Alumni Update: Ingrid Ivarsen

This piece is part of our 2020 Alumni Magazine. The magazine pieces for this year’s edition will be published online, as well as included in a combined 2020/21 printed volume next summer.

Blog written by Dr Ingrid Ivarsen. Dr Ivarsen finished her PhD in St Andrews in April 2020. From October of this year, she will be a Junior Research Fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where she will be working on the language, manuscripts and sources of English law in the twelfth century.

I’m not sure I’ve ever imagined living through a pandemic, but I’m certain I’ve never imagined completing and submitting my PhD thesis, having my viva and graduation and starting new jobs during one – all while sitting at the same desk in my house.

This can only be described as a time of ups and downs. Sadly, I couldn’t celebrate the completion of my PhD with my friends in person, but on the bright side, those endless dark lockdown nights at home in March gave me ample time to proofread my thesis. Unfortunately, work on my new project was slowed down by the lack of books, but on the bright side, those endless lockdown nights at home in May, June, July and August meant that I had more time than usual to dedicate to time-consuming work. (And clearly, I’ve worked on the art of putting a positive spin on things.)

After submitting my thesis, I started working as a research fellow on the project Common law, Civil Law, Customary Law at the School of History in St Andrews. My job was to compile a handlist of all extant manuscripts containing legal texts that existed in England between c.1050 and 1250 and of manuscripts containing English legal texts owned or produced outside England in this period.

In a world without access to a physical library, this proved difficult. Only a few archives have decent online catalogues, and most of the newer printed catalogues are not digitized. I’ve therefore spent most of lockdown focusing on archives that have good online catalogues and archives for which our only catalogues are those compiled in the early twentieth century, most of which are digitized.

Many of these catalogues were compiled by M.R. James, who – it seems from some of his prefaces – was not hugely enthusiastic about law. Perhaps that explains why many texts are described very generally, sometimes only as ‘canon law’ or ‘civil law’. Once I got over my incredulity at such an attitude, I started thinking that there might be much under-studied (perhaps even undiscovered) legal material in these manuscripts. Therefore, much of my time has been spent trying to identify such texts more precisely.

Doing online work with manuscripts also has its ups and downs. I’ve experienced the (relatively rare) thrill of finding that an intriguing manuscript has been digitized and the (relatively frequent) disappointment when there is no digital trace of a manuscript. I’ve also experienced the immense value of searchable databases, such as In Principio, Medieval Libraries of Great Britain and Ames Foundation, and online catalogues. However, I have also realized just how much information is still nowhere near being available online (or, indeed, at all).

In October I’ll be moving from St Andrews to Cambridge, where I will be a Junior Research Fellow at Emmanuel College. While I’ve learnt not to have too many expectations for 2020, I am hoping that the reading rooms open up soon so that I can finally see some of those mystery manuscripts in person.

Alumni Update: Drew B. Thomas

This piece is part of our 2020 Alumni Magazine. The magazine pieces for this year’s edition will be published online, as well as included in a combined 2020/21 printed volume next summer.

Blog written by Dr Drew Thomas. Dr Thomas finished his PhD at St Andrews in 2018. He is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at University College Dublin where he works on the book trade in Reformation Germany. Here he recounts his experiences with working in academia during the global pandemic.

The rumours started spreading early. The university was preparing to shutdown campus as the coronavirus pandemic continued to spread, so I went to my office, packed up my large, external monitor, hard drives with important research data and books I knew I would need in what I thought would be the coming weeks. Those weeks soon turned to months and the internet was flooded with tips on creating the perfect home office.

Currently, I am a Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Research Fellow at University College Dublin working on a digital humanities project on the book trade in Reformation Germany. I am interested in how printers used images and ornamentation in their publications, which can assist in identifying popular iconographies and changing tastes or help identify unknown printers and places of publication. To achieve this, I have spent the last year downloading millions of images of early modern books that have been scanned by research libraries. These images are then processed on Kay, a supercomputer managed by the Irish Centre for High-End Computing (ICHEC). The final goal is to use machine learning and image recognition software to match instances of the same woodcuts used across multiple books.

Sebastian Münster, Cosmographiae universalis, vol. VI (Basel: Heinrich Petri, 1550). Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Hbks/E 4. Credit: Creative Commons

Due to the digital nature of this project, I have not been as severely affected by the closure of research libraries and archives as other colleagues. However, rather than primary sources, the loss of access to secondary literature has been a constant nuisance. To remedy this, I have purchased more books than I normally do, having reallocated portions of my research budget.

