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 Michael Prestwich
about his experience of, and views on, changes in the discipline and
the academic profession of history.
Professor Prestwich, may we start with your giving us some brief biographical information?
Michael Prestwich: Yes. I suppose I should start off that I’m the son of two historians, both of whom were at Oxford. I was born and brought up in Oxford.
There was then the question where to go to university. I think my parents were aware that there was another university in the Fenlands of eastern England, but that was a bit new, and certainly no other universities really crossed their horizons. For them, Oxford was the be all and end all and I think that as my mother had come from south Wales to Oxford, and my father from Lancashire, it was a great thing for them to have gone there. As far as they were concerned Oxford was the only possible option, and I was encouraged by them to put in for Oxford in the second year of the sixth form, actually a year early. But it was kind of a trial run. And then unexpectedly I got in.
Why history particularly? I think because there was nothing else I could do. I certainly couldn’t do anything scientific because I’m not exactly numerate. I got through the most basic O-level mathematics and gave that up rapidly. I certainly wasn’t much of a linguist; English literature was the only other possibility. And history was what I enjoyed, actually. So there didn’t really seem to be any question other than that I would go on doing history. Then after three years as an undergraduate it seemed naturally to go on and do research. I don’t remember thinking very hard about it or thinking about other options – had I not got the right sort of degree and so forth then there would have been time to think about it, but as it was it just followed automatically.
I did my undergraduate degree at Magdalen, and I moved because there was a senior scholarship at Christ Church and did my DPhil there, and stayed on one year when I finished it, filling in for somebody who was on sabbatical leave for a year. Things then – in the late 1960s – were actually beginning to get tight. There had been the big expansion in the mid-1960s, lots of academic jobs around, and suddenly the curtains began to close at the end of that decade.
And looking for various jobs, there was a job at St Andrew’s. It sounded a nice place, didn’t know much about it at all, and certainly there weren’t the openings coming up to do what my parents expected and duly stay on at Oxford. The best thing I did was to apply for that job at St Andrew’s.
I remember going there, slightly mystified because in those days you went for an interview and that was it, you weren’t even shown where the department was. These days you’d have presentations, meet the colleagues, you’d be taken out to dinner – none of that. You arrived in the place on the bus, had an interview, got back on the bus and went back home.
And then my first ten years teaching were at St Andrew’s which was a great place. It was very curiously a department of medieval history, and medieval history was enormously successful under the guidance of Lionel Butler, who was a great man as Professor of Medieval History. He wrote hardly anything and I recall we used to sometimes be taken late at night across to his house, which was on the opposite side of the road from the department, given a glass of whiskey whisky and… ‘You do believe I really am writing a book, don’t you?’ he would always say, and we would all say ‘Yes, yes, of course we do’…and we didn’t. And he didn’t.
PO: And he wasn’t?
MP: He didn’t write much but he was a great lecturer, a great university politician. He went on, of course, from St Andrew’s to be Principal of Royal Holloway. But he had built up this department and part of it was on the basis of the wonderful lectures he gave to first year students, which brought them all flocking in, and they all switched to do medieval history.
So that was the first ten years and it was really in teaching terms a very formative period I think. Then I came to Durham in 1979. Again, it was a slightly odd move because they advertised a readership. Universities didn’t on the whole have established readerships, and didn’t advertise at that level, but it was a splendid way of getting round the promotion blockage that I could see in St Andrew’s. There were a whole raft of us of the same kind of age, all pretty clearly starting to jockey for promotion. To get it from outside was a great opportunity.
So then I came to Durham and people said ‘Don’t you find it a small place?’ It seemed a huge place after St Andrew’s. In many ways a very similar place actually – the English students at St Andrew’s were exactly like the students at Durham and it was a good place to be. It was changing when I came. It had previously been very much under the control of the late Professor Offler, who did his best to discourage anyone from publishing anything, and certainly discouraged the department from ever giving anyone first class degrees. I think there’d been two first class degrees in the whole decade before I came.
PO: He was keeping up standards.
MP: Well, he said ‘They haven’t quite matured, in another six months they might be there, but you know…’, so they all got their 2:1s.
