Project Officer: This interview is being conducted for the project ‘Making history: the discipline in perspective’, and the Project Officer Danny Millum will be speaking to Professor Janet Nelson about her experience of, and views on, changes in the discipline and the academic profession of history.
Professor Nelson, may we start with your giving us some brief biographical information?
Janet Nelson: Sure. Well, I think there are only two important things to say about my life before I went to university. One is that I was always interested in history, and that history was what I always wanted to do from the earliest days I can remember. And the second is that I went to a grammar school in the Lake District where I had a good history teacher and an outstanding classics teacher, so I learnt languages that I would be very grateful for knowing later and I also broadened and deepened a whole range of historical areas, including ancient history which has stood me in good stead.
PO: And from being at school, how was it that you came into the profession itself?
JN: Well, I was pushed a bit to apply to Oxford and Cambridge and I ended up at Cambridge, at Newnham College, which is still one of two surviving women’s colleges.
PO: All women still?
JN: All women. And the teachers of course were all women. But we were ‘farmed out’, as they put it, to male teachers in other colleges as well. I had very good teachers there and I enjoyed myself enormously as a historian, and I stayed at Cambridge to do my PhD with a medieval historian called Walter Ullmann who was a partly-Jewish refugee from Austria who had come over to Britain in 1939. And that again opened up a whole new dimension of historiography. His first question to me was, ‘You know German of course?’ I didn’t know German but I had to learn it because the historiography was in that language. He was the sort of supervisor – I think there still are lots of supervisors like this – who had already a fairly clear notion of this project as it would be when completed, before any particular student ever started it.
PO: So he wasn’t sending you out into the great unknown.
JN: No, absolutely not; he knew what I ought to read. So I worked for three years under his eagle eye and produced my thesis – I’m quite proud of having done this actually – I produced this in three years. Then there was a gap, but not relevant really to what I’m doing at the moment and what I’ve done subsequently, except that I married a social anthropologist and spent some time mugging up on social anthropology. I suppose that was quite useful but it was Chinese social anthropology rather than European.
Anyway, I came back to England in 1969 and applied for a whole load of jobs, and was turned down for academic jobs. I got a job at the Foreign Office as a researcher which has also turned out to be very interesting because I did lots of 19th and 20th century history there. But then a job came up at the University of London, King’s, and that’s where I stayed throughout my career which ended, in terms of employment, just at the end of last term. I spent 38 years at King’s and am very much a London person.
So that really sums up my career, how I came into the profession, and I’ve even mentioned my influences I think – my teachers in Cambridge and of course some of the people that I read and had never heard of until I was a postgraduate student. Who were mainly continental scholars, the great scholars in the field that I have since worked in which is medieval European history.
PO: Would you be able to give me any names there?
JN: Yes. The person that I started reading a lot of was a German called Percy Ernst Schramm and you may think Percy was an odd name because indeed it was! He came from a distinguished Hamburg family – merchants, traders – and I think they were great Anglophiles and that’s why they called him Percy.
He opened up a whole new field which was the study of ritual and symbolism, and not in principle only medieval, although that was his main field, but he was also interested in the symbolism of monarchy in ancient times and in modern times. He wrote a book for example, on the history of the orb – an object which rulers carry from antiquity to Elizabeth II – and that was typical of the very wide dimensions of this approach to cultural as well as political history. To see ways in which rulers represented themselves, with which power represented itself and how, insofar as you can tell, how power is received, how power was actually seen by its audience or constituency. That’s the sort of thing that Schramm wrote about.
PO: He sounds like he was a little bit ahead of his time in some ways.
JN: Yes, in a way he was. He was a pioneer and a lot of people have followed in his wake and brought much wider influences to bear on it, like anthropology and sociology. David Cannadine and Simon Price, a modern and an ancient historian, edited a book in the 1970s called Rituals of Royalty and Schramm was in a way a starting point, but they took it in all kinds of directions which I don’t think Schramm would ever have imagined. He was quite a constitutionally minded historian if you know what that might entail – a sort of German tradition. He was interested in law and in political ideas, much more than the common man. I mean, he realised that he ought to be interested in the common man, but I don’t think that was his real passion. Anyway, that was him. I can’t really think of any more influences in that early stage but I might mention a few others when you get me on to the history that I’ve done and the people that I’ve worked with and so on.
PO: One other thing you mentioned there that I did think was interesting was that your PhD supervisor had required you to learn German in order to read the historiographical sources, so people writing in German about the practice of history.
PO: Was that because it was only in German and by Germans that these sort of things had been written or…
JN: It was really. I had to read other languages too and I had only got O-level French. That was all that I had been able to study in the way of languages at this little grammar school I’d been at. So I had to learn German from scratch. I learnt to read – not particularly well – in Italian and Spanish, and my Greek came in terribly useful because I’d included Byzantium in the topic that I studied as well as western Europe. I got to a good reading level in French more or less under my own steam. But the German was the real obstacle in the sense that I knew none and I had to learn a lot, quickly, and I did it by simply teaching myself. I learnt very quickly how much advantage I was getting from the stuff I was reading so the effort rewarded itself, you could see what the point was.
