Project Officer: This interview is being conducted for the project ‘Making history: the discipline in perspective’, and the Project Officer Danny Millum will be speaking to Professor James Holt about his experience of, and views on, changes in the discipline and the academic profession of history.
Professor Holt, may we start with your giving us some brief biographical information?
James Holt: Yes, if you like. I’m a Yorkshireman, born in Yorkshire, schooled in Yorkshire. I let people know occasionally that my parents were Lancastrian. They migrated to Yorkshire after World War One, in 1919 I think. I was born in 1922, my sister was two years older.
You ask me when I began to be interested in history. That I think occurred at a very young age, before I went to Bradford Grammar School in 1932. And I attribute that in part to the interest of my father, who didn’t teach me any history but talked in historical terms now and then, and, in particular, to a series of volumes which I can only describe to you as the Waverley History of the British People. Waverley being the publishers. Now defunct I would guess.
It was edited by and written by very distinguished historians. A lot of the medieval period was written by Powicke, making money on the side I suppose when he was in his Chair at Manchester. And that set the general level. It was beautifully illustrated – for example in my own sphere of interest it had a facsimile of the articles of the bans of 1215, a facsimile also of Magna Carta 1215, and going back earlier it had little snippets from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and then from Bede. It had facsimiles of the Modus Tenendi Parlimentum, and continued in that vein into the modern period, up to after the First World War, where it ended with the Treaty of Versailles.
Now I lived in those volumes as a boy. I had to ask my father’s permission: ‘May I take one off the shelves father?’ He would say yes, without any question, and I would turn the pages. Looking I think initially at the pictures, which were beautifully done, and also including contemporary images where that was possible. And of course as you go through the centuries it becomes more and more possible.
Now, I wouldn’t say that I read them continuously from beginning to end. I read little bits of them. I lived with the pictures. I can recall many of them now. And that was a big influence.
That’s the state of play with history in my mind when I went to Bradford Grammar School in 1932. There I benefited from two great history teachers. One was Charlie Hall we called him – it was C. S. Hall – who was a great teacher in the old-fashioned way. He more or less thumped the dates into the class. And left you well-drilled. As a matter of fact I came across his name later in an odd place, namely in Alan Bullock’s book on Stalin and Hitler [Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives]. And there in the preface he acknowledges C. S. Hall as his great teacher and the man who taught him how to make comparisons.
And Charlie Hall did just that – you didn’t run through Character A and then go onto Character B, and that was it. You chose features from both of them and discussed the characters as against that feature. And it’s a pattern that Bullock followed in that book.
PO: Stalin and Hitler?
JH: Yes. Now that was Charlie Hall. The other great teacher, more academically bent, didn’t worry about teaching us the dates of battles or how to use the bayonet, but did introduce us to analytical history. And this man was called L. J. V.. Shepherd. I think he was a scholar of Caius in Cambridge, and he was patently a first in Tripos, and I guess didn’t get an academic post in Cambridge or anywhere else. At the point at which he entered the profession in the early 1930s there were no posts going. The job market was extremely tight, as tight as it’s ever been I should think.
PO: And why was that?
JH: There was a thing called the Great Depression my dear chap.
PO: And that affected Oxford and Cambridge as well?
JH: Yes. yes. I think so. Cambridge less than other places, but the winds were generally stormy not just chilly.
Right. That’s got me into school hasn’t it. Now, Shepherd was a Marxist. He wasn’t an avowed one. He didn’t preach Marxism. Whether he was a communist or not I don’t know, and I don’t think we ever knew.
But he had a genius for teaching a small class, and at the point at which I moved from the general school background and curricula into the 6th form it was into Sixth History, which was the special class first of all of Charlie Hall, then he quickly became deputy head and the task then fell to Shepherd, who we called ‘Shep’, or sometimes Gus. I don’t know why we called him Gus but we did. Now he was a superb teacher in the tradition of seminar and tutorial. He taught us individually, he made us think, and he polished us up for Oxford and Cambridge scholarships.
One of the routines in Sixth History was to go around the circuit of the colleges trying for scholarships. And that’s what led me to Queen’s in Oxford, where I think I got into a scholarship through the good offices of Menna Prestwich, to whom I’m devoted. I didn’t meet her husband John [at this time] except once out in the country in a manor house when he had a fortnight’s leave or something. But he was working at the Intelligence Centre (Bletcheley) which we knew nothing about, and he never said anything til long after the war.