And here I’ve stayed ever since. And I’ve been lucky I think because I did a spell as head of department in the late 1980s, was then the President briefly of the local AUT academic union, and was then for some reason picked out by the Registrar, who said ‘Would you like to be Pro Vice Chancellor?’ That was a great opportunity and I did that in the 1990s for a seven year period. I went on teaching – it was half time administration, or what nowadays people like to call management – half time management, half time teaching. But I did manage I think to keep both sides going. It was a nice opportunity to get out of the department, to meet other people, to work with other people, to see entirely different types of problems really. I think in many ways I learnt a lot from that.
A lot of people had difficulty, having done a job like that – they don’t find it easy to return to a department. If you’re a scientist particularly, you stop doing the research, you don’t read, you’ve not quite kept up with the field. It’s not so difficult for a historian, and actually I found it really quite pleasant and enjoyed coming back to the department, in 1999. I had a period of leave, was able to get on with some writing, did a spell as head of department and am now running rapidly up to retirement.
So, that’s the biography.
PO: You’ve talked us there through the course of your career. I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about what has influenced you as a historian, both personally, people you might have come into contact with, and intellectually?
MP: That’s a huge and very difficult question to answer. The answer you’d expect me to give is that as an undergraduate I was taught by the great K. B. McFarlane and, looking at my career, he is the man who should have been I think a great influence. In some ways I think he was but I don’t regard myself really as one of his acolytes, one of his disciples and followers.
Being taught by him was rather odd. I remember I did a special subject with him and would write six gobbets a week and hand them in. They’d come back with carefully, beautifully, elegantly written comments on, then when it came to the tutorial of course, he’d said it all on paper and there were long silences – really quite awkward in some sense. ‘Well, it would be nice if we knew more about this, wouldn’t it, but unfortunately we haven’t got the sources’, was the kind of thing that was said. I think he certainly inculcated some scholarly principles.
Beyond that in terms of influences, I don’t feel that I belong to a sort of particular school of historians. I was supervised by George Holmes. For one term he was on leave and James Campbell took over, and that was very, very good. James did a tremendous job. I was in the beginnings of the writing up stage of the thesis, and certainly to have that kind of really acute critical attention to what I was doing taught me quite a lot.
There are a number of people who’ve been kind and helpful. I remember for example, going to Glasgow to meet and talk to Lionel Stones. Lionel was a very kind and helpful man. I was writing the big biography of Edward I and I sent it all in chapters to Lionel who read them and commented and so forth. Certainly, odd things he said or comments that came back made me think and were influential.
But overall I find it quite difficult actually to answer that question in terms of great major influences. Clearly, in a different sense, in terms of other historians who’ve worked on the kinds of things that I have – but I think you’re not quite asking that question.
PO: No, you’ve answered me there with regard to the people you’ve met personally. I was wondering as well though, in terms of your intellectual development – people that you might have read or thinkers you might have come across?
MP: I suppose there it’s probably quite simple actually.
One very great book was [John E.]Morris’s Welsh Wars of Edward I. It’s actually an extraordinary achievement of Morris. I suppose he did the writing in the 1890s, and he really discovered the archives. The voluminous accounts and records and so forth of Edward I’s reign simply had not been explored, and the kinds of documents that he was using were exactly the sorts of things that I went on to look at. And that was an absolutely seminal and important book. Very odd – I mean, he was a schoolteacher, not an academic. It’s the one book he wrote and it’s a great book.
I suppose on from that Tout’s Chapters in the Administrative History [of Medieval England]. It sounds very dull but again this was something that was based on massive amounts of archival knowledge and archival work. That, certainly, I’d see as a very important influence on me.
I think one person I should mention is Edmund Fryde. Fairly early when I started out in my research, I went to see Edmund in Aberystwyth which was quite an experience – this sort of small, tubby, Polish figure with an astonishing knowledge, again, of the archives, who thrust enormous quantities of fairly illegible notes, photocopies and so forth at me. And certainly I got a real sense there of just how much there was to do, and also of some ways in which it could be done, because it isn’t easy always to know how medieval administration worked. I remember Edmund saying, if only you could go back and have just an afternoon with any clerk of the Exchequer, the questions he really would like to ask him – quite how things worked. And though that was a fairly brief visit to Aberystwyth, Edmund was somebody that I learnt from.
PO: Okay. And maybe asking again a similar question, but in a slightly different way, if we look at your field and the history of medieval England, who would you see as being the most significant practitioners in that field?
MP: Do you mean present day practitioners?
PO: More I think casting your mind back over the history of the history, so to speak.
