The Scottish Opposition to Sir Robert Walpole

February 1742 signalled the end of Sir Robert Walpole’s twenty-year political career. His time in government was characterised by dominance in both domestic and foreign affairs. However, by 1741 this strong hold on the British Parliament was starting to unravel. This makes the period that I am studying, 1739-42, the final years of a long career and a time where parliamentary opposition strengthened and reached its pinnacle. In particular, I will be looking at the Scottish opposition to Walpole’s administration in relation to his fall from power. In addition, I will look to see whether the Scottish opposition was distinct from its southern counterpart and if being Scottish changed individual motivations when operating in Westminster against the Walpole regime.

Walpole had successfully managed a policy of peace abroad, despite tensions with Spain, for several years. Alongside this strategy of peace, Walpole aimed to reduce the national debt, exasperated by the South Sea Bubble Crisis, while reducing taxes for the landed gentry. Yet in October 1739 pressures led to war with Spain, and due to his poor conduct and the growing opposition towards his administration, Walpole won the 1741 general election but with such a reduced majority that in 1742 he resigned from all his positions. This short summary of the man of Walpole is the backdrop to my Laidlaw summer research and enables me to look at specific opposition from Scottish political families.

Sir Robert Walpole [1]

To begin dissecting these figures, their alliances, and their roles within the parliamentary opposition, my first week of research consisted mainly of background reading from secondary sources. Taking a step back and sifting through the various works on the eighteenth century helped give a broader understanding of the time. Things such as people’s place in society to the inner workings of the Scottish voting system. During my second week of research I moved on to the contemporary sources themselves, concentrating on the Scottish Whig political family, the Hume-Campbell’s, known more commonly as the Earls of Marchmont. Over this short time frame, the Marchmont family held political weight in both Scotland and England conversing with the likes of St John, Henry, first Viscount Bolingbroke, Alexander Pope and the great John Campbell, second Duke of Argyll. My main source due to this was the Collection of Papers of Alexander second Earl of Marchmont and his son Hugh Hume-Campbell, third Earl of Marchmont. Here the task was to pick up upon the main issues of Walpole’s government and in addition, the main ‘players’ in alliances in Scotland and England alike.

Alexander Hume, second Earl of Marchmont [2]

Going forward, the next few weeks of my first summer of research will take place at the National Records of Scotland (formerly the National Archives of Scotland) and the National Library of Scotland. Here my job will be to further my reading of contemporary sources, again from great Scottish opposition families, and their dealings with the other groups of anti-Walpole Whigs and Tories alike. When thinking about this part of the research I believe this is where I will be most challenged. The endless mass of sources could keep me occupied for years and years, but I only have two weeks. Therefore, being directive and honing down what I chose to concentrate on will be key. Yet, at the same time, researching in the archives is the aspect I am most looking forward to. To have the chance of studying the sources themselves adds another dimension to these men and women. So far I have loved the research, while overcoming the challenges that have arisen has made the experience more valuable.


I would first like to thank Lord Laidlaw for this great opportunity. In addition, my sincere thanks to my supervisor Dr Max Skjönsberg for his continued guidance throughout the process. Finally, I wish to thank the CAPOD staff for all their hard work.


[1] Jean Baptiste van Loo, Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, Palace of Westminster, 1740.

[2] Unknown, Alexander Hume Campbell, 2nd Earl of Marchmont, Paxton House, c.1710.

Scots in the Amazon !

My research is called Scots and the Amazon and I aim to research the lives of Scottish people in the Amazon in the 19th century, and how this can inform us of the bigger picture of British presence and relationship with Brazil in the 19th century.

Last summer my research was focused on different British archives, I went to the archives in London, Edinburgh and Glasgow. My aims were many: try to understand what researching meant, what the archives were for and learn how to get around them. It was a great first experience becuase it helped me to understand that research is a slow process, that requires much organisation, having a lot of responsibilities, and in the case of archival research: perseverance and constant decision making.

The amount of information that I could read was huge and I had to make decisions on what to read or not. This let me focus on two big families that lived in Belem, in the north east of Brazil in the XIX, the Campbells and the Henderson. By looking through personal diaries, letters, inventories, I managed to get a glimpse of their lives in Belem as well as the context in which they lived.

      Me at the Archivo Público of Belém looking at consuls dispatches. 

This summer, I decided that to know more about their lives, I should go where they used to live, especially since a lot of the records actually never left Brazil. Brazil has been a very interesting experience, especially because while I speak Spanish I do not speak Portuguese, so that has make the process more difficult. In addition the archives in Brazil unfortunately are not in great conditions and a lot of the records are inaccessible, the reason: bureaucracy, different priorities and a lack of funding. In turn, this had lead me to take decisions regarding where to go, what material to read and learn how to be flexible with the information available for my project.

