Project Officer: This interview is being conducted for the
‘Making history: the discipline in perspective’ project, and the Project
Officer will be speaking to Professor John Morrill about his experience
of and views on changes in the discipline and in the academic profession
Professor Morrill, may we start with your giving us some brief biographical information?
John Morrill: Yes. I’m 61 now, had a grammar school background and went up to Oxford in 1964, and stayed there for ten years in the end doing a doctorate on local history in the Civil War period: the history of Cheshire, which is my home county. And then I had a Research Fellowship at Oxford in the early 1970s, and got a permanent post at Stirling University in Scotland, which was one of the brand new universities, in fact the last of the Robbins universities of the 60s. And then fairly soon after that I was headhunted to come back to a College teaching job in Cambridge, and was very fortunate to get a university post here more or less straight away, and have been in Cambridge since then.
I have really had three careers. First. as a very active undergraduate teacher, then with quite a long period in administration as a senior tutor of the college and running a research centre here in Cambridge, and latterly as a major teacher of research students. I’ve now had more than a hundred research students. And I’m now Professor of British and Irish history.
PO: It would be interesting to hear from you how you came into the profession so to speak. What was it that led you to become a historian rather than to do anything else?
JM: Very early in my life I could very easily have abandoned history – I had a very bad history teacher when I was 13 and 14 and did better in geography. And I had to choose in the end between geography and history, and chose history very much against what my head said. But I then fell into the hands of an absolutely brilliant history teacher at school, an inspirational history teacher, himself a major author in local history. Through his inspiration I decided to read it at university, and went to his old college in Oxford. He’d been the son of a miner, and like him I think I was the only state-school boy in my year at the college.
And then as an undergraduate I had an inspirational 17th-century teacher, that’s J. P. Cooper as he was always known professionally. So by then I was not only committed to being a historian but committed to doing early modern history. There was a wobble because I did actually apply to become a prison governor. There was a social conscience side to it, which I’ve always had, which led me later to work with the probation service and subsequently to be ordained – but I think really the reason I applied to become a prison governor was because I didn’t think I was good enough to do research. I think it was John Cooper’s whisky that persuaded me to carry on, that I should do a research degree in history. And after that the early modern period was always the one that I seemed destined to be in.
PO: And, I suppose besides the influence of your direct teachers and tutors, what intellectual influences would you say that you’d had?
JM: What will surprise a lot of people who read my work is that I was enormously influenced by Christopher Hill.
JM: It was Christopher Hill’s passion for the 17th century which mattered to me enormously. He was absolutely at his height in the early 1960s. He gave a series of talks on the radio about the intellectual origins of the English revolution which I remember completely grabbing me, and all through my undergraduate days it was his books I found the most exciting. The week before my finals I went into a monastery – simply for some peace and quiet, not for religious reasons – but I only took one book with me. It was a kind of comfort blanket, and it was Christopher Hill’s ‘Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England’. Which I still think is one of the most remarkable books written in the last half-century – one of the most inspirational books. And whatever its frailities, in its power to capture the mental world of the past it is one of the great books.
PO: So it was his enthusiasm rather than his Marxism that-
JM: Of course the whole world was in a loose sense Marxist in the late 60s and early 70s when I was in my formation. When I was first teaching in the late 60s and early 70s, Marxist categories were the ones in which people thought. And his books were definitely the ones everyone started from.
But he was certainly the most important influence, and interestingly the other dominant figure in the field that I came to work in, Lawrence Stone, was someone I always reacted against. I never liked his work, I always thought he was over-schematic. I didn’t think he had the empathy with the mental world of the past that Christopher Hill had.
So in my own formation I reacted much more violently against Stone, and I think in so far as I’m seen as one of the early revisionists it was Stone I was rejecting rather than Hill. So Hill remained for me someone who I thought was a great pioneer and someone who really did want to look at how people outside the elite thought and acted.
PO: And amongst other – you mention you’re seen as one of the early revisionists – amongst other revisionist historians was there anyone there?
JM: Well I think the interesting thing about revisionism was how a whole series of people came to the same conclusions simultaneously without really knowing one another. I hadn’t met Mark Kishlansky or Conrad Russell or Kevin Sharpe when we all published our 1976 works which were the initial canon of revisionism, and that’s one of the most interesting things.
It’s also worth saying that almost all the revisionists were people who’d studied in Oxford and then been made to leave, for whom jobs couldn’t be found in Oxford. We reacted to some extent against a previous generation of Oxford-trained historians like Stone and Hugh Trevor-Roper and Hill. So it was a curiously Oxford-dominated thing both in what was being reacted against and in the reaction itself.