MP: Right. Thinking in general terms about English medieval history, it’s quite difficult to pick because there are a large number of great names. Certainly Stenton is a great name and his work on the first century of English feudalism is very, very important. If you went back further, I don’t regard myself as much of a legal historian, but if it wasn’t for what Maitland had done, I would be nowhere. And that is the great name, par excellence, I suppose.
You probably expect me to say something like Powicke as another of the great names and I always find Powicke very, very difficult. There are wonderful things in Powicke but I find the – almost lack of structure through the books – really quite problematic. And he worked obviously on the 13th century and never, I think, used the archival material at all. The Public Record Office looks, judging by his books, seems to have been closed as far as he was concerned: he certainly didn’t use that kind of material. Though Powicke has been in the back of my mind sometimes with what I’ve been writing, and I’ve come up with conclusions that are probably not very dissimilar from his, I wouldn’t see him as a great influence.
I think that if you move on from the 13th century, to the 14th century, that May McKisack ’s book in the Oxford History series is a beautifully written book, beautifully organised, systematic and clear. That was a great book, and I know she didn’t rate it particularly highly. She herself at the time wanted to get on with work on Tudor historians of medieval England, her real interest. But that was a great book.
I suppose, in terms of the military history that I’ve done. I’ve already mentioned Morris and his Welsh Wars. Certainly, Philippe Contamine and his great book on Guerre, État et société, which is terrifying in its sort of sheer vastness and the range that it covers, and also his more general book. They certainly have, I suppose, both been highly influential.
If you look currently as it were among historians, I think that becomes kind of invidious to pick out particular individuals who’ve been important. I started doing research at the same time as John Maddicott, and John’s work is certainly very important and not just a research writing point of view. I taught for many years – probably too many years I suppose – a special subject on Edward II’s reign and John Maddicott’s Thomas of Lancaster book has been a kind of Bible in many ways for that. I’d certainly say he’s an important historian.
PO: Okay. And you mentioned there your work on the Oxford History of England?
MP: I wrote the volume which covers 1225 to 1360 in the New Oxford History of England series. That was the last book that came out.
PO: Right. I was just wondering what role you think the Oxford History has played within history, and perhaps what role the relevant volumes within your area of the discipline have played?
MP: I think the old Oxford History of England was immensely influential actually. I mean, it’s always there for students. It’s in many ways the thing you go to first – if what you want isn’t there, you go somewhere else. I would certainly advise students to avoid the Powicke volume, which is complex and difficult in many ways. But, yes, that was a very definitive series.
I think it’s too soon to make judgements about the new series. Obviously it’s not yet complete, and it won’t be complete for many years, but we’ve now got the volumes through from the Norman Conquest to the Middle Ages. I would hope that it has some kind of definitive quality, but I think there are now so many series, so many books, it’s very, very different from that original Oxford series. I think the New Oxford History is now in a marketplace competing with so many other works. I hope it’ll last, but we’ll see.
PO: Any impact must be diluted by the competition.
PO: And are there any other institutions – and I’m using the term there, including either places or organisations or journals – that you think have been influential, again in the development of the study of medieval history?
MP: What are you thinking of?
PO: I suppose what I’m thinking of is that I’ve spoken to people about local history and they talk about the Centre at Leicester…
MP: Yes, yes. There isn’t anything like that. Something that I think has been quite helpful has been the series – it started in Newcastle, then moved to Durham, and is now being run from Aberystwyth – of conferences every other year on 13th century England. And I think that has probably been quite influential and helpful. It’s been a fairly coherent body of people that have attended those conferences – normal attendance is about 40, and I suppose there’s a core of 15 or 20 regulars who turn up. And I think that’s helped to provide some sort of cohesiveness among historians working on this kind of period.
I think periods of history are very different. Some periods, it seems to me that historians are on the whole rather divisive and get interested in crossing each other and that seems to me to have been the case for some years with 15th-century historians. I think 13th-century England has actually served quite well to bring people together and it’s brought research students together with more senior scholars; I think that’s been very useful and helpful. But otherwise, in terms of institutions, no – there aren’t any. There isn’t any one sort of centre that you look to because we’re very broadly based.
PO: Okay. And a last question on this specific area. I was wondering what you saw the most significant debates or points of contention were in this area, or have been in this area, maybe over the last forty year or so?
MP: I don’t think there’s a major debate – you know, a fundamental debate of a huge divide between people taking wholly different views and arguing it out; I think it’s all been much more collaborative, cooperative and so forth.
