Benjamin Pohl is Senior Lecturer in Medieval History. His research interests are medieval European history and historiography with a focus on the Anglo-Norman world, palaeography (the study of old handwritings), codicology (the material study of books, specifically old books), book history and monastic cultures. He is the author of numerous journal articles and several books, including the monograph Dudo of St. Quentin’s Historia Normannorum: Tradition, Innovation and Memory (2015) and the edited volume A Companion to the Abbey of Le Bec in the Central Middle Ages (11th–13th Centuries) (2017). He is currently writing his new monograph Medieval Abbots and the Writing of History and editing The Cambridge Companion to the Age of William the Conqueror (both forthcoming).
Hi, Ben. Could you tell us the title of your current research project? What’s it about?
My current research project is called ‘History for the Community: Monk-historians and Communal Heritage’. Funded by a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship and partnering up with the present-day Benedictine community of Downside Abbey in Somerset, I investigate the role(s) of historical writing within medieval (and modern) monasteries, and I’m interested specifically in the involvement of abbots as historians.
You can learn more about this on my project blog, where you can watch an introductory video about the project, follow its latest events and activities and listen to regular podcasts and recordings of public lectures such as this one. The project also has a dedicated Twitter profile @AbbotsMedieval, so please do consider following us if you’re interested.
How did you become interested in this subject? What is the importance of medieval historical writing today?
I’ve been interested in medieval cultures of monasticism and historical writing for some time, thought the concrete idea for this project emerged from my previous research on one particular abbot-historian living and writing during the twelfth century, Robert of Torigni.
Robert started his career at the great Norman abbey of Le Bec before being promoted to the abbacy of the island monastery of Mont-Saint-Michel. In both these places, Robert used his resources and influence to record selected events from both the distant and the recent past and commit them to writing, either by putting his own pen to parchment or by delegating this mechanical task to others within the monastic community.
I soon began to wonder whether what I found with regard to Robert and his work was specific to him and his situation, or whether similar practices were at play elsewhere in medieval Europe, too, which is how the idea for this new project came about. I believe that closely investigating the working methods of medieval historians and they ways in which they interacted with their communities can teach us a lot about our own work and how we use the past, both individually and as a scholarly community.
What advice would you give to a student interested in medieval history?
I’d like to offer you four pieces of advice: always be curious, don’t take anything at face value, embrace the unfamiliar and – I can’t stress this enough! – try to get your hands on original manuscripts and documents as often as you can.
We all know that studying distant historical periods such as the Middle Ages and their rich cultural legacy can be dauting at first, especially when the surviving sources seem strange and difficult to access. Don’t shy away from them, though, but learn to love the challenges of dealing with languages, scripts, media and mentalities from a thousand or more years ago. I promise you that the more you do it, the easier it gets, and before you know it you’ll be thinking of these unique and fascinating artefacts as ‘old familiar friends’.
Despite what some people might tell you, there is always more to be discovered in the archives and research collections that contain medieval holdings (some of them don’t even know what they’ve got), so make sure you get in there early and often!
What’s the best advice you ever got about history?
To read it as I would read literature.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?
Apart from this blog, you mean? Well, I guess in terms of research-related reading, my recent top three would have to be, in no particular order: Elisabeth van Houts, Married Life in the Middle Ages, 900-1300; Samu Niskanen (ed.), Letters of Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury. Vol. 1: The Bec Letters; Paul Bertrand, Documenting the Everyday in Medieval Europe.
In terms of pleasure reading, my recent top picks are, again in no specific order: German singer-songwriter Hannes Wader’s brutally honest autobiography Trotz alledem: Mein Leben; Philip Pullman’s brilliant pre-/sequels to His Dark Materials, namely The Book of Dust Vols. 1 & 2; Jo Nesbø’s creative modern adaptation of Macbeth.
If you had a time machine, where and when would you most want to go?
I’d quite like to visit Earth prior to human civilisation.
What’s your must-do Bristol experience/activity?
Pre-Covid-19, I definitely would’ve said running the ‘Bristol Half Marathon’ is a must-do experience. It’s a great event that brings together people from all walks of life (no pun intended), from fair-weather runners to pro-level athletes. The route is quite easy, mostly flat and will take you past some of Bristol’s most spectacular landmarks, including a loop through the Avon Gorge underneath the towering Clifton Suspension Bridge.
Post-Covid-19, I might add a somewhat less sporty and more gluten-based recommendation: Hart’s Bakery. Located in one of the arches underneath the Temple Meads station approach, they’re hands-down the best bakery in the city. Their bread and bread-based products are a real treat – as a German in exile, you can (and should) take my word for it! One of my personal favourites is their cheese-and-mustard Danish, but you’ll have to get up early if you want to get one before they’re gone!
What are you working on next?
For my next project, I’m planning on studying the practical ways in which medieval scribes and copyists acquired their exemplars across long distances, specifically as regards the logistics of borrowing, lending and transporting these valuable books.
Got some money down the sofa that you’d like to use to fund this research?