In Rio I have visited the national archives, a big beautiful building, where I found the migration records in the XIX, which painted a picture of British movement at the time. Moreover, I have also visited the historical and geographic institution and the national library, which has different rooms depending on what you looking for – rare books, journals and newspaper, maps, manuscripts and general books. The national library was one of my favourite places, it had a lot of information and it is one of the few buildings where there is actually government input. There I found mostly, information about Campbell involvement with slave ownership and records of his company’s imports and exports. 

     Archibald Campbell’s inventory at the Centro memoria da Amazonia – Belém. 

In my last weeks here, I have decided to come to Belem, to the actual city these families used to live. Here I have visited the public archive, in which I looked at records regarding consul dispatches, and the centro memoria histórica da Amazonia, a new archive opened through the university of Para, where I found the actual inventory of Archibald Campbell, written after his death regarding the inheritance he was leaving behind. This was one of greatest “discoveries” for me, making this experience incredibly rewarding.

I have also meet with academics here in Belem through the help of my supervisor DR.  Mark Harris, which has helped me a lot. Finally, I have been able to go to the British cemetery still in Brazil and look for these peoples tombs, making the whole experience feel more real.

In sum, being in Brazil was an incredible experience, It taught me a lot about independence, autonomy, organisation, perseverance, flexibility, and cooperation, and allowed me to see some records which I would have never been able to see, had I missed this wonderful experience.

For this I would like to thank lord Laidlaw for his generous funding of this programme, the CAPOD team for its support and dedication towards us, Laidlaw scholars and my supervisor DR. Mark Harris for his constant and complete guidance.

Walking the Path of Medieval Inquisition

May 24th, 1274, Raymond Baussan of Lagarde, of Laurac is sitting in front of an inquisitor, Brother Pons of Parnac in Toulouse, telling the story of his journey to Lombardy, and therefore his adventure into heresy.[1] He speaks of experiences travelling to Piacenza, Guardia Lombardi, Alessandria, Pavia and all across Lombardy, until finally he confesses to William of Bergamo and makes his way back to Toulouse.

November 4th, 1273, Gaubert of Aula of Benas, of the Diocese of Cahors sits before the inquisitor, Brother Ranulph of Plassac. He admits that he did, often, urinate in the cemetery of the church of Benas against the wall, even on Easter Day:

“He said that he has an infirmity”, I read, trying in vain to hold back my snickers, “and he cannot hold his urine”.[2]

I can’t hold them back – I have to laugh. You’ve got to love medieval texts!

Both of these stories are found inside the Inquisition Depositions of Toulouse: 1273-1282, which contains the records of inquisitors’ interrogations of suspected ‘heretics’, during the height of medieval inquisition in the thirteenth century. The Roman Catholic Church was extremely determined to maintain control over acceptable beliefs of the laity in the face of rivals who offered tempting alternatives, such as the ability for laity to preach (Waldensians), or to live a religious, ascetic life, whilst still engaging in public life (the Humiliati). Of most concern for the Inquisitors of the Languedoc were the Cathars, a mysterious dualist heresy that attracted the admiration of many powerful, rich families in the Languedoc. Even the forceful, destructive attempts of the 1209 Albigensian Crusade couldn’t stamp it out completely, only drive it underground. So, a more subtle approach was needed – Inquisition.

And no.

This is not the Spanish Inquisition.

I expected that response.

We are not Monty Python.

We are trying to do Serious Academic Work here! Focus!

There wasn’t much torture: people were more imprisoned or given penance than burnt; and there were times that it didn’t have much presence. However, the Inquisition was highly organised and insidious. It was effective in causing fear and gaining confessions, whether guilty or not. Furthermore, they did what highly organised operations do best – produce lots of records. These include records of interrogations and interviews with witnesses or people suspected of heresy, called depositions.

And that’s what’s my project is based on. These deposition records. Specifically, the records that were copied by the team of transcribers commissioned by Jean de Doat in 1663-1670. More specifically, Doat Sections 25-6 that have been wonderfully translated and edited by Peter Biller, Catherine Bruschi and Shelagh Sneddon.

The Biller, Bruschi and Sneddon text containing c.200 deposition records from the Toulouse Inquisition

Most writings about heresy are written by the church that is persecuting it. There is little extant about heretics by heretics. If there is, they are converts back to Christianity, making it very much a one-sided account. I admit, these are too, to an extent. They most often work off a proscribed set of formulaic questions regarding, things said, where, when, who with etc. –  all asked by inquisitors of the Catholic Church seeking to persecute heresy.