PO: That’s interesting in itself.
MP: As I said, I think you’d get a different answer if you asked 15th-century historians what they thought was going on, and in some fields you’ll certainly find notions of a ‘new’ something or other, a ‘new’ political history, a ‘new’ British history. Those haven’t impinged very much on me I think.
The areas that have been interesting and fruitful in terms of discussion are questions about the nature of gentry society, particularly in the 13th century, the nature of change, what’s happened to the knightly class? Is it declining, is it simply getting much smaller and becoming kind of a more elite group? What’s happening there? And there have been very interesting and useful debates I think on that.
On the military history side, I think what’s interesting there are recent discussions. We all thought quite happily that in the Hundred Years War, Edward III was not seeking battle. That battle was something that happened, at Crécy in particular, when the English were cornered by the French and had no option other than to fight, but that’s not really what they wanted to do.
And then along came a young American scholar challenging everyone left, right and centre, Clifford Rogers. He won the Alexander History Prize at the Royal Historical Society, and gave his lecture which really was turning everything on its head particularly the Crécy campaign. There were some slightly aghast faces I think in the audience. Cliff is someone whose work is very solidly based on wide reading of the material, he knows his sources incredibly well, and I think has done an immense service of looking at the whole question of English strategy and tactics, and reopening an area that everyone thought ‘Well, this is really quite boring and we know the answers to this’. And he’s opened things up. I think there hasn’t been as much debate actually, there’s been much quicker acceptance of what Clifford said than perhaps people would have thought at the time his first broadside came out at that lecture. That’s somewhere where I think things have changed really quite markedly.
Other areas – there’s been a lot of thought and development of ideas about English parliament in this period, but I think though there are nice academic arguments about what’s going on, I don’t see those kind of fundamental disagreements. In the old days you had H. G. Richardson saying Parliament was a purely legal institution with a very narrow definition and casting aside anything about representation, taxation – this was all irrelevant to the essential core of parliament. And others took an entirely different view, radically opposed views. But really since the 1960s, I think people have been much more coming together. And though there may be some arguments and disagreements, there certainly aren’t these kind of great fissures between opposing views in the way that there have been. That’s how I would see it.
I mean, there are changes in the way people write history and it’ll be quite interesting to see now that Marc Morris has produced a new biography of Edward I, the previous big biography having been mine. That’s quite interesting and one of the changes is that he’s taken a purely narrative approach to the reign, and simply starts at the beginning and ends at the end. And certainly when I started out as a historian, that was the one thing you certainly never, ever did. You didn’t just produce a straight narrative.
PO: Because that wasn’t history.
MP: It wasn’t history, you approached things analytically, topic by topic, and built up a picture that way. And the development of a narrative method of writing history is a big contrast between the way that Marc has approached writing about Edward I and the way I looked at it.
PO: That’s interesting. So it’s – regardless of arguments about the content and fact – it’s the style in which this is approached?
PO: And is his approach informed then by the consequences of the cultural turn, as it’s been called, or…
MP: I don’t know. I simply don’t. I think probably it’s more a question of his being influenced by other books, by seeking a more popular audience. I think that this is what he’s looking to. It’s not exactly a crossover book but it’s certainly looking to, perhaps, a less academic audience than I was doing. But then of course, it’s by no means the only book that takes that kind of view.
I think one of the early ones that I came across was David Carpenter, who I should perhaps mention as another very important historian of the thirteenth century. David’s book on the minority of Henry III starts at the beginning and ends at the end of the minority, and it goes through rigorously and chronologically but – I mean, it’s a big fat book – it is able to insert the analysis in the course of the narrative structure, and it’s not easy to do that.
PO: Okay, well, that’s very interesting. And that shows developments that other people haven’t necessarily remarked upon in these interviews.
I wanted to go on and talk a little about the profession in general. Again this is a question that I think you’ve alluded to in your answers there, but I just wondered in general whether you’d seen any trends in the popularity of different periods or different approaches (to history in general)?
MP: Again, that’s not an easy question to answer. I think yes, I have alluded to something. I think the writing of biographical narrative-type history has become more popular and history’s looking to perhaps wider audiences than before. I think we were all quite happy when I started to write the academic monograph and I think now perhaps people are feeling it’s getting more difficult to get those published of course.