Now, I don’t think it was just in my field that that was true. I think it’s really true of history as a discipline as a whole – certainly European history but also to an extent British history as well, just because the discipline is so big and has been so well resourced for so long in Germany. There are more German historians than in any other country and they are fantastically productive, and I think have been since certainly the 19th century, since academic history in universities has been taught the way we’re familiar with.
So I think I realised that with just about any subject that I wanted to look into the starting point would have to be something in German. And then there would be a large historiography, lots and lots of articles, lots of debate because Germans were great ones for debating. That became a message that I had to convey to my research students all the way through: that whatever their topic, they would have to learn German. And in most cases they really did have to learn, as I had done, from scratch but at least I managed to reassure them that though it was tough to start with, they would soon start to reap the rewards.
PO: And do you think that British historians have been sufficiently influenced and aware of developments in Germany and in German historiography?
JN: Well, no I don’t really; I think this has been one of the problems about certain limitations of, particularly, English historiography. I would except Irish from this because I think Ireland has always been rather receptive to German scholarship, certainly in the medieval field. And in other ways too, Scotland.
But I think there’s something about English historiography; it has tended to be very England-focused so not many have wanted to study German history. That’s generalising wildly but I think that was certainly a tendency in the late 19th and early 20th century which was much accentuated by the First World War. So there’s a low point in the interwar years where people just thought (for obvious reasons) ‘I don’t want to do German history’. And because of that lack of interest I think there was a failure to appreciate that German scholars had actually worked quite a lot on English history too.
In Anglo-Saxon history for example, the great late 19th, early 20th-century edition of Anglo-Saxon law is just now being revised, which had a huge amount of commentary material in it which really established the basis for the history of English law. And only those very, very few English historians who had German and realised that they had to have it at that level could really plumb the depths of the work of that scholar: Felix Liebermann he was called.
I recently was asked to write a chapter in a multi-authored volume for the British Academy on historiography – on different periods of history, different areas of history – in the medieval field. I think there have been other volumes that have dealt with modern history as well. I was asked to do British historians writing about European medieval history. I realised when I compared it with the enormous amount that British historians, English historians, had written on English history, that there was really relatively little, even when you put all the different European countries together. They were always a very small number before and after the First [World] War, and I think up to the Second [World] War things improved, partly because – and here Ullmann was an emblematic figure – of refugees.
PO: So Germans had come to England and therefore began teaching in universities?
JN: Yes, particularly in London. I don’t know if you’re interviewing anyone from the Warburg, but Aby Warburg, was a German Jew whose amazing collection is still the core of the Warburg library. And that brought a lot of refugee German scholars to work in London and some stayed. Walter Ullmann ended up in Cambridge but he was another example of one of these very important influences which opened up the possibility, and in the end the reality, of closer contacts with continental traditions of historiography which I think we’re still reaping the rewards of just now.
PO: Okay, that’s very interesting.
Moving to your own particular field, I was wondering if you could mention who you might see as the most important figures in the development of medieval history?
JN: You mean in Britain?
JN: Well, in Britain in the post-war period I think I would differentiate between English history and European history, and probably between periods. Medieval history’s an awfully long span, as you will be aware and it does tend, and has always tended, to divide itself a bit between the earlier Middle Ages and the central and later Middle Ages. I would see the early Middle Ages to have been rather a minority.
I think in terms of the central and later Middle Ages that one of the great influences in Britain was Richard Southern at Oxford, and I think Oxford was always a very major centre in the 20th century and remains such, with more of a focus on English history, it must be said, than continental history. I don’t think there was really a comparable figure in Cambridge, though there were some very distinguished historians of particular bits, say economic history or ecclesiastical history. Southern was one of these historians that just covered everything.
But in my own field, which ended up being earlier medieval and particularly Carolingian history (Charlemagne and all that stuff), I think there were two people who particularly created what I called – perhaps rather vainly since I was one of the products of it – a sort of Carolingian Renaissance in Britain in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. One of them was Walter Ullmann who was based in Cambridge from the 1950s down to the 1970s and had a string of research students for well over 20 years. So he was the centre there.
And at Oxford a chap called Michael Wallace-Hadrill who must have known German before the war because he served in the army. Walter Ullmann served in the war by the way. He was an enemy alien, and he said in the Pioneer Corps his role was to dig latrines, and in between the digging of latrines – how he managed this I don’t know – he studied his medieval texts. So he wrote books in his head on medieval history while digging. Wallace-Hadrill was a more indigenous Oxford type and he worked at Bletchley Park which was the place, more or less equidistant between Oxford and Cambridge, where all the German codes were cracked.
PO: And a lot of historians seem to have worked there.
JN: A lot of historians worked there. And he also worked a bit in interrogation of German prisoners because he had good German. I think his war experiences were a source of great pain and grief to him because he realised what war really entailed. He could write about it, but being involved in it was another matter. Anyway, he had a whole string of research students at Oxford in this early medieval field and I think also was very influential.