But Menna had obviously picked me out from the potential Hastings scholars as having potential, and so it was, I was settled in Queen’s. I then went into the war after five terms in Oxford and came out in 1945. My demobilisation is a comedy. I won’t go into it with you but to cut the cackle I received a telegram of demobilisation under the Class Z scheme sitting in mathematics class at the Military College of Science in Bury, Lancashire. I stood up at the back, saluted the colonel, said ‘Excuse me Sir, I’ve just been demobilised’, and went out to the cheers of the rest of the audience.
It was a brief telegram: ‘Captain Holt will report at such and such a time and place at the artillery barracks at Woolwich’. Woolwich is a formidable place, of great architectural consequence. I went there and felt rather out of place. I think I saw the doctor that day and he passed me, signed on the dotted line. It was very minimal medical examination – just a set of questions that was all.
That was on the Saturday. On the Sunday I was properly demobilised. I had to hand in my kit, which I duly did. Had to get a signature for my revolver. That was difficult. And I had a certain passage with a major in charge of a band of recruits going down from this enormous mess which the gunners had in Woolwich [where I dined] to find a taxi. Escaped at about midday, got to my parents by mid-afternoon up in Bradford, Yorkshire, packed my Oxford kit, set off for Oxford and arrived in Oxford on the Monday morning, when I saw the second person who was a real influence on me. That’s Menna Prestwich’s husband John, who died only recently.
I’ll come to him in a moment, but just to illustrate the pressure under which the Prestwichs worked, and indeed, under which I worked as a scholar – I went into college on the Monday I think, and by 2pm I had an essay from John. My first serious meeting with him, he gave me an essay, and he concluded by saying ‘By the way, Menna wants to see you, go straight round’. Menna was just round the corner at number 2 Queen’s Lane, to which I duly went. By 3 o’clock I’d got two essays, one from each of them, all to be done in a week. Welcome back, as you might say.
I kept going at that speed throughout my post-war undergraduate career, taking my degree, in the end, at the end of two years. Which was working hard. But of course, I was used to pressure. I was used to receiving orders for a barrage at midnight and had to be ready to fire the guns at 5 am, and had to be dead accurate about it. And that took time, and it put you under pressure.
So there was a connection between my military experience and my post-war Oxford experience in that I was working with the lid closed down and everything firing. I greatly enjoyed my Oxford time. John Prestwich was an enormous revelation to me and indeed to many other people who passed under his influence. First of all he was secular, which meant that he was anti-Powicke, and Powicke was an enormous influence in Oxford at that time. So he was independent of Powicke and assumed that his pupils would be. And his tutorial teaching was a model of how to do it. Always involving the question: ‘What’s your evidence for that?’ Making you fight on the evidence. And whether it was a good method for a weaker pupil I don’t know. Not many people remained weak in Prestwich’s care. He did in his final moments later acknowledge that within his own terms certain pupils were unteachable.
So, what did John Prestwich teach me? Well, he taught the whole of medieval history, and, also, I think, the 16th century. He covered an enormous range. He may have also taught the 17th century – I think he probably did, calling on Menna, as Menna was really a 17th century expert. But the two of them ran me. I didn’t do my Special subject with him because working fast against time I repeated the special subject which I’d taken for my Part I degree in the beginning of the war, on the advice of Menna.
Menna sent me to J. M. Thompson of all people for the special, being the French Revolution. And Menna just said: ‘He’s the only person left in Oxford at the right standard’. She pooh-poohed the rest of them. Because most of them were clergymen you see, not called up. But Thompy was a genial and a questioning supervisor on the special. Very well-informed and managed to pass the information over to his pupils. I don’t think I ever struck chords with him, but anyway.
That left the rest of the field clear to the Prestwichs, and the only area of history which went outside their sphere of influence was the very modern period. By very modern I mean the 18th and 19th century stuff, where I was taught by a friend of the Prestwichs, Charles Stewart, who was a Student at Christ Church. That was my first degree.