MP: Monographs. And I think people therefore are looking in different directions. But yes, that’s one sort of change.
In terms of types of history, it’s been quite interesting to see how military history has remained or become, I think, more popular as an area. The less we’re kind of directly involved and know about the realities of warfare, perhaps the more interested we are in an academic sense. That may not be entirely true because there are of course American scholars writing who have got actual military experience in the way that no British scholars have. But I have been struck, I think, by the way in which the military history that I’ve done has fitted into the work of really quite a large number of people. I mentioned Cliff Rogers, and Anne Curry is one that obviously should be mentioned, and a whole number of others, like Matthew Strickland at Glasgow. And that has become a much more popular subject to look at than it was when I started in the sixties. At that stage there were the retired colonels writing military history and I think the history of war in general terms was not being written that much by medievalists, certainly. I think for the early modern period and later perhaps it was.
In other terms, of how the discipline and what we look at has changed, I think what has really surprised me is that when I started economic history was the great, growing area. This was it. And I felt slightly nervous about it because I can’t really add up that well but I duly went off and wrote some economic history and discussed exchange rates in the early 14th century in an article which neither I nor anyone else I think could really understand. But there it is, in the pages of the Economic History Review. And yet economic history, it’s almost dead as a discipline. I mean, I exaggerate there, but certainly much of what now is classed as economic history really in many ways is social history. And the sort of ‘hard’ economic history, that we thought was the way forward in the 1960s has really almost vanished. And I think it’s a sad story. It relates in part to what’s happened in universities. There used to be departments of economic history, they’ve merged into departments of history, they’ve found student demand and so forth has been for straight history or social history rather than economic history, and it’s become really a minority subject. And that I would never have expected. That, I think, is really a big change, and I think in many ways it’s a tragedy.
PO: I spoke to Professor Martin Daunton as well in these interviews, who’s an economic historian himself, and he seemed to think that this was a beneficial development in some ways because economic historians had turned in upon themselves and become less conversant with other aspects of the discipline. So bringing them back into departments had meant that historians of different approaches were informing each other more.
MP: Well, I think Martin’s got a very good point there. Very early in his career, he was actually in Durham in the then department of economic history, and certainly when I came to Durham economic history was some hundred yards away from the history department and the two really never met, we were in different faculties. And I think it has been very good that we’ve had Richard Britnell, who is a great economic historian (now retired but in this department) teaching not just pure economic history but teaching on quite a wide range. Economic history has always been a part of what he does but he’s looked more broadly, certainly in the teaching, and much of the writing he’s done too.
But I think that the number of straight economic historians has dropped as a result of this integration. I think you’re right, and Martin is right, to say that it’s made economic historians think more widely about the nature of their subject and integrate it more into history generally. I think that’s true, of course, that economics as a discipline looks much more widely than the old classic economics did. And so economic history is matching perhaps to an extent what’s happening in economics as well. But I still think it’s a pity that the subject is not one that has expanded frankly. It’s got some very good, very great, practitioners but it’s not been a growth subject in the way that other areas have been.
I also perhaps need to say something about medieval history, which sometimes is thought to be under threat, as it were, and I don’t believe a word of it. I mean, its popularity seems to me to be growing. Certainly in teaching terms, we have absolutely no difficulty in attracting students to take medieval options. They like the chance to do something they haven’t done at school. In publishing terms, I don’t think medievalists find it any more difficult to get their work into journals and into monographs than is the case in any other area of history, so medieval history seems to me to be absolutely fine.
PO: That’s interesting. So you haven’t felt that there’s been any particular impact from the fact that medieval history is pretty much no longer studied in schools?
MP: No impact from that at all. It never has been studied much in schools. I do have an impression that – maybe it’s not quite true now – but when we had open days, I would ask the students to put up their hands if they were doing Hitler. And they all put up their hands, they were doing Hitler, and I did have an impression that all was being taught in schools was Hitler with perhaps a little bit of Stalin, Mussolini added as well, and that was all they knew about. I exaggerate, but I think in all sorts of areas of history we are teaching them subjects that really simply have not impinged at school level and they welcome that. They welcome, in a department like mine, the chance to do medieval history; they welcome the chance to do African history – and they’ve had it up to here with Hitler.
PO: So rather than a comforting familiarity, that is the attractiveness of doing something new?
MP: I think so. Yes, yes.