I think it was in 1973 in Oxford when I was a young research fellow that I gave a series of lectures called ‘Some Unfashionable Thoughts on English 17th-century History’, and these were extraordinarily crude and unsophisticated revisionism avant la lettre. But I’m not claiming I’m the progenitor – I’m saying there were a lot of people trying to work out a new position who were dissatisfied with the existing position. I’ve no doubt at all that Lawrence Stone’s Causes of the English Revolution (1972) was the thing people reacted against, with its rather triumphalist claim that you could now produce a kind of social determinist view of the long-term causes and origins of the English revolution. It was that I think, which a number of people quite independently reacted against.
PO: We might come back to talk about that more specifically within your area of expertise, but I thought we could move on now to talking about how the profession’s changed during your lifetime or your career, beginning with the study of the early modern period and of the Civil War?
JM: Beyond recognition! I suppose when I came into the profession in the early 1970s – well I studied in the 60s and then entered the profession in the 70s – that the overwhelming emphasis was on a positivist approach of extrapolating people’s ideas from the social circumstances and social realities. And there was a very strong view that the English Civil War was the consequence of a long-term process of change. And that was related broadly speaking to a transition from feudalism to capitalism. Not everyone wanted to use that language, but you could say a move from a medieval to a modern world, and this was the hinge period. And that as fundamental changes to the economy and the distribution of social wealth and power were taking place there would be political tensions that could not be resolved without violence.
It was simply taken for granted. There were huge disagreements about how you constructed that – I mean the most obvious one was whether you had a rising gentry who were frustrated by the lack of political opportunity, or alternatively whether you had a thrusting successful courtier gentry who were confronted by the resentment of a backward-looking ‘mere’ group. So you had alternative ways of explaining it but that there was a process of fundamental transformation which wasn’t being achieved without political stress of a very high order was widely accepted.
And it’s the collapse of that which was the major change.
And I suppose the other thing is that there was much less sensitivity in the generation whose work I got to know in the 60s and 70s to understanding the past in its own terms. The use of anachronistic frameworks of reference like the word class itself, and that would only be one. And the main challenge I think of revisionism had less to do with being counter-teleological , which it’s often accused of, as being counter-anachronistic. There was a determination to let the past speak in its own terms and to enter into the mental world of the past and to grant it its own integrity, and also to look at the contingency of events in the past. And once that happened it became clear that there were lots of other interesting stories to be told that weren’t part of that story of progress. And it was at that point, which also had to do with the way the training of historians took place (which we can come back to) that all kinds of new sources were opened up.
Christopher Hill, for example, was a great pioneer in looking at what he called the middling sort, looking at the newly literate, the newly economically independent groups. But he explored them through print culture. He looked at the records that he’d found in the Bodleian library in its great holding of printed sources. It strangely never occurred to him to go and look at court records where, in the depositions of exactly these people, a lot of their mindset could be more immediately and authentically explored.
So there came along the new social history which opened up a whole range of types of evidence, and so one of the most important things to happen for my period was the work which is most obviously associated with Keith Wrightson (who trained in Cambridge, spent many years in St Andrews, returned to Cambridge and then moved onto Yale). And the Wrightson revolution really, in the way in which social history is done, had a huge impact on those of us who were more interested in high politics. I mean popular politics, constructed high politics. Wrightson’s importance for my work is again something that people might be a bit surprised to hear about, but I personally, in my mid-career, saw it as absolutely fundamental.
PO: And in terms of where the debate’s reached now, would you say that there’s any consensus over the current approach or the theoretical approaches to be taken to this period?
JM: I think that ever since the 1970s what’s been happening is a fragmentation of the discipline. And that of course is a great richness, but it also makes it very complicated to get a big overview. At the moment there is enormous strength in intellectual history, in looking at ideas with only limited reference to the social and political context that created them, a kind of genealogy of ideas, looking at how ideas mutate over time, and mutate very much within a context of an exchange of ideas. With an awareness that there are contexts within which things get written but there isn’t a dialogue between the context and the ideas – there’s simply a noting of the social and political context and THEN an examination of the ideas in their own right. And that’s a very powerful and influential strand of thought, and that has been particularly dominant in the study of political ideas, associated most obviously with my very distinguished colleague Quentin Skinner.
It’s also happened with religious ideas, and of course there is a close connection between religious and political ideas, but in the history of religion there’s been a much greater interest also in the anthropology of religion. Perhaps the sociology but more the anthropology of religion, with how people make sense of their world and the way in which they live it. So there’s been this bifurcation in religious history. There hasn’t been quite the same clarity of bifurcation if you like, the same clarity of confusion, in the history of politics.
Obviously the old-fashioned political history, the history of institutions, the way in which people act within institutions, the way institutions mutate has really receded, and what’s come to the fore is the history of political culture. Which is the study of how people articulate their sense of themselves within the political arena, and that began very much as a consequence of the way in which popular politics was constructed and has now become developed into how elite politics operates. But it comes I think through the discoveries in popular politics, if you like, as a branch of social history.