I then transferred from from Queens to Merton, where I became a Harmsworth Senior Scholar. For a year of that I was supervised by John Prestwich, simply as a stand-in, because the new Regius Professor, Vivian Galbraith, wanted a rest for a year. So Galbraith didn’t take me on until the end of my first year of research, by which time I’d got well into it.
I went round for my first interview with Galbraith at Oriel, and of course I was struck immediately by this vivid personality. Wiry little man, bush of white hair – fairly closely cropped, he didn’t wear it long – and a very weathered face, so he looked much older than he was. Didn’t stand nonsense of any kind from anybody, and was renowned for his quips and oddities. But he was a superb historian of detail. I mean, he got the Chair at Oxford I think on the basis of a single paper on the Domesday Book, and the making thereof. Which recast the whole study of the Domesday Survey, just in one go like that, concentrated within fifteen pages of the English Historical Review. It was later expanded into several books, some of them printed after he had retired.
Now I became closely involved with Galbraith, and if you want a second influence on my work it’s Galbraith. First of all John Prestwich, then Galbraith. And Galbraith was superb at studying chronicles and at studying records. And this brought me into an entirely new world because I don’t think John Prestwich ever went to the Public Record Office, and he never consulted manuscripts in the Bodleian. He always felt that there was enough material in print to make the sort of analysis in which he engaged. And he was probably right. But it left out a whole sector of study which was extremely important for a budding graduate. And Galbraith got me going in the Public Record Office, where of course he’d been an Assitant Keeper, and also got me involved in work in the British Library (or the British Museum as it was then) and in the Bodleian on one or two of the manuscript sources. Which made a great difference to my doctoral work.
Now in my second year on the DPhil I managed to compare notes with other pupils in the class, including many supervised by Powicke. And I found that they were still doing a weekly essay. Galbraith was perfectly happy that I wrote a chapter, passed it to him, and he commented on it. And his comments sometimes could be pithy. I remember one little section. It wasn’t very long and indeed wasn’t very important, but it involved me in trying to sketch the economic activity of the northern baronage (northerners being the centre of my thesis). Again, this was a remnant of the influence of Prestwich and behind that of the teacher at school L. J. V. Shepherd – you know, you must say something about the economics.
So I pieced together what I could on the economic activity of the northern barons. There was a little bit, but it didn’t amount to a row of beans really. I passed this to Galbraith – it was quite a short handwritten piece, say 20 pages at most of foolscap, with footnotes. It came back, no comment in the margin or anything like that, but just scrawled in at the end ‘So what?’
PO: It's hard to answer that really isn’t it?
JH: Well it was. I reflected on it and said to myself, ‘Well, so very little – not quite so nothing but so very little’. And it didn’t add a thing to the thesis or to my later book.
There. That’s got me doing the DPhil, which led to the work on the northern baronage and also to the book on The Northerners, which followed I think something like six or seven years later. But the thesis was completely recast in the book. I decided at some point when I was certainly in post in Nottingham that whatever it does it must not read like a published DPhil thesis. There were too many of them around.
PO: And that was The Northerners: A Study in the Reign of King John?
JH: That’s right. And it some ways it’s my best book I think. It went through a new edition, into paperback, and the Introduction to that is a very important commentary (at least I think it’s a very important commentary) on the way the political society, the aristocrats in northern England worked. What tied them together and how they operated. It brings in activities in the shire courts and so forth, which I don’t know that I spotted at the time I was doing the DPhil. Probably I spotted it as an aside, but it wasn’t part of the central political disquisition in which I was engaged in the DPhil.
Now that’s got me to Nottingham hasn’t it? And the last part of my biography really concerns my movement from one university to another.
PO: So your first post was at Nottingham?
JH: My first post was as an assistant lecturer at Nottingham. Then after two years I became a lecturer, then some time later a Senior Lecturer. I was never a Reader. Then I got the Chair round about 1952. And then all my subsequent movements are to be explained not by my applying for posts but by invitation. I was invited to go to Reading, which was a choice I leapt at after three years in the Chair at Nottingham. And I was invited to go to Cambridge.
I was delighted to move from Nottingham to Reading, because the Stentons were still alive and there was the Stenton atmosphere there. I was very sorry to leave Reading when the Cambridge invitation came up, but I had to take Cambridge.