PO: That’s an interesting perception. Moving to questions that reflect more on the profession than the discipline, I was wondering if you had any views on how the relationship between teaching and research has changed during your time?
MP: I’m not sure that it’s changed that much.
Yes, there have been changes, and I think that if you were able to go back and look at the history syllabuses that were being taught in the 1960s and 1970s they would not offer anything like the number and range of options that is now the case. There would, on the other hand, have been far more broad survey courses on offer. I think what’s happened in most departments that I’m familiar with is that people are teaching the things they really know about, and they’re not teaching huge swathes of history, particularly modern history perhaps, first year courses extending from 1500 to 1900 and this kind of thing.
There are some very broad survey courses in some institutions but alongside those you will find a lot of very specialised options and people now – in a way they didn’t have in the past I think, and I’m thinking forty years ago when I say the past – do have much greater possibility to teach their own expertise. So their research therefore feeds into their teaching. So I think that teaching has become much more research-based than it was in the past. I mean, it always has been – I think the flagship area of any history syllabus is a special subject and the document-based special subject has always been something that you can see as a research-based element.
I suppose that the other thing in teaching, of course, is the dissertation. Way back when I was an undergraduate at Oxford there were kind of radical moves among the undergraduates to introduce change to the Oxford history syllabus. I think we sensed it hadn’t changed much since 1850 – probably hadn’t! And one of the things that was suggested was the introduction of the dissertation – all sorts of problems there seemed to be about that. But the dissertation has come, and I think even Oxford now has a dissertation in its syllabus. And we are asking, expecting, students to undertake real pieces of research – in some cases they are looking at primary material that nobody else has used, and producing really first class work. That’s something that’s changed: we’re expecting students to produce really high class pieces of research in a way that certainly would not have been thought of in the 1960s and 1970s.
PO: And moving on from that, how do you think the pressures on academics have changed during your career?
MP: I am just staggered frankly, looking at my younger colleagues, at the pressures that they’re under. And how have these pressures changed? I think, in teaching terms, that student numbers have transformed things. I think when I came here in 1979 it was a staff to student ratio somewhere in the region of 1:10, 1:12. And it rose to at least double that, though it’s come down a little bit since then, in the last three of four years it’s dropped.
But even so, we’re 18 or 19 to one and that has certainly increased pressure. It’s actually not the pressure of seeing the number of students – seeing students is lovely – but it’s the marking. The sheer weight of marking that is imposed on people. And of course nowadays, with continuous assessment, the marking really matters and it’s no longer a question of handing back an essay with ‘Beta query alpha, seems okay’ on the bottom. You have to fill in a proper sheet and comment critically on it, and justify the mark that you’re giving. Which is all perfectly right and proper, but it is an increase in the load, the burden, on the academics. So the teaching’s tougher.
Then, in research terms, I think the expectations in terms of publication have gone up. This may be in part a result of the RAE, it’s partly a result of promotion pressures, but the bar has gone up [in terms of] how many books you need to get your senior lectureship, and how many peer reviewed articles in top journals are required. And young colleagues are very conscious of this.
They’re also under the pressure of course in universities that for promotion you should be getting the research grants in: how much external income have you earned? That was a question that never occurred to us: it simply wasn’t there back in the 1970s, even in the 1980s, and the changing way in which research is funded has certainly put a new further pressure.
So the answer I think to the question is yes: the pressures have gone up a lot. I think you can always look at people and suppose that when you start you’re not much involved in administration and so forth and the administration will come. Naturally then you’re going to get more pressured as you move up in your career. But in fact, new colleagues are excused administration for the first three years but then, my goodness, they start getting it really quite soon.
There are quite different burdens on people than those that we had when I started. There’s much more teaching, there are much higher expectations in terms of publication and there are, frankly, ever increasing burdens in administrative terms. This is quite a big department but everybody in it, virtually, has some administrative role or other to perform. So if I look back at the sort of load that I had as head of department in the late 1980s and the sort of load I’ve had recently, there’s a quantum leap. The sorts of requirements really are very, very different: to produce an annual departmental plan; to comment and work out all the numbers of students – fairly artificial numbers in fact – but you have to say how many MA students you’ll have in five years time; work out all these kinds of things, tick endless boxes to satisfy I’m not quite sure who. To satisfy an ever increasing army of university administrators I suppose.
