PO: This interview is being conducted for the Making History: The Discipline in Perspective Project, and the Project Officer, Danny Millum, will be speaking to Professor Derek Keene about his experience of, and views on, changes in the discipline and academic profession of history.
Would we be able to start, Professor Keene, by you giving a brief biographical background of yourself?
DK: Yes. If there hadn’t been a war on, I would have been born in London, but I spent my early years in London – up to university essentially. My first seven years in inner London, in Holloway, and after that on what were then the western fringes – Northolt in Middlesex. That had quite an influence on me, I think. I still remember quite vividly London as a ruin after the war, and continuing right through the 1950s, and I suppose that was one of the forces that made me interested in London as a place, just living there, and maybe even giving me the germs of ideas about urban history or what turned into ideas about urban history.
And living in Northolt turned out to be another quite striking influence, in that round about 1951 or 1952 a young archaeologist working for the Ministry of Works, who subsequently became a very distinguished medieval archaeologist, began an experimental excavation of a moated manor house within about 20 minutes walk of where we lived. And my father and I began to help him with it.
PO: So at the age of seven?
DK: No, I’d have been older than seven. What would I have been? Nine, ten. And I remember John Hurst thought it was rather strange, that this child would come along. My father insisted, and he got very interested in archaeology and local history and that rubbed off on me. Coming into contact with things underground, the material evidence, immediately getting a sense of life in the middle ages, a moated manor house next to a church, of change over time – as it clearly hadn’t been a manor house all the time and we’d found the remains of a small early Anglo-Saxon cemetery underneath it; that sort of added to the sense of history that I’d been gaining from, well, living in the semi-countryside, and in London itself – and, as I said, [a sense] of change over time.
That’s possibly, ultimately, how I came into the profession I suppose. Although I continued to practice as an archaeologist, and not all that many years ago I was writing things about archaeology, I definitely decided to stick with history. I did that at school, put quite a lot of emphasis on that – can’t say that school history was at all interesting, but I could see that there were other things outside it and I suppose it may have been having that interest in other aspects of history that got me into Oxford. I was quite lucky to sort of bump up against all sorts of people who were developing new ideas about using buildings, material culture, archaeology of one sort or another, in thinking about medieval English history in particular.
PO: So new sources.
DK: New sources, yes. One of my supervisors wrote an article in I think the very first edition of the journal Medieval Archaeology, which he called ‘Monuments or Muniments?’ Monuments – material things – or documents, and he said you need both. I went along with that.
So, if you’re thinking of who my influences were, he would have been one of the earliest – that was W. A. Pantin. And another one, also at Oxford, was Howard Colvin, the architectural historian, who had actually written himself one of the most interesting essays about English medieval towns, in the early 1950s; he could turn his hand to all sorts of things. From him I certainly learned a great deal about architectural and building history, a great deal about how you use different sorts of documents connected with that, and then in later life as a practicing historian I used very many building accounts for all sorts of things. And I’ve done a lot of work about buildings – how they were used, how they evolved over time.
When I was encouraged to do a thesis. I knew that I wanted to do something that involved documentary work and, in some way, material evidence. And it so happened that, just about that time, there was developing a major programme of excavations in Winchester. The archaeologist who’d been doing that, Martin Biddle, had a similar sense to me, coming at it from an archaeological point of view. He’s seven or eight years older than I am. He was a Junior Inspector at the Ministry of Works where an awful lot of expert archaeologists and some really very good historians were based in those days.
He’d got involved in a small excavation in Winchester and then there were other opportunities that emerged, and he turned it all into a grand research programme: major excavations around the city. He gave a lecture in Oxford while I was there, and Billy Pantin was there, and afterwards – I was in my last year as an undergraduate and it was about that time I was thinking about what my research subject might be – it became clear that in Winchester you could link up the documents and the archaeology in a very interesting way. And that’s what I did; that’s what my thesis was.
It tackled a quarter of Winchester, a quarter where there’d been quite extensive excavations of houses and backyards, dating from between the 10th century and the 16th. That area of Winchester was more or less deserted as the city contracted at the end of the Middle Ages. I just found that there was an extraordinarily rich body of documentation in the city archives, in the records of all sorts of institutional landlords – many of them religious houses; and after the Reformation, in the records of the city itself, charities in the city, churches and other property-owning bodies. Rather like [the approach of] an early influence on my supervisor Billy Pantin, the Reverend H. E. Salter – who I never met! He died long before I came to Oxford and had been a great Oxford historian who collected lots of information about the history of properties in Oxford. In a way, he showed what you can do if you collected this information together: you can actually set out to draw something like a map of a town. Well, he never precisely dated his map – broadly, it’s late medieval.
PO: And this was the kind of blueprint that you could use?
DK: That was a sort of blueprint, yes. Except I could draw even better maps for Winchester and I could do them at successive dates and so on. Well, I just did less than a quarter of the whole of Winchester in a thesis which went on for rather more than the three years that it should have done! And round about the end of the third year – the Winchester excavations had been going for a number of seasons and a mass of archaeological data had accumulated, and I’d accumulated a lot of historical data – Martin got a grant from the Gulbenkian Foundation to set up a sort of field research unit which would continue to work on Winchester, write up the excavations, and he asked me to join it as a historian.
So, not knowing quite what else I was going to do, I did, and it was actually extremely interesting. I got even more closely involved in the archaeology as a practitioner, writing about it and doing all sorts of unexpected things like organising dendrochronology programmes and carbon 14 dating programmes; and I had to get my head round the statistics involved – all those quasi-scientific things. And I was able to extend my thesis – I completed it during my very early stage of working in the Winchester Research Unit – to cover the whole of Winchester and its suburbs from, I suppose the earliest date would be 10th century, up to the 16th/17th century, and to map it really quite precisely, write accounts of all these sites and a whole series of analytical chapters about what this meant in terms of the physical environment of the city, how it changed over time and so forth – physical structure, economic structure. So this led me into economic and social history, and even religious history in many ways -- having to cope with religious houses and the 50 to 60 parish churches that they had in Winchester, and working out why on earth there were that many parish churches.
