It’s been some months now since I started writing this blog, and my only regret is that I didn’t start sooner. Maybe this is a good time for a moment’s reflection on what I’m doing, and why I’m doing it.
The research that my writing here is based on, particularly that on medicine and medical prayer, goes back as much as a decade now. Ten years’ worth of thoughts that I have been saving up. Some of them developed into full-blown ideas and made it into my thesis; some make it into an article. Others never go as far as that, but I continue to mull them over. Little snippets of texts, little nuggets of ideas, anything that has interested or excited me at one time or another, and that I want to tell other people about. And if they are little things, I don’t need to expound huge amounts of background knowledge about them, which makes it easier to write for an audience composed both of those who are and those who aren’t academic specialists.
That’s also a good thing considering that I don’t generally have the time to research a subject in much depth. My blogging is not like writing an article: I rarely look that deeply into the history or background of each blogpost topic. Instead, I just like to point out something interesting that I have spotted, and find something interesting to say about it. I realised I had found a kindred spirit when I read the journalist Caitlin Moran’s explanation of why, early on in her career, she decided to give up writing snarky reviews of bands in favour of something a bit gentler:
As I started to reassess my writing style, I thought about what I liked doing – what gave me satisfaction – and realised the primary one was just … pointing at things. Pointing out things I liked, and showing them to other people … (Caitlin Moran, Moranthology, p. 13)
These are the things which don’t really find a place in my formal academic publishing, often those which aren’t relevant enough to my work; a kind of writing which can appear quickly, and on which I can receive comments and feedback. And, just as my formal research inspires my blogposts, in return the blog spurs me on in my published work: it excites me, recharges my academic batteries, and reminds me of how interested I am in my research.
The blog is not, of course, intended to replace or rival my more formal writing, but is instead supposed to act as a complement. Next time I publish something, I plan to accompany it with a ‘non-identical twin’: a blogpost on the same subject, but approached from a different standpoint.
In this blog, I’ve once had to admit that I couldn’t track down a quotation that I know I read somewhere; I’ve had to hastily change a post title because I belatedly remembered a fact that rendered it inaccurate; and I’ve had the chance to share a few things that excite me, make me laugh, and affect my emotions. Eleanor Parker, author of the Clerk of Oxford blog, has written interestingly about the value of personal attachments and private passions in historical study, and its impact upon her blogging work; likewise, my friend and fellow York PhD graduate Rachel Moss has written in her blog Meny Snoweballes about the messy intimacy of academic study:
Part of the joy of history – and, I would argue, its necessary business – is getting lost in its messy embrace. There is no best way of doing history – but there are some ways that are more valuable than others, and I think that history which is good is usually that which owns its subjectivity. That doesn’t mean being intellectually lazy, or not questioning one’s views or opinions, or mapping oneself onto the past, of course! It means embracing the ways in which our own pasts and presents have brought us to a place where we can be truly intimate with our subjects. We are all the sum of our experiences, and these allow us to empathise. And isn’t empathy really the most important quality a historian can have?
This is more or less what I had in mind when I wrote about a group of prayers for the morning in an eleventh-century manuscript. In upcoming posts, I will be writing about other texts which give me a chance to empathise with the people that I study – and to get in a few unexpected things that I haven’t been able to write about anywhere else.