Two years ago I retired from my job as a manager in the IT Services industry (I wasn’t much good at the technology, but was rather better at managing the people who were) and looked around for ways to keep the little grey cells ticking over. I originally graduated in geology and did a PhD forty years ago in Pleistocene Entomology (fossil beetles!). Over the years I’ve built up a respectable pile of Folio Society publications as well as a small collection of antiquarian geology and natural history books, and I’ve wondered about the books themselves, as well as their content.
I’ve always kept a geological hammer in the back of the car, but I didn’t really want to go back to cold, wet fieldwork in retirement. Then I remembered that, on the back of the old ‘Folio’ magazine, there used to be an advertisement for a ‘History of the Book’ course at London University. Did it still exist? I googled it – and here we are!
- Can you please summarise your research interests and/or the preliminary topic of your PhD?
During the History of the Book course I discovered two topics which would have made excellent research projects. I wrote the MA dissertation on two eighteenth-century miners’ libraries in southern Scotland, and it would have been great fun to have continued with that. However, the one I’ve chosen is on the significance of heraldry in thirteenth and fourteenth-century psalters. Illuminated manuscripts have mostly been studied either as texts or as from the perspective of art history. However, many of them include heraldry in the decoration and this has been much less explored. What is it doing there? Does the heraldry occur in specific places (e.g. alongside particular psalms) or is the distribution random? Who decided which arms should be included, and why? Why do some manuscripts contain the arms of many families? What might the heraldry tell us about the commissioning, ownership and purpose of the manuscripts?
This topic gives me the opportunity to combine a lifelong (but extremely amateur) fascination with heraldry with the chance to explore a group of manuscripts in detail, and perhaps reveal more about the contexts in which these splendid documents were created.
- Why did you choose to pursue your PhD at the IES?
IES (and other parts of SAS) have members of staff and associates with relevant knowledge and complementary research interests. I’ve been able to arrange joint supervision from IES (for the manuscripts) and UCL (for the heraldry). I get unlimited access to the comprehensive library resources at Senate House and other institutions in the immediate area, and there are exhibitions, lectures and additional courses which support and complement what I’m doing. The College of Arms is only a mile or so away. (It also helps that I live in west London, and can come in on any one of three underground lines, not to mention a variety of buses.)
- How did the MA in the History of the Book shape your current research interests?
Completely! Had it not been for a course trip to Lambeth Palace Library to look at some manuscripts, I would never have noticed the heraldry. It was only because I then chose to write a course essay on the subject that I found out how little is known about it. And although I knew the miners’ libraries existed before I started the course, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity (or the academic credibility) to be able to work on them, or the encouragement to tease out the stories hidden in their records. I’ll probably be able to publish some of that work, which may make the libraries better known and help to preserve them.
- How was the MA in the History of the Book different from what you expected?
I wasn’t sure what to expect, so it’s hard to know how it differed. By the end of the induction week I was hooked: a breathless gallop from Assyrian clay tablets through five thousand years of ‘book’ production, mixed with hands-on printing, a close encounter with a third-century papyrus fragment of John’s gospel and glimpses into the complexities of archives, the depths of the OUP and the various ways in which a book can be held together. The subsequent lecture series were taught by genuine enthusiasts, and although there was not as much group discussion as I had expected, this was only because there was so much interesting material to get through.
Given that I hadn’t written an essay for a very long time, the prospect of six of them was alarming to begin with, but there was helpful advice from the lecturers and a completely free choice of topic within the context of each course, so it wasn’t hard to come up with something really interesting for each one. The most difficult part turned out to be wrestling each essay down to the permitted size.
Looking back, it has been a very varied and extremely enjoyable undertaking. I took the course for fun, and it was. It has introduced me to an entirely new area of knowledge which I’m now going to spend several years exploring further. I certainly didn’t expect that when I started.
- What is your advice for any future students of the MA in the History of the Book?
Take advantage of everything that’s on offer! There are optional visits and lectures as well as the scheduled courses, and the practical option – work experience with an antiquarian bookseller – is a must for anyone who is even slightly interested in the more commercial aspects of book history and book collecting. It’s also worth signing up for one or more sessions of the London Rare Books School if you can; these (with an essay) can be taken for course credit, and they provide an even wider range of study possibilities.
I struggled with the bookbinding option. Memo to future students: Senate House Library has a splendid collection of collapsed books upstairs in the palaeography room. If you can get hold of these and investigate them in parallel with the lectures, the whole thing makes much more sense. I wish I’d found them at the beginning rather than almost at the end of the term.
- What excites you most about pursuing your PhD?
Colour is critical for heraldry, and facsimile and digitised reproductions are not always sufficiently accurate, so I shall have to work on the original manuscripts, which will be exciting in itself. These are scattered around Europe and the US, so there will be visits to some of the world’s most famous libraries. There is something very rewarding about collecting data, shaking it around, discussing it with experts and seeing what emerges, especially when there is the possibility of coming up with genuinely new ideas and interpretations. And I am very pleased to find that the analytical approach I have taken throughout my career in science and technology is equally appropriate to the world of the humanities.