Any attempt to characterise the state of the field is going to impose a structure that isn’t really there. Intellectual history is particularly vibrant, in cultural history the history of material culture is particularly vibrant, history of legal culture is vibrant, economic history is stagnant, political institutional history is stagnant. The relationship between ideas and events is confused.
But I suppose in the end what’s gone is this easy assumption that the 17th century is part of the process of modernisation. And that kind of grand narrative has gone, although the kind of lower narrative, that the revolution of the 17th century was somehow a product of the tensions of the 16th century, that’s been reinstated to a degree – but not as part of some grand narrative. That is the major change.
PO: And on a slightly different tack, within that, are there any institutions or organisations that have played a significant role in the development of this particular field of research?
JM: Well I’d start with a much broader point that the extraordinary development of the PhD industry since the 1960s has had a fundamental effect. That is, the training of historians through the mechanism of the PhD, and the professionalisation of the PhD particularly through the one plus three – the training masters and then the three years of research. There has been both an extraordinary proliferation of very detailed studies and in the development of certain genres which lend themselves much more naturally to this kind of PhD than other genres do.
So I think that’s probably the biggest single change, that you can have – I wish I could remember the figures – but it is a staggering number of history PhDs being done in Britain in the 2000s. Is it 800 a year completed PhDs compared with 30 or 40 in the 1950s? I mean that itself is transformational, because it changes the way in which supervisers think about history as well as the way in which the students themselves do.
Beyond that – well, the development of research centres and research institutes in a very large number of universities means there is far more networking, far more exchange of ideas than there ever was before. And of course we’ll come no doubt to the whole importance of the internet in due course, and electronic publication. But simply in terms of the opportunities for people to meet.
The importance of the Institute of Historical Research in that context shouldn’t be underplayed. In a sense now it’s got less dominance than it did as a national centre, but at another level it is still the one place where the sheer variety of historical seminars exist. So that anyone who’s visiting London or working in London still finds it the place to go. And I suppose it’s been terribly important because of the way in which any individual can pick a pattern of seminars to attend which is not simply a primary one where they’re actually researching but others that will interest them, which will develop or broaden them out. I think the sheer range of different events going on in the Institute remains something that’s terribly important.
PO: That’s interesting. OK – let’s move back to a more general focus, and ask a few questions about the profession in general. And some of the points that you mention there I’m sure will come up again. Maybe we can start with what you think of the pressures on academics and how they’ve changed during the course of your career.
JM: Form-filling. When I started as a graduate supervisor I wrote in hand a few sentences once a year on my graduate students. And then I wrote some references for them when they wanted jobs, and that was it. Now I would guess that for each PhD student I have required of me – that’s apart from anything else I choose to do –something like 20 hours per graduate student of form-filling on an annual basis.
PO: So that’s an astronomic increase proportionately.
JM: Yes, if you’ve got – as I have – about ten PhD students. Some people say that’s too many. I think it isn’t because the peer group benefits of a group that work together and know whatever and learn from one another is more than justification enough. And I don’t do much undergraduate teaching. But if on average I see them for an hour every fortnight I suppose, which is roughly what it is, and add that up, that’s 260 hours, and on top of that there will probably be 200 hours of form filling. You know, that’s about the same amount now, while 20 or 30 years ago…You start with that because the problem of form filling is true of every aspect of academic life.
PO: So that’s merely a microcosm?
JM: It’s a microcosm – it simply where I happened to come from, but you know I think about the paperwork that now comes out every time there’s a faculty board. I mean, we forget that in the 1960s there weren’t any photocopiers. Without photocopiers, let alone email attachments – where did the papers come from you could give to a large group of 30 people? Almost everything was done by oral report and oral exchange, and longer minutes. The photocopier has an enormous amount to answer for.
PO: There are technological changes driving this.
JM: Absolutely. There are lots of technological things changing it. My phone never rings. I guarantee that we’re going to have this one hour interview and the phone won’t ring. At one time my phone would have been ringing roughly every 20 minutes or half hour throughout the day, and I would ignore it if I was teaching. Now what you won’t be hearing is in the course of an hour probably six emails arriving. I mean, I get 60 a day. And by the time I’ve dumped the ones that I don’t want, even though they’re heavily filtered to stop really useless ones coming in, it’s still going to be two hours a day, an hour and a half / two hours a day dealing with emails. I don’t quite know how we exchanged information before emails, but there is an overload of this kind of thing. The availability of the technology, the fact it’s free, means that people send all kinds of messages they would have somehow found unnecessary before.
So there’s a huge information overload. And I mean, in the history faculty at Cambridge, where the number of academic staff has grown since I arrived I suppose from about 55 to 70, the number of administrators has grown from 3 to 16.
PO: So again, a disproportionate increase. And presumably, besides the fact that technological advances have made this possible there must be other reasons driving this increase in the quantity of administrative work that academics are expected to do?