But neither of those two was quite as influential in the sort of history that I do, I think, as a Brit who didn’t stay in Britain. He was called Peter Brown, was very much an Oxford figure and even came to London briefly – he taught at University College, I think, for a very short time, got a chair at Royal Holloway and after a year left to go to America. And he never came back, so his entire career was spent in America. So he didn’t really have research students to create a tradition in Britain, but he had lots of people who had either been his students or had read his stuff, or knew him slightly.
I was in the second category. He took the study of medieval history into fields of cultural history and social history, social psychological history. He was interested in religion but not in an old-fashioned ecclesiastical history, institutional sort of way, but what made people think in this way: how did they conceptualise God? How did they think about religious symbols and rituals in the ways that they did? Why did these things change? That was his agenda. He wrote mostly about late antiquity, the very early period, but he sometimes ventured into the Middle Ages and whenever he did he transformed the scene.
The great area he’s famous for doing is the cult of the saints. Obviously there’s nothing like it in the ancient world and it doesn’t quite work the same way in the modern world, although it still exists. But he just asked some very basic questions like why did they work, why were they believed to work? Why did people invest so heavily in them? Why did they have their foci in the places that they did? Why did this cult succeed in terms of popular appeal and this other one not? So I think he would be the third great influence on me, Peter Brown, along with the other two. I think I can say I’ve probably read every word that they’ve all written and you can probably see in some of my stuff [that] their influences are very clear.
PO: You mentioned there Oxford as being a particularly important centre. Do you see any other British institutions that have played significant roles in the development of this field?
JN: That’s a very interesting question because I think Oxford and Cambridge in the 1960s would have always been seen as the main centres for historical research and maybe, in many ways, the only ones. London had its own strengths of course, particularly in the field of British history and in terms of medieval history, in the history of archives – the Public Record Office being the centre of that sort of work – but I don’t think rivalled Oxford and Cambridge as centres for research students in my field.
Manchester was the other great centre for English constitutional history, for various reasons, but maybe it was a wee bit on the decline by the time I came into the field.
PO: What about institutions – I know you’ve been involved with Past and Present…
PO: As a medieval historian, has that journal played a role in any evolution of the subject?
JN: Yes, I think journals can have tremendous influence. Past and Present was always very interestingbut it started as being a little sort of Marxist clique that founded it.
PO: They weren’t all Marxists were they?
JN: Well, they were Marxisants as the French say, if not actual Marxists. I don’t think many of them were members of the party, but I think they were very strongly influenced by Marxist approaches to history. So it had to be sort of materialist and class had to loom large. That journal evolved very rapidly and I started to subscribe to it when I got my job at King’s in 1970 and I have a complete run. And I’ve been on the editorial board myself for about the last 12 or 13 years. So I’ve learnt its evolution at close quarters and I think it’s still the best overall history journal. It deals with all history, as you’ll know – not just European, but global history and at all periods. And I think it’s evolved from having had this rather doctrinaire approach to being very, very eclectic in terms of theory, as well as being very wide-ranging, and very responsive to all kinds of developments of the sort you might want to ask me about later, about cultural history and gender history. In all of these fields, I would say, it’s remained a leading journal, if not the leading journal, and it’s the one that everyone wants to try and get published in.
PO: And moving on to a slightly different angle, I was wondering again in the field of medieval history or even early medieval history, what you might see as being the major debates or points of contention during your career as a historian?
JN: Well, I don’t think people debate any longer about whether feudalism set in in 1066 or whatever – I think feudalism as a construct is distinctly passé. There have been new debates in my own sort of field – namely, more on the continental side – about the nature of political and social change and I think interdisciplinarity has had a great effect. People have tried to bring in art history, archaeological data, anthropological influences, and to produce a very broad and thick kind of cultural history, into which the political narrative has to fit somehow. It’s not that the political narrative is driving it: it’s about other things and there’s been a preference in a way, for not writing political narratives and for dealing with more limited topics from a deeper point of view.
PO: You took up your post, you say, in 1970: has that been a gradual trend or is that something that happened more recently, since then?
JN: I think it was already underway but I think it’s got more so. And I think Past and Present would be a very good example of that: that it’s become a much bigger journal, it appears more frequently and the articles are more substantial I think than they used to be. And that is indicative of the depth and breadth of the field. And also, unlike Annales which might be some sort of French equivalent, it’s remained firmly with its feet on the ground. In that sense, it’s truer to its Marxist origins than Annales, which has often floated off into theoretical strategising.
PO: I suppose theory has been very prominent in France, full stop.
JN: Indeed. It absolutely has. Before I leave part two and the institutions/organisations/projects, I’d just like to say that I think – and I don’t know if I would have said this in the 1970s, in fact I’m sure I wouldn’t have said it in the 1970s because I didn’t know about it – the Royal Historical Society has played a very important role in centring the discipline in our country, in keeping people working together.
In the 1990s I was elected onto the RHS Council. It meets in London more than anywhere else, so I’d always gone along to meetings (particularly if they were about medieval history) but I don’t think until then that I’d thought very hard about the profession as a whole, about history as a whole. And about that time various things happened, including joining the Board of Past and Present, which made me much more aware of bigger history.
It has no analogue in France for example, nor in Germany. There are other organisations but they tend to be more split up, one for the medievalists – same in Germany – and one for the modernists
PO: That’s interesting.