PO: And was that to come here to Fitzwilliam College?
JH: No, it was to go into the Chair of Medieval History. Because what I felt is that if I go to Cambridge I can get better research students than I can possibly get in Reading, although over my ten years there I probably had half-a-dozen research students who were really worth something. Some of them are still at work in history. So I left Reading with great regret, and came to Cambridge. And when I came to Cambridge I didn’t even know where all the Colleges were. I was that ignorant of the place. I’d been here once or twice to read a paper I think, but that was all. And going back into 1939 or 1940 I had sat the scholarship exam at one Cambridge college, which I won’t name. I don’t know why I won’t name it but I won’t .
But it gave me a sense that Cambridge was a foreign country.
Now my time here I’ve greatly enjoyed. Splendid colleagues, very good academic discussions. It’s kept me alive intellectually I suppose, and does so still, in so far as I’m still alive.
During my time here I produced Magna Carta of course and that arose I think entirely from Galbraith’s influence, because he was consulted by the Press about a possible author. I don’t know whether they asked him to do it, but whether they did or not he recommended me, and I did it simply because the Cambridge Press invited me to do it. Keeping to their deadline, which was a celebration of the thing in 1965, was a horrid business, but I just about made it. In fact I did make it and it was out on time, but if I’d been given more elbow room it could have been a better book, I think.
PO: The pressure of the deadline then?
JH: Yes. Don’t like deadlines, never have.
Now less of my biography – what else do you want to know?
PO: OK. Well that kind of leads us onto the next question. I wanted to move to a broader perspective than your own biography to the field of medieval history. You’ve mentioned Galbraith there, but I was wondering if there were any other figures in the development of the field that you saw as particularly important?
JH: Yes. I’d better start by being objective. Powicke was a tremendous influence, and established himself through an essay on the Christian life in the Middle Ages, which really made his name, and which got him the Regius Chair at Oxford. He had been known previously for a splendid book on the loss of Normandy, which was really a discussion of the structure of the Angevin empire, and that’s a great book. It’s still used. It went to a second and revised edition in the hands of Allen Brown in the 1960s and is still the starting point for a lot of work on Norman history. He never repeated that level of stuff. There’s one paper in the Festschrift for James Tait which is a repetition, but for the rest he diverted onto ecclesiastical/ideological history, and the paper which I’ve described on Christian life in the Middle Ages was the first product of that.
The second product was he got interested in the manuscript material available in the John Rylands library in Manchester, and in particular into the life of Ailred of Rievaulx, and he never came out of that. He was interested in monastic life, in the ecclesiastical history of the Middle Ages and the intellectual life of the Middle Ages, which of course is largely ecclesiastical if not theological. He never escaped, which is really very odd because he was Free Church by upbringing, and then in a position of influence in the Presbyterian Church. But he was nevertheless a kind of split personality I think. So forgive me for being a little vague on Powicke because he’s not one of my favourite topics.
Now, the people of influence in the time in which I’ve worked in history. I can’t leave Stubbs out. Stubbs is another Yorkshireman, and Stubbs" Constitutional History (The Constitutional History of England in Its Origin and Development) and Stubb’s Charters (Select Charters and Other Illustrations of English Constitutional History), were the basic framework for the teaching of medieval history well up to the mid-century, if not beyond. When I proposed to John Prestwich that I should do my DPhil on the northerners this was because I’d noted a little footnote in Stubbs’ Constitutional History, where he’s discussing the origin of Magna Carta. He makes a special reference to the Northern baronage as a kind of radical wing of the baronial movement, in which he is perfectly correct. No doubt Stubbs noticed it because of his Yorkshire background. Born and bred in Knaresborough. And you simply couldn’t escape the Constitutional History and Stubbs’s Charters. Stubbs’s Charters were still taught as a document especially at Oxford through the whole of my time there and after my time.
It’s only been dissolved I think, or removed from the syllabus within the last ten years or so, with the other collections of constitutional documents. One of the changes in the direction of history that have taken place. Now Powicke was one great figure, another and for me much more important was Frank Merry Stenton. Stenton’s book, which goes under the heading of Danelaw Documents, is a superb commentary on the whole structure of northern life in the 12th and 13th centuries. In fact the 11th to the 13th centuries.