JM: Yes, it’s a loss of trust. It’s the fact that those who provide the money, the Government, no longer trust people to be professionals and to get on with it. Of course, there were plenty of people who weren’t pulling their weight before, but there were plenty of people who were, and the question is have you improved the system by squeezing the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness out? And I’m not by any means certain that we have. It doesn’t matter which party’s in power, they’re driven by a certain kind of business model, and that requires you to demonstrate that you have jumped through all the hoops that they have designed for you to jump through. Some of them are important hoops. A great many of them aren’t.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s academics or whether it’s the health service or the police or anything else – everybody complains about this obsession with nobody getting away with anything. And you know, overwhelmingly people didn’t get away with anything.
Another thing that’s gone – I mean, I personally feel that the RAE has probably had more benefit than losses – but it has resulted in something that perhaps is unfortunate. I think in a big department like most of the Cambridge departments, or most of the London colleges to take another example, there used to be a system in which everyone was able to specialise in a thing they felt most comfortable with. So some people were specialised researchers, some were specialised teachers, and some, particularly towards the end of their careers when they were a bit tired, you know, were perfectly happy to be administrators. I do mean administrators, not managers. You know, we’ve moved from a world of administration to a world of management.
But everybody could feel – there were a lot less people being unhappy because they weren’t able to jump through all the hoops, and now we all have to jump through all the hoops. We all have to be assessed on our teaching, we all have to be assessed on our research output, and we all are expected to tick a number of boxes to show that we’re carrying a fair share of the administrative burden.
I have a feeling that in a well-run department in the past, and I think that the majority of them were well run, that these things settled down, and that people sort of got the kind of balance that fitted with their own skills. And that’s much less easy nowadays. So what you get is the unhealthy side of the RAE game – buying in research staff and giving them a very privileged life for no other reason than that they will enhance your RAE score. You probably won’t change the research culture very much…
PO: So it’s a short term…
JM: Very short term. I don’t know how specific to be. Well then, let me be specific. Hull University, a couple of RAEs back, with quite a tail of people who’d given up active research made the dramatic decision of not bringing in some research staff but actually recruiting a young researcher – they recruited Glen Burgess, who came to them from New Zealand. His job was to set up a kind of research seminar and research culture to coax people back into doing research, which they’d rather given up on. And he succeeded brilliantly. You know, he created a safe environment in which people could get out the work they’d given up many years before, dust it down, and start to present it again. The result was the whole department benefited, rather than, you know, I won’t name names here, but there are some notorious examples of people being appointed simply to be research stars on the eve of an RAE and in fact alienating most of their colleagues, who then have to cover for the fact that they’ve got an expensive…
So I’m not claiming for a minute RAE has been all good. I just think on the whole it has encouraged a regularity of production, it’s forced people to think about strategies of publication that has had benefits.
PO: But that’s interesting that you’re saying there that there have been different responses to the RAE. You’re also mentioning there the impact that it’s had upon teaching, or upon the relative importance of teaching. Do you think that has been diminished because the RAE is now a measurement of success and a means of allocating funding?
JM: Well RAE has been much more successful than the Teaching Quality Assurance in teaching. That was a complete waste of time, because it didn’t produce any tangible benefits and it did lead to an awful lot of trickery, to people playing games to actually get round the rules of the TQA. Yes, there has been in many universities a determination to keep research output up by diminishing the amount and the quality of the teaching experience from the students’ point of view. I’m not saying that’s it’s made people less good teachers, but they’ve had to teach in much larger groups, there’s been much less attention to the kind of luxuries that used to be possible – small group teaching, more individual teaching. Everyone has to spend more time reaching the research targets than they do the teaching targets.
So I don’t think that there have been any benefits in that sense. On the other hand, if we go right back to when I came into the profession there were still many universities in which overwhelmingly the teaching was done by formal lectures. What you did was you attended formal lectures, you wrote one or two essays, and you did a formal exam based on the essays and a bit of reading around.
PO: Without seminars or tutorials?
JM: Without seminars at all. We went through a very good phase when there was a lot of joined up teaching, where the lecturing and the seminars and perhaps the one-to-one sessions or very small group things were well thought through. I’m not suggesting that there isn’t still attention to joined up teaching but the joined up teaching is within a context in which there is far less scope for really close one-to-one work than there was.
PO: I think it would be interesting to talk a little bit more, because of your great experience in supervising postgraduates, about what changes you’ve seen in postgraduate study in history again over the course of your career.