However, the wonderful thing about these deposition records is that they give you a huge insight into the people who were targeted by inquisition, and a direct look at how people who were part of the dissident groups worked and moved to try and escape or spread their ‘heretical’ views. You can feel their voice coming through, in a way you can’t with other documents.

So I’m going to make a map out of them.

Or two.

Let me explain before you call me crazy.

When I approached my amazing supervisor, Professor Frances Andrews, about wanting to research heresy, and inquisition in particular, there was an immediate problem apparent: I can’t read French. Or Italian. Or Latin. And either the majority of interesting and current work on these topics is done in these languages, or the primary documents are in these languages, introducing quite a huge limitation on what I could access. However, with the recent publication of Doat 25-6 by Biller, Bruschi and Sneddon, there was at least something I could work off that was rich and full of detail.

Furthermore, a little confession.

I’m not on a Medieval History degree, or straight History degree here at St Andrews. I’ve taken all the medieval modules, and caught the medieval bug in college, but I’m actually an Ancient History and Archaeology student. Therefore, with limited access to secondary material, creating a project that actively reproduces the historical information visually and engages physically with the material to draw conclusions in the shape of a map, was something that when suggested by my supervisor upon hearing my degree, caused the little archaeologist in me to scream with glee. I love books, but to be able to create something physical and practical from my historical research, that’s not just another essay?

It was an opportunity I did not want to miss.

And there is lots of workable data in these records! Seriously. People can be moving from house to house in a locale such as Saint-Germier, or they can be traversing the whole of Lombardy such as Raymond Baussan. There is so much movement and data that the first few weeks of my research, I have to admit that I floundered.

I was having to work with a new system I had never used before – QGIS – to create my map(s), which is not always that user-friendly. I had a huge text, containing lots of smaller texts to sort out and find some sort of handle on. I didn’t really have a way to sort them, other than create a big database of people to at least start to see who they were and how they were moving. Trying to find a direction and a pathway, was a big lesson in academic and self-leadership. Often, I was falling down the wrong way. I remember spending two days at the start of my research geo-rectifying a historical map to find that there was a better one I could use that was already geo-rectified and could be downloaded straight into QGIS. Then, I tried to create the historical coastline with the new map, only to find as I zoomed out, a day’s worth of work had only netted me the creation of a small part of the North East coast of France! Then, when the points were added, to find that they didn’t match to the correct places on the new historical map because it wasn’t accurately geo-referenced in the first place.

The data wasn’t much better – there was so much. There are over 200 depositions in this collection, with almost as many deponents. And they all mention people they’ve seen or encountered, or communicated with. It’s such an overwhelming amount of information that trying to narrow it down was a stressful and difficult process. What did I want to know from this data? What groups were most interesting to me? What would work best with my chosen medium? My supervisor asked me these questions and it’s taken me three weeks to answer, but this week I finally hit a breakthrough.

With the helpful and wonderful guidance from my supervisor, I’ve managed to discover that my main interest in these documents is in how families are moving and interacting in response to heresy and inquisition. Which families are moving? What types? Where are they going – local or far? Are they typical? Is social status a factor? Are people actually coming to them? They’re a thoroughly interesting aspect I feel, because we know heresy could run in families across generations, and it will be intriguing to see how this works, visually, in the movements that can be plotted.

I’ve also since abandoned the historical map, and managed to create one using modern boundaries this week, detailing Raymond Baussan’s movements, and the amount of ‘heretics’ he meets in comparable points.

See – a map is feasible!

Map detailing the movements of Raymond of Baussan as presented in the Doat 25-6 inquisition records of Toulouse. It also indicates areas which Raymond encountered/saw fellow ‘heretics’ in comparison to each other.

Map of Modern Day Toulouse created with OSM open source data, with point at the location of the House of the Dominicans


And you thought I was crazy…

I’ve learned a lot from this experience so far, not just in research, but in the leadership too. You have to be able to try again, and keep looking in new directions – maybe one thing won’t work out, and you’ve wasted time; or maybe it does work out, but leads you down the completely wrong tangent so you’ve wasted time again. Being able to be resilient to these things and having the will to recognise them, and pull yourself back to the main thrust of your research is an important element to learn. Not to mention getting back up again to try a new way, a new method after hitting the brick wall a few times. Being determined, adaptable, and resilient are all traits the research experience has taught me are crucial to self leadership and getting my project to work.

I’ve loved every minute.

Well, almost every minute – lets not forget the two days spent frustrated at the geo-referencer, the time my map of France ended up in the Balkans, the time when I spent days inputting deponent after deponent into Microsoft Access…you get the picture.

Still. Being able to research into my own historical interests, for no other reason than I want to, because it’s interesting to me?

It’s a feeling I can’t describe.

Me in St Mary’s Medieval History Library, St Mary’s Quad, with text and laptop.