PO: So you were seeing the links between all of these slightly separate disciplines?
DK: Yes, yes, I really landed right in the middle of it. And in the meantime, within the Winchester research unit, there emerged a project to edit a wonderful 12th-century text which includes two surveys of Winchester, one in the mid 12th century and the other in the early 12th century. One refers back to before the Norman conquest. And this turned out to be a wonderfully rich source to edit, particularly as I’d got all this background information about sites and places and people. And so much of that connected up with other documentation, that we wrote a huge book about it. You could write about life and times in Winchester – the physical experience and environment of it in the 11th and 12th centuries in a way that you can do for no other European city.
PO: Okay, that’s interesting.
DK: That’s one of the volumes in the Winchester Studies series. And then a few years after that, a couple of big volumes on later medieval Winchester from me came out and I also contributed to some of the archaeological volumes that came out, particularly writing about categories of artefacts, that were to do with manufacturing crafts and household activities and that sort of thing.
So, at a certain point it looked as if the Winchester… Well, on the one hand the money was running out, even though I’d already got a grant from the Social Science Research Council and they were very pleased with what I did there. I’d got an experience, I suppose, of working in a sort of freelance way. In a way working from hand to mouth – there’s some money, and then no money, then some money again.
PO: So pursuing grants for work.
DK: I’d been pursuing grants for years! Or decades! And I thought ‘Well, what shall I do next?’ Well, the great gap was London. It was extraordinary how little of medieval London’s history had been researched – a much, much bigger place than Winchester with a hugely richer documentation, but a similar documentation in many ways. So I thought you could tackle London, or at least samples of it, in the way that I tackled Winchester and get some really new insights into it, so that’s how I got involved in research on London. That would have been in 1979.
PO: Was that the Social and Economic Study of Medieval London at that time?>
DK: That’s right, yes. I ought, before we go on to that, to mention another big influence. Not so much an individual – I’ll mention more individuals later on. But it was in I think my second term of being a graduate student, and I’d already been down to Winchester and looked at the archives there, kept in a little room behind the town hall. A very nice retired schoolteacher was in part-time charge of them, and I learned quite a lot from him about the archives; but then unfortunately he died. And there was no knowing how on earth I was going to get into the archives and use them. By that time, I’d got to know the town clerk – those were pre-reform days – and he said ‘Well, we’ve got to know you. We trust you. We think you’re doing good work. Here’s the key to the archive’.
PO: And that was it!
DK: I had to collect the key every morning from a security person who actually opened it up for me. If there were any readers and visitors, I had to welcome and supervise them. Otherwise, I could just carry on and work on them.
PO: So that was the trade off: you had to work for them and in exchange…
DK: Yes. I didn’t have to do very much, but I did decide that I ought to catalogue some bits of the archive which needed cataloguing, so I did do that. And I also had the free run of the archive vault, so to speak – the store behind the central office – and that was a real eye-opener because when you can see a massive town archive like that, you just realise how many things there were that you simply wouldn’t gather from a catalogue. And you can look at them at leisure, closely, and reflect on how you might use them. That, I think, was an opportunity to innovate which would have been much more difficult if I hadn’t had that very, very immediate access to that collection. I’m afraid I tell everybody that I ever teach an archives class to, to go to the storeroom! It’s so important to be able to get that sort of direct access if you possibly can, but archive structures these days tend to prevent you doing such things.
PO: And archivists.
DK: And archivists, yes.
Other influences. I suppose working on the latter part of the Winchester project, I realised how my sort of approach – thinking about the physical arrangement of the city as the primary way into understanding it – was offering really new insights into economic and social history. You can measure change over time in ways that traditional approaches to economic history simply can’t. You can understand social relationships in terms of people living next door to each other or in the same street, doing one thing or another that might be somehow different. And so the work of historians like Rodney Hilton, who was thinking about the medieval economy, were influential, I think; less historians like Postan, who were more narrowly focused as economic historians I think. But people like Rodney who, although he didn’t really understand space, had a very clear sense of the complexity and range of social history.
PO: What do you mean by he didn’t understand space?
DK: Well, there were very few people who seemed to have a clear sense that things happening in a particular place, as opposed to some other place, is really quite important for understanding, essentially, what those things were. It’s a commonplace these days and ‘space’ has come to be reified almost, as a way in which we have to think about things, particularly due to the rather curious work of Henri Lefebvre I think. What did he call it – well, the social construction of space as it comes out in English. And a lot of historians who worked in social and economic history were rather dismissive of things that they’d call antiquarian, or topographical – just because you wanted to know what and where something was. It didn’t seem to matter to them.
PO: They were looking for grander narratives? Or…?
DK: Well, a bit like Rodney, who of course was a Marxist, and while I was interested in Marx, I couldn’t agree with much of that, except once that we both agreed to agree that money was always evil!
PO: Apart from when you were applying for a grant!
DK: Well, you didn’t mind applying for a grant because you got the money, you see, and you spent it. Where were we?
PO: You were talking about, or you’d just been explaining about, space.
DK: Yes, that’s right. Well, of course geographers always thought about space and I found the work of a lot of historical geographers really extraordinarily interesting. There was one (R. A. Pelham) who I never met even though he had been in the Geography Department at Southampton (these were the days before geographers became cultural) and he used to take all sorts of medieval sources and map them. To show how commodities were moving about and this sort of thing.
And somehow or other he developed a rather striking style. He must have done his own drawings or he must have had a very clear sense of how to do his own drawings and then put them over to the cartographer in the Geography Department to finish them, because they always came out in a very attractive, very direct and powerfully communicative way. And an awful lot of my work began to be expressed by maps and distributions, and what Theo Barker once dismissively called ‘dots on maps’.
Except after a few years, even Theo – who was an economic historian who didn’t have a very clear idea of space, I’m sure – began to realise that if you put dots on maps, you are actually making some quite powerful statements about people’s everyday experiences and beginning to explain things. Not least in the case of those particular dots on maps: the relationships between London and the places it was trading with, the origins of the populations coming to the city, the specialisation in agriculture which seemed to be responding to London’s market.