JN: The Royal Historical, like Past and Present has this very universal coverage in principle. And it brings together the practitioners of history in the UK in a very, very productive way. Particularly – this is maybe touching on a change which we’ll come to a bit later, the profession in general – the way in which government has taken an interest in universities and in curricula and so on. I think it’s the Royal Historical Society that’s played a key part in answering government, positioning itself as the organisation which is willing to engage.
PO: A spokesperson.
JN: A sort of spokesperson, absolutely, yes. I wanted to mention that. And lastly – quite the opposite from a famous national organisation – since the early 1980s I’ve been a member of a little informal group. A group started it, so I’m sure the person who I’m about to name would say it wasn’t her group! Wendy Davies was at University College just about as long as I was at King’s – one of the long-distance runners. And it just happened that she had this lovely house and we started meeting at her house at Bucknall in Shropshire, so it’s come to be known as the Bucknall Group.
It’s just a little group of – as we were then, young – early medievalists who were trying to write a new kind of cultural social history which would be very, very clearly source based –we would always be referring to particular bits of evidence in a very detailed way – and yet was informed by social anthropological, sociological theory. We published two volumes (which may not seem very much in nearly 30 years) and we’re about to publish a third, but what has made it work and what has made it very important in my life is the fact that we met regularly over this very long period of time and became very fond of each other, so that we trusted each other completely.
That’s such an important relationship, isn’t it, between professional historians or any other profession. If you trust you can criticise, and so we’ve always criticised each other’s work, and once you’ve done it in a small group, you carry on doing it with other things that you’re writing. So the people that I send my work to to be criticised – torn apart if necessary – are my colleagues in that group. And I think it’s a unique example of how a very small group of people can, if the chemistry works, have quite a large impact. Not just on the way early medieval history is done – actually American and continental scholars have been quite influenced by the work of this group because it seems to have relevance, not just to the stuff we particularly did, but to later medieval periods, perhaps even other periods of history altogether.
PO: That’s interesting, to have that idea of what is often quite an individualist pursuit – historians working alone – and how that can function within a group and how that can assist the process.
JN: Yes. So it’s both a bunch of very individualistic individuals and a collective, which did in the end hammer out a sort of collective approach to the topics that were dealt with.
PO: One last question before I move on to the profession in general. I think you alluded to this as well; you’re working on a project at the moment on the prosopography of Anglo Saxon England and from what I could ascertain that’s the Department of History at King’s College, the Centre for Computing [in the Humanities] at King’s College, and the Department for Anglo Saxon, Norse and Celtic at the University of Cambridge. Are they all working together there?
JN: Well, it’s really that it’s individuals in those three things. Well, the Centre for Computing in the Humanities, that’s certainly a team and it always is a team, but I and Simon Keynes at Cambridge sort of headed up the project and then we had researchers both in Cambridge and at King’s. Then the technical side was developed in constant dialogue with the historians also at King’s. Yes, that was my first experience of working on a big project and it wasn’t the first, but one of the first to be funded to a very large tune – loud tune perhaps, is a better way to put it – by the AHRB as it then was. So it seemed sort of crazy that we had all this money for five years and these people working for us but it turned out of course, to be barely enough to do what we were trying to do, which was to record data about every single knowable Anglo-Saxon.
PO: That seems quite an incredible task to set yourselves on.
JN: Yes, it was maybe a bit over-ambitious. On the other hand, had the technology not been there, we’d never have embarked on it at all and the technology made it possible.
PO: So do you see technology to a certain extent as driving these sort of projects, or the emergence of projects like this?
JN: Yes, I do. I think it cuts both ways, of course, but I think that the availability of that technology has inspired an increasing inventiveness, in thinking of large databases which could be constructed and just would have been unthinkable until IT had reached a certain point.
We then got funding for a second phase – which is nearing completion – in which we’ve been recording all the (Anglo-Saxons is a rather loaded term in this context because maybe they shouldn’t be called Anglo-Saxons) people with Anglo-Saxon names or who we had reason to think were descended from Anglo-Saxons, who survived after the conquest. And this means recording all the Anglo-Saxons in the Domesday Book and the Domesday Book is a really huge resource. We’ve got far, far more names from the Domesday Book than we have from the entire corpus of Anglo Saxon historiographical material from centuries and centuries before the 11th.
PO: It was good of them to put it together really, wasn’t it?
JN: Absolutely. But in such a tricky way. You know, there have been many projects on the Domesday Book that have never been finished; there’ve been one or two which have been finished but didn’t quite work the way it was hoped. And obviously Simon Keynes and I have been hand in glove, but I think my young colleague Stephen Baxter at King’s has been the driving force in this part of the project (it’s not only about the Domesday Book but a large section of it is) in really devising a special form of the database which can then be integrated with the rest of it to handle such vast quantities of data. I hope people will be very impressed by it and more importantly find it incredibly useful.
I think more characteristically big databases often are concerned with big quantities of text, so you might have a very large archive or a very large oeuvre of some writer. And in this case it’s been multi-archive and multi-writer and multi-genre. That’s very, very complicated, bringing different types of material together for the first time. But I think the way in which this has inspired people to come up with these projects, that’s been important too – it would simply have been unthinkable – and some of them have really transformed the field. There are some in the modern period.