I would like to thank my supervisor, Professor Frances Andrews, who’s amazing guidance and advice I am immensely grateful for – I would not have been able to get this far without her! Furthermore, I would like to thank Lord Laidlaw and the Laidlaw team for their generous support – without them, I would never have been able to have the opportunity to do research like this and it’s been an amazing and wonderful experience!

All Photos were taken or created by me. 

[1] Peter Biller, Caterina Bruschi and Shelagh Sneddon (eds.), Inquisitors and Heretics in Thirteenth-Century Languedoc: Edition and Translation of Toulouse Inquisition Depostitions, 1273-1282, (Leidan, 2011), pp. 467-479.

[2] Biller, Bruschi and Sneddon (eds.), Inquisitors and Heretics, pp. 231-233.

In the Archives of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

There are many things the Laidlaw Scholarship allows its scholars to do: improve their leadership skills, research interesting topics, travel around the world, meet new friends. What it did for me, however, was slightly more magical. How many of us, whether art history students, researchers or simply fans, can say to have had access to the archives of one of the most important art museums in the world? Well, this is exactly what the Laidlaw programme, with its travel fund, allowed me to do. But let me give you some context.

Last year my research project focused on the life of impressionist painter Giuseppe De Nittis, an artist born and raised in my hometown – Barletta, Apulia, Southern Italy – who moved to Paris in 1867 to join the Impressionist circle, showing his works in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874 in the studio of the photographer Nadar. He gained wide artistic and personal success throughout his life, certainly aided by his charismatic personality, which won him a place among the brightest intellectuals and wealthiest social elite of the Belle Époque Paris. As a result, his paintings became real documents of a society that was living its most glorious time before an inevitable fall, a real-life testimony of the most popular seasonal events and aristocratic salons, witnessed by the artist with his own eyes. Portraying the uses and costumes of a social class De Nittis and his wife Léontine made every effort to be identified with, for my second year of research I decided to focus precisely on the paintings that presented these social events with the incredible details that distinguished De Nittis’ painting.

So, what has Philadelphia to do with all of this? Why this American city, you might be wondering? The answer lies precisely in an artwork. In particular, an 1875 version of Return From The Races, donated to the museum in 1906. The last time this painting was exhibited in Europe was in 2010, during the biggest exhibition on this artist held at the Petit Palais in Paris, titled “Giuseppe De Nittis: La modernité élégante”. Indeed, this painting perfectly shows how, in one of the most important social events of the season – the horse races at the Bois de Boulogne – the Parisian high class flaunted clothes and accessories representing a modern concept of elegance and style, captured by the careful eye of De Nittis who masterfully depicted every frill, lace and shiny jewel. For the purpose of my research, which this year focuses on the artist’s depiction of Parisian high society’s fashion, womenswear in particular, this painting was just essential. Thanks to the incredible kindness of the European Painting department of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I had access to the storage room where the artwork is kept, among many, many others. I was escorted into the room by the Departmental Coordinator, whose badge and fingerprint were used to magically open the door. A gigantic Robert Motherwell welcomed us inside, probably ready to be taken upstairs for an upcoming exhibition. Behind it, two paintings of Italian manufacture belonging to the Catholic tradition, probably dated somewhere in the 1300s. The artwork I was going to study, however, was in the back of the room, in the last rack on the left. Slowly approaching it, the feeling of being in the presence of so much art most people do not have access to was almost overwhelming.

1. Giuseppe De Nittis, Return From the Races, 1875 (I have taken this picture in the storage room of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

To have been able to look at it so closely, without glasses or barriers, to appreciate every single detail and brushstroke on the canvas, is something I still cannot quite believe. I have tried to process it in the past few days, trying to find similarities to other emotions I might have experienced, and the only thing that came to my mind was looking at a new-born baby for the first time. The feelings of wonder, excitement, fear were all the same. I stood there staring at each little dot and line for almost an hour, and only when I moved away from the painting, I realised that art, as life, is a series of extremely fortunate or unfortunate events, as the causes that bring an artist to fame, or oblivion.

After 1884, the year of the premature death of Peppino, a nickname De Nittis reserved to his closest friends, the city of Paris, the home that the artist had chosen for himself and his family, slowly let his memory vanish. It took over a century for them to acknowledge his importance once again. The very fortunate events that brought me to that storage room, made clear that no matter what happens in the future, De Nittis’ work will never be forgotten, at least in my mind. It will always be part of my heritage, and many others’ as well, as long as there will be people willing to share their memories with the world.

2. Me standing in front of the painting. As you can read in the blog, I stared at it for almost an hour, observing every little detail.