PO: So not just the politics, but-
JH: No, no – law, economics, the whole works. He had a very wide grasp of the historical field, and although Doris was not quite as influential as a historian she was equally vigorous in her pursuit of the pipe-rolls and the early legal records. The two of them together were a powerful duo. Stenton didn’t produce a vast number of research students in the way in which Powicke did, or indeed Galbraith did, because of course his net was not of such fine mesh as you would get at Oxford. But he did get perhaps up to half-a-dozen people who became first-rate historians and made their mark in history. Not a striking mark, but they produced steady work, working in the old man’s mould.
When I went to Reading I went round to see him, and he said: ‘Keep it small, and keep it good’. He was referring to the department.
JH: Now any chance of keeping the department small at the point at which I went there was beyond the imagination, because I went there on a ticket of expanding it to a proper size, which I did.
Now, Stenton was important in another respect, because he was a pupil, but later became a colleague, of John Horace Round. Round’s influence was vital in working its way through the historical tradition and practices of the later part of the 20th century. His particular contribution was on the development of knight service in England, and he established that knight service as we came to know it was established as an artificial system imposed by William the Conqueror. That’s been amended, but it’s never been demolished, and is unlikely to be in my view.
Now, over all these people there was the important figure of F. W. Maitland. If any book was a dominating influence in the 2nd half of the 20th century it was Maitland’s History of English Law.
JH: Which ran up to the time of Edward I, and was almost as basic a text for young historians as Stubbs’ Constitutional History. And whereas Stubbs’ constitutional history faded, Maitland did not, because of course, if you’re writing about law, you’re writing about something that is so ingrained in social relationships that it doesn’t fade.
Now Maitland was a very, very important figure really. He wasn’t built in the Stubbsian mould and he wasn’t a pupil of Stubbs, for he was at the wrong university as far as Stubbs was concerned, and his background was in the Natural Science Tripos before he moved to law. And he became a historian simply because he dropped into the Public Record Office and studied the Assize Rolls, and became fascinated by them. His first little book is on the Assize Rolls, and it’s still a useful book.
He went on and produced what remains a classic work, namely Domesday Book and Beyond. And that had a powerful influence. I remember I’ve still got the copy that I bought in Oxford in those days. I still sometimes refer to it to get the starting point of a particular discussion. He’d got a great penetrative mind and a superb style. Full of humour. Not immediately witty, and sharply witty, as Galbraith occasionally could be, but humour in the sense of –
PO: Drawing the reader in?
JH: What sparked Maitland off was his study of humanity. It’s in that he can produce extended humour in which his genius as a lawyer and as a historian is mixed up.
So you’re talking about influences. Now I think the of influences I’ve described Galbraith was the most important for me. Powicke, I’ll have to allow in. These are the chief people I have to bring in to describe the state of play at the end of the 20th century. Maitland of course still survives and goes on and on. He’s the only one of these people who’s in Poet’s corner in Westminister Abbey. He’s the only one who’s still subject to major revisions and debates.
PO: And any more recent historians?
JH: As influences on me?
PO: As being important in the field.
JH: That’s getting close to home isn’t it, and near the bone. Well, I don’t want to comment on the contemporary scene I think, much. There are many more historians than there were in the great period of the 20th century, and there are many more doing good work. There are few I think, who are outstanding in the sense in which Galbraith was, or Powicke was, and that’s partly because of changes in structure. The changes in structure are those which afflict the whole profession, and I think we might move onto that part of the discussion now.
PO: I did want to ask you about how you thought that the pressures on academics had changed, and about the effect of institutional changes as well.
JH: Yes. Pressures, you say. That reflects a very contemporary approach to the problem I think. I’m conscious in this College that many of the fellows talk of being under pressure, because they’re afflicted by all sorts of administrative duties. Not necessarily to do simply with the College but with their departments and their faculties and so on. These pressures arise from the sort of thing that affects the police. They have to fill in forms, provide statistical material for superior authorities, and so on. All of which from the contributors point of view is a waste of time. What happens to the material when it’s centralised and examined, if it is, is a different question, which I’ll leave to one side.