PO: Such as…?
JN: Well, the one of the London legal records, the Old Bailey project – that’s had a lot of input from the IHR as well. I gather from 18th century colleagues that you do 18th century social and legal history differently as a result of the availability of all this data and hopefully there’ll always be a place for these types of projects now. But I think it would be very worrying if, as is now being threatened, the AHRC should see its role as funding those big projects first and foremost, full stop. Because I think that however much effort and time and trouble they take to construct to start with and however beneficial they are to users over a very long term thereafter, I don’t know of any historians who would say that that was the only, or major, focus of their own research. It would be a part of it. But their own research would find its outlets in the usual forms, namely articles and monographs.
PO: So it would be just one aspect and an aspect that to you shouldn’t be over-prioritised.
PO: Okay, well, let’s move to talk about the profession in general which – again, maybe we’ve discussed some of these points to a certain extent. I wanted to begin by asking you if in general have you observed any particular trends in the popularity of different periods or approaches over your career?
JN: Well, yes I have. People have been expressing anxiety about the decline of all periods of history until the very modern for as long as I’ve been a historian and I think the alarmists have been proved wrong. Pre-modern history has proved very resilient and there have been huge developments and a vast increase in productivity in just about every part of the pre-modern periods, from ancient history right through to the 18th century. Both of these actually being very good examples of fields that have flourished as never before in the last 20 years or so, and been in a way testing grounds for new approaches – say, using demography or applying new IT – which then influence historians working on other periods as well. So I don’t at all subscribe to the view that medieval history has declined.
It may be the case that there are fewer medieval historians in some universities but then there are probably more historians in other universities, and to my mind it’s not how people label themselves or how their work gets labelled that matters so much: it’s how periods of history are being integrated with other periods of history, as well as being studied in their own right, and I think medieval history has stood up pretty well to all these changing trends.
Of course, there are changing fashions. I think earlier medieval history has – partly due to the influence of the historians I mentioned earlier – become extraordinarily productive in recent decades. Far, far more productive than one would ever have suspected 40 years ago, and has sometimes pioneered the approaches which have then been applied to the central and later middle ages. I think the study of ritual would be an example. I mean, it was really in that early medieval period – not just in Britain, but in Germany too – that the study of ritual became more popular. Now, everyone says ‘Oh, crumbs: there’s a lot of ritual about in the 13th century, isn’t there?’, where it hadn’t been looked at before.
PO: And the study of ritual – would you put that as an example of what’s called the cultural turn in history?
JN: Yes, I think you could put it that way. I think it’s partly got to do with anthropology and sociology gradually sort of working themselves into certain areas of history and it goes back to an older kind of historiography that I was talking about earlier, when I was telling you about the work of Schramm: an interest in symbols of state which is coming out of something else I think, more constitutional history.
But yes, I think ritual has tied in all kinds of ways with cultural history. And it’s meant that politics has been looked at in a different way, so instead of saying ‘Oh well, that was just ritual, this other thing’ – which might be, I don’t know, legislative assemblies’ activities – ‘that’s the real thing’, you realise of course that they’re both real and they are constantly interacting on each other.
PO: That seems to be the key development in a sense, or one of the key developments: the move away from the high politics approach or even the social history that was obsessed with class, to this new approach of, whether it’s called cultural history or other terms are used. Would you have seen that change over the 40 years or so?
JN: I would. I wrote this chapter for the British Academy, the historiography of the Middle Ages volume, and that was my conclusion really, that if you had to generalise about all these developments that would be the label, that would be the word you’d use, that there’s been a turn towards cultural history. And that some people have been dragged kicking and screaming into that turn, and others have welcomed it, embraced it and forged ahead around it, but that everybody’s been affected by it in one way or another.
PO: And related to that, you were co-founder of the Women’s History seminar at the IHR.
JN: Indeed, I was.
PO: Presumably before that you were interested in women’s history. I just wondered what trends you’d seen there, both in terms of the popularity of women’s history and in terms of the terminology that supplied the distinction between women’s history and gender history?
JN: Yes, absolutely. Well, everything you said is very insightful. The seminar began because there were so many people. It has always been run by a team – I think can say I’m the earliest and now by far the oldest of the team – which includes medievalists, early modernists and modernists and if we can find ancient historians or non-European historians, American historians, they’re welcome to come as well. So it’s always been a bit of a team.
Why did we start? I suppose since the 1970s women’s history was becoming a focus of interest for historians in different periods and it was becoming clear that the way in which certain – I don’t know whether we called them theories or generalising approaches (e.g. looking at women’s lifecycle as a way of sorting out evidence) – that if we tried to put these together across periods and places that would be fruitful for everybody.
And I remember the year in which we started was the year in which an article appeared in the American Historical Review by Joan Scott called ‘Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis’, and that meant that women’s history was already shifting – this was in 1985. I think we’d already planned our seminar before this article appeared. Somehow being the lead article in the American Historical Review was a kind of point to mark, I won’t say a point of triumph but a point to celebrate, and so we sort of hung our initial meeting around that.