PO: So it wasn’t just your methods of research, if you like, that were changing: it was also your methods of communicating that research?
DK: Yes. It was partly a sort of McLuhanish thing; it was the medium being the message. Or the medium being there and then enabling you to think in a spatial way.
PO: That makes sense.
DK: And that led me, in a way – particularly meeting other scholars about my age, like Bruce Campbell (Bruce actually started as and remains a geographer, but is also a highly creative economic historian) and so on – to be interested more in aspects of quantitative analysis as a reasonably rigorous way of beginning to measure differences and connections and significances. But since I was working on medieval sources I really felt that you could only take the quantitative element so far.
PO: Because of the…?
DK: Because of the variability of the evidence that you got, the patchy nature of it, so that the statistical tests that one might have been tempted to apply probably wouldn’t be appropriate. That’s a sort of cautious approach that I’ve had to the use of statistics.
PO: And you were saying before that it was 1979 when you came to work on London. And so presumably you were applying these ideas then to the study of the larger metropolis?
DK: Yes. I hawked myself around a bit. The Institute of Historical Research was one place; the Museum of London was another. The Museum was a bit more receptive in the first instance.
PO: That’s interesting.
DK: …Then I had the idea that we could apply to the Social Science Research Council again, before it became the ESRC, but it emerged that the Museum wouldn’t be eligible to hold a grant as it wasn’t an academic institution in the strictest sense. So I came back to the IHR and they said, well, we’ll take you on if you give us the money, so to speak! And we got the grant and the Museum helped out by providing an office and various other useful help, and the Institute was a good intellectual base as well – and managed the money – and I think the success of that project did the Institute good, and the Museum good. And we got money to do more.
We started by looking at Cheapside, so I became Mr. Cheapside – I suppose I still am Mr. Cheapside – and then we got money to look at other areas. And than after a few years, Alice Prochaska, who was the secretary and librarian – administrator – of the Institute at that time (the present day structure that we’ve got is a little bit different; secretary and librarian was quite a power within the Institute, on the academic side as well as other sides), suggested, and the Director, Michael Thompson, agreed, that we try and build on this series of research projects that I’d done on London to create something that we might think of as a centre for London history.
And then I thought, well, perhaps we shouldn’t just call it ‘London history’. We could call it metropolitan history because it’s meant to be looking at the entire metropolis, not just the city which I’d been working on up to that point. And to take account of other periods than the medieval one, although by that time my studies of medieval London had naturally gone up to the time of the Great Fire so I’d had to engage with an awful lot of early modern London too. And we were again quite successful in ESRC and other grants, and managed to get going a whole range of projects covering the period from the middle ages up to the 19th century – the mid/late-19th century. Quite a lot of them were linked by ideas about physical form of the city – how it evolves over time, how areas are used, why particular districts had the form and sets of activities that were associated with them.
PO: And this was subsequent to the successful foundation of the Centre [for Metropolitan History] then? These projects then came about in 1987?
DK: It was 1987–8, yes. We count 1988 as the real foundation year. It’s like a lot of foundations, the exact date’s not too precise! I suppose the academic year beginning in 1988 is the best time to think about it beginning. And we continued to develop projects from then on.
PO: And the Centre for Metropolitan History was always based within the IHR?
DK: Yes. At that point the IHR wasn’t able to make physical room for us, and we ended up in 34 Tavistock Square, which at that time belonged to the University and most of the building was used by the History of Parliament. But the cellar was spare! So we were the Cellar for Metropolitan History for a while, then we moved up a floor or so above – partly because the History of Parliament moved off to other accommodation – then the University finances and plans, and the Institute’s own finances, meant they couldn’t maintain that annexe, particularly since the History of Parliament had moved off to another building. So we were accommodated here [in Senate House at the IHR], more or less where we are now.
PO: I think Olwen [Myhill] had told me that one of the reasons that you’d moved is you kept getting burgled as well, in Tavistock Square?
DK: Well, that wasn’t strictly a reason for moving though it was a reason for relief when we did move. There were several burglaries, yes. I suppose that area is still on the edge of a dodgy district, focusing around King’s Cross, but it was much more marked in those days. And there would be, at night I think, groups of desperate people who needed some money to buy some drugs and they used to break in and steal our computers. One night, somehow or another, people pushed in the front door: it was a huge early 19th century reinforced front door.
PO: That’s truly desperate.
DK: Truly desperate. I don’t know how they did it. The police told me that normally people break into those sorts of doors by putting a telegraph pole in the back of a lorry and reversing into the door and I looked at the site and said, ‘Well, they couldn’t have done that here’. Nico Mann, who was Director of the Warburg at that time, had a flat in one of the houses nearby, in the basement, and he said he’d woken up at about 1:00 in the morning to a terrible noise – and that’s clearly what it was. And it must have been two huge people running up the steps at the door and pushing their shoulders against it.
DK: Yes! And the following day I had to sit in the open door pretty well all day while the police did a bit of work and the University carpenters and joiners took the door away, and replaced it, with all the necessary locks and bars and everything.
PO: Right. So it sounds like it was about time when you [found out you had to move]?
DK: Yes, I think people were a bit relieved.
PO: And that was in the 1990s then, that you relocated to the Senate House IHR site?
DK: We relocated to more or less the space we occupy now.
PO: And talking about the Centre [for Metropolitan History] there, it’d be interesting to ask you whether you thought that there were any other institutions in the field of urban or metropolitan history that you thought had also been important?
DK: Well, there was the Centre for Urban History that Peter Clark had got going at the University of Leicester.
PO: Leicester. And did that predate…?
DK: That predated us, yes. And I suppose in a sense it helped shape the model a bit, although there it was embedded, in that it did teaching as well, and we only gradually moved towards teaching, and only teaching at graduate level (the remit of the IHR). I think Peter was a bit worried about us at first, though that’s all passed now, but we were certainly not intending to set up in competition to carve out any of his territory because there was plenty to do in London. And the reason for calling it Metropolitan History was partly because we wanted to demonstrate that we were covering the entire metropolis of London, but also because we wanted to explore London as a type of city, that you can think of as the metropolis.
