterranean communities. It was inspiring to see this idea of a ‘the medieval’ decentered.
Professor Marina Rustow (University of Princeton) and Professor Nikolas Jaspert (University of Heidelberg) both gave keynotes. Of course, I delivered my paper but I was not the only person from the University of Sydney to do so. Dr Jan Shaw (from the Department of English) spoke as did the Department of History’s own Dr Hélène Sirantoine.
During one of the lunch breaks, I chatted with Hélène about where conferences sit in a historian’s work, what advice she had for those new to the experience, and why medieval Spain (her field of research and teaching … with a unit this coming semester) is important to medievalists and historians more broadly.

First up, what’s your conference paper on?

My paper was entitled ‘The Emperor and his Muslims: Andalusí identity through Christian eyes under the reign of Alfonso VII (1126-1157)’.

Where do conference papers sit within a historian’s work? How do you find them most useful?

Well, a conference paper can sit at various points of the historian’s work timeline. It can be the occasion to pitch a new research project and feel how the audience reacts to it. It is also the moment when one will make contacts with other scholars in the field, and maybe create fruitful collaborations. However, in most cases, a conference paper will be the opportunity to divulge the results of an ongoing or almost finished project. In a way, it is a sort of declaration to the academic world: ‘Look, this is what I’ve been doing in the past months/years. Be prepared to read my next article/monograph!’. And the deadline set by an upcoming conference also works, for many of us, as an incentive to finally write down what we would have otherwise left lingering in the limbo of procrastination.

Just before you were here you were at Leeds International Medieval Congress, which is one of the larger medievalist conferences. I was watching the #IMC2017 feed on Twitter and it is almost like a festival for medievalists as well. How does a big conference like that compare to something more focused? What are the benefits but also challenges?

The Leeds IMC is indeed one of the annual grand-messes of medievalists worldwide, with a paper programme so heavy that it can easily jeopardize one’s luggage allowance on the way back home! This year, I heard that there were about 2400 of us, and the number of parallel sessions was so large that the organising committee had to request one more building than usual to accommodate us all. I recall very well how intimidated I was the first time I attended the IMC a few years ago. But you have to keep in mind that such events are primarily designed for scholars to network, so the more of us there are, the more connected we get!
In that sense, the Leeds IMC is hardly comparable to a more human-size conference, whose purpose will generally be to discuss a particular topic in deptH. At those conferences, both participants and attendees are expecting scientific results above all. There are no book fairs or medieval reenactments, but many new ideas at the end of the day.

What things should a postgraduate consider when choosing a conference?

Sometimes, the conference chooses you! It is not rare to receive a CFP (call for papers) that matches one’s doctoral project. It is then a good opportunity to make a name for yourself among the community of scholars in your field. In any event, before sending a paper proposal, I believe that a PG student should always consider how the conference will fit into his/her agenda. If it is leading you too far from the immediate demands of the dissertation, then make sure that it won’t put you in a delicate situation in terms of timing. Ideally, the closer you get to your submission deadline, the more you should prioritise papers that will directly feed your dissertation.

I find sticking to a twenty-minute limit a real challenge. We hold our topics close to our heart and spend a lot of time researching the field, so it can be tough. How do you deal with this challenge?

Ah… Quite badly in fact! I generally write an over-large first draft of my papers, and then spend the days and hours before it is my time to speak shortening my whole argument (with a huge dose of frustration generated in the process). But then I remember that: (1) it was not a waste of time, as I will use my over-detailed draft for a later publication; (2) my audience was probably very thankful that I did not enter into too much detail that would have made my paper hard to follow. A conference paper is a subtle exercise of communication, so a short but well organised argument will convey your point in the most efficient manner.

What is the most defining characteristic that sets a conference paper apart from other scholarly ‘outputs’, such as an essay or article?

Again, a conference paper is an oral performance, during which footnotes and lengthy sentences will not help you make your point. At the utmost, projected slides, if they are well done, will assist. Besides, we do not read in the same way that we listen. Have you ever heard someone reading out loud something that was clearly meant as a written piece of rhetoric? It is a very painful experience!

