Thursday, August 11, 2016

On This Day: Five Years of Blogging

I quite like Facebook's 'On This Day' feature. On the one hand, it's a daily reminder of exactly how much data Facebook has about my life. But on the other, it's a souvenir of friendships, trips, and events I've often forgotten about. It often makes me reflect on how far I've come in the past decade - from an English Literature undergraduate student, to a stressed-out Masters student learning about gender and feminism in new ways, to an even more stressed-out PhD candidate pulling together medieval literature and modern romance, all the way to the post-doc I am now, multi-tasking a host of professional and personal skills and practices.

Today, Facebook showed me a ten-year old message from a good friend, photographs from a wedding I attended last summer, and it also informed me that on this day five years ago, I published my first post on this blog.

'On This Day' (Amy Burge via Facebook)
The post, entitled simply 'Bevis in London' is about a Middle English romance called Bevis of Hampton (c.1330). It's the story of an exiled English knight raised by Saracens, and the adventures he and his friends encounter as he tries to regain his English heritage. It's long (over 4500 lines), has complex overlapping plots, and features giants, magic, battles, love and betrayal. It's one of my favourite Middle English romances, and it features prominently in what is now my monograph.

The post is about a very small part of Bevis of Hampton. Late in the romance, Bevis returns to England and specifically to London, where he becomes embroiled in fighting in the narrow streets of  the City. Now, many have assumed that Middle English romance is simply a fantasy genre, much like today's romance novels - set in fictional locations, with little regard for reality. However, Bevis of Hampton describes its geography, particularly this London scene, in such detail, that I don't think we can dismiss it as merely fantasy (others have made similar arguments that Middle English romance is more realistic than we think).

In fact, the London locations of Bevis of Hampton are so detailed that it is actually possible to map them onto London streets. Which, with the help of a now-rather outdated version of Google Maps, is exactly what I did. Voila, your very own 'Bevis in London' walking route:

Follow Bevis' medieval footsteps in modern London (created in 2011 by Amy Burge)
 I had a lot of fun making this map and researching this part of medieval London. The map didn't make it into my thesis, but a lot of the analysis behind it did (and this analysis is now in my book). I've always meant to actually walk this route - particularly to see the London Stone which I've always thought was a tremendously underrated London landmark - but in the intervening five years, I've not managed to do so. A friend, teaching medieval romance in London, thought it would make a terrific walking tour for her class - were I to ever teach medieval literature in London I'd definitely make use of this.

Since I published this post, there have been significant advances in the digital humanities, including in GIS and mapping. I remember, when I posted this, having all kinds of ideas for interactive, multimedia applications for this map; perhaps a podcast that tells the story of Bevis as one follows the route, or a website offering Bevis-related content when you click on map locations. At the time, this didn't seem like something there would be much interest in, but five years later, I can see a definite audience for this kind of thing, and a lot more in the way of support and resources for someone like me to actually create it.

Reflecting on this post also made me think about how much has changed for me in the past five years. Five years ago, on 11 August 2011, I was still a PhD candidate at the University of York, with roughly a year to go on my thesis on Orientalism and religion in Middle English romance and modern popular romance novels. Now, that thesis is a book, and I'm firmly embedded in the postdoctoral world of job applications, temporary contracts, writing and publishing. My ideas have developed, my writing is better (although this is certainly an ongoing process), and I'm so much more confident in my research and scholarship.

I look back at that first post with a mixture of embarrassment, pride, and nostalgia. If I could, I'd tell the 2011 version of myself to enjoy that last year of doctoral research, as it would be the last time for a long time (possibly forever) where I could focus in such depth on one specific project. I'd tell myself to worry less about what I didn't know and have more confidence in what I do - that there would be plenty of time to learn what I needed to know in the years to come (and boy, have I learnt a lot in these past five years).

If someone had told me, five years ago, that I'd still be blogging about medieval romance, I'm not sure how I would have felt. Blogging was quite new to me then, and I'm not really sure I knew what I was trying to achieve (a colleague has recently written a brilliant piece on her reasons for blogging which I think, in hindsight, are a lot like why I took up blogging in the first place). But I know now, that if someone asked if I still want to be blogging five years into the future, the answer would definitely be yes.

I'm not going to go into detail about all the ways blogging has helped my research and my career, but I'd like to end this post with a thought, prompted by Bevis of Hampton. I've always been fascinated by how the medieval is used, understood, and played with in the contemporary world. Sometimes this is obvious - the medieval-ist world of Game of Thrones, for instance, or the way political rhetoric something refers to the contemporary Middle East as 'medieval' (something else I talk about in my book).

The fact that I can map Bevis' 700-year-old circuitous route through London using modern digital tools reminds me of those medieval echoes. It's one of those moments when our medieval past suddenly re-surfaces and becomes anachronistically visible. It's both exciting and troubling - such a visceral awareness of history can prompt interest and engagement with the past, but it can also make our modernity, so often defined by its distance from non-modernity, seem less secure and more anxious.

The five years in which I've been writing on this blog are not comparable to the 700-year history of the Middle English Bevis of Hampton. However, stretching the analogy of engaging with history as exciting or troubling, I'm happy to say that I'm much more excited than anxious about my particular, personal research history. So perhaps it's time to finally take that pilgrimage to Bevis' London - you're most welcome to join me.

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