PO: And would therefore afford comparisons presumably?
DK: Yes, comparisons. And by that time I’d already got hooked up one way or another with a fair number of continental and United States scholars working on aspects of urban history and other cities. I became a member of the International Commission for the History of Towns where I met some very interesting people and made some good friends.
PO: Did you find that comparative approach a fruitful one, then?
DK: Oh, extremely. I’d never been very structured I think, in comparisons, except when writing a particular piece. I haven’t set out to organise my life on a totally comparative basis but I have found that there’s probably at least three ways in which you can be comparative in a sense. One is straightforwardly to compare one place, or three or four places, with each other at about the same time, assuming that they’re in about the same social/political context, in a formal way and see what’s similar and what’s different and whether that helps you to understand each place better and to understand general phenomena better. Or you can look at a single place over a long period, comparing one period with another, and actually getting a similar type of better understanding. Or you can think about cities as places where people move from one to another, or a network of cities within which they operate – and think about why those people operate in different cities. It’s not just because they’re merchants, although that’s quite often the case.
And that I suppose led me to ideas about cultural exchange; flow of ideas; the movement of expertise, skills; the recruitment of expertise and skills. One of the smaller tasks I’ve done in recent years has been to get together a sort of analytical biography of a late 13th-century Bologna lawyer. His father was much better known than he was, but he’s quite famous because he’s encountered by Dante in the depths of the Inferno. One of the great controversies about this man is why is he in the depths of the Inferno? Is he there because he was a homosexual? Which as far as we know he actually wasn’t; although many people believe Dante was implying that he was. Or was he there, which I now tend to think, because the ideas that he represented and the decisions about political allegiance that he made in his career were contrary to Dante’s idea about monarchical authority? He’d supported the church against the emperor at one point, whereas Dante had a version clear sense that the emperor was the true source of authority.
Anyway, this man was recruited by Edward I of England of all people, and came and lived for seven years in England and at least half of that time he was based in London, so that raises a whole lot of interesting questions. What was he doing in England? What sort of place did he live in when he was here? When was he in London? How did that compare with what he did in Bologna? I recently put all that together in a simple essay and in the course of doing it have added depth I think, to our understanding of Edward I as a patron of experts of one sort or another; the career of Italian lawyers, particularly in this case in relation to internal conflict in the city where he originated; and why on earth Edward I wanted him. Which I think I’ve nailed!
I’ve also thought quite a lot about comparisons between the Far East and European cities. Not so much because they highlight similarities, but because they highlight extreme differences which makes you understand the relative significance of (broadly speaking) cosmological ideas informing everyday life in, say, China or Japan, as opposed to Europe. In both territories some sort of cosmological ideas inform ideas about cities.
PO: But very different ones.
DK: Well, rather different ideas, though the sun appears in both. But much more formally thought out in terms of urban planning and the types of authority that are being expressed through and within towns in the east. At the same time, there [are] all sorts of striking similarities: the role of aristocracies for example – the way in which monarchs use cities in order to control aristocracies by attracting them into their courts.
In the case of 17th- and 18th-century Japan, they had a hostage system whereby members of the provincial aristocratic families who had been in the past a very great threat to central authority, were kept to some extent under control by there always being members of those families kept more or less as hostages in the capital cities. And which of course was profitable for the cities, and in a way they quite liked being in the cities because it was the focus of cultural life, but it did mean that they couldn’t build up power in the provinces.
PO: So it was also a means of control.
DK: Yes. Now there are some resemblances there with the London season, only it was an enforced season, so to speak, in Japan. If you think of the way in which aristocratic landowning wealth is not antipathetic to cities, and was certainly not antipathetic to cities in England.
PO: So in a sense there – I may be paraphrasing you incorrectly – because in Japan that phenomenon was more marked and more clear, it becomes more obvious to you and then once that idea’s in your head you can look at a European city and think, actually, the same thing is going on here, just in a less direct fashion.
DK: Yes, yes. So you get a sense that here is something that is a more general situation than you otherwise realised but dealt with in a very different way.
PO: So, it sounds like…
DK: It’s almost like moving towards establishing scientific rules and principles – except I don’t think things exist in history as such. History is much more accidental, catastrophic, chaotic – in the chaos theory sense. Things are connected but the patterns are not so clear.
PO: And any overarching meta-narrative, as soon as you’ve laid it out, will be disproved by some…
DK: It can be disproved to some extent, yes, but there might well remain considerable elements of truth in it.
PO: So from what you were saying there, it sounds like the study of cities and urban history leads you almost immediately into all sorts of other areas which have been studied by other historians with different approaches – you were talking about the aristocracy, or when you’re talking about the history of ideas. But approaching them from a slightly different direction.
DK: Yes, I think that’s just one of the strengths, could be one of the strengths, of urban history. That’s one of the reasons I don’t think that an urban historian should concentrate only on the urban site itself; you need to think about it in its region, its wider world. But one of the things that you can gain if you look at the totality of things that are going on in the urban or the metropolitan site, is the way in which all sorts of wider activities and trends are reflected in that site. It’s a concentration of human activity, ideas and experiences and you can use it as a mirror for looking at the much wider world.
PO: It’s a particularly fruitful site to be…
PO: And would this approach have been influenced at any point by, say, the Annales school and their idea of total history, or is it different to that?
DK: Yes, I would say I was definitely influenced by the Annales school. I find the Annales much less interesting to read than they used to be! Unless they’re doing something exotic. They have a policy of focusing on something exotic which is only just beginning to become fashionable in English writing of history, particularly the development of global history.
PO: Well, you mentioning there that you used to find them more interesting than you do now, I suppose brings me on to another question, a slightly different aspect that I wanted to ask you about, which was maybe to reflect in a more general sense about developments in history and to pick out, perhaps, any trends that you’ve seen over the last 40 years or so – in the popularity of different approaches or the popularity of the study of different periods?
