Monday, February 01, 2010

Palaeography at King's College London

by J J Cohen

By now most ITM readers will have heard about the proposed elimination of palaeography at King's College London. Mary Beard blogged about it last week, and since she gets to the heart of what is at stake I will quote her:

Palaeographers may be a quirky crowd. But King's has the only established chair in the subject in the country, and a tradition of tremendous research in the subject (recently exemplified by Julian Brown and Tilly de la Mare) going back decades. The only way that we can hope to understand books and manuscripts of the past (not just how to read them, but also to work out why they were as the were.. and what difference it makes) is to keep the study of palaeography alive. It is the underpinning of history and pre-modern English literature and has crucial links with Classics and the transmission of classical texts. This point was made firmly in the last round of university cuts -- where the King's provision was explicitly singled out as distinguished. All we can do is write to the Principal of King's and make a plea for preserving the infra-structure of intellectual culture. Once these skills disappear, you never get them back.
A Facebook group has been formed to help save the program, and at the time I am composing this has an astounding 1,462 members.

If you care about this issue -- and if you read ITM, you should care about this issue  -- please write to:
Professor Rick Trainor, 
The Principal, King's College 
The Strand, London WC2R 2LS
(suggested copy to Professor Jan Palmowski, Head of the Humanities School)

Model letters may be found at the Facebook site, and are worth reading there should you need any further convincing.


Eileen Joy said...

I can honestly say that reading about the situation at Kings College London made me feel physically ill [I am not exaggerating], not just on behalf of David Ganz, but because some of the brightest and most brilliant medievalists work there across multiple departments, doing both traditional and cutting-edge theoretical work that is vital to the progress of the discipline. My initial inclination [and quite typical of me] is to go on an absolute rant about everything that is wrong with what is happening, not just at Kings, but at many institutions that are reacting to the dire economic times with some really counter-intuitive and institutionally damaging budget cuts [and that only seem to keep short term benefits in mind].

Money, of course, does not grow on trees, but at what point do we recognize [and hopefully affirm] that part of the university's mission is not just to produce graduates within certain majors [thereby supposedly signifying the "health" or "relevance" of a field or discipline], but is also to actually maintain and cultivate the *production* of valuable knowledges, regardless of their supposed applications or outcomes? In this sense, universities are part-museum, part perpetual idea-machine. No, not every single college and university in any one country can be given a blank check to both produce graduates with specific, supposedly *needed* skills and knowledges while also preserving artifacts and developing as-yet-untested ideas and methodologies [that may or may not prove workable in the long run, yet "experiment is all"], but countries *do* prioritize what it is they are willing to throw buckets of money at on a regular basis, and institutions of higher learning have never been the topmost priority. This means that, increasingly, institutions have to "justify" what they need vis-a-vis shrinking government appropriations and whatever monies they can raise on their own [through tuition, endowments, capital fundraising drives, corporate sponsorship, and the like].

There can be no solution here that does not take into account both that we likely have more institutions trying to maintain more disciplines than we need [i.e., there *is*, whether we like to admit it or not, a lot of duplication of effort] and that there needs to be a strong, *ideological* commitment to what might be called a NON-profit knowledge industry that includes important emphases on the pure sciences, the humanities, and the fine arts. As it is the *only* chair of paleography in the UK [or elsewhere], the elimination of such a position at Kings is both idiotic and potentially destructive to the very historical frame/mandate of the enterprise of so-called higher learning. But there are also forces both within and without the university that strive to get beyond history, to be *after* it, and also beyond the reach of philosophies whose historical roots create [supposedly] too much undertow or friction in the race for so-called "progress."

For me, this sharpens my sense that one of the main tasks of the humanities today is to function as the critical site par excellence within the university--where philosophy, language, the arts, and history, as the "left behind," maintain and continue to critique and articulate this thing we call "culture," or intellectual life.

Rachel said...

I'm glad you posted this - the more high profile support for KCL the better. Like Eileen I was physically moved by this situation, in my case to tears. To outsiders this might seem absurd, but I think my quite visceral reaction was a response to very worrying trends within British academia (and worldwide, I think, though I'm less equipped to comment on those). I'll just post a quick extract from a blog entry I made a couple of days ago to explain.

This is not an isolated incident. This ties in to the government's £900 million cuts to universities. Of course I understand the UK is in a difficult financial position right now (and who got us here? But that's another post), but to strike at universities, the heart of the UK's intellectual life, is to potentially cripple us for years to come. The UK will, if cuts like these are sustained, become an academic backwater. We're not a great power any more; our top universities have somehow managed to remain bright spots even as our global star has faded, but for how much longer?