Medieval Spain is your specialisation and you’re about to teach an undergraduate unit, ‘Reconquest: A History of Medieval Spain’. What does this particular history of medieval Spain offer the the discipline more broadly? Why is it important/intriguing, not just to Iberianists, but historians generally? Has scholarship on intercultural relations in medieval Spain offered methodologies and frameworks for other histories of intercultural/interfaith relations?

The main theme of the Leeds IMC this year was ‘Otherness’, and the conference you and I attended in Ghent dealt with ‘Emotions, imaginations, and communities in the medieval Mediterranean’. In both cases, the medieval Iberian Peninsula represents a particularly rich domain of investigation, with its multi-faith and multi-linguistic communities. It is actually quite interesting to observe that, decades ago, the Iberian Peninsula was for most medievalists a periphery of Christendom and a guarantee of exoticism. Nowadays, it is rather considered a centre of interculturality and a case study to measure changes in historiographical practices. This is partly what I aim to convey to students in my course on medieval Spain. It is actually called ‘Reconquest? A History of Medieval Spain’. The question mark is very important, as the notion of Reconquest is highly problematic, though commonly used. After all, it expresses none other than a Christian point of view that makes the Islamic history of Spain a deplorable parenthesis. In the unit, we study the origins of that notion of ‘Reconquest’, and how it was a construct of Spanish nineteenth-century national-catholicism. We also examine the tensions that the debates surrounding the notion generated all through the twentieth century, and the social and academic anxieties that its use still reveals today.

What project are you working on at the moment?

When I first started to investigate the history of the past in my Honours year, I wanted to work on the relationship between Christendom and Islam through the specific prism of multicultural Spain. My PhD dissertation then led me quite far from this project, and I wish now to make it the centre of my attention, with research focused on perceptions of the Islamic world by Christians Spaniards.
By examining how the Islamic world was depicted, named, and utilised in Christian Spanish documents of the early to high Middle Ages (9th-13th c.), the idea is to decentre traditional approaches to the field, which have privileged religious perspectives at the expense of polities, geopolitics, and history. The paper I presented in Ghent was directly linked to this project.

Renovating the Archives: The Richelieu Project in Paris

In July, I head off to do archival research at the Richelieu site of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF) in Paris. The site is currently undergoing a large-scale renovation (although, thankfully, it doesn’t look like it will interfere with my work there). Archival spaces like the BNF are second homes for historians and other researchers, so I thought it’s a good opportunity to show one of France’s great archival institutions undergoing renovation.
Built in the nineteenth century, the Richelieu Library is the ‘historical cradle’ of the BNF, before a new centre was built on the Seine banks under the Mitterand Government in the 1980s (hence, the François Mitterand Library). Today, it houses the BNF’s special collections: performing arts, maps and plans, prints and photographs, manuscripts, coins, medals and antiquities.
The Richelieu Library is pretty spectucular. It’s everything we imagine a grand library to be, from massive, book-lined walls to the banker lamps on the desks. From 2009/2010, it’s been going through an equally spectacular staged renovation that is due for completion in 2020.
In December last year, one of the key stages was complete. The Labrouste Reading Room (pictured below) and Manuscript Room were completed as part of this stage.
I believe work has started on the equally impressive Oval Room (pictured below).
Source of above photo: Photographer Guillaume Dutreix (@guillaume_dx) on Instagram.
You can watch a short video documentary (14mins) about the renovation project. It is in French, but you can get the idea.

You can discover more about the Richelieu renovation project here:

Getting Ready for the Archives: 5 Essentials from a First-Timer

With just a few weeks until I head off to the archives in Paris, I wanted to share some of the preparation work I’ve been doing over the past several months. You can read about my PhD project here. I’m only in Paris for a few weeks, so I have to make the most of my time. I figured the more I can do in advance, the more efficient and fruitful would be my use of that time.
Added to this are two other challenges. First, it’s my first time doing archival research of this kind. Second, I discovered earlier this year that one of my archive sites is currently undergoing major renovations (until 2020!). This means materials might be inaccessible or relocated. I wanted to establish the state of play early on.
>Read my post on the Richelieu renovation project
I’ll be spending most of my time at two sites of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF; the National Library of France): the Richelieu site (where the manuscripts room is located, pictured below) and the Bibliothèque d’Arsenal.
In this post, I wanted to share some of the questions I asked myself and learnings I picked up along the way. Some of these might seem really obvious, so apologies in advance. But, it’s often the obvious things that are the easiest to miss.
Here are five are five areas I’ve been looking at in preparing for my archives visit. If you have any to of your own to pass on, add them as a comment to this post.