JM: Well the big change is they now finish. I mean in the 1960s and 70s the number who completed across the UK ever was less than half. And the number who completed in less than four years was probably about 30%. Now, across the UK, it’s probably more like 80% finish in four years. That of course is partly driven by the Research Councils, they’ve been very tough. But that plus the introduction of the one plus three – the training year, everyone has to do a Masters before they do a PhD – has transformed the efficiency with which people operate. Of course it means that theses are on tighter subjects in some ways, but the intellectual quality is certainly at least as high. And I suppose despite all the complaints there are about the diminishing content of schools syllabuses, particularly in history, at the end of day when people come out with PhDs you know that you’re getting is an exceptionally high level of competence – intellectual competence, the ability to process huge amounts of information, to make sense of it, to write in an attractive way.
I mean there’s no doubt at all that the physical appearance of PhDs is much higher than it was a generation ago. So that is a classic example of professionalisation, and it’s been driven largely by the Research Councils. Universities like Cambridge, and I imagine this is typical, think that we can’t treat non-Research Council-funded people differently from Research Council people, so all the same structures that are there to ensure that people finish in four years apply equally to Research Council-funded and non-Research Council-funded people.
I remember a number of years ago when Keith Wrightson was Secretary of what we call our degree committee, our graduate studies committee, he did some statistical analysis of completion rates and found that this was to some extent determined by where people came from. I remember Canadians took a particularly long time to finish. He found the only really strong statistical relationship between completion rates and individual candidates was their star signs! Which he used as a rather amusing training skills exercise for graduate students on the perils of statistics.
The other major change, which is something I’m sure we want to come onto, is that the process of doing research is being enormously changed. In most ways made easier by the great revolution in the access of sources through the internet. You know that now you can find out where things are, because the finding aids are just absolutely transformed.
For example, from my own PhD experience and for my first 20 years as a PhD supervisor – every year my graduate students had to go through 60 or 70 volumes of the British Library’s additional manuscripts catalogues, because the only way you could find if there was anything relevant to your study in the 80,000 volumes of additional manuscripts at the British Library was to go through them from volume one to volume 70,000 in the catalogues.
Now of course you simply put a few words into a search engine and you find them all. So I mean that’s a tiny example, and of course increasingly the fundamental archives are themselves being made available online.
PO: And I take it you would see this as an entirely positive development?
JM: It’s essentially a positive development. Of course there are new hazards. I mean take the most dramatic of all, the fact that everything published in the English language before the year 1800 is now available online. There are some risks of looking at a book in that radically de-contextualised way online. And of course the other great danger is that if you print it off, you read it with a highlighter pen or something like that.
There is something which is lost when you don’t transcribe. I mean on the whole students don’t need to transcribe any more, or at least they transcribe much less, and the act of transcription did teach you things, though whether or not the amount of time it took to do that transcription was worthwhile is less certain. I had to use three volumes of Sir William Brereton’s letters in the British Library, and I spent, I suppose, a hundred days transcribing the parts I’d need for my thesis. Now I’d simply print off the ones I wanted and use a highlighter pen on them. I mean, I’d get a lot more work done now, but I would probably see less in the sources, because it’s harder to actually see points of detail by the way of working now. So it is swings and roundabouts of course.
PO: That makes sense – that a different way of working produces a different mental process. Now, one of the main projects that has assisted in the transformation of this accessibility of resources through technology is the Royal Historical Society bibliography, which you were involved with at the outset in the early 1990s. Would you be able to talk about that a little bit for us?
JM: I think it’s my proudest achievement. From 1900 onwards in a variety of guises annual bibliographies of books and essays and articles on British and Irish history had been published, but they were a cumulative series of annual volumes. From the mid-1970s Geoffrey Elton here in Cambridge had been managing this on behalf of the Royal Historical Society, and he put in Herculean efforts himself to superintend a group of about ten scholars helping him to do it. And in the late 80s, early 90s, the idea was that some kind of consolidation should take place, and the original idea was essentially that all these annual bibliographies would somehow be reduced to a series of thematic volumes.
But of course this was just on the cusp of the electronic revolution. I was asked, for no better reason than that I was thought to be a hard worker I think, to take over the overall responsibility for it. And very early on I did see, this might now seem a bit silly to say but actually in 1991 it was a visionary who saw this as something that would be much more sensibly done as a searchable electronic resource. And initially it did take the form of using some state of the art scanning technology to scan in all the existing bibliographies, and then to sort them, and arrange them, and then (this was the most dramatic decision we made) to contents-index them – to produce some kind of thesaurus.
Then a team of about 180 scholars around the world was asked to literally physically examine and browse 249,000 titles of books, essays, articles and collected volumes and to contents index them in a way that would make them highly searchable. And I’m proud to say that in eight years we actually succeeded in doing that, and it appeared of course in CD-Rom because as late as 1999 that was still seen as being the most appropriate way of producing electronic data.
I handed the baton over and others took it on, particularly Ian Archer, and of course fairly rapidly they made the decision that it should become an online resource. And it is now both – it has all the features that we didn’t even think of in the 1990s. But the ability just to put in, you know, some fairly sophisticated filters and to then come up with a list of key works is extraordinary, and it has put historians of Britain and of the British overseas, at a huge advantage over every other research community.
