Daily Archives: Friday 1 November 2013

English: a subject in trouble?

feature_illustration_311013_0_450Simon Kövesi co-authors a “state of English” article in the Times Higher

With Professor Robert Eaglestone of Royal Holloway University, the Head of Department, Dr Simon Kövesi, published an article in the leading platform for debates about UK Higher Education policy – the Times Higher Education Supplement, on 31 October. The article argues that nationally English is in trouble: from GCSE, through to A-level, and on to Higher Education and even in the way English research will be published.

“Nobody seems to be joining up the dots publicly,” says Simon. “Bob and I thought that it was high time to assess the impact on English of a variety of government changes to educational policy, across all tiers, because there are some worrying implications for English – which still remains the largest of the humanities in the UK. Yet some trends and pressures are emerging that are pushing students away from the study of literature especially. Yet English has been pretty quiet about it all, thus far.”

Something Fishy at Durham Cathedral

Hannah Durham Fish

Dr. Hannah Russ, Oxford Brookes Archaeology and Heritage (OBAH), has been studying the thousands of fish bones that were recovered through careful sieving of sediments during archaeological excavations at Durham Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was home to a Benedictine monastic community. The fish bones come from deposits that have built up from disposal of domestic waste over the years of occupation at the site, and provide a unique insight into the diet of the Benedictine Monks that once lived there.

Hannah observes each fragment of fish bone, identifying the skeletal element and the species of fish that it represents. Other features on the bone are recorded including evidence for burning, cut-marks and gnawing by animals. Identifiable bones are measured so that the original size of the fish that were eaten can be reconstructed.

Fish was an important part of the diet for the Christian community of England during Medieval times, when consumption of warm-blooded animals was prohibited not just on Fridays, but also Wednesdays, Saturdays, during Advent, Lent and on other holy days. These dietary rules would have been followed to the letter by the Benedictine Monks. The medieval period saw considerable developments in the preservation of fish, especially in the cases of Atlantic herring and the larger cod family fishes (Atlantic cod and ling). While herring were preserved whole, pickled in barrels, the larger cods were processed to remove the head and then dried (known as stockfish). In these preserved forms the fish could be safely transported inland, and further afield, without the risk of spoiling. It might be expected that these fish would feature heavily in the Durham Cathedral assemblage, though this was found not to be the case.

While herring and large cod family fishes are present, they do not dominate the fish collection; instead the fish bones from Durham Cathedral represent a diverse range of fish species. In addition, the remains of the large cod family fishes that are present are represented by both head bones and vertebrae suggesting that they do not represent the use of dried stockfish, where only vertebrae would be present, but the consumption of whole, fresh, fish.

Overall, Hannah was able to conclude that fish represented a crucial aspect of the diet for the Benedictine Monks living at Durham Cathedral. But, it was not boring, repetitive consumption of pickled herring and large dried cod family fishes as might have been expected, but a diet where smaller cod family fishes were important and overall an exciting, diverse array of whole, fresh, marine, freshwater and migratory species were consumed.