1. What am I going to do there? Setting my research goals

What am I actually going to do there? Will I be spending time with sources, translating/transcribing them? Sifting through lots of archival material? Or will I just be taking copies of material to bring back home?
These are questions I had to work out. For my project, I don’t have to do a huge amount of sifting. My sources are relatively obvious and easy to identify.
Over the past six months, I have been identifying documents and manuscripts I want to access using the BnF catalogue and their amazing digital platform, Gallica. I set them out in a spreadsheet, noting:

  • the key ‘metadata’ for each document (record number, document type title, publication year);
  • what I wanted to do with the document (inspect, copy, transcribe, etc);
  • comments or notes; and
  • a priority rating on a scale of one to four.

Prioritising what I want to see is important. If I run out of time, at least I’ve copied the most essential.
It might be a bit OCD, but I’ve even scheduled what documents I want to work on specific days. In all likelihood things won’t go to plan, but at least I’ll have a something to work with when I get there.

2. Research the archives

Of course, it’s important to do some preliminary research into the institution that you’ll visit. If they have restricted hours or requirements for access, you don’t want to discover that when you arrive on their doorstep. Here are some of the questions I investigated (and, again, forgive me if they are obvious).

  • What are their opening hours? Don’t assume that things are open every day 9am-5pm.
  • Are there any public holidays that might mean the archives are closed?
  • Are they undergoing renovations or any other work that might involve disruption to usual services? This is very applicable to me because the Richelieu site is undergoing renovations.
  • What documentation do they require for permission to access material? Photo ID is easy, but what if they require a reference from your supervisor? The BnF, for example, requires an ‘Attestation Form’ to be completed by the supervisor and stamped with the university’s stamp.
  • Is there an interview procedure beforehand?
  • Are there any applicable fees for accessing material? The BnF requires you to have a Reader’s Card, which attracts a fee (tiered depending on duration of access).
  • What procedures do they have for requesting material? How long do you have to wait from when you request something and when they deliver it? BnF has scheduled times for requesting material.
  • Are there rules or restrictions on what you can do in the research space, such as only being able to use pencils or restrictions on copying/photographing material? 


3. Equipment and storage

What equipment do I need to use at the archives beside a notepad and pen? I guess this really depends on what you intend to do at the archives.
Since most of my time will be spent inspecting and copying (that is, photographing) sources, I needed to think about a way of storing all this data securely so I could work on it when I return to Sydney. Storage is a really important issue and there are several solutions, whether a hard drive, USB, or cloud-based options (such as Dropbox).
The big two issues are volume (lots of photos) and security (Paris is a long way from Sydney, so I don’t want to have all this data lost or damaged). Is a USB really the best solution in terms of volume and security? If I put everything on a device such as a laptop, tablet, or smartphone, what happens if that is lost or damaged? Should I back up my work? Yes!
My supervisor, Nick Eckstein, recently returned from an archives visit in Italy and offered some useful advice on storing the thousands of images he had taken of manuscript folios from the 1600s. I ended up going with a combination of cloud-based and hard-drive.
Fisher Library has a Research Data Management team that can provide advice and invaluable information organised into modules on this page:
Also think about how you are going to organise your material so it all makes sense when you get back home. You don’t want to deal hundreds of random image files such as ‘IMG_089’.
Finally, don’t forget about things like power chargers etc.