As a research fellow with no teaching requirements and no children of my own, the impact on my daily routine has been minimal, other than working at the desk in my flat, as opposed to my office. I continue to admire my peers who must balance research, teaching, and parenting all at once in a home office environment. I look to them for advice and inspiration as I prepare for remote teaching this autumn.

While I have been able to adjust my research routines to a home office, it has proven much more difficult to adjust my office social life. I share an office with several other postdoctoral researchers, and although we work in different historical periods, the community was vital to our wellbeing, our collective experience of navigating the world of early career researchers and the general scholarly stimulation from discussing research ideas.

My co-investigator and I have managed this by regularly communicating daily or weekly via text, email or on the phone. With my officemates, we have hosted virtual hangouts via Zoom. Although these tools were originally supplied for remote teaching, they have proven useful for keeping a semblance of our previous community. Once the lockdown rules were loosened to allow small gatherings between friends, we coordinated some socially distanced gatherings in a local park.

I would love to return to my office soon, but given it is a shared office, this will be unlikely for some time. Meanwhile, I continue to conduct research from home and encourage you all to set up a phone or video call with some colleagues. Be sure to raise a glass virtually and toast to getting through this together.

Alumni Update: Kimberly B. Sherman

This piece is part of our 2020 Alumni Magazine. The magazine pieces for this year’s edition will be published online, as well as included in a combined 2020/21 printed volume next summer.

Post written by Kimberly B. Sherman. Dr Sherman finished her PhD at St Andrews in 2018. She now resides and works in Wilmington, North Carolina. Here she recounts her experiences with history during the global pandemic.

Post-PhD life has been unlike anything I could have predicted. I’m currently living in my hometown where I am a Lecturer in History at our local community college in Wilmington, North Carolina. I was actually in Edinburgh spending time with family and friends just as the seriousness of COVID-19 became clear and a worldwide pandemic was declared. I flew back to North Carolina as borders closed and quarantine restrictions were announced around the US and UK. 

Staying productive for the past few months has been challenging, especially as my teaching transitioned from seated, on-campus courses to online instruction. Like many other faculty at institutions worldwide, it was a huge learning curve for me. Despite the challenges, being at home presented new opportunities including more time to make one of my history dreams come true — starting a podcast!

I’ve been an avid podcast-listener since 2014, just as the medium came into its own, and I’ve long wanted to use podcasting to bring history to a wider audience. In 2018 I was awarded a short-term research fellowship at the Winterthur Museum and Library in Delaware. My research project would focus on attitudes toward death in the early American South — a place where tropical diseases and an intense climate combined for often deadly results. I worked in residence at Winterthur during summer 2019 where I learned methodological practices for studying material culture, examined mourning art and jewelry, and steeped myself in written sources like funeral poetry. It was a fantastic experience, but I did not know where the research might take me.

Burial site for victims of the 1862 yellow fever epidemic in Wilmington, NC. Photo credit: Kimberly Sherman

My interest in deathways and environmental history in the American South, as well as ongoing research in the history of the family, led Bellamy Mansion Museum to invite me to speak on the topic of a yellow fever epidemic that raged through Wilmington in 1862. The response to the event was huge — the main parlors of the house were packed, people sat on the main staircase, on the floor, and even more were turned away due to space and sound constraints. I had so much fun sharing the research I had begun several months earlier and conversations with attendees helped me see that this was a topic people were interested in — not just yellow fever, but how people in the past have dealt with death.

Enter Historia Mortis. By Spring 2020 I began planning episodes, social media, guest lists, and more. I expected to launch in August with the first season chronicling the 1862 yellow fever epidemic, beginning on the anniversary of the arrival of the Kate — the blockade-running ship that brought the disease to Civil War Wilmington via the Bahamas. Coronavirus intervened. With closures of libraries and other cultural institutions across the US, I was left without access to any sources that were not freely available online. Those amazing manuscripts I hoped to get my hands on for season one? Not happening anytime soon. 

As I write this in early July 2020, North Carolina still remains in an extended ‘phase two’ of reopening the state, not including libraries and museums. I had to decide whether I would postpone my launch into 2021 or revise my first season. Season One will now be a ‘mini’ deep-dive into a range of topics related to early American deathways — everything from the material culture of mourning and the experience of widowhood, to the work of early modern ghost hunters! I also hope to feature the research of fellow University of St Andrews students and alumni in various episodes.

It’s been a crazy, fun route to learn more about producing historical research for podcasting and I can’t wait to share it with the world! For more information about Historia Mortis, visit www.historiamortispodcast.com and follow us on Instagram at @historiamortis