DK: Well, thinking about approaches, I suppose I started off in quite an old-fashioned context. I can remember contemporaries, or seniors, thinking it was slightly odd that someone should be interested in topography and things that people had done in the early 20th century or the 19th century, but I stuck at it for the sort of reasons that I’ve just outlined. And interestingly, people get very excited about space now and as I indicated earlier, I think to an unjustifiable extent they construct it into something that’s got too much reality. Too much ideological baggage perhaps.
PO: So the idea of space has come back into fashion but in a slightly different format?
DK: In a different way.
PO: And informed by theory.
DK: Or by French meanderings, some of which I find ridiculously fascinating. I find Lefevbre interesting, but Michel de Certeau’s L'invention du quotidien (translated as The Practice of Everday Life) is extremely illuminating in the way that Walter Benjamin is illuminating, not because you can follow a theory or a strict argument but it’s just lots of odd observations brought together. In the case of Benjamin it’s often brought together by thinking about urban environments, so although I always told my students to be careful about Benjamin, or ‘That’s enough Benjamin for now’, I do think there’s a lot to be said for him. As I developed my own kind of spatial line, other things were happening – a more distinctive, theoretically based, urban morphology, for example: a whole load of people went off and became urban morphologists. And I was definitely influenced by some of them but I felt professionally I didn’t want to be an urban morphologist, in the same sort of way that I decided professionally I didn’t want to be an archaeologist, but I’d always be engaged with it in some way.
PO: What is an urban morphologist?
DK: They describe, analyse and theorise about the evolution of urban form. They’re not claiming that it’s an organism but it’s as if it was an organism: there are ways in which it physically develops, and it involves a lot of measuring and classification and I think in the end it’s a little bit dry.
PO: So that was one thing that emerged and became more popular?
DK: Yes. Definitely. In fact, I was contacted by the son (who’s now a Professor of Geography in Chicago) of one of the early English urban morphologists, a man called Conzen. He was active in the fifties and sixties and German by origin, and brought a pre-war German notion of morphological analysis of towns, though he wasn’t wedded to the phase of growth approach which is one of the great areas of debate in German urban historiography: the question of whether you can you identify phases of growth by looking at maps and so on. I would say to some extent you can but you often can’t, and that morpologists have tended to draw out the phases of growth in far too cavalier fashion.
But anyway, Conzen’s son rang me up as I’d written a paper about something, and could he have a copy, and we got talking about his father. I suddenly realised how influential his father had been one me, even though I decided not actually to take that approach very far. I definitely became more interested in thinking hard about economic history and social aspects of economic history, and in a way I suppose I’ve become a sort of economic determinist in that I see an awful lot of social relations, cultural practices, as being essentially economic. Reflecting decisions that people make about how they live with other people. Whether you operate in a loose way or a tight way; how you make a living in relation to the environment you live in.
PO: So in fact you might have agreed more with Rodney Hilton now?
DK: Possibly, yes! Although he was never very rigorous I felt. Well, one reason that he wasn’t rigorous was that to be rigorous it takes quite a lot of time and effort. I was lucky to be able to get funding for projects in relatively small ways, but I think productive ways, we looked at particular sites very intensively, analysed everything very intensively and ended up with I think quite influential findings. Cities in their hinterlands, the organisation of trades – things like that.
PO: And moving beyond your own experiences, or even your own subject, [are] there any other general observations you could make?
DK: The practice of urban history, metropolitan history? Yes.
PO: Or the practice of history itself.
DK: Well, it goes through what people call ‘turns’. Always makes me think of old aunts who thought there was a ‘turn’ coming on! And that’s not just a jocular observation because I think they are in a sense a sort of disease that historians are liable to. They suddenly pick up a fragment of an idea and invest an awful lot of emotional and intellectual capital on it. There was the linguistic turn which was never about linguistics – it was never about the serious study of language – it was just thinking about words a little bit. There’s been the cultural turn, which actually I think has been quite profitable but it’s colonising whole areas of activity, which previously was going on in a perfectly satisfactory fashion, and it’s claiming them as its own, so to speak. I suppose that’s life and politics, isn’t it, that people create – or they like to create – movements: to establish schools, to develop reputations in that way.
PO: But you see these as, to an extent, superficial developments in that…
DK: Probably. Yes.
PO: …They’re more to do with, perhaps, politics and ego and people’s wish for the new, than with any sort of genuine revolution in historical thinking?
DK: Yes. I think everybody should always be looking for the new; that seems to be something that’s just innate in us as humans. One thing I’ve got quite interested in, but not in a very serious philosophical sense, is how you distinguish between humans and animals, and that probably is one of the characteristics. Except that there are plenty of human societies that have been characterised by stability over thousands of years and evidently not a lot of seeking for the new!
PO: That blows that one out [of] the window!
DK: Yes: so it’s not an essentially human characteristic! The situation that we live in – a European civilisation with a sense of history – has always, well, for 3,000 or 4,000 years, had a lot to do with exchange. Ideas about the new have nearly always been very important.
PO: I suppose once you have a sense of history, as opposed to a kind of cyclical sense of how the world progresses, then that perhaps brings on the capacity to think about the new more.
DK: Or is it the other way round? That history actually emerges from an awareness of change – history as a way of thinking and as a sort of discipline. I’ve been doing something recently that started out looking at the way in which people described and portrayed towns in the 12th and 13th centuries and then got tied up with the connections between that and emerging ideas of the history of towns, which in the British case ties up with emerging ideas of a structure of the history of Britain – which most definitely emerges in the 12th century. And that all happens in an environment which is becoming increasingly commercial, and increasingly busy in all sorts of ways and increasingly scientific in quite a real sense I think. Intellectual enquiry in all sorts of areas, including material everyday things.
PO: Okay; so do you see there ideas possibly emerging from developments in commerce? Or, as you were saying before, perhaps economic factors driving…
DK: Well, commerce does involve and promote a particular type of culture which is looking out for opportunities, so that’s rather like looking out for the new.