So I think pressures are only a small part of the story when we’re talking about changes. Well take my own career. In my three years as Professor at Nottingham I was very much the head of the department. If I wanted to chat with some member of the department it was recognised that I would summon him or her to my room. I was cast, as most Professors were I think at Nottingham in those days, within a hierarchical structure of which I didn’t really approve, because once I got people in my room I talked very informally.
Now when I moved to Reading I was still the head of the department. In my time at Reading things gradually changed. And the Professor of the subject was no longer necessarily the head of the department. Which raised all sorts of questions in my mind which have not been answered even now.
PO: What sort of questions?
JH: The questions are how do you reconcile the activities of the person supposed to be leading the department (in that he’s sitting in the Chair) with the administrative headship of the department. In effect what happened as a result of this change to the elected headship was that the Professor was sidelined. He just became a kind of superior type of Reader. And that too was fuzzed up when the Readers themselves became Professors. So that the department would have, as my old department at Reading does, a series of Professors, one of whom may be head of department.
But even that is not the case because the headship of the department is elective. People now talk of: ‘Oh, I’m going to be Head of Department next year, I can’t do any work on this, that or the other’. It’s regarded simply as an administrative burden.
PO: So administration is separated from the intellectual direction of the department?
JH: Yes, I think so. And that’s a mistake.
PO: And that’s a change you’ve observed since your time at Nottingham, and increasingly so now would you say?
JH: Yes. And it’s all blurred by the spread of the professorial title.
PO: So previously from your experience there would have been one Professor for a department?
JH: One or two. There could be a medieval and a modern, as there was at Leeds, your own university. And indeed there was at Reading. When I came to Reading it marked a change where there was a medieval Chair and a modern Chair.
PO: I suppose that brings me to something you’ve mentioned earlier that I wanted to pick up on, where you were talking about Stenton’s advice to keep it good and keep it small. You were saying that in fact the time when you’d taken over at Reading was the period of expansion surrounding the Robbins Report and the growth of the new universities. What are your views of the institutional changes that occurred then?
JH: Well, I felt I suppose that in a ideal world I’d sooner have it small, in the Stenton vein, but in the real world we had to go along with Robbins. The universities were expanding and that meant that departments had to expand, and multiply. At Reading for example the history department enclosed within it to start with the department of archaeology. Towards the end of my time there it was hived off as an independent department, and has been a very successful one.
I think that has happened generally. Economics and sociology were not separate departments when I first went to Reading, and they were split, as they had to be because they involved very different forms of study. So I think that just happens following the Robbins Report. I mean the Robbins Report was only a symptom after all for the general change taking place.
Now the expansion does have certain side effects I think. Let’s take the development of history departments and the subject in general. In my time as an immediate post-graduate the done thing was that after getting a good first degree you would move on and do a doctorate, or a dissertation, or an MA, and start a career. A long time after that you would expect to be invited to conferences at which you might read a paper which might be printed.
Now that’s been reversed. The production of a major work arising from a doctoral dissertation is regarded as being too slow. It takes time, and indeed it should. It should take consideration for example. But that’s not good enough for the statistics. You can’t have somebody working away. ‘Oh, he’s doing such and such on such and such a topic and it may be that he’ll publish it in five, six, ten years time’. What you have to have is something immediate.
And this has changed the whole arrangement of historical work in my view. The invitation to a conference is now not something that happens late in a post-graduate’s career, but is almost the first thing he’s required to do. And prestige is made not just by producing papers for this conference but by the simple fact that you’ve organised it. You’ve got the money for it.
PO: You’ve acquired funding for it.
JH: You’ve acquired funding. And that has become the starting point. It’s not history is it? That’s not a rhetorical question. It’s perhaps starting a debate.
PO: It’s certainly auxiliary to history isn’t it. These are merely organisational means rather than ends in themselves which occasionally they become I suppose? In the sense that funding is allocated in one way or another, but whatever system you choose it then tends to distort the way in which departments work, because they all see to please the funders, don’t they?
JH: Yes. You’ve put it in a nutshell. But do we want to be in that nutshell? Couldn’t it be argued on the other hand that this is distorting the natural development of a scholar’s work. In my view that consists of increasing the depth of his doctoral study and at the same time adding to its strength by spreading it out into associated fields. And that means that the scholar in question is developing as a scholar without having the diversion of multiple invitations to discuss this, that and the other thing at any particular conference.