I am very proud of that achievement, and it raises all kinds of interesting challenges, because how do you long-term fund something like this? The culture of research grants by Research Councils and the major charities like Leverhulme is always to be innovative, always to be looking for new ways. And of course that is a very good principle, but it’s very problematic when what you’re saying is could I have another quarter of a million pounds, to continue developing an existing resource.
It’s actually very very difficult to do that, and what happens if you run out of options on that? That of course is where the proponents of the old system would say – ‘Well at least you’ve got a permanent archive in hard copy’. You know if the website disappears all that learning disappears. So it is in a way a paradigm of the benefits and the challenges of the new technologies
But I’ve been very proud to be involved in that.
You know I had overall responsibility for the 6000 17th-century entries (of 60,000 in total) in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. That was an extraordinarily interesting thing to be involved with, and to actually have that amount of data so readily searchable on your fingertips was another extraordinary change. I mean, I’ve used the Oxford DNB almost every day of my life since 2003, in a way that I’d never used the old DNB. Not because the old DNB had become out of date, but simply because getting access to printed copies on a daily basis wasn’t feasible. Now I just put on my computer and say ‘Oh, I’m doing this footnote, let’s just check when this guy was born, or who was his wife’. It’s just an endless resource, quite apart from reading the entries themselves. Just as a research tool.
And there’s the high proportion of my research that can now be done online. I mean, everything I need in the way of a printed text is available online. Now for example all my teaching is done from online resources. I made the decision 18 months ago that in both my special subjects (that’s my third-year special subject) I would move from working with hard copy to working with electronics. The problem when I was doing it from hard-copy was that I always had to think about how many copies would be available for a group of students, so that there wasn’t too much pressure on resources. So I was constrained in what I could set by the availability of multiple copies.
Online I’m constrained by what’s available online. So it’s been a different kind of intellectual exercise. But I’m doing a special subject on the Irish Rebellion of 1641 and its aftermath. All my sources are available online, whether they are online editions of manuscript sources, or whether they are from the Early English Books online.
So the students can all be guaranteed constant access to all the materials they need without any worry that they’ll go to the library and find somebody else has borrowed them.
PO: Presumably for some secondary sources this wouldn’t be possible, were they books published on the subject they…
JM: Well yes, it’s true, that, it’s true of course that when I say that I’m talking about the sources rather than the secondaries. But in fact, with secondaries, because I teach in a mainstream area with a very large historiography there’s always a lot of choice, there are always lots of options for students. I think my reading list has got something like 500 items on it, so there is always going to be plenty of choice for them.
But no, I haven’t gone over yet to doing absolutely everything online, but certainly for the raw historical material I’ve now moved from hard copy to electronic.
PO: And moving away slightly from the technological implications, you were alluding there to the funding difficulties that the RHS bibliography is confronting as an ongoing resource as opposed to a new and discrete project. You’ve worked and served on the Arts and Humanities Research Council – could you tell us a little bit about how you think the way in which funding is filtered down to these sort of research projects has changed, drawing on your experience?
JM: Well there’s obviously been a massive, massive increase. I mean for a long time the humanities simply didn’t have much in the way of funding. The British Academy represented the humanities and had money for a small number of prestige projects, all of which were designed to last for a generation. I mean the Medieval Latin Dictionary, the Medieval Episcopal Acta and so on.
With the creation of the Arts and Humanities Research Board, now Research Council, there was an extraordinary increase in the amount of money available. We’re talking about an increase over the last ten years in research project funding from about £2m to about £30m. So, I mean really large sums. And a success rate which when I was there in the early years of this century was beginning to match that in the sciences. I’d say 30% of the projects to be funded. It’s dropped back since then more than the other Councils have, but even so.
It’s a classic example of what you can achieve with rigorous peer review. I on the whole felt that we didn’t fund all the projects that deserved funding, but all the projects we funded were worth funding. It was a reasonably efficient mechanism for getting good projects. Not automatically the best, but identifying those which were fundable and then probably being a little bit arbitrary within that about which ones were funded. And it has changed the way in which people think about research.
It’s made possible collaborative research, it’s made it possible for teams of scholars to work together on major projects in a way which we haven’t done in the humanities. Though it hasn’t displaced, wasn’t intended to displace, and mustn’t displace the traditional activity of individual scholars pursuing their own passions, their own interests, doing it their own way.
Even for them there was more money available in the way of seedcorn money from the British Academy or research leave funding to increase the amount of leave they get, so even their lot is better, and although there has been some pressure in some universities to make people prioritise large grants it hasn’t to my mind significantly distorted the rights of individuals to do the kind of research they want.