PO: Yes, indeed.
DK: It makes you very self-consciously aware of the importance of information, and ordering things properly. So I’m quite happy with cultural history being part of economic history, or the other way round, and have found it quite interesting to be involved in a cultural history project across Europe for a few years – until it came to the fact that I had to edit the essays that had been written in various languages!
PO: Which was a bit more tricky.
DK: Which was definitely more tricky, yes.
PO: Okay; well, all of that’s extremely interesting. I was wondering now of I could turn and ask you a little bit about your views – I suppose more on the profession than the discipline. I wondered if I could start with asking you if you think the pressures on academics have changed during your career?
DK: If you include my career as sort of everything since I was a graduate student, very definitely. It’s a completely different sort of world. I mean, a lot of that time I was outside that world but I could observe it.
PO: What would those main differences be in your opinion?
DK: Well, to a large extent bureaucratic I think. Much more time spent on administering things. Much less time thinking, debating, writing, researching. I’m not sure this is always inevitable with history but it’s certainly the case that exercises like the RAE, the need to advance a career, to have markers of achievement and so on: all those combine in various ways to make people specialise more than they should and to drill down into things rather than to think widely. At the same time, of course, we’ve got global history developing and we’ve got a growing number of people – which I’m pleased to see – thinking about things in the long run, that means over centuries if not thousands of years, but not really connecting up with archaeologists. Who they should connect up with, if not archaeologists?
And there’s a lot more just general pressure, I think, on people.
PO: In what form does that manifest itself?
DK: I think a lot of it is peer group pressure. Academics generally have got themselves into – almost like the famous Chinese civil service of pressurised exams, training – people going mad before they finish the examination.
PO: The very system of both training and the early career has become an extremely competitive one?
DK: Yes. In my time it was in a way less competitive, on the other hand there was less to be competitive for. There weren’t that many jobs, which was one reason why I spent so long outside the formal university. And nor were there the early career opportunities, like the junior fellowships and so on. They’ve all mushroomed in the last couple of decades.
PO: And do you think the pressures are different for someone working like you have been, I suppose like you are now to a large extent, in a research rather than teaching centre?
DK: Oh yes. I expect there is an increasing divorce between, and it’s probably only going to get worse, between people who are predominantly teachers and people who are predominantly researchers. I’ve always been predominantly a researcher I suppose, but now I have to be a research facilitator, at least until I retire.
PO: And that’s only a month or so!
DK: Yes. And that’s something of course that affects the Institute. It was an Institute for historical research. One reason it was glad to take me on was that the amount of research it was actually doing wasn’t actually all that great, or not that diverse, so we could in various ways encourage the development within the Institute towards research centres. Now the politics have changed a bit. That doesn’t mean to say that we can’t pursue significant research, but the core money which keeps us as a stable institution is for research facilitation, so that’s something a bit different.
It’s certainly true I think in teaching institutions that the teaching tends to get loaded on the people who are junior and might not be so strong at research. And the ambition of people in teaching institutions is to spend their time away from them with research fellowships.
PO: So you see that people’s attitudes there are that you do your stint of teaching and are rewarded for that by your sabbatical year?
DK: Yes, or by several years as a research professor somewhere. I do quite a lot of assessing now for whether so-and-so (in this country and America) should be a research professor or not. So that’s a model which has spread right across Europe. Then the pressures of everyday work have built up. Clearly people and funders and institutions are thinking of ways where you can get people out of that and into purely research posts if only for a few years.
PO: And from what we were saying earlier, you’ve been applying for grants for a long time.
DK: Not the last few years! I was very glad to give that up and hand it on to Matthew [Davies, current Director of the CMH].
PO: But do you see that as being an aspect of the profession that almost you were ahead of, in a sense, that that’s now a more frequent part of the academic’s role, to try and secure extra funding?
DK: Yes. I guess I was ahead of it, and it was through force of circumstances. If I didn’t do it we’d have been out on the street. And then of course, you do it for your family, and after a bit you do it for the people who’ve worked with you. So we used to joke about standing in Gower Street with placards saying ‘Wife, children and research assistants to support’.
So I guess I was ahead, and that has now become much more of an everyday activity for everybody.
PO: And you were talking before we started the interview as well about the contrast you were making between universities in Europe and universities here, and the skills that they inculcated in their undergraduates, and the skills that were expected of them. I was wondering if you could reflect a little bit on that for us?
DK: Well one of things that that I regret in English universities in history is that there’s less medieval history going on, and less general interest in it. Despite the fact that a great deal of the history in that period that is being done is extremely lively and innovative, and trying out all sorts of ideas.
Actually I think there’s a parallel there with what happened to classics some years ago – well some decades ago.
DK: The totality of the subject shrank, but what was left was in many ways more vibrant. But for both classics and medieval history you do need basic skills that increasingly the education system here is not providing people with. I know you can pick it up later, but you’d do a lot better if you had some Latin and Greek and a few more foreign languages at school.
PO: So it would be the language skills that you’re thinking of primarily.
DK: Well I think so at school level. Because often you wouldn’t know which direction you were going to go in, but if you are to become an academic, certainly a historian, you’ve got to be able to read in several languages, if you’re to do it seriously. And if you’re to be a medieval historian you’ve got to read your source materials in several languages. And I noticed in Central and Eastern Europe to a considerable extent (and Germany as well), probably because their education systems are heavily influenced by the German model and because they’re just more conservative, that they haven’t changed in the way that we have. One of the good effects of conservatism in a sense. And there’s a lot of people with extremely high levels of basic skills – in different languages, in techniques like palaeography and diplomatic. I think that applies in Italy too. Of course they’ve got an inbuilt cultural commitment to the classics.
PO: The classics is a more nationalist issue there!
DK: Yes, though many school children reject it. I was once sitting round a dinner table in Italy and the conversation was ‘Who’s your favourite poet?’ and ‘Who’s your least favourite poet?’, and all the young people said the least favourite was Dante, because he’d been rammed down their throats so much.