4. Contact the archives

As I said, there are major renovations underway at the Richelieu BnF site. Another supervisor gave me the heads-up that this might affect access to material. I needed to establish whether anything I wanted to consult was affected, so I emailed the Department of Manuscripts at Richelieu specifying the manuscripts I most wanted to access. They responded, and we’ve been working through obtaining access approval for each source.
Contacting the archives before I arrive not only meant I could sort some of this stuff out before I arrived. It now means I have a few contacts within the BnF for when I am there. One of the archivists I’ve been exchanging emails with looks after the collection of Turkish manuscripts. This is a boon because the collection itself has its genesis in the very subject of my research. It is not only someone who can help me with locating material but who can relate the history of the collection itself.
So, I think it’s really useful to start building a relationship with archivists before you go, if possible. If the archives are in a non-Anglophone location, consider using the local language for communication (if you can) and observe professional communication practices.

5. Speak to other historians and postgrads (and follow them on Twitter)

I spoke to a few historians and fellow postgraduates in Sydney who had visited the archives I’ll be visiting, seeking their experiences and advice. This was incredibly helpful.
I also found some great advice on blogs run by institutions, historians, and postgraduates, including the following.

Then there’s Twitter. You’ll be surprised how useful it is as a budding historian to follow your peers and established historians on Twitter. For example, I follow Dr Sara Barker (@DrSKBarker), who works on the French Wars of Religion and print culture at the University of Leeds. Sara was tweeting during her archival research at the Bibliothèque d’Arsenal in Paris. It was such a wonderful and invaluable insight into archival work, both the trials and tribulations. I asked her a few questions about the archives and she responded with fantastic advice, including where to get the best coffee nearby (vital advice for a researcher!) and what the air temperature is like inside (you don’t want to be freezing or sweltering during your time in the archives).
Here are some sample tweets from Dr Barker.
Tweet from @DrSKBarker
Tweet from @DrSKBarker
As another example of historians talking archival research on Twitter, here’s a great thread from Professor Marie Hicks (historian of technology):
So, find the historians on Twitter who work in your field and follow them.
All of the above reflects some of the questions, thoughts, and practices that I considered in preparing for my archives visit in July. Let’s see what happens!
Meanwhile, if you have any tips or suggestions of your own, add them as a comment to this post.

My Trip to the Paris archives: Introductions

IMG_3676.JPG Hi there! My name is Darren and I’ve just started my PhD in history at the University of Sydney.
That’s me on the right and if I’m looking a little daunted, it’s for two main reasons. First, I’m still very much a selfie amateur. Second, I’m soon to embark on my first research journey into the archives in July.
In the months leading up to my research trip and on the trip itself, I’ll be posting about my experiences on the History Matters blog: my planning, hopes, trials, and tribulations. Hopefully, I’ll provide an insight into a postgraduate’s first trip to the archives. I’ll also try to share some good tips and useful resources. I’ve already received great advice from my supervisors and scholars elsewhere (including where to get the best coffee near the Paris archives … very important detail for many of us postgrads!). Perhaps I’ll even be able to interview an archivist or scholar along the way! I do promise good photos tho (hoping to have access to some splendid Persian manuscripts).
Before I tell you where I am going, let me tell you about my thesis. I’ll be brief. In the 1530s, the first formal relations were established between France (king Francis I) and the Ottomans (sultan Suleyman), with the result of France’s first embassy in Istanbul. I’m looking at the way the concept of ‘the Turk’ and Islam figured in the French imagination from 1530 to 1630, and how that diplomatic presence took shape. My current supervisors are Associate Professor Nicholas Eckstein and Dr Hélène Sirantoine.
My project means visiting the archives in Paris to access a range of primary sources. These include correspondence from the French diplomats and missions in Istanbul (and the broader Ottoman world), manuscripts brought back from the Orient, and printed news pamphlets about the Ottomans that were circulating in France at the time.
Many of these sources sit in collections at the Bibliothéque nationale de France. The BnF has an incredible online platform called Gallica, which hosts over four million digitised documents from across the centuries (as at 24 October 2016). Some of my sources have been digitised and are available on Gallica, but many haven’t been and so I need to consult them on-site.
So, what’s my itinerary?
As it turns out, I’m presenting my first international paper at the Society for the Medieval Mediterranean annual conference in July. It’s held in Ghent this year, so I’ll be spending some time in Belgium first. In Brussels, I hope to drop into the Pirenne Archives (Université libre de Bruxelles) for some research I’m doing on medieval historian Henri Pirenne (see my 2015 post about Pirenne). I’ll then head to Bruges to visit the archives of the Adorno family, a medieval Brugeois family that travelled in the Islamic world and even built a chapel in Bruges modelled on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. You can check them (and the chapel) out here.
After Belgium, I head to Paris. The BnF is a big institution with several sites. I’ll be spending most of my time at the Richelieu and Arsenal sites, as well as the Department of Manuscripts. There has been a huge renovation work underway at Richelieu which is both exciting (it’s a beautiful library) and concerning (renovations could throw up some challenges for my research). More on that renovation later because it’s such an impressive library.
Anyway, that’s it from me for the moment. Very soon I’ll post about budgeting and planning, as well as introduce you to the Richelieu library.

