Day in the working life of a historian: Kathleen Neal

Kathleen Neal takes readers on the journey of a typical day of a medieval historian on a research trip.

It’s 7.30 am, and I’m propped up on my pillows with my laptop on my knees. As usual there are an awful lot of windows and tabs open on the screen. I’m transcribing some documents, some written in Latin and others in a form of medieval French, which I photographed yesterday in The National Archives, in Kew, in South London.

It was a great day: I collected images of loads of materials to use for a journal article I plan to write on medieval queens as diplomatic negotiators; there were also a few discoveries to include in a conference paper I need to finish before next week. As a Melbourne-based scholar, I never have long in the Archives when I’m visiting, so I can’t afford to sit there reading at leisure. It’s a case of making a list in advance of what I need, rushing in as soon as the doors open, and getting as many items photographed as I can. I’ll do the reading and thinking about most of them later on.

An international research trip is a regular must for me as an Australian medievalist specialising in thirteenth-century Britain and France, both in terms of accessing the sources I need, and of staying in touch with the academic community in my field. I usually spend 3-6 weeks away each year. The agenda tends to be: work hard, party hard. Last night was dedicated to the latter (or more precisely, both): a board meeting and annual lecture for the Pipe Rolls Society, followed by a bit of informal networking with a few fellow medievalists at a nearby pub. (What’s the collective noun for a bunch of medievalists? There needs to be one!)

I’m jet-lagged from arriving in the UK just a few days ago, so I’ve been up since the London summer dawn, and I’m using my time to get yesterday’s notes and images in order before the new day begins. I’ve already sorted my photos into folders according to their archival catalogue number.

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A typical screenshot during my archival work.

On screen I have: a word document into which I’m typing the text of a particular account, as-is; another document into which I’m typing a translation as I go; the photo I’m working from, zoomed-in so I can check certain words; an internet browser, where I’m double checking my translation using the online Anglo-Norman Dictionary and Medieval Latin Lexicon – my constant companions in the archives; and my twitter feed, where I’ve just been asking the hive mind what it thinks about an unfamiliar word. The answers pour in from across the globe within a few minutes, and Paul Dryburgh, one of my medieval archivist friends, has answered my conundrum before 8am. Job done! That gives me a few minutes to deal with some administrative emails from home before my next appointment.

At 8.30 I head around the corner to a favourite nearby café, one of my regular London haunts. You can tell the coffee is good by the number of visiting Australian academics you meet in the queue – although that might also reflect its proximity to the British Library. I’ve agreed to meet with a postgraduate student from King’s College London, Anaïs Waag, who’s interested in my work, over a morning cuppa. We talk for about an hour about her project comparing queenly letter-writing in medieval Iberia, England and France. I’m able to share some advice about works she might like to read and scholarly networks that could be useful to her: the Royal Studies Network, which has a great annual conference and an online journal, where I’m on the advisory board; and the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship. I agree to set up a meeting between Anaïs and another visiting scholar, a friend of mine from the USA, who I’m sure will be interested in her topic and able to give some good pointers.

At 9.30 it’s time for me to head for the Tube. I need to get to Piccadilly for a very special appointment. I’ve been granted permission to use the private library of the Society of Antiquaries for the day in order to look at two unique manuscripts itemising the household expenses of Edward I. I arrive at the door bang-on the agreed time of 10am.

It’s an impressive and imposing building, and I have to sign in and provide ID at the door. Inside, the library is a glorious space, with a long central study table, individual nooks in the window bays, and galleries of books soaring above. There are only a handful of readers present, so the room is filled with the precious, quiet sound of scholarly concentration. I breathe in the smell of old paper, parchment and leather bindings, and think about the fellows who’ve stood in this room since the eighteenth century.

Through the window I can see an amazing moving sculpture by Israeli artist, Ron Arad: part of a summer program at the adjacent Royal Academy of Arts. I watch it writhing about while I wait for the obliging librarian to bring my first item from store. When it comes, it turns out to be an impressive ‘roll’ – a series of long strips of parchment, sewn together at the narrow ends so that it can be rolled up for easy storage. It’s covered on both sides in tiny Latin writing, itemising the jewels and plate in the king’s possession in 1296. I set up my computer in a nook by the window and use the long central table to spread out the jewellery roll to begin work.

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Jewellery roll of Edward I at the Society of Antiquaries.

My time in the Society’s library is precious, so I forego lunch, working through the two manuscripts and a rare early printed edition looking for snippets of evidence for my forthcoming conference paper – and the journal article it will become. My goal is to find all the mentions of Edward I’s daughters and their husbands in these accounts, so that I can determine how much he was spending on them, for what purposes, and when. I want to match up these expenses with the political situation and draw some conclusions about the position of royal daughters in a wide definition of medieval diplomacy.

I use a new Word document to copy in the full catalogue descriptions and enter all my observations under a heading for each manuscript, careful to note which page, ‘membrane’, or ‘folio’ the reference comes from. I take photos of important and longer passages noting down what I’ve photographed so I can match the images to the notes later on; but I type shorter ones directly into my document. It’s growing quickly. By mid afternoon I’ve gathered plenty of examples from these manuscripts – and my tummy’s rumbling. Time to head off. If I hurry, I’ve just got time to drop by the British Library and check a reference for a guest blog I’m writing for the website of a medieval feminist history network based at the University of Surrey.

It’s 5.30pm, and it’s already been a long day. I had planned to meet a friend for dinner, but in the end, feeling rather tired, I opt for a night in with a take-away salad from the nearby supermarket and Wimbledon on the telly. With the tennis on in the background, I pack most of my suitcase, barring essentials for the morning, so that I can be up and at it first thing.

Then, with a slight feeling of guilt, I open up the laptop and compose a few more paragraphs of my upcoming conference paper, pulling in my findings from the last couple of days. Every year I swear I’m going to be ready further in advance than this, but it’s hard to schedule conference preparation around the end of a teaching semester, and on this occasion I really had to wait until I’d completed those last few UK archive visits… Despite promising myself an early night, it’s close to 10pm by the time I’m backing up the day’s work and shutting down.

Tomorrow, I head to Leeds for the International Medieval Congress, a major annual event on my scholarly and social calendar, and I’ll tidy up the last bit of my paper on the train. It’s going to be a frantic and fantastic week coming up. I can’t wait.


Kathleen NealDr Kathleen Neal is a Lecturer in Medieval History. She specialises in political rhetoric and the role of letter-writing in late medieval English government and politics. Kathleen is also interested in medieval theories of grammar and rhetoric, social diplomatic, pragmatic literacy, gender, and authorship/authority. Her recent work can be checked out on her academic blog In Thirteenth Century England.

Follow Kathleen on Twitter @KB_Neal.

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