Oxford Arts Blog

The remains of Richard III were reinterred at Leicester Cathedral today (26 March 2015).

Dr Alexandra Buckle, an expert in medieval music at Oxford University, has been on the Liturgy Committee for the Reinterment of King Richard III for nearly two years, after finding the only known manuscript to document what a medieval reburial service involved.

Over the last two years, Dr Buckle has been working on the context of medieval reburials, looking at why they happened, who organised them and who received them. She has managed to compile a long list of the great, the good and the not-so-good of the 1400s, involving most kings, dukes and earls.

She said: 'Medieval reburials were far more common than I envisaged. They happened for many reasons – this was an age of active warfare – many who fell in battle were buried cloe to where they fell, only to be moved by family members to a place with family associations 10-30 years later.

'Other reasons include political, status and, always, a desire to keep the dead in the memory of the living. Richard III was involved in two reburial ceremonies (for his father, Richard, duke of York and for Henry VI) so he would have not been unfamiliar with the medieval document of reburial I found, which dates from his life time.'

Dr Buckle's discovery has formed the basis for the ceremony in Leicester Cathedral.

She said: ' The manuscript I found in the British Library has really guided the process: the opening and closing prayers are taken from this, as well as much in between.

'The manuscript includes two unique prayers, not known to survive in any other liturgy, and these have become a real feature of the service.  They draw on passages in the bible which feature bones – the famous ‘dry bones’ passage from Ezekiel and the carrying of Joseph’s bones from Egypt to Canaan.

'The document has also influenced the music – although the medieval chant of this service will not be the only music heard, the same items of music will be used. For example, where the document asks for Psalm 150, the chant will not be used but a modern setting of this will be heard instead, in this case a setting, which has been revised for this occasion.

'The manuscript called for a lengthy service, running over two days so some of the material has had to be cut, namely the  prayers which draw heavily on the doctrine of Purgatory and are, therefore, not appropriate in a modern, Church of England service. In addition, some modern elements (such as hymns, commissions and The National Anthem) have had to be added to make this service intelligible to the congregation and those watching the broadcast at home but much remains from the medieval rite.'

Dr Buckle said the ceremony gives a dignity to Richard III's memory that would have been missing from his original burial.

'When I started work on this manuscript, I never envisaged it would influence a service of national importance and that some of the prayers I unearthed would end up in the mouth of The Archbishop of Canterbury. The team at Leicester have had a hard task but I think they have managed to blend the medieval and modern sensitively. Richard III’s funeral was notoriously plain and hasty: he did not have a coffin, his grave was too small and he only had the most basic of funerary masses. The overriding concern of the team at Leicester has been to bury Richard, this time around, with dignity and honour, and it has been very special to be involved with this process.'

Dr Buckle is blogging about her research and her involvement in the Richard III reinterment here.

This week, Oxford students will investigate ethical puzzles - from the everyday to the extraordinary - through a practical lens.

The Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics has been organised by the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics in Oxford University’s Faculty of Philosophy. The four finalists in the competition will present their cases in an event on Thursday 12 March which is open to the public.

Professor Julian Savulescu, director of the Centre, said: 'This competition aims to bring students from across Oxford together to think about an issue in practical ethics, drawing on their own expertise whether that is philosophy, politics, theology, or even science or medicine.

'Whatever career our students choose, a workforce which is trained to identify ethical problems, think logically about how and why they occur, and find an ethical solution will be a positive step forward for the future.'

The four philosophy students have given Arts Blog a preview of their arguments.

Should I stop playing music in my room because my neighbour can hear it through the wall?

According to Miles Unterreiner, a graduate student at St John's College, we all engage with practical ethics, whether we're aware of it or not.

'Supposing my displeased neighbour wants me to stop listening to music because she can hear it through the wall,' he said.

'I think I have a right to play music in my own room. Should she buy earplugs, or am I obligated to buy headphones?

This is a small and relatively insignificant example, one of the many questions about right and wrong that we ask ourselves every day.

How many lives can you save?

'If we care about the well-being of others, we should try to improve the lives of as many people as possible by as much as possible,’ said Dillon Bowen of Pembroke College, who has researched the most effective ways to give to charity.

'Now, when you first hear this, it seems like a strikingly obvious idea. If I donate £100 to charity, and I have the choice between donating to a charity which can save two children from starvation, or one which can save 20 children, I ought to choose the latter.