Well, yes, it’s evolved very much. It started off by being very much women’s history but some people wanted to turn it more towards gender. And I think you probably know this: that some women’s historians have said, ‘Enough’, you know, ‘Gender history is taking over, gender history is becoming the history of masculinity – let’s get back to a bit of good old women’s history’. There’ve always been disagreements among these historians as to where the priority should lie, or if not that, how you should best pursue them and how far you have a lot to gain from bringing these different approaches together and how much risk there is in diluting the focus that you wanted originally. But I think on the whole the seminar’s done well and that sub-discipline has done very well in maintaining a kind of dual focus of interest – that you can do women’s history and gender history.
PO: And so you would see, during this period, the two co-existing then?
JN: Yes, I would say even from the mid-1980s that they co-existed and that some people wanted to move – very deliberately – away from women’s history, seeing it as ghettoised and wanting to broaden out, and to bring in not only women historians of women (by and large, those historians were women): they wanted to make it a much wider field into which lots of men would want to come. And there certainly have been different approaches and indeed disputes and sometimes a certain amount of ill feeling I think. But I think on the whole that they decided that they can co-exist quite comfortably. That would be my reading of it, but I’m an irenic type so you might get a different story from somebody else!
PO: And a question I guess more about the profession than the discipline: I was wondering if you had any views on how the pressures on academics have changed?
JN: Oh boy, do I have – yes! I do, and I think the answer is very simple: it’s the increase in the number of students. Sure, the increase in the number of universities has happened, there are more places doing history, but in each university the numbers of students doing history has grown and the number of teachers has not grown commensurately.
I mean, your question mentions academics, not historians, and that’s absolutely right. It’s not confined to historians, or even to humanities scholars, though I think that scientists have their own ways of coping with these by working in teams, whereas academics in the humanities and social sciences tend much more to be doing solo projects. But I think the pressures that have arisen from the need to teach far more students and to do that without a decline in standards, to remain committed to students’ development, and in many cases to want to retain quite a strong element of personal contact with the work of undergraduates so that you actually read people’s work and essays and you follow their progress individually.
All that, plus the administrative jobs that have grown, again, with expansion. The universities haven’t been able to run these larger numbers except through the existing academics. There are three areas of the academic’s life which you always have to write about if you write references. I would say that the research has changed too in being more demanding, that the pressures on you to produce are heavier. I had a couple of colleagues who I will not name – I was very fond of both of them and they’re now no longer with us – and they published very little and they were very committed to teaching. And nobody complained or chivvied them as far as I know; they just went on doing what they had always done.
PO: It wasn’t seen as an issue?
JN: No, it wasn’t.
PO: And this was in the 1970s?
JN: Yes, this was in the 1970s, and it was sort of still true in the 1980s. Maybe by the 1990s it was changing.
So I think the research pressures have become very great and that young academics feel it very strongly – that they won’t get jobs unless they’ve started to publish already, before they’ve done their doctorates, that they’ve got to publish their doctoral theses or they’ll never stand a look-in for promotion, that once they’ve got the job they’ve got to keep publishing, publishing, publishing and all that.
All these pressures have become very heavy. And at the same time they’ve been expected to run some sort of research organisation within the department, so that they’re keeping tabs on everyone’s research output, or some sort of postgraduate meeting place. Everyone’s got to be taking one or other of these administrative posts and at the same time they’re not to lose what drew many people into the job in the first place, the priority they give to teaching and their total commitment to their students’ welfare. I think this is very sincerely felt by academics and I notice it very much in my younger colleagues, although I think the world has made it much harder for them than it was for me.
PO: I guess that connects to the next question I want to ask because the two are obviously very much interrelated. There’ve been obviously great institutional changes in the universities since the 1960s; I was wondering what views you had on those?
JN: Well, I think expansion has been one and my view of that is, for history, it’s been gained without declining quality. I think history may be special in this way; I don’t think it’s unique actually but I think there is something about history which means that you don’t need to use huge resources in any particular location for it to work well. It’s nice if you’ve got a group of like-minded scholars and maybe that’s what will produce most high quality work.
In London – I’m very lucky – there is such a place. But I think you can be in what may look like an isolated place on the map, a rather small place with not very good communications and nevertheless produce first class work, first class research. And that the students there can get a very good deal. So I’m one of those that believes that this expansion has not come, and need never come, at the cost of excellence, particularly not research excellence.
PO: You can have expansion without dilution?
JN: Yes, I think so. But having said that, I think that this expansion has brought heavy burdens of the sort I’ve described on academics at all levels. I mean, the senior ones will complain that they’re so burdened with admin that they have no time any longer to do the research that they wanted to do, which drives some people to take early retirement.
But I think that the creation first of all of a thing called the Humanities Research Board, and then the AHRB and then the AHRC, has done an awful lot to alleviate these pressures of time by being able to give research leave grants to enable the completion of projects. I think that’s been always the most over-subscribed, or heavily subscribed, scheme of the AHRB and the AHRC, more so than the big research grants. Though those too have played a very important part, for example in enabling academics to develop the kind of teamwork that produces these large databases which we were talking about just now.