I mean a positive thing that one notices in England, Britain, has been a sort of independence of mind very often, and a liveliness, a willingness not to be constrained by the conventional. Often though there’s then a sort of limitation because you haven’t had enough basic training. But basic training is expensive, and for a long time now we haven’t been investing in education, we’ve not been as wealthy a country as we’ve pretended to be. And if at age about 20 you decide you want to specialise in a rather exotic area it’s very difficult to find the time and support for the necessary training. I noticed that actually among the junior fellows at the IHR, that some of the Mellon fellows from the United States are taking many years to do their doctorate, and quite a lot of those years are devoted to acquiring basic skills. It’s clearly a very expensive operation.
PO: This is a point that David Cannadine made to me as well when I spoke to him, about the advantages in terms of how well-honed a historian you are when you come out of an American PhD compared to the British three year model. That those additional years for training obviously have effects on the research that you can subsequently do.
DK: Absolutely. And usually you’re given a lot more guidance I think, and help as to how you might pursue a line of interest and what your plan should be, because there’s a possibility that you could support that plan, which might cover six, seven years from first deciding that you’re going to work on [in a particular area]. I remember one striking case of such an individual who had he’d learnt Turkish, the next thing was to learn Greek, and then Arabic.
PO: That’s quite a plan.
DK: Yes. So that they could do this particular area of commercial and cultural study in the early modern Eastern Mediterranean. And they’d already got Italian. So they were going to be really set up. Somebody had decided at some point that they were a good investment I suppose. And there’s not many people here who get those opportunities.
PO: But presumably that was never the case was it. In the 1960s and 1970s were people being given the time and the money to pick up these skills.
DK: No, not really. It was quite hurried even then.
PO: And, not meaning to play devils advocate too much, were there also that many people in terms of quantity who had the skills in languages and in palaeography that you remark upon as being so important. Is it not maybe now that it’s simply because the profession itself has grown exponentially. You see the absence of that many trained people but they may well have been absent before, it’s just that there were only a limited number of posts.
DK: Well I didn’t go to a terribly good school. It was a county grammar school. And we learned a few languages. And quite a lot of us learnt a few languages.
And my children went to equivalent sorts of schools, but they were comprehensives. And it wasn’t because they were comprehensives – I think one has to regard the sort of level at which they were taught as roughly equivalent to me. And they certainly didn’t have the opportunity to pick up that range of things.
PO: Right, ok, that’s interesting.
DK: They picked up quite a lot of other things, and my daughter in particular was able to do a more varied and interesting group of subjects at A-level than would ever have been open to me. She did physics, history and art – which is quite a striking combination.
PO: It’s either an indication of a broad mind or a schizophrenic one.
DK: I put it down to being a broad mind, because she’s had quite a good career subsequently. But it wouldn’t have equipped her to become a historian.
I think you’ve raised an interesting point in fact. And that might related to wider interest in history. Which is down on your list of questions I see.
PO: That’s right actually. Carry on.
DK: Because it does strike me there are a lot more people with an interest in history than there used to be, and there are more things for them to read and to do. And then there’s the whole family history thing, which draws a lot of people in. And it certainly didn’t in the 1950s. There were some people who were in it, but if people got drawn as amateurs into history it was often through local history.
DK: Like my father was.
PO: Whereas now that route it for the amateur would be family history, or be more likely to be?
DK: More likely to be. And it’s something they do themselves, so to speak, and they train each other through correspondence and groups.
PO: And in the reading room at the PRO (or The National Archives now).
DK: Yes. And they’re developing extraordinary skills. I mean better skills than professional historians have in some respects. But it would be nice to see more people who become local historians so to speak, and then have a wider sense of what things might have meant. So I think that’s quite a big difference, and in an interesting way (and this hasn’t struck me before) it perhaps mirrors what’s happened with history in education.
DK: More people are exposed to history, though the amount of teaching of history is now a lot less than it was just a few years ago, so we may be in the point of another change there. But not as much teaching of the specialised skills that might enable you to go on and be a historian if that’s what you chose to do. So you’d have to get yourself out of the training system in order to pick up those particular skills specially.
PO: So the vocational elements of the skills for history are absent, as opposed to the more general interest in the subject?
DK: Yes. I don’t know whether that makes people less critical about history, giving them a less critical view of the past and therefore a less critical view of the present. I mean, I’m always going on to people that they should take account of history. Not in a sense that it teaches you lessons that you can apply in any direct fashion these days, but it gives you clues as to the sort of thing that might happen, and to certain processes which do recur.
For example, in the current economic crisis that we’re in – the incipient recession and collapse of credit and so on – there’s been the odd reference to the 1930s, but surprisingly little reference; we refer back to the early 1990s and the 1970s quite a bit. No reference at all back to the huge economic collapses of the 19th century, the banking crises of the late 1860s and the impact that they had over almost a generation, particularly in places like London. Affecting the housing market, building, all sorts of things.
PO: So that’s an interesting idea of a slightly ahistorical age isn’t it, where parallels can be drawn but only within living memory, because anything beyond that is assumed to be irrelevant to this new age that is sort of cut off from the past.
DK: Strangely enough I’m in a group, which some years ago was put together by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment and English Heritage, called the Urban Panel. And it’s always included a historian or two on it. I’ve been on it since the beginning. They seem to want me to stay on it. And it has architects, property developers, an engineer or two. And we get parachuted into difficult urban planning situations, often where there’s an insoluble, or seems to be an insoluble, local debate. To see if we can diplomatically help them out a bit on the basis of our experience. And quite often people seem to appreciate something that a [medieval] historian can say.
PO: That’s really interesting.
DK: But they’re quite surprised that a historian could be interested, so to speak, and could try and think in a way that could be helpful to them.
PO: That history could be applied in that fashion or refer to that kind of issue or subject?
DK: Yes. And you have to be careful. You can’t lay down lessons from history because we so often get it wrong as historians, but there are sorts of experience that you can draw upon, I think, and say ‘It might turn out like this’, or ‘This general type of thing has certainly happened before, and it’s worth thinking how they dealt with it then’.