'But these sorts of economic questions don't often enter into people's minds when they donate money. People see someone in need, feel a strong visceral desire to help, and donate to the cause. End of moral calculus.

'But when it comes to morality, we need to think more reasonably. It's good that we want to help people, but bad that the way we go about doing it is so ineffective. We need to retain the altruistic intuition to help others, but use our reason to make sure we're helping others effectively.'

How should you live if you care about animals?

Xav Cohen, of Balliol College, is vegan because he cares about the harm that comes to animals from humans eating meat and using animal products. But it's hard to say how vegans should behave if they really want to minimise harm to animals: should they try to convince as many people as possible to adopt a fully vegan lifestyle?

'I found that vegans should really be looking to build a broad and accessible social movement which allows people to reduce their consumption of animal products, rather than condemning anything that isn't full veganism,' he said.

'This will lead to less harm to animals overall. What's needed is a popular label or movement which is plural and accepting, with the only requirement that we do more to reduce harm to animals.'

Should people be allowed to have breast implant surgery if it will harm them?

'Some would argue that a woman’s decision to have breast implants is morally unproblematic, as long as the woman is not coerced into having the surgery,' said Jessica Laimann, also of Balliol College. 'But if women believe that their success, self-worth, and even their careers depend on their appearance, is this still the case? Arguably, breast implant surgery is significantly harmful.'

So should we prohibit this kind of surgery in order to protect people from harming themselves?

'I immediately feel uneasy about the idea of prohibition. There is something deeply problematic about letting a society create people with the desire to inflict harm on themselves, and then trying to solve the problem by prohibiting these people from acting on that desire.

'Prohibiting breast implant surgery would put the lion’s share of the costs of changing harmful social norms on the people who already suffer most from them. Instead, we need to forcefully address the circumstances that make them willing to harm themselves in the first place.'

Artist Patrice Moor has spent the last 18 months as artist in residence at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden. 'Nature Morte', an exhibition based on her time at the Garden, opens on Saturday 7 March.

'My subject is not morbid – there is an emphasis towards life holding death in mind and the cycle of life,' says Patrice.

'Gardens lend themselves well to this and I felt hugely privileged to be able to observe and spend time at the Oxford Botanic Garden. Each season is full of interesting changes, as an artist all things can be a source of inspiration.

Patrice Moor

Dear wife and bairns
Off to France – love to you all

On first reading, this note from George Cavan to his wife Jean and three daughters does not appear out of the ordinary.

But it was the last message he ever wrote to his family, two weeks before being killed in action on 13 April 1918 at the Battle of Hazelbrouck in France. The note only reached his family thanks to the goodwill of a passer-by.

George's granddaughter, Maureen Rogers, picks up the story.  'At the end of March 1918 George was away at training camp the orders came through to dispatch to France,' she explains.

'The train he was on with his troops went through his home station (Carluke in Scotland) but did not stop there. He threw out onto the station platform a matchbox containing a note to his family.

'On one side was the name of his wife and on the other the message to the family.'

The note came to light when Maureen submitted it to Oxford University's Great War Archive, which has collected and digitized more than 6,500 items relating to the First World War that were submitted by the general public.

The Archive was set up by Dr Stuart Lee of Oxford’s English Faculty and Academic IT Services and was used as the model for the Europe-wide Europeana 1914-1918 project..

Maureen lives in Australia and the subsequent blog post on the Great War Archive website triggered an unexpected set of events.

'We received a comment from George's family in Scotland who were unaware of the matchbox story,' says Alun Edwards, a project manager of the Great War Archive.

'Through this the family branches were able to join together their elements of their ancestors' stories. This formed the basis for a chapter of a book, published by the British Library, called "Hidden Stories of the First World War" by Jackie Storer.'

IT Services' work at the forefront of community collections will be presented at the forthcoming 19th annual Museums and the Web conference in April 2015 in Chicago.

Philosophy on a train

Matt Pickles | 19 Feb 2015

An Oxford philosopher has continued a tradition going back to Plato by using a fictional conversation to explore questions about truth, falsity, knowledge and belief in a new book published this month. But unlike Plato, his book is set on a train.

Timothy Williamson, the Wykeham Professor at Logic at Oxford University, has written Tetralogue: I'm Right, You're Wrong, in which four people with radically different outlooks on the world meet on a train. At the start of the journey each is convinced that he or she is right, but then doubts creep in.

In an interview with Arts Blog, Professor Williamson explains his hope that Tetralogue will give a wider audience an insight into the academic philosophy..