And that's without even thinking about "impact". University research must now be shown to have "impact", that is it must “achieve demonstrable benefits to the wider economy and society”. Sounds great, right? No, not really. "Impact" doesn't include intellectual impact on other scholars, or the intrinsic value of work in and of itself. It must have value outside academia. If you think education is about utility, this may not seem a big deal to you. If you think that learning has value in and of itself, that to be educated is about more than functionality but is also about enrichment and intellectual development, you should be very worried indeed.

Ceirseach said...

Hell yes. I'm not a paleographer - in fact I'm still an MA student - and even so one of my major projects last semester involved paleography heavily, in an attempt to discover the attitudes and motivations behind the writing of a few small monastic chronicles. Which would be impossible if one were to only consider the text - text, writing, codex, all contain vital clues if one knows how to ask the questions.

Paleography (and/or codicology) is a tool - it's not just sitting in a dark corner with some old manuscripts cataloguing slight elevations above the x-height, but also applying the results of that to anything text-based we may need to interrogate for clues as to its origin and later life. And that ought to be so obvious it shouldn't need to be said.

If I were to continue that project on a broader scale I might well at some point need to call on the knowledge of an expert such as, oh, I don't know, someone in an endowed chair of paleography, to request help not in deciphering a certain ductus but to consolidate and advance research that I hope isn't as obsolete and useless as people increasingly seem to think dusty-fusty-musty old paleography is.

If I were using paleographical so intrinsically for such a small-scale project at Masters level, how much more does any wider textual scholarship rely on it in the broader mediaevalist community?

(just woke up, caffeine-deprived and rambly)

tenthmedieval said...

I might well at some point need to call on the knowledge of an expert such as, oh, I don't know, someone in an endowed chair of paleography...

And anyone who has met David will know how ready he is to lend such help, and that he feels the responsibility of being the `only one' in that role very keenly. I've benefited from his expertise myself very often and I know I'm not the only one. David does with this job what we all want it to do, and it needs maintaining. I wonder how many management posts are up for the chop? I shall try and find out...

Julie Orlemanski said...

Eileen, I agree with and love your conception of the university as "part-museum, part perpetual idea-machine." Teaching and learning the skills of a medievalist (such as paleography) preserve our ability to be in contact with the past, to bring past ideas and world-views into contact with the present, activating new meanings -- your perpetual idea-machine. To abolish the expertise to *read* medieval texts at all is so short-sighted! -- a declaration that we will never need or benefit from knowing what is written there.

I hope that the outpouring of support for Paleography at Kings College is sufficient to save the chair, certainly, and also to re-affirm and bolster one vision of KCL and universities in general -- a vision that is obviously financially and culturally under siege. It is at least one bit of evidence in its favor that a not insubstantial group around the world is documenting and making public that they value, many passionately, the kinds of knowledge that universities preserve and make possible -- or at least, they used to.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

In case you are not signed up for the FB group, here is the latest:

Subject: Letters to Save Palaeography

Dear all,

Many thanks for supporting the effort to 'Save Palaeography at King's London'.

In addition to the Facebook Group and online Petition (;, please consider sending a letter by post to the Executive at King's. Word has it that the paper letters are beginning to get through.

See the forward below from Nigel Palmer (Oxford) via Jeffrey Hamburger (Harvard), which gives some encouraging news regarding the letters.



Forwarded by Jeffrey Hamburger

Dear Colleagues

Writing letters to save palaeography

If you hesitated about whether to write in protest at the 'strategic disinvestment' at King's College London which will lead to the abolition of the chair of Palaeography, with obvious consequences for the present encumbent, David Ganz, then please write now. There is still time (just), although it is very hard to know just when the real decisions are made, or what the chances are. I had a very courteous reply from Professor Palmowski, from which it was evident that he had read some of our letters, and that they are/were reviewing the position. There have been some very good letters. My *impression* is that the international protest is not being ignored, so even if you are skeptical about the chances, it is still worth trying. Trainor and Palmowski are both scholars of repute with a background in the Humanities, so you can write in any language (it may even increase the impact to have foreign languages, who can know?!). The collection of signatures is also going well, I was no. 1370 when I signed on this afternoon.

There are two lists, the second very easy to access: and;

Letters (in case you haven't yet written) should be posted to:

Professor Rick Trainor, The Principal, King’s College, The Strand, London WC2R 2LS ( and copy by email attachment to Professor Jan Palmowski, Head of the School of Arts and Humanities (

This email is just my private initiative, but I have had a lot of conversations over the last day or so and am aware that some people have been hesitating. My advice is to present arguments, from your own particular perspective, and to do so firmly and courteously, on the assumption that something might still be achieved.

Nigel F. Palmer, Professor of Medieval German, St Edmund Hall, Oxford

Jeffrey F. Hamburger, Kuno Francke Professor of German Art & Culture
Chair, Medieval Studies Committee

Dept. of History of Art & Architecture, Harvard University
485 Broadway, Cambridge MA 02138