A Rage-Nosebleed and Thomas Becket’s Pants: Serendipity in Research

This week’s guest blog comes from Christian Clarkson, who graduated with her PhD in December 2018; it was funded by the AHRC as part of a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership between the University of St Andrews and Historic Environment Scotland, and she is currently working for both organisations. Her research focussed on wider-precinct buildings in Scottish monasteries: she knows a lot about monastic plumbing. You can connect with her on Twitter at @xian_clarkson.

If you have done archival research, you will know that you spend more time looking than you spend finding. A LOT more. Books of letters to the pope are very large and heavy and instead of being full of casual mentions of the exact dimensions of monastery barns in Scotland (+++ for my research) they tend to be mostly lengthy and tedious disputes about who’s going to be the next bishop of Moray.

However. I have long believed that there is something much, much better in research than finding what you’re looking for, and that is finding stuff that you have no practical use for and no professional interest in but which is WONDERFUL. For example, that Ancient Greek physician Galen suggested that if a patient were bleeding to death from one part of the body the best course of action would be to go ahead and open up a vein elsewhere – which I suppose would eliminate the problem. And speaking of medical advice, it turns out that chopping up puppies and placing their warm flesh on your head isn’t an entirely foolproof cure for madness, in case you were wondering.

For those in Scottish historical fields, Bower’s Scotichronicon is a goldmine of Sidebar Finds – its chapter headings alone are a delight, instructing one on ‘How the Kings of England are descended on the one side from the race or family of the Devil’ (NB: the Scottish royals are descended from both Japheth, and Woden) and ‘A quite terrible example of an abbot’s ambition to become a bishop – a quite useful cautionary tale for our readers’. The latter has two gripping sequels: ‘More about the same’ and ‘How he saw all sorts of food etc.’, but none of them quite reach the dizzy heights of ‘How blood oozed from the nostrils of the dead King because of his anger towards his ungrateful son’.

Christian photo

Inchcolm Abbey, Firth of Forth – where Walter Bower had way too much fun writing his Scotichronicon in the 15th century.
Image by Magus Hagdorn, https://www.flickr.com/photos/hagdorned/5603839969/

Sometimes things you find can be shoehorned into your thesis. I managed to find an excuse to mention a woman paid compensation by the Scottish crown after her cataract operation went wrong and left her blind – money she was more than entitled to since the operation was performed in an idle moment by the King. I also think that frankly every thesis should remind its readers that one of St Ninian’s special powers was the ability to read outside in the rain without getting his book wet (was ever a person more blessed by God?). Unfortunately I was never able to find a home for the invention of Curling by monks at Paisley, or the fact that St Thomas Becket soiled himself during his execution and the brothers of Canterbury kept his smelly underwear as a relic.

I have two warnings only to give the resolute comedy-factfinder. The first is that you may find out things you never wanted to know. For example, I was excited to come across my surname in the papal letters (an illustrious forbear!) only to find he was being accused of ‘sacrilege, robbery, homicide, rapine, and devastation’. Oh. The other is that, years from now, you will be reading your notes and trying to work out why you highlighted something. You will lie awake thinking about it. You will not be able to understand why first-year-you thought this was so important. You will eventually have to conclude that, in fact, you took the time and effort to bookmark that page for the single, solitary reason … that that knight had a funny name.

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog, please get in touch with Lizzie via email at egm9@st-andrews.ac.uk or connect with the blog on Twitter

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