Now this is a development which really has exploded in the last 20 years if not less. People find ways of getting the money to organise conferences. They get very considerable prestige within their own university, which then advertises that it’s the centre for conferences on this, that and the other.
PO: To a certain extent a marketplace now operates within the subject. You need to attract funding and you need to attract students, and as a result you will gear your activities to do so. And whether or not that was the intention of the introduction of things like the RAE and the way in which research councils award funding and the introduction of student fees then that’s certainly been one of the byproducts I would suggest.
JH: I’m not sure that the introduction of student fees is a byproduct. That seems to me to spring from other sources. Quite why the subject has developed in this way I’m not so sure. I think it’s affected many other subjects besides history. But if you asked for marked changes in the way the subject is carried on at present that for me is the most marked change, and it’s one of which I don’t approve, as you can gather.
I sometimes attend these conferences because somebody’s reading a paper which I think may be of interest to me, and I find that it rarely is, because the person reading it has been invited to do it, it’s not on his main line of interest, and he or she has thrown it together. So that any work in depth has not been carried out.
I’ll give you one example which I attended recently. Just about the last conference I attended, some years ago, on the Angevin empire. Addressed by a quite distinguished French medieval historian. And I broke into the discussion – it was naughty of me – and just said what about the Constitutions of King John. And he didn’t know. He went waffling on about the chartérs of La Rochelle, which we all knew about, but they had nothing at all to do with the Constitutions of King John, and the Constitutions of King John had nothing to do with them. There must have been 30 people in the room. Not one knew what the Constitutions of King John were. And I could see two or three of my old pupils muttering to each other and consulting each other and trying to discuss what they might have been. And the answer’s perfectly obvious – they’re what King John established for the Channel Islands after the loss of Normandy. And that’s what they apply to. And they’ve remained as determinants of the constitutional position of the Channel Islands ever since. They even affect the way they’re governed today.
PO: So you think that the people at this conference should have been aware?
JH: Well, I was expecting a riposte from somewhere, because the document which gives the clue is lying there in the Public Records. And it may have been symptomatic of the fact that England pays no attention to the Channel Islands whatsoever. Except for John le Patourel, and he was a Guernsey man.
PO: And you were talking there about particular instances of changes in history and the increase in the production of papers. I was also interested in asking you about something else that you’ve written in your history of the University of Reading, where I think you said that before the war the staff at Reading felt that they’d struggled to survive as a university but they were masters of their own fate, and after the war they could scarcely avoid the conclusion that although they now enjoyed increasing resources their fate was determined elsewhere. And I took that to mean that you were talking about the increased degree to which funding came from the state to the universities.
PO: And that was a significant period of change you think then, from pre- to post-war?
JH: Yes. Two stories arise here. One goes back to Nottingham to the opening of the Trent Building by King George V back in the 1930s. And over lunch afterwards the King said: ‘Whatever you do you must not rely on public money’. He didn’t quite say keep on exploiting Jessie Boot, but he did say we’d been very lucky in having a benefactor.
And the other comes from Reading, it must have been in the Dean’s Committee, where [they were discussing] the qualities necessary in a University Chancellor. And somebody produced the response: ‘You must have somebody who can lift the telephone to the Chancellor of the Exchequer’. And there was that sort of level of intimacy, particularly about Reading, where the Council was dominated partly by the Palmers, from Huntley and Palmers, and partly by retired civil servants. There was always a Palmer on the Council in my day.
And you followed that principle of having senior civil servants or retired Cabinet members or retired Ministers as Chancellor. People with influence and direct lines to government. But government was much simpler then than it is now.
Why did we get onto that topic?
PO: I was again interested in change and what I was wondering was what changes you’d observed in the influence of the state and how that had affected the way in which universities and therefore history departments within them had operated.
JH: Then I shot off into this question of the diffusion of the subject in seminars and conferences didn’t I?
At times the finances of departments have been very tight indeed. In short you’re working increasingly to a budget. My mind goes back to the old days of the University Grants Committee, which you probably haven’t encountered anywhere, but it was the funding organisation of the universities, and it worked on a quinquennial basis.
PO: So funding was agreed for five years?