It has given them the opportunity of working collaboratively if they wish. I mean, for example, I’m currently working with a team based in Aberdeen and in Trinity College Dublin (so in that sense international) transcribing and making sense of 3400 depositions of survivors of the massacres in Ireland in 1641, which allows us for the first time to really look at the chronology and the geography of the massacres in which we think something like 3–4000 people were killed. And survivors were given the opportunity of making very full depositions. So it’s a remarkable resource which because of the sheer scale of it has been very difficult for anyone to make full sense of. Now a team of scholars based in three universities through a series of publications, of conferences and events will publicise the availability of the resource as it becomes available, and this will produce a whole series of individual scholarly responses and a lot of collective responses. I like to think that’s very much a model for the future.
PO: And that’s something that you’d say wouldn’t have happened in the 1960s or 1970s?
JM: No, couldn’t have happened in the 1960s or 1970s.
For instance, there were scholars from five universities and two countries that put together an edition of the ‘Entr’ing Book of Roger Morrice’, this extraordinary 600,000 word account of what it was like to be living through the political turmoil of the 1680s. It’s as dense in texture as Pepys, though written from a rather more ascetic Protestant point of view. And this, which was inaccessible, written with a lot of shorthand in it, and other things that made it very difficult to use, is now be available to everybody at every significant library in the world. It’s another thing that could never have been achieved by one scholar. It would have taken an entire lifetime, and of course there were a few people who spent an entire lifetime doing projects of this kind, but this could be achieved by one large grant and five very busy scholars working with research assistants.
PO: OK. Moving on from these issues, I just want to ask you again a few more general questions. To begin with I was wondering if you’d observed any particular trends in the popularity of different periods and approaches, or any changes in these popularities, again, over the last 40 years or so?
JM: Well I think this is repeating something that I’ve already said, that there’s been just an enormous proliferation of what constitutes history. I mean, just to take a very simple example. The texts that historians work with are now much broader. We now use literary texts as historical texts. I mean there used to be a kind of demarcation, so literary scholars read Milton’s poems, but didn’t read Milton’s prose’, and historians read Milton’s prose but not Milton’s poems. Now both read everything. Donne’s sermons were seen as being neither literary nor historical because Donne was a poet. Donne was kind of closed off.
And the willingness and the ability of historians to draw down research questions and research tools from adjacent disciplines in the social sciences is one of the great developments of the earlier part of my career. I mean the revelatory nature of books like Keith Thomas’s ‘Religion and the Decline of Magic’, which had an enormous impact because of his willingness to ask questions and to interrogate texts using the procedures of the social sciences.
So history has become much more eclectic and much more willing to work in conjunction with adjacent disciplines and to have dialogue with adjacent disciplines, but has also fragemented in the sorts of lines of approach. It’s not so much that history has changed its content as it’s changed what you do with that content in terms of the radically different ways you interrogate the evidence. And because it’s very difficult for anyone to master all the techniques, to be interested in all the techniques, there is a lot more difficulty at producing a broad overview. So I suppose there’s a tendency now for people to do certain kinds of history over a long period, rather than do all kinds of history for one period.
PO: That’s interesting. One thing that I’d observed just in some very brief statistical analysis of Theses in History was that there seemed to be a trend towards more people studying the 19th and 20th centuries. In terms of your experience would you say that your period has become any less popular with students?
JM: No, but that may be a Cambridge phenomenon of course. We find that a very large number of people are fairly fed up with the great dictators and with fairly recent history that’s done so much at school. The most popular single paper in the Cambridge Tripos is the Tudor and Stuart period. That’s not a comment on the teaching, I think it’s a comment on the fact that it’s in English (students are terrified by foreign languages – they like English) and it’s a period that’s slightly unfamiliar but not as unfamiliar as the high Middle Ages. So there’s been no decline either at the level of the undergraduate interest or graduate interest in the early modern period in Cambridge.
I mean paradoxically if you ask any publisher they’ll tell you that they have far more difficulty selling books on modern history than books on medieval or early modern history. I mean the sales of monographs are much more robust in medieval or early modern history than they are in modern history. British 19th and 20th century history is very difficult to sell.
That’s partly because monograph publication is so dependent on US sales, and post-American Revolution British history is a real hollow as far as Americans are concerned. They’re quite interested in early modern Britain because it feeds into colonial America. Once you’ve got beyond 1776 they’re not. That may be a major reason. It may be that libraries in the UK buy books on 19th and 20th century British history, and the ones in America don’t. But it’s certainly not the case that it’s easy to market books. And I suppose there’s always the tendency, because of the sheer amount of research necessary for a period with so much more surviving, that books on that period tend to be narrower in focus than the medieval and early modern ones – that may be another factor.
So there is a paradox there, that if more people are studying it fewer people are buying it.
