RHS Lecture: Prof. Simon MacLean, Origins of the Medieval Castle

On Friday 8 February in UCL, Prof. Simon MacLean (St. Andrew’s) delivered an RHS lecture entitled ‘Charles the Bald, the Origins of the Medieval Castle and the End of the Carolingian Empire’. A recording is available here, and Prof. MacLean’s abstract is available below.

The castle sat at the centre of medieval social and political order in Western Europe from the eleventh century onwards, and represents perhaps the most recognisable feature of the medieval landscape. The origins of the medieval castle are generally assigned to the ninth and tenth centuries, and the standard story begins with the defensive fortifications established against the Vikings by the Carolingian king Charles the Bald in the 860s. In this paper I argue that there are problems with this story, by re-evaluating some of the key sources and assumptions on which it rests. This argument has broader implications for how we think about the significance of fortifications in the last years of the Carolingian Empire; and the evolution of the castle between the ninth and twelfth centuries.

Dr Simon MacLean is Professor of History at the University of St Andrews. His research focuses on early medieval European history, in particular the Carolingian Empire and its successor kingdoms.

Image: Schloss Broich, Mülheim an der Ruhr; Wikicommons.


RHS Lecture: Prof. Naomi Standen, “Eastern Eurasia without Borders”

On Friday 21 September, Prof. Naomi Standen (Professor of Medieval History at the University of Birmingham) presented an Royal Historical Society lecture entitled “Colouring outside the Lines: Eastern Eurasia without Borders”. A podcast of Prof. Standen’s lecture is available here, and her abstract is below.

We are still working out how to do global history, especially for premodern periods. How do we achieve the necessary shift in scale without falling back on standard definitions of categories like states, ethnicity, religion, urbanisation, when these are increasingly challenged at the specialist level? This paper draws from my current work on ‘A global history of eastern Eurasia, 600-1350’ to explore how global history can avoid reverting to familiar themes such as power, empires, money, wars and men. Useful techniques include thinking in layers rather than blocks, rejecting ethnocentricity, emphasising exchange over competition, avoiding narrative arcs, and not using words like ‘China’. My intention is to disrupt the reemergence in the new venue of global history of essentially national narratives. Meanwhile, some may worry that developing a ‘global Middle Ages’ risks becoming a neocolonial move: here I will suggest that by globalising our approaches to the premodern we may find alternatives to help us to recover the political initiative in the present day.


Prothero Lecture 2018: Prof. Carole Hillenbrand, ‘Saladin’s Spin-Doctors’

On Friday 6 July in UCL, Prof. Carole Hillenbrand presented our annual Prothero Lecture, entitled “Saladin’s Spin Doctors”. A recording is available here, and Prof. Hillenbrand’s abstract is available below.

We might flatter ourselves that the idea of a spin doctor is rather a modern one, but I wonder. Obviously enough, powerful rulers have always had their coterie of close advisers. But in the medieval Muslim world there is one outstanding example of something rather more than this: the team of three counsellors that Saladin assembled who watched over his interests and, crucially, his reputation, with unflagging devotion for decades. Two of them were, by any standard, intellectual stars who could have turned their multifarious talents in many directions but who chose rather to dedicate them to a man whom they not only admired but also loved. One of them, the poet ‘Imad al-Din al-Isfahani, was a Persian with a truly awesome command of Arabic, a gift which he delighted to exhibit in and out of season. His pyrotechnic performances, solid with metaphor, saturated with puns, word play, alliteration, assonance and verbal acrobatics, are such a nightmare to understand that generations of Western orientalists – and indeed Arab scholars too, for that matter – have recoiled from the task of editing certain of his works. Sometimes in his writings manner eclipses matter, but he is also capable of reaching heights of solemn eloquence, as in his paean of triumph at the recapture of Jerusalem, or his threnody on the death of Saladin. The other, the Qadi al-Fadil – his title means “The Excellent Judge” – though only a somewhat pedestrian poet, was an acknowledged master of the epistolary prose that was de rigueur in Islamic chanceries, and for centuries his letters were regarded as models of their genre. His appearance, hunchbacked and skeletal, made him the butt of the court’s satirical poets, but his political skills were beyond reproach, and indeed in his master’s absence he governed Egypt for a time. It has been said that biography adds an extra terror to death, but in that respect Saladin need not have worried. For Ibn Shaddad, the third member of this distinguished triumvirate, who joined the team after the fall of Jerusalem but thereafter never left Saladin’s side and therefore saw him in good times and bad, was a plain man with a plain style. But he rose to the occasion and crafted a biography of his hero Saladin that lets the facts speak for themselves. He has no time for stale panegyric; instead, his admiration for Saladin shines through his account at every turn, and it is he who laid the foundations for his master’s posthumous celebrity. The lecture will explore the impact of these three men on the Saladin legend, which transformed a minor Kurdish warlord into an emblem of chivalry, piety and military glory which captured the hearts and the imaginations of Muslims for centuries to come – and still does.

Carole Hillenbrand is Professor of Islamic History at the University of St Andrews, and Emerita Professor of Islamic History at the University of Edinburgh. In 2016 she was awarded the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Transcultural Understanding for her most recent book, Islam: A New Historical Introduction (Thames & Hudson). 


RHS Lecture: Prof. Lynn Abrams, “Pursuing autonomy: self-help and self-fashioning amongst women in post-war Britain

On 11 May, Prof. Lynn Abrams (Glasgow) presented an RHS lecture entitled ‘Pursuing autonomy: self-help and self fashioning amongst women in post-war Britain’. A podcast of Prof. Abrams’ lecture is available here, and her abstract is available below.

The 1960s has been dubbed the ‘do-it-yourself decade’. This was the era when the women of the so-called ‘transition generation’ began to discover the gap between their expectations and the realities of their lives and in most cases took it upon themselves to fill that gap with autonomous activity rather than looking to existing organisations or the state to act on their behalf. This lecture examines the place of do-it-yourself women’s organisations – the National Housewives’ Register, National Childbirth Trust and Pre-School Playgroups Association – in the emerging history of postwar womanhood in the United Kingdom and seeks to rescue them from the condescension of those who have regarded them as not being sufficiently critical of gender relations and thus not part of the postwar feminist narrative. I argue that these organisations which emerged at a grass roots level from women’s dissatisfaction and frustration, came to offer thousands the opportunity for self-development, self confidence and independence.