PO: I suppose that fits into the next question I want to ask, looking at things from the other side. I wanted to ask you, having been both Pro-Vice Chancellor here at Durham and in a separate capacity also Vice-President and President of the AUT, what observations you have on institutional changes? I guess the sort of changes which have then produced these pressures that you speak about?
MP: This is a difficult one about institutional change. I mean, in many ways ask people ‘What’s really changed?’ and they will think and produce answers in the terms that I’ve gone through – about student numbers, pressured publication and so forth – and maybe not think that much about the institution. Yet the institutions have changed immeasurably. You’ve got much larger administrations doing in all sorts of cases many things that were not done before. Clearly in some areas it’s just a straight matter of regulation. One of the things that I was dealing with as Pro-Vice Chancellor was health and safety and clearly there’s an ever increasing amount of government instruction from the Health and Safety Executive that has to be met, and that’s easy to understand.
Some of what’s changed, I think is the result of success. That in financial terms back in the 1980s, there really wasn’t any departmental money. I mean, our salaries were paid and there [was] a small amount of pocket money for keeping the office running and buying the stationery and that was about it. And nowadays there’s a big budget to be looked at covering all sorts of areas of research expenditure and so forth that simply didn’t exist previously.
PO: Sorry to interrupt. I’m just interested there: that there wasn’t the money for, or that you didn’t have to pay for?
MP: Well, there wasn’t the money. I mean, there weren’t research grants or research grants were few and far between, and so there was no kind of administrative structure dealing with that. Clearly again, there’s much more accountability I think and with accountability comes regulation, comes bureaucracy and all sorts of complicated rules about procurement that colleagues with research grants find immeasurably inconvenient on occasion. Their travel has to be bought through the university’s approved procurement channels and this, that and the other. You know, so things have gone up in that way.
In the 1980s, budget centres, that was the new word, and ‘vire ’ – to vire money from one head to another. That came as a great shock. I remember it being announced – the Treasurer made a speech in Senate and said that we could vire money from one financial head to another. We all sat with our mouths open as to what on earth this man was on about. Things that now seem perfectly obvious but that whole notion of controlling your budget and being answerable for it, that was something really quite new.
I think as in so many other areas of life now performance indicators and targets have been the new thing I suppose in the last half dozen or so years. And with that of course comes this whole issue of planning. So all of that has changed the way things work.
I think in other terms of institutional change, universities are very keen to change. This university was very keen to reorganise itself and this is seen as a good in itself. So it looked very hard at its faculty structure. It had got three faculties, should it move to a system of schools? Change is something where you stir up the academics, then when they settle down they’ll be better and more effective and so forth than they were before, which of course is nonsense.
And the university stirred everything up and it decided to have a radically new, different way of doing things. We’d have three faculties, and it would no longer have Deans, it would have Executive Deans. So new, shiny, chrome-plated Deans, but effectively the same structure as we had before. So things don’t necessarily change that much. I mean, I exaggerate – the shiny new faculties have greater budgetary responsibilities that the old faculties did. Things of that sort change.
Something I didn’t mention and should have done as part of the pressure on colleagues and the way things have changed is the whole issue of training. I remember when I was at St. Andrews, that Lionel Butler became Dean of Arts, and he thought it would be a good idea to have some kind of seminar discussions and so forth about teaching. This was very radical and I remember we had a little session about how to give a tutorial – very, very unusual to find anybody in about 1970 thinking about training, really we had nothing.
Now of course there’s a great superstructure that’s been created in universities looking after training, and all new colleagues have to go through and get a Certificate in Teaching in Higher Education, which they complain bitterly about. This has little relevance to the realities of teaching in fact, there’s a great deal to do with obscure educational theory. Again, this is part of the pressure, it’s part of the sort of administrative superstructure that’s been created to try to make academics do their job better. While I think it’s very important to keep thinking about what we’re doing – and we regularly meet outside the department and get outside people to come in to help us think round the problems – I don’t think anyone has yet really worked out the best way to do the institutionalised Certificate in Teaching in Higher Education.
PO: Okay, that’s very interesting. On a completely different tack, we’ve talked about this a little before, when you were talking about the new biography of Edward I that’s come out. I was wondering if [you think] there’ve been any changes in the relationship between academic history and popular history?