PO: Certainly. I think you mentioned before my next question actually, where I wanted to ask you if you’d seen any changes in the relationship between academic history, which we’ve been largely discussing, and popular history, which I suppose manifests itself in many forms and which you alluded to there with the suggestion that there might actually be more popular history now than in the past?
DK: I was basing my remark there not so much a knowledge of what popular history is, or what the popular interest in history is, as on a knowledge of the number historical publications that are aimed at the popular market, and the evident success of some programs on television like Time Team and others. There are a lot of historical programs at peak television, or relatively peak television, viewing hours. I mean I don’t know much about them because I rarely view television before eleven o’clock at night.
PO: And what about the aspects concerning the intersection between the academic world and the popular world. Would you think that in the 1960s or 1970s academics would have had more or less influence or impact over popular views on history? Do you think there might have been a change there?
DK: Well, if you think of the television there have been some quite dramatic engagements between serious historians and archaeologists and television viewers. In the 1950s there was this programme Animal, Vegetable, Mineral which became a huge success because it was funny old archaeologists talking about objects which they were supposed not to recognise and then debating what they were and what they meant. And I remember being fascinated by that.
And then there were things like A. J. P. Taylor’s lectures. Somebody standing there and talking in riveting fashion about historical events, episodes. And I always find that one of the most interesting things in everyday history, academic history, is when you encounter somebody who can just talk like that, as an individual, about some significant aspect of history. And it’s the same with aracheologists too. Especially if they’re doing it in the field.
I really don’t know how much of that direct contact between academics, or more or less direct contact between academics and the world at large is going on. Do you have a view? I mean you’re not supposed to have one – being interviewed for a moment!
PO: I suppose other people I’ve interviewed have obviously cited the likes of David Starkey and Simon Schama, and their very popular television programmes.
DK: Programmes which I’ve never actually looked at because they’ve been too early in the day.
PO: And I think that the issue that was being talked about, and different people had different opinions on it, was the extent to which academic work fed into this history that was then presented to a wider audience, or the extent to which it was diluted by the time it had reached that point.
DK: Well it’s true I think that the latest academic ideas, the exciting coal face of discovery sort of stuff takes an awful long time to get through. And probably longer and longer as things become more specialised. So it might take ten or 15 years to get into an undergraduate textbook, and 20 or 30 years, if ever, to get into a school book. And that’s a pity.
But it seems to me increasingly often that quite serious academic work, stuff that’s not just the latest finding but which is attempting some sort of overview, above the level of a textbook, simply gets things wrong and isn’t aware of [significant] areas. And that’s worrying too
PO: That people who really should know better:
DK: That people who should know better – maybe it’s because they’re under pressure of course – or haven’t quite grasped it.
PO: So that’s an interesting angle there that rather than people criticising popular histories for over-simplifying and missing the point to a certain extent academics should look at their own house as well.
DK: I think maybe everybody’s doing it. It’s partly because there’s so much history around, so that ought to raise some questions about the practice of history generally, and how we communicate it to each other and how we should encourage a breadth of interest.
PO: Because without that people could be writing within their specialist area unaware of developments, say, in urban history, and therefore be missing what would seem to be some very obvious points, that had they a knowledge of that would have informed their-
DK: I remember – and this is very interesting, this sort of quality of historians – years after I’d been supervised for a while by Howard Colvin we met. And I was telling him about some totally unexpected conclusions I’d come to about medieval London, of an economic character. Howard had for years been a specialised architectural historian, but extraordinarily bright, and had a range of background knowledge. And he immediately twigged somehow, and managed out of his own experience to add some little additional bit of explanation.
So we do just have to keep on learning things I suppose, as you do in everyday life. You don’t reject things, you absorb and make sense of as much as you can.
PO: An accumulation of wisdom-
DK: I suppose it’s wisdom, yes.
PO: Well with our slight conjectures there that leads me on nicely to the last thing I wanted to ask you, which was just whether you had any views on the future of the discipline or of the profession?
DK: Historians increasingly want to talk to each other across the world, and I’m in the process of organising what I hope will be an engagement between British and Chinese historians next year. And there’s lots and lots of projects like that going on. I think history is in a good state, because in a sense it’s an area of communication across the world at a time when we do need to be communicating about things other than everyday business or warfare.
We don’t yet know what the severe diminishing of the teaching of history in schools will result in. Presumably it could have an impact on universities and university departments and that sort of higher level of training. It’s clear that that’s not the case in all countries, but it’s the case in quite a lot of countries I think, that in terms of investment in education people are not necessarily thinking of history in the way in which they did.
Partly it’s up to historians to show people that not only is history interesting, but that it has a relevance to general understanding, and it’s a source of experience. I wouldn’t use such a high-flown word such as wisdom, but the sort of experience that you gain through engaging with history is really rather parallel to the experience that you gain through coping with everyday life, and everyday work. It’s cumulative and as a historian professionally you apply lessons that you couldn’t apply when you were younger. Just because you know a bit more, and you can exercise judgement a bit more easily. You’re just as likely to be wrong as when you were young of course, but you feel you can do it.
PO: In the same way that human beings presumably can operate the same judgement with regard to their own lives?
DK: Well for thousands of years we’ve believed that the accumulation of experience and the wisdom you have to pass on is something valuable. And I think the study of history has a big part to play in that.
I can’t really believe that people will just cease to be interested in history. But it may be that the profession or the discipline goes through some difficult times until the point when the general accumulated experience and wisdom makes people realise that you actually have to learn something about history.
PO: Until the wheel turns again I suppose?
DK: It may do, yes. I think of David Cannadine’s project on history in education, or history in British education – one of its early finding seems to be that in 1900 there was really remarkably little teaching of history in schools. And so the pursuit of serious history was very much an elite occupation. It would be nice to think it doesn’t just become an elite occupation again – but there is probably a bit of a risk of that.
PO: And on that uncertain note I think we can finish there – so Professor Keene, thank you very much indeed.