PO: And you mention there undergraduates and their choices depending to a certain extent on how they’ve been taught history in schools. Would you be able to comment at all on any changes you’ve seen arising from changes in which history has been taught in secondary schools?
JM: Well, what’s been lost is breadth. The fact is that when I was at school I fairly typically covered in the 6th form 300 years of European history, and 150 years of British history, and that seemed to be very detailed. And when I was chief examiner for one of the A-level Boards in the late 70s and early 80s we would expect people to cover at least 200 years and have a special subject which frequently was separate in time from the surveys they were doing. They were doing two survey papers and a special subject paper. Now there’s far less encouragement to read around. I mean it’s what I call a lot of microwave history. Everything’s pre-packaged, they’re given specific things to read and specific tasks to perform. The exam papers are far more prescribed – they know with much more certainty what they will be examined on.
On the other hand students are made to think much more about how to interpret historical evidence. They’re far more sophisticated when it comes to processes of analysis and they tend to be far more articulate in group situations. So when they come here I have to do a lot more what I call advanced reading and writing skills. I have to teach people now when they first arrive how to read and take notes from a book. How to read actively, not passively, not just summarise what they’ve read but read critically and engaging with what they’re reading, and I’ve got to teach them far more about the more strategic skills of composing a historical argument.
But against that I find that their comprehension skills are much higher, and that they are able to analyse any information that I give them much more easily and critically. So it’s swings and roundabouts. I mean, I’m not one of those that just laments the fact that education’s gone to pot. I think on the contrary it’s simply changed. And of course I regret the fact that nowadays people haven’t read the broad range of literature, they don’t have a big sense of the classics – in the sense of the Greek and Roman classics. They don’t have anything like enough knowledge of the texts that the thinkers of the early modern period would take for granted and they don’t know the Bible. And they don’t know much about Christian history. So all these are impoverishments but there are other things that are there that weren’t there before.
PO: And possibly related to this, possibly different. We’re also interested in what opinion you might have on the relationship between academic and popular history, and again how that might have changed.
JM: My father-in-law was a civil servant who’d read history before the war, and he always read history books when he was going to work. So whenever I write popularly I always think of him, and what he would like to read on the train from Epsom to Victoria. So I don’t have problem with that, and I think it’s quite clear [that there is an audience] from the huge success of things like the BBC History Magazine, which is the biggest selling of all the BBC magazines (it outsells even the gardening and wine), and was from the moment of its inception, together with History Today and so on.
The success of television and radio history are signs of how healthy it is and just how many academics are caught up in that sort of activity. Of those the one I have most distrust for is television, which seems to me to be driven by a need for a rather simplistic narrative. That hasn’t actually adapted to new ways. Radio history is magnificent. Radio history can do collage, radio history can detach itself from narrative and do analysis – I’m thinking of Document or something like that. Television always seems to be driven by the fact that they’ve got to have expensive visuals and the narrative has to be based around whatever they’ve captured on camera, and secondly by this need to tell a story that’s always going to very Whiggish. There’s a fear amongst those who make television history programmes that they must make it sound very much like the present.
And it’s worst of course in modern television drama, which is ghastly, historical drama. But in printed form, the number and quality of books, and the range of professionals who engage in writing books which are designed to be read by wider publics than the narrow academic one, is far greater than it was proportionately than in the 1960s or 70s. I think on the whole people would be comfortable with that. Again, there’s this anxiety about whether or not what you’re writing will count for RAE, and you’ve got to balance up your writings for wider publics against your commitments for RAE.
I think on the whole most people balance it reasonably well.
PO: OK, that’s all very interesting. And I just wanted to ask you one more question which you’re free to speculate wildly on, about how you saw the future of the discipline of history?
JM: I’m much more confident that history will remain a blue-ribbon subject in British higher education than I was. Most of the things that I thought might lead it to go down the road of classics as a kind of increasingly minority interest have been weathered. I think of the worst days of educational reform in the 1980s when it was being cut out of the National Curriculum. The numbers taking it in the 6th form are going up. Because the students find it so challenging and interesting to actually master the analytical nature of the discipline it means that it is still a very healthy discipline sending people onto higher education.
And within higher education it is simply seen as one of the most demanding subjects. History graduates have no difficulty getting jobs using their transferable skills to move about. It’s a much more high prestige subject in Britain than it is in most other countries, and it still recruits a high proportion of the ablest people who stay on to do PhDs. That’s not true in America for example, where the highest achievers who’ve majored in history will go on to law school or medical school or whatever. The retention rate for the very ablest people is still high in history. And its place within the research culture, the Research Councils – it’s all pretty healthy actually.
And to go back to something we’ve just talked about. The very fact that there is such a cultural acceptance by wider publics of the enriching qualities of understanding ourselves in time and place that history brings means that its position is pretty secure I think.
PO: So we end on an optimistic note. Professor John Morrill thanks
very much for that, and that’s the end of the interview.