The Generally Still-Practicing Society


What better way to develop as a leader than to lead a new society? This was my supervisor’s idea early in the scholarship. After learning to jump through bureaucratic hoops, keep a cashbook, and hustling membership from friends, I have certainly built leadership skills.

After over a year, however, The Mackenzie General Practice Society itself is still being constructed. My co-founder Emma and I encountered many challenges in affiliating, running events, and forming a meaningful committee. Personally, I’ve learned:

  • to be much earlier and more aggressive with advertising events and committee positions. I was under the illusion that, once we were founded, enough people would come to us. In fact, a small society should actively seek out interested individuals (who just don’t know how interested they are yet!)
  • unless an action is initiated, great ideas will never happen. During meetings, many ideas would be met with praise and agreement; some would even get written down! However, when we’d look at that idea a month later, it was no longer fresh enough for me to know what physical action needs to be taken to achieve it
  • don’t fight bureaucracy, it just makes life more difficult. When I was reading through the requirements for affiliation, I kept seeing things I thought were implausible for our society, and so would pretend I could ignore them or ask to be exempt. But they always came back to bite me, even if we were given a semi-exemption. It would have been much easier in the long run to just roll my eyes, and immediately figure out what needs to be done to tick the box.

Eventually we did succeed in completing the foundations– we’ve affiliated, hosted a pub-quiz (without the pub, but with pizza!) and facilitated buses to events, re-affiliated, and have a functional committee. These are all successes I am proud of, but despite ticking all the boxes, I can tell there’s much more to complete that isn’t included on the “run a society” checklist. I believe it’s the same with personal development – as you grow, you see more and more opportunities for self-improvement.

Female Computers at the ROE

On June 1st 1909, two women began work at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh. While not the first women to work at an observatory in the UK, they would be the first employed in any permanent capacity at the ROE, working on a project that would span the majority of the 20th century and at least 18 different women.

The two sisters, Sarah and Isabella Falconer, were employed at the direction of the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Frank Dyson. The work they were engaged upon was part of a global effort to map the heavens, the Carte du Ciel project. Initially employed as measurers, the women would go on to compute plate constants, perform reductions and conversions, and other work such as library and general assistance. They would be joined by others – some women with degrees, some without, some working for only a few months, others for close to a decade. Their work was menial, straightforward, and at times practically algorithmic – so where is the academic interest in their endeavours?

Edinburgh Measurers c. 1911 (Royal Observatory, Edinburgh)

I chose to research these women as the focus of my Laidlaw project because, in the history of mathematics and astronomy, women take a backseat. These fields were dominated by men for thousands of years, and the direction and culture of their study guided by patriarchal society throughout. When we do learn about women in mathematics, we tend to focus only on the pioneers, the revolutionaries, the extraordinary. Of course, the idea that only exceptional women were involved in mathematics up to the 20th century is a blatant falsehood. Working women have used mathematics just as much as working men; however, there has indeed been a distinction in that far fewer women have worked in explicitly mathematical professions. Hence, the need to shine a light on those that have, such as the ‘female computers’ of the ROE.

Researching these women is challenging, or so I have found. In my first week, I spent a significant amount of time simply reading anything that I could find that I considered relevant. There is a good degree of literature in this area broadly, but it focuses, as I said, on the exceptional. While I found it fascinating to learn about the interactions of well-educated middle-class women with the study of mathematics at the University of Cambridge in the late 19th century, the path followed by these women to the first experiment with female computers at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, bears little resemblance to that of the female computers at the ROE.

Reading widely around the topic does provide a good historical context for the women at the ROE, however. When the first attempt to employ women at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, failed, it did so largely because not enough women of sufficient education and of the ‘right class’ could be found willing to work at such low pay. A major concern for these women was quite simply the safety of walking to and from the observatory late at night. When the Astronomer Royal for Scotland employed the female computers at the ROE, these issues were well known to him, and accounted for. The women worked ‘in the forenoons only’, were supported by a grant from the ‘Committee which allots the Government Grant for Scientific Investigations’ which allowed for pay rates to rise minimally, and were of a lower level of education than those at the Greenwich Observatory. These factors, alongside the changing societal norms of the time, surely led to the success in Edinburgh where there had been failure in Greenwich.

A Letter from R Copeland, 1910

The details of the women’s work, some of which I have given above, came not from wider reading, but from an in-depth study of the archives at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh. I spent my second week commuting to and from Edinburgh, and although the buses and trains were a bit of a nightmare, it was worth it for the research achieved. Lots of simple information, such as names and dates and pay, was well recorded. This allowed me to build up a picture of who these women were, what they did, and how they did it. However, it did not provide me with everything I wished to know. Many decades of letters to and from the Astronomer Royal for Scotland and his staff are well-preserved, but the women who worked alongside him are scarcely mentioned. Following a common theme in the history of scientific women, they are noticed more for their absence than not. Even when referring explicitly to their work, they are often mentioned only in passing, with a ‘we’ in the place of an ‘I’. This is the challenge I now face.