Q: What is the aim of the book?

A: Its starting point is the occurrence of radical disagreement, about science, religion, politics, morality, art, whatever. In contemporary society, many people are reluctant to apply ideas of truth and falsity, or knowledge and ignorance, to such clashes in point of view, because they are afraid of being dogmatic and intolerant. But can one really abstain from such distinctions without losing one's own point of view altogether? In a light-hearted way, the book aims to provide readers with the means to think more carefully and critically about such matters, and to avoid common traps and confusions.

Q: Who is your target audience?

A: The book is aimed primarily at people who haven’t studied philosophy academically, but who are interested in philosophical issues like those just mentioned. It might be someone who has been led to worry about them through personal experience of such clashes, or who has trouble handling them in their own research or teaching, or a teenager wondering what it would be like to study philosophy at university. I hope that even academic philosophers may find something to amuse them in it.

Q: What do you hope people take away from the book?

A: I’d like them to take away a nose for when certain fallacies are being committed or certain glib, problematic assumptions are being made. More constructively, I’d like to have empowered them to reason more logically about the sort of difficult issue I’ve mentioned. I also hope that they will have gained a sharper sense of the cut-and-thrust of philosophical argument, but also of the limited power of reason to force anyone to change their mind.

Q: Was it difficult to present philosophical concepts in ordinary dialogue on a train?

A: You find yourself sitting next to strangers on a train for several hours: a chance for a long talk. If Hitchcock is directing the film, the conversation turns to murder. If I’m writing the book, it turns to philosophy. Both are dangerous subjects with roots in ordinary life. Both need to be introduced carefully, because you can’t take much for granted about your audience. You have to start from the beginning. I must admit, when I’m on a train, I rarely speak to strangers, but I often listen in to their conversations. I’d love to hear them discuss murder, or philosophy.


Oxford University Press is publishing the book and will be holding Q&A sessions on Twitter in March. OUP has released an extract of the book, which we have reproduced below.

Sarah: It’s pointless arguing with you. Nothing will shake your faith in witchcraft!

Bob: Will anything shake your faith in modern science?

Zac: Excuse me, folks, for butting in: sitting here, I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation. You both seem to be getting quite upset. Perhaps I can help. If I may say so, each of you is taking the superior attitude ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ toward the other.

Sarah: But I am right and he is wrong.

Bob: No. I’m right and she’s wrong.

Zac: There, you see: deadlock. My guess is, it’s becom­ing obvious to both of you that neither of you can definitively prove the other wrong.

Sarah: Maybe not right here and now on this train, but just wait and see how science develops—people who try to put limits to what it can achieve usually end up with egg on their face.

Bob: Just you wait and see what it’s like to be the vic­tim of a spell. People who try to put limits to what witchcraft can do end up with much worse than egg on their face.

Zac: But isn’t each of you quite right, from your own point of view? What you—

Sarah: Sarah.

Zac: Pleased to meet you, Sarah. I’m Zac, by the way. What Sarah is saying makes perfect sense from the point of view of modern science. And what you—

Bob: Bob.

Zac: Pleased to meet you, Bob. What Bob is saying makes perfect sense from the point of view of traditional witchcraft. Modern science and traditional witch­craft are different points of view, but each of them is valid on its own terms. They are equally intelligible.

Sarah: They may be equally intelligible, but they aren’t equally true.

Zac: ‘True’: that’s a very dangerous word, Sarah. When you are enjoying the view of the lovely countryside through this window, do you insist that you are see­ing right, and people looking through the windows on the other side of the train are seeing wrong?

Sarah: Of course not, but it’s not a fair comparison.

Zac: Why not, Sarah?

Sarah: We see different things through the windows because we are looking in different directions. But modern science and traditional witchcraft ideas are looking at the same world and say incompatible things about it, for instance about what caused Bob’s wall to col­lapse. If one side is right, the other is wrong.

Zac: Sarah, it’s you who make them incompatible by insisting that someone must be right and some­one must be wrong. That sort of judgemental talk comes from the idea that we can adopt the point of view of a God, standing in judgement over every­one else. But we are all just human beings. We can’t make definitive judgements of right and wrong like that about each other.

Sarah: But aren’t you, Zac, saying that Bob and I were both wrong to assume there are right and wrong answers on modern science versus witchcraft, and that you are right to say there are no such right and wrong answers? In fact, aren’t you contradicting yourself?


Latest on Twitter