Since then, I have had a busy but very satisfying time working with my collaborator to get the project off the ground (we have a website now!) and delving into a topic which I have always wanted to look at in more detail but have never had the chance to before: volcanoes. I first became fascinated by volcanoes when I realised, halfway through reading for my MPhil thesis, that seventeenth-century European natural philosophers thought that there was no difference between a 'normal' mountain and a 'fiery' mountain other than that one was filled with either empty space or water, and the other with fire (it was generally accepted that the earth was full of 'hollow spaces').
This had a thrilling implication: a mountain could become a volcano, and not just in the sense of a dormant peak rumbling into activity. I still can't put my finger on why, but somehow this remarkable image - of all the world's mountains as potential volcanoes - struck me as emblematic of the strange (to modern eyes) and marvellous assumptions of early modern natural knowledge. But, of course, I then headed down the byways of mountain aesthetics, and, even though I could have argued, based on the above, that 'volcanoes' rightly belonged to the early modern category of 'mountains', I really didn't have the space within my 80,000 words to explore these explosive members of the family.
So we come to this project, and my research for what I hope will be my first article towards it. Over the past few months, I have noticed many differences between classics and history as academic disciplines - more than I expected - but one of the most freeing is the apparent lack of anxiety about chronological boundaries. In the context of history, I felt that I was stretching things a bit with a thesis which spanned a couple of centuries, but classicists seem to take for granted the process of studying a text or an archaeological site from 600 BCE, and then tracing its reception all the way forward to the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.
I had long suspected (well - it is hard to miss it when my seventeenth-century natural philosophers began every other sentence with "according to the antients...") that many of the most prominent early modern concepts relating to the form of the earth, and by extension the nature of volcanoes, dated back to classical times. So I have taken great pleasure in treading back to the first century CE, and the poem Aetna, once attributed to Vergil but now of uncertain origin and, unfortunately, a somewhat corrupted text. Then, on the other hand, because both classical and early modern ideas (and classical through early modern) influenced later perceptions of volcanoes, I have taken rides with such eighteenth-century travellers as Patrick Brydone and William Hamilton. I suspect I would make a certain type of historian squirm with my century-hopping, but I think I have something, at least, interesting to say about Mount Etna.
And yet, and yet - the boundaries between disciplines are not so easily hopped. These are by no means social or professional barriers: I couldn't have asked for a warmer welcome from my new colleagues. However, there is a barrier - which I think is probably overlooked from inside a discipline, but of which I am increasingly aware as one entering from outside - of a sum of knowledge and a set of ways of thinking, which catch-up reading can never really equal.
I was forcibly reminded of this twice over last Friday. First, I spent my afternoon reading a series of articles by classical scholars on the poem Aetna: articles which interrogated the structure, the use of particular words, the semantics of the text in a way which I recognised as incredibly rigorous, but as quite different from the way I, as a historian, was trained to 'read' a text. They also contained multiple passages in Greek, which I of course skipped over, and one contained a word which stopped me in my tracks: Gigantomachy.
The Gigantomachy refers to a mythical battle between the Greek gods and the Giants, or Gigantes (apparently themselves offspring of gods), a battle which ended - according to some tellings of the legend - with the giant Typhon trapped by Zeus underneath Mount Etna. Or, to put it another way: Zeus chucked a mountain at him, and the giant inside the mountain is the reason for its unearthly convulsions. (This 'fable' is one which the poet of the Aetna sternly dismisses).
In some ways, the term is so easy to translate - you could almost deduce it if you picked the word apart - but, still, it gave me pause. I had come across the myth before (virtually every piece of writing on Aetna, from the classical era onwards, seems to delight in citing it as an example of the 'superstition' that more recent eras have overcome), but not its name. What a silly, tiny thing: but a thing to learn.
Later, still thinking of giants, I attended my first research seminar in the School. I had been to plenty of research seminars before, in history, and (though admittedly the quality does vary) had enjoyed hearing and asking questions about everything from medieval armour to eighteenth-century Sutherland salt pans. I don't think I could have asked an intelligent question about that evening's paper (which was excellent!) if I had been forced to. Several of my colleagues raised their hands and offered the formulaic, self-deprecating preface to their inquiries: “obviously I'm coming from a position of complete ignorance, but...” and I had to resist the urge to laugh. If you want to see what complete ignorance looks like, she’s five foot one and has long red hair.
But, thinking about it again, I have to admit I'm not completely ignorant. After all, I now know what 'Gigantomachy' means. And I know a few things about early modern history, and about mountains. Maybe if I keep learning one more thing after another about the classical past I'll know enough to bring them all together, and tell a few interesting stories. Maybe not the stories that classical scholars would tell, and maybe not the stories that a historian in a history department would tell: but, maybe, the stories that I can tell.