The future of my research is still to be determined, but I believe that I will need to broaden the scope of this project if it is going to last 10 weeks. Already, I am finished with the archives, when I hoped they would last for 2 weeks. The women, conspicuous in their lack of records, are hard to research. I plan to continue studying their path into the ROE, and the wider context of their work, for the next while. One area of research will be feminist theory, another perhaps epistemic injustice. Next summer, it might be necessary to research women at a sister observatory, such as those in Perth, W. Australia, where women were similarly employed. Another direction could be to contrast the education and work of these ‘working women’ with their more elite counterparts from the south. This will be decided in the coming days, but for now, it is something to consider further.


The view from the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh

I would like to thank a number of people for their assistance in this project. First, thanks to Lord Laidlaw and the Laidlaw team for their generous support; this would be impossible without them. Second, thanks to my advisor, Dr Isobel Falconer, for her indubitable assistance in not only my research, but in providing me with a subject matter to study at all. And finally, thanks to Ms Karen Moran, the archivist at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, and Ms Fiona Hooper, the archivist at George Watson’s College, for allowing me access to their records.

The first image used above is from the photo lab at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh. The other two are my own photography.

Lost in Borges’ Library

“When it was announced that the Library contained all books, the first reaction was unbounded joy” wrote Borges in “The Library of Babel”. Borges describes an infinite world, a cosmic library, containing every conceivable book and all possible information. “There was no personal problem, no world problem, whose eloquent solution did not exist”, all one had to do was find the right book. The library’s inhabitants soon realised the futility of their predicament. Even the most voracious amongst them, working without pause, would never make it past the beginning of their reading list. Some celestial reader could consume an infinite number of books, and still they would have an infinite number left to read. The paradoxes of mathematical infinity drive many of Borges’ bibliophiles to despair. Others embrace it, only an infinite library can sate an endless appetite for knowledge.

In the real world, despite our finite libraries, we face a similar problem. Probably not long after humankind created writing there was more to read than any person could hope to manage. In times when the manuscript reigned, the problem was less acute. True, you couldn’t read everything, but you could read everything that mattered. The medieval physician scarcely needed more than the texts of Galen to be considered an expert. The proliferation of the printing press brought an end to this situation. Whilst books were now easier to obtain and read, the rate of production skyrocketed. In an illuminating article on the history of book production in western Europe, Buringh and van Zanden inform us that “Whereas during the sixth and seventh centuries on average only about 120 books were produced annually in Western Europe, in the peak year [of the 18th century] of 1790 total production was more than 20 million books” [1].

Ramelli’s Bookwheel [2]

Faced with an overwhelming number of valuable books and articles to read, people began inventing new ways of organising and accessing books. One of the earliest innovations in information retrieval was Ramelli’s bookwheel, a Kindle for the 16th century. It allowed the user to consult multiple texts at once in a single location. Slowly, the obstacles preventing people from obtaining, reading, and transporting knowledge stored in text began to disappear. In the modern world access to information, including information stored in books, is immediate. Our digital bookwheels hold more volumes than a library, each of which can be retrieved in a matter of seconds from anywhere in the world.

Despite these meteoric advancements, a crucial question remains unanswered: what should I read? Nowhere is this question more pertinent than in academic research. Number of citations or more convoluted metrics are often offered as solutions. Simply pick the paper with the greatest relevance and the highest ‘impact’ and proceed from there. These measures fail to account for important but unquantifiable factors that a reader might consider when deciding if something is worth reading. One factor is interest, does what I’m about to read sound compelling? There are occasions when asking this isn’t an option and one must read something regardless of its quality. But sometimes we’re lucky and have the freedom to choose. Marie Kondo, the now world-famous organisation expert, offers some sage advice on tidying-up which readily applies to the problem of choosing what to read. Gather together all of your books and papers, one category at a time, and keep only those that “spark joy” – the word in Japanese is tokimeku. From Oscar Wilde to Richard Feynman, the virtues of a reading diet based on interest have been widely extolled. In academia, reading is often done as a means to some end. It’s all too easy to forget that reading can be an enjoyable end in itself. Personally, I think there’s only one book worth looking for in Borges’ library. The one that tells you what to read.

All Borges quotes from: “The Library of Babel.” Collected Fictions. Trans. Andrew Hurley. New York: Penguin, 1998.