So I think there’s a very positive side to a greater intervention of the state and of state funding in universities, but I think there’ve been costs as well. They’ve come from the state’s endless interfering, deciding on certain changes or emphases in curricula for example. Obviously, universities are independent but the state can find ways of encouraging or not encouraging certain kinds of developments, and I think recently that the humanities perhaps have been rather disadvantaged in the way that the AHRC has seen its resources cut two years in succession – I think that’s very regrettable.
PO: And again you’ve alluded to this, and this kind of follows on from what we’ve been talking about: what about the relationship between teaching and research? The way in which the two feed into each other. Again, have there been any changes there that you’ve observed?
JN: I think academics have maybe become much more self-conscious, much more aware of that question, and the answer I think is that they interact with each other. It might not be true for quite all academics but I’d say that the vast majority of historians would see their history and their teaching and their research as just part of a single thing.
JN: That the teaching constantly generates the questions and discussions and conversations out of which your own research benefits. And then your own research comes straight back into the teaching room to be batted around by the students. So I’ve never seen any contradiction between those two things; in my own work I would see them as interdependent.
PO: How about the example you gave earlier, of your two unnamed colleagues in the 1970s who weren’t doing any research? Obviously that would have meant that there wouldn’t have been research feeding into their teaching. Does the absence of those sorts of characters now mean that in fact students are more likely to be getting the results of fresh research when they’re being taught?
JN: Well, I do think so. Although students were undoubtedly very fond of teachers who just gave them (sometimes they described this to me) lectures consisting of readings out of crackling yellow pages from which clouds of dust arose when they were turned. I don’t think it could have been that bad but, I mean, they were not expecting anything new. They were expecting a kind of digest of existing scholarship which they could have got out of books in the library if they had chosen to go there. Some students, when I first started in the university teaching, I think they would have picked up a lot from lectures and tended to regurgitate lectures. That went on in quality universities, it wasn’t confined to what some people might have labelled ‘less good’ universities. I think there were always students who would do that.
But I think nowadays students are being endlessly encouraged to interest themselves in the output of research, but [also] the process of research: how is it done? To be much more self-aware and self-critical about how they’re proceeding. So I’m generally very optimistic about the development of history. I think the way I was taught – while I had some very inspiring teachers and did do that kind of work with them, I had others with whom it really was the crackling yellow pages and it was very much ‘This is the narrative, copy it down, regurgitate it in a few well-turned phrases in your exam answers’.
PO: …And that’ll do!
JN: And that was fine, that was enough to get a good degree. I think this whole turn towards more substantial pieces of individual work is beneficial. I think there’ll always be a place for exams and I don’t think it’s only plagiarism that has led many academics to retreat a bit from this coursework-centred form of assessment, but I do think that historians are being challenged intellectually as undergraduates in a way that I never was in the 1960s.
PO: That’s really interesting to hear. Moving to a slightly different topic, but one I’ll be interested to hear your views on, have you seen any changes in the relationship between academic and popular history?
JN: Well, I’m sure that’s a question that would be much easier for a modernist to answer because the diet of popular history in the media – radio as well as television, and in popular mags like History Today or BBC History – is overwhelmingly modern, rather than medieval. Though they will try to put in a bit of medieval stuff. So I think with many undergraduates, what has inspired them to apply to your department to do history has been a television series or a radio programme or an article that they’ve read. That’s what they’ll say when you’re interviewing them. And that doesn’t so often happen with medieval history because there just isn’t so much available.
PO: There’s just been a season, hasn’t there, on medieval history.
JN: Yes, there have been some programmes and in fact, a number of students have talked to me about them and said how much they admired them. So I don’t think there’s any reason why medieval history shouldn’t join in this flourishing [area].
But I wouldn’t say that the effect has been to dumb down academic history on the whole; I think academic history has got its own canons, its own ways of doing. I mean, I’ve done quite a bit of it myself, you know, presenting things on television, and of course you have to oversimplify because you’ve hardly got any time to say anything. And whoever’s interviewing you – as it were, you, which is absolutely not what you’re doing now, you’re not trying to sort of ambush me into saying something which can then be a sound-bite. But when you’re making television programmes that is exactly what it’s about.
PO: They’re looking for their thirty second chunk.
JN: Absolutely. So I think popular history has its own reasons, its own taskmasters, its own financial constraints and all the rest of it. I think, on the whole, the more the better. I think the more history impinges on the popular imagination, the world at large, the better.
I think one thing that worries me though – and I must say this now in case I don’t get another chance to say it – is the growing insularity of English history. I think it’s getting worse. And it’s been getting worse rather dramatically during the time that I’ve been in the academic world.
And it’s the loss of languages. I told you about my little grammar school [where] all I could do was French, so it wasn’t as if it was paradise then, but on the other hand I did Latin and Greek to a very high level. And boy, am I grateful. I don’t know how I could ever have done what I’ve done had I not had that grounding in the classics.