JH: Yes. And in the last year of the quinquennial system in 1972 the University Grants Committee found that it was underspent, so messages went out to universities: ‘Increase your staffing’. Quite unheard of now. But as this boiled down to the periphery I received a telephone call from the Dean, saying can you possibly make a further appointment this year? This was gold. I said ‘Of course, yes’, and I duly did. Took quite a bit of time, and energy, but we got there. Now, that illustrated the positive aspect of granting, which involves estimating, both nationally and locally.
What is happening, or has happened I think, is that the local element in the estimating has been reduced or disappeared, and you are suddenly told how much of a budget you have for the coming year. We’re down to an annual basis now. Well an annual projection is very difficult for any long-term project. It’s even worse for the scientists. I mean there’s been a great row as you know about the abandonment of the large physics projects like CERN but it applies also to history. You cannot work on a day to day or even a year to year basis.
PO: And you say that move to a much more short term arrangements for the budget and grant is something that has made a significant change?
JH: Well, yes. It makes long term planning impossible. At Reading when I first went there we reconstructed the preliminary examination and it was a rather nicely designed system embodying seminars, tutorials and a large-scale sweep of history. That involved very careful planning of the staff concerned and I think, although I didn’t reflect on this at the time, it assumed a long-term stability in that department. Which did not in fact occur. And as soon as the staffing base was disturbed, by volcanic cracks originating in financial disturbances, the structure of that course could no longer be maintained. And it had to be changed. And a lot of its quality was lost.
PO: That’s interesting. That’s a practical example of the consequences of being reliant on government funding which can change in the short-term.
PO: I just wanted to ask you briefly what you thought about the relationship between academic and popular history and if that’s changed at all in your experience?
JH: Well, I started with the Waverley History of the English-Speaking peoples, and in a sense that was popular history. It had a great influence on me as a boy.
It depends I think on what popular history is going to be like. And a lot of it I think is quite acceptable. It isn’t really the sort of history in which I would now engage, but in fact back in my career there was a series called the Then and There series, and I wrote two little books for that which I think are still in circulation. I haven’t involved myself in their subsequent history, but I responded to the invitation to take part partly through a feeling that one ought to put something back into the system, and popular history, and history written for schools is one way of doing that.
Popular history is now involving things which were taught in elementary schools in my youth. You know, simple things like King Alfred the Great burning the cakes and the advent of the Danes and Canute and all the rest of it. There was a fair amount implanted in the minds of children which remained there. Now that’s gone. Whether it can ever be replaced I don’t know. I think that some of it has to be replaced, because if you’re thinking of teaching citizenship, sooner or later you have to talk about family relationships, and that leads to questions of law. And to explain the law you have to talk about the law’s past. And you’re into history immediately you see. Now in the days when you could say before 1066 such and such, that would mean something. 1066 being a crucial date. Now that’s no longer the case. We’ve pulled the framework down on the grounds that it was old-fashioned. But framework is always old-fashioned!
And some thought will have to be given about how to restructure it. Well you certainly can’t leave it in the hands of modern educationalists. In my view.
PO: And I suppose that leads me onto the very last thing that I wanted to ask you, which was just whether you had any predications for the future of the discipline, given that you’ve suggested there that there are things that we need to do with regard to the teaching of history in schools.
JH: Yes, I think that historians have to stand up and fight for themselves. And not be overwhelmed by social scientists of various kinds. Or educationalists of various kinds. Not to be melded with geography. Geography is a good subject in itself and should stand free. So should history.
I think one or two people are saying this. We’ve had various television programmes which have been sensible and valuable I think. But they’re having to teach material which should have been supplied in school education. And it’s so bad that the teachers of it aren’t there. The seed corn has been scattered to the wind.
Don’t let’s be depressed about the thing though. As I look about the people I’m working with now, who are all young, they have various projects, many of them not individual but combined projects, and they all give an impression of terrific energy, almost of effervescence, and they’re boiling over with interest. They exchange letters by this new-fangled gadget email, they’re not changing the subject, but they’re changing the way in which the subject is studied and approached, and I think that that’s a good thing. It’s got to change.
PO: Well it’s good to end on an optimistic note, and Professor Holt, thanks very much indeed for that.