[1] Buringh, E., & Van Zanden, J. (2009). Charting the “Rise of the West”: Manuscripts and Printed Books in Europe, A Long-Term Perspective from the Sixth through Eighteenth Centuries. The Journal of Economic History, 69(2), 409-445. doi:10.1017/S0022050709000837

[2] Figure CLXXXVIII in Le diverse et artificiose machine del Capitano Agostino Ramelli, an illustration of a bookwheel. Accessed from Wikimedia Commons.

Poetry, Politics and Imposters

When you picture a cool night out on the town in Edinburgh I’m almost certain that poetry comes into the equation. However, spoken word and slam poetry have gained a significant degree of popularity over the past few years, with queues forming outside of pubs, cafes and bookshops as people crowd towards their nearest open-mic night for a pint and a poem.

This summer I am researching the connection between sociopolitical issues and spoken word poetry in Edinburgh. To do this I am going to be interviewing poets about their poetry as well as how they think that the scene more generally is concerned with politics. My main questions are on why people use this forum to express such issues, to what extent it is a natural by-product of the personal nature of performance poetry, and whether spoken word events can become a bit of an echo-chamber for young, generally left-leaning artists?

Spoken word/slam poetry was one of the main things which made me want to study English at university. I don’t think I would be as fascinated by poetry if it weren’t for hearing it aloud and performed more than I read it in school. In my opinion, poetry comes alive when it is performed in a way that it is hard to convey in print. There is a massive variety of styles within performance poetry, from rhythmic performances which border on rap, to dramatic monologues which would rival Shakespeare. But despite these differences, poems often share themes of social and political issues and how they affect the writer/performer.

At the time of writing this, I have been researching for two weeks and am starting to form a clearer idea of the route which I am going to take. I am starting to interview next week and a lot of my time has been spent tailoring my interview questions to the individual poets and making sure that I know their material and central concerns. I think that the project is going well and I’m pleased with the progress I’ve made.

However, I’ve also spent much of my research dealing with imposter syndrome; feeling like I have accidentally conned my way into this research and that I am not as qualified as those around me. This has become more and more apparent as I near the stage of interviewing poets. While it is probably entirely irrational, my brain insists that my interviewees will be instantly aware of my complete lack of experience and storm out dramatically!

A few of the poetry collections from poets active in Edinburgh

I am getting better at dealing with these feelings as the weeks go on. Talking to my fellow Laidlaw scholars has been enormously helpful in this matter. We are all experiencing research for the first or second time together and figuring it out as we go. Meeting with my supervisor to plan out what my project will look like at completion has also been invaluable, and made the project look less daunting as it was broken down into smaller parts.

Another thing which has helped me greatly was remembering why I wanted to be a part of Laidlaw in the first place. My project is something that I am excited about, rather than I should look at as something which I am bound to fail in. I am so lucky to have this opportunity to grow my confidence in research and so many other areas of my life.

I would like to sincerely thank Lord Laidlaw for the opportunity to develop these skills and Capod for all of their support. I would also like to thank Dr Peter Mackay for his guidance as a supervisor. I would finally like to thank my fellow Laidlaw scholars, without whom this project would seem insurmountable and terribly lonely!

The Amherst Manuscript – Mystic visions and radical theories.

In 1373 an ordinary lay woman lay dying in a bedroom in Norwich, as the last rites were delivered a priest held a crucifix before her eyes and the woman received 16 visions from God, not only surviving but making a full recovery. This woman was Julian of Norwich and her experience, imagined or not, led her to become a hermitic anchoress and theologian, locking herself away for 40 years to grow closer to God. Spurred on by her visions Julian wrote them down, elucidating upon them with a theology that was radical and dangerous for the time she was writing in. Bucking against Church trends, Julian described God in feminine terms, preached that there was no hell and that above all things God was all loving.
During this five-week research period this summer, I will be diving deeper into the three earliest manuscript copies we have of Julian’s magnum opus trying to discover what changes in their composition can tell us about the changing reception to her work. I’m particularly keen to find out what role women have had in preserving and changing the reception of Julian’s work and how far this piece can be considered an early (E A R L Y) feminist text. This week I have been reading the Amherst Manuscript, held in the British Library. This florilegium from the mid 15th century is an anthology of Carthusian texts which was likely intended for the spiritual education of women, possibly another later anchoress. An early version of Julian’s text – the manuscript was scribed in a Grantham dialect, placing it quite close to Norwich. This illustrates Marotti’s argument that manuscripts were primarily for personal collections and close social circles likely to share similar social views. Symptomatic of its period is the fact that the manuscript does not contain the biblical translations included in the later long text by Julian – indicating her initial nervousness in the radicalness of her ideas and the suppression of translation of the Bible into the Vernacular by the Catholic Church.
The Amherst manuscript is the earliest surviving copy we have of Julian’s work. Generally, it is accepted that she wrote this shorter version more immediately after her visions before elaborating on it in further versions. After it’s stint as a manuscript for women’s guidance this piece passed from private library to private library, eventually ending up in the collection of Baron Amherst, from which it now gets its name. Notably, for my research, the manuscript contains interesting notes and additions in the margins which give insights into the theological ideas being expressed and make clear how important certain passages are in the overall manuscript.
This manuscript lays the foundations for later editions of Julian’s work that are ever more radical and trailblazing. In the next few weeks, I will be focusing on these later manuscripts and comparing them to see how they’ve changed. It’s been an exciting project to work on and I’d like to express my thanks to Dr. Harriet Archer, Lord Laidlaw and the Capod team for this opportunity.