Now, I think what’s happened now is that classics has more or less disappeared from the state sector and modern languages is in the most catastrophic decline so kids come up to university now without any language except English. Maybe they’ve done some years of – I don’t know what they do – conversation in school but it does not involve reading anything at all. They have no idea how to construe a sentence, so they don’t understand about the endings of words, conjugations, declensions. All those boring things that if you’d done Latin of course it had been drilled into you.
PO: And skills which are transferable.
JN: Transferable from one language to another, absolutely. But I’m deeply worried about this and I’ve become more and more worried in recent years because if you want to do research in my field, as I told you, you have to learn a number of European languages. It’s not so bad if you’ve got one and need to learn one or two more, but if you haven’t got any and you haven’t got any Latin either that is a bit of a poser. I have never put it in these terms until recently because I don’t go around saying to myself, ‘What school did that kid come from?’, but now when I come to see what school did they come from I have noticed that if they’ve been to what I call a posh school, i.e. a public school, they will have learnt languages – not just probably learnt some Latin, but certainly learnt modern languages to a rather good level, reading. If they’ve been to a state school, a maintained school, the chances of them having any modern languages to any usable level are very small.
PO: And you see, now, that distinction as being that clear?
JN: I think it’s become very clear in recent years and it makes me angry, because in other respects these students are outstanding and they somehow or other manage to compensate for these deficits by sheer hard graft – it’s very, very hard work for them – but it makes me angry that they have been put in that position of having this huge obstacle set in their path if they want to study the history of anywhere but an Anglophone society. It doesn’t just apply to early medieval Europe; it applies to European history at any period and it applies to non-European history or Latin American history.
PO: I was interviewing Ian Kershaw for this project and he was making the same point, obviously with regard to German – that people were coming to do this special subject with him who couldn’t speak or read German. And in some cases he was under pressure to take them on and to find some sort of source-based work they could do which didn’t rely on German sources, which he said was ridiculous really.
JN: You can’t do it. Because not only is it the sources that are in German, all the historiography is in German, with the exception of the work of Ian Kershaw and a few others. Of course, there are a few non-Germans who do it, but that will be a tiny proportion, just as what I write about – the Carolingian period – is a tiny proportion compared with the vast amount that’s written in German, French, Italian on Carolingian history.
So this worries me because I think there was a trend already setting in. I don’t know when language learning began to decline but I can only say that New Labour, for all its great protestations, has done absolutely nothing to arrest that decline – in fact, the opposite, it has accelerated it. And that against all its professions of deep concern about access. Let’s have people in if they’re able, it doesn’t matter how crummy their school. But they’re not giving them a level playing field at all, so I get steamed up about this.
My present job now I’ve retired is heading up a little research project at the British Academy about language teaching and learning in Britain – England particularly – and trying to see how things have come to this pass and how we could get out of it. I mean, why should the Academy interest itself apart from concern for the public weal? Because it affects humanities and social science disciplines. The quality of our students depends on them having access to languages.
PO: Every single historian has mentioned this when we’ve discussed schools.
JN: It’s so bad.
PO: In terms of your report, I imagine that the reaction that you’ll get will be almost overwhelming, having just come to the same conclusions as yourself.
JN: Yes, Oh, well, that’s very encouraging to hear. I think historians have been particularly aware of this, even the ones that don’t do non-Anglophone history. You see, Ian Kershaw’s a wonderful example of somebody that doesn’t do Anglophone history. If you only do British history, then I daresay you can get by just reading stuff in English, or do American history. But that is an impoverished history – a historical profession that is only doing national history or only Anglophone history – because I think the whole point about history (well, for me it is) is to broaden out, to think about the other with a capital O to try and understand it, and without language how can you begin?
PO: And also it’s an arbitrary elimination of resource material, isn’t it, if you are limited by the fact that only half of it’s available to you because it’s in a particular language – that’s almost to the extent of just saying, ‘Alright, I’m just going to read fifty per cent and just pick it out at random’.
JN: Yes, yes,
PO: So good luck with that project and that report. I suppose that leads me on quite nicely to my last question then, which is basically how you see the future of the discipline and/or the profession?
JN: Well, I’m an optimist by temperament so I feel pretty optimistic about the future. I think the quality of research students nowadays has never been higher. I was up in Glasgow a couple of days ago to give a talk and the next day I had a couple of hours talking to the research students doing medieval topics and I was mightily impressed by their quality. And it wasn’t me saying ‘Now we’re going to talk about this’; it was me saying ‘What would you like to talk about?’ and them taking the initiative, and coming up with so many original, insightful points. I just thought ‘That’s Glasgow – I mean, Glasgow’s a great centre for medieval history’, but I’ve found this as I’ve given hundreds of lectures in universities all around the country and I think that I find the same thing wherever I go: that the quality of teaching and the quality of the research students is just terrific.
I think if that can be maintained, and I think there the AHRC has a huge role to play. It worries me again that the AHRC has made cuts in that funding this year and is not promising fully to restore those cuts next year. Who else is going to fund them? You could say institutions are going to fund them, well, Oxford and Cambridge will no doubt fund them but what about everywhere else?
Anyway, you can turn this off and then I can tell you that I’m an old socialist – you probably guessed that.
PO: Well, that’s great – future optimism tempered with realism, perhaps! Professor Nelson, thank you very much indeed.