Henri Pirenne, modern imperatives and medieval globalities

A student report on HSTY3903: History & Historians.
The Middle Ages may well occupy a distant past, but the period seems to have a persistent hold in one way or another, whether invoked by political leaders in the West to designate the religious fundamentalism of ISIS or car-parks offering up the remains of long-dead kings. I just had a lecture on medieval Spain where Hélène Sirantoine explained Francisco Franco’s appropriation of the Reconquista narrative to service his political goals during Spain’s civil war in the twentieth century.
Among historians, the Middle Ages continues to undergo new treatments and approaches. In recent years, as global history gains general momentum (or rides the crest of a wave), some historians have turned to the concept of a global Middle Ages, with dedicated journals, conference roundtables, teaching units and research centres in tow.
My project for History & Historians began with investigating this concept of a global Middle Ages and its development among historians. My research led me to the work of Henry Pirenne (1862–1935), a Belgian medievalist renown for his famous ‘Mohammed and Charlemagne’ thesis. Briefly, the thesis argued against the then conventional proposition that the Germanic barbarian invasions of the fifth century instigated a break from antiquity and the start of the Middle Ages. Instead, Pirenne proposed that these Germanic tribes embedded themselves in a continuing Roman world, establishing a syncretic Romano-Germanic culture, while it was the much later seventh-century event of Islam’s rise (Mohammed) that broke Mediterranean unity and gave rise to the Middle Ages, Western Christendom and Charlemagne. Pirenne made the bold statement that without Mohammed there would be no Charlemagne.
Reading Mohammed and Charlemagne for the first time, it struck me that not only was he writing about the early Middle Ages, but also a post-war Europe of the 1920s. In making a case against Germanic exceptionalism in late antiquity, Pirenne seemed to be challenging the triumphalism of the German nation-state with medieval roots as written by German historians of his time (and suggesting a modern Romano-Germanic culture, which is particularly relevant for a Belgian).
I then turned to his historiographical writing and a speech he made as president of the International Congress of Historical Science (Brussels, 1923). A consistent theme across these sources is his criticism of German historicism, Rankean political history, theories of race and ‘the nation’ as adequate frames for understanding the Middle Ages. Pirenne felt they were limiting, unscientific and/or dangerous. While it’s unlikely he would have used the word ‘global’ (though he might use ‘international’), I discovered in his post-war works a vision one could call global — looking beyond Europe, enthused by 1920s internationalism and concerned with connections between peoples.
This is, of course, Pirenne at the end of a long, successful career. His influence would be felt by his successors. After hearing Pirenne present his thesis in Algiers in 1931, Fernand Braudel wrote: ‘His lectures seemed prodigious to me; his hand opened and shut, and the entire Mediterranean was by turns free and locked in!’
In a 1924 article, ‘De l’influence allemande sur le mouvement historique contemporain’, Pirenne criticised German historians for valorising the Prussian state and ignoring the reality of events around them. He wrote, ‘Ces historiens se placaient volontairement dehors l’histoire’ (‘These historians willingly placed themselves outside history’). And while Pirenne’s words may be charged with the experience of war, occupation, detention and collegiate betrayal, they are a firm reminder that historians are themselves historical actors.
‘HSTY3903: History and Historians’ was a great opportunity to place history and historians in their own historical contexts.