A Tale of Three Cities: Navigating the Archaeology and Modern City of Istanbul


Archaeology, it must be said, can often have the dichotomic personality of an ‘Indiana Jones”-like  silver-screen appeal with the jarring reality of scraping the ground in incredible heat. This only seems to apply, however, when working on sites which are uninhabited or from the library- where one can view the desired geographical or chronological zone in near isolation, as was the case with my research last summer at Halmyris in Romania, where the fact of working in the least densely inhabited part of Europe came with its pros and cons.

Istanbul may be seen as the polar opposite of this- a city that has been continuously inhabited since the 7th Century BCE and one which has retained its cosmopolitan background and make-up (as my title, pinched from Bettany Hughes’ biography, aims to illustrate): from initial Ancient Greek settlement through Roman, Byzantine, Central Asian Khanates, Ottomans and the modern state of Turkey, the city is a true blend of Ancient and Modern, East and West. Now, as romantic as this all sounds, it does mean that research in the city requires a rather different approach and an awareness of this history which, whilst difficult, does lend itself to give a more involving picture than the huge amount of guesswork that comes part and parcel of excavation. This has meant that much of my Istanbul adventure has been rather upright- that is, huge amounts of walking in rather warm weather to interact with the city’s history as much as possible.

This being my first week, my major stops have therefore been the surviving pieces of ancient architecture and the buildings that they have been incorporated into- from the iconic Hagia Sophia (or Ayasofya), the towering 6th Century church/mosque/museum, to the the most lavish of mosques and palaces and the most plain cisterns and aqueducts. Whilst the sheer amount of material and its almost constant lack of focus on my intended period of study, a seemingly combined effort of the modern state of Turkey’s emphasis on the importance of the Ottomans, the Sultanate and Islamic history within the city and the cultural shying from acknowledging the extent of the cultural connection with Greece, there is an interesting and somewhat surprising character to the modern city which I did not appreciate until my arrival, the feeling of hüzün– or melancholy-  that Orhan Pamuk’s portrait of the city helps to view the area in a different light. It is very rare, yet also the case in Istanbul’s step-sister city of Rome (which I will be visiting in the following weeks), that a city so powerful, ideally positioned for both trade and defence, and historically integral has its stature in the modern world reduced from being the epicentre of activity in its heyday to being a relative recipient of change. It is this element which can be related to both the growth of Constantinople to the chagrin of Ancient Rome, with the humiliation of the centuries-old hub of the empire being relegated as the ‘old Rome’ to Constantine’s “New” or “Second Rome”- and it is this change in Istanbul, both in its change from a Byzantine to an Ottoman capital in the 13th Century AD and the city’s fall in political (if not in cultural) prominence to Ankara in the early 20th Century AD, that is one of the most important elements of insight which the modern city can give to the ancient.



This was an element of the city which I was not expecting to be so integral to my understanding of the interaction between fortification and urban area, as the bare sites of abandoned cities across the ancient world can never convey the truly personal element that comes with day-to-day interaction with one’s environment in a living city. I hope that this will inform my work regarding the motive for the prolific construction of fortifications which we see across the Late Antique Roman world, and how the living amongst the ancient buildings, be they intact or in ruins, may relate to the anxiety and outlook of those in Late Antiquity who saw walls erected in their once-peaceful landscapes and cities.

Therefore, whilst much of my subsequent research will be behind either a laptop or a book in either Istanbul or Rome, the experiencing of a city and a culture through its descendants is one which cannot (and should not) ever be sniffed at- my understanding of the ancient world is always expanded by the interaction with both the topography and the people who now inhabit it. As such, I would like to thank Lord Laidlaw, the CAPOD team and the Laidlaw Scholarship programme for their invaluable support throughout my research, as well as my supervisor, Dr Carlos Machado, for his never-ending patience and guidance through the world of archaeological research.


All images used are my own*

Hughes, B. (2017). Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities. London: W&N.

Pamuk, O. (2006). Istanbul: Memories of a City. London: Faber & Faber.