MP: It’s an interesting question, and what I would like to see is academics writing books that attract a wide audience and it isn’t easy to do that at all. There are very few academics who are really successful, and the late Richard Fletcher of York was an example of somebody who was astonishingly successful, knew exactly how to do it and could write a book that was academically impeccable but yet attracted a wide audience. The problem I think that has always existed is that the person who can write the book that captures the popular imagination hasn’t got the academic instincts and perhaps training. Therefore they can avoid, perhaps, the qualifications, the ifs and buts, the rival theories, the things that we as academics think about and try and work out the problems of, and put the alternatives and the different hypotheses and to pull them together. For popular history you’ve got to do something much simpler and therefore I think there is still a real problem about bringing [popular and academic history] together.
It’s very clear of course in much television history you see, where you know perfectly well that there is the distinguished academic producing what is an hour’s programme but actually quite a simple story, and missing out the alternative interpretations, the difficulties and the problems. That’s the real difficulty in writing for a popular audience. That’s why, you know, Alison Weir can make a packet writing about the history of Queen Isabella, because she can write an attractive story that pulls things together in a perfectly readable way, but one which I think misses the academic problems. She obviously will draw on the academic research but it is hard, I think, for the academics to know how to hit that popular audience. Crossing that bridge is something which I think we should strive to do, but I don’t think we’re very good at doing it.
PO: So their inbuilt training protects them against that simplification of the narrative which in fact is very attractive to the general reader?
MP: That’s right, that’s right. And of course we’ve got in many ways much more scholarly. We’ve got much more careful scholars. You know, you look at the elaborate footnote apparatus of any monograph these days and it’s meticulous in a way that people writing 50 years ago wouldn’t have expected to have to be. That rigorous, meticulous training is one which militates against the ability to write the popular book. So I think this is still difficult.
PO: Okay. That brings us to my last question that I wanted to ask you to speculate freely upon. I just wondered if you had any thoughts on the future of either the discipline or the profession of history?
MP: It would be nice to think that there will be some great revolution and transformation. I don’t see it actually. I mean, we’re constantly seeing new generations coming forward but in terms of the PhDs that I’ve examined it seems to me that they’re operating within an absolutely familiar framework. I’m not seeing radically new approaches.Yes, there are some, there are always going to be some new ideas, some new changes coming through, but it’s impossible to predict a way in which there could be a transformation. If there’s a revolution coming it will suddenly hit us and we’ll be like the French aristocrats [of] the 18th century, we simply won’t know what’s coming, and therefore I’m not able to foresee and recognise it. But I don’t seriously think that there is a transformation on its way.
One of the things, I think, obviously that we thought might transform things is of course the information revolution and, to put it at a very simple level, history and computing. We all ran courses for a time on history and computing and then realised of course that our students knew a great deal more about it than we did, and that databases and spreadsheets and so forth were perhaps not that complicated and we didn’t need to teach our students how to do this. I don’t see in fact, that the new ways of dealing with information have actually transformed the history that we write. I hope that it will make our history better, that it will become ever easier to retrieve information and that we can write, therefore, more complex, more nuanced but yet intelligible history than has been possible in the past. I suppose it’s not something we’ve talked about but certainly it is a revolution in the way in which you can now access material. You can sit at your desk, you can call up – and get online documents, ancient petitions from the archives at Kew – and within 30 seconds it’s simply there on your desk. This is staggering, this is transforming things but it’s transforming the way in which we get our material, it’s not perhaps transforming the interpretations that we then apply to it.
PO: The interpretation still has to be done.
MP: The interpretation has to be done and as far as I’m concerned it’s within similar sorts of parameters that have existed right through my academic career. We’re not interpreting things in radically different ways, I don’t think. I think that areas of history have changed, historians are looking at things that perhaps wouldn’t have been feasible in the past, and all sorts of areas, particularly social history I think, are coming in that we were not looking at previously. But revolution? No. I think it’s a steady evolution of the discipline and I don’t think, I’m afraid, that medieval history is going to be in the forefront of change. Medievalists usually have picked up on things that have happened in other periods and said ‘Ah, but that was always happening – it happened in our period as well’. And so maybe we’re a little bit backward.
PO: Well, that may be no bad thing.
MP: It may be no bad thing but certainly I think medieval history has not been that much affected by all the huge changes that are implied in postmodernism and I think there are other periods in history where that’s been far more important. I think the way in which we look to our sources and so forth has not actually been transformed by developments in literary theory and so forth.
PO: And you think that that wave has now started to recede, rather than that it is likely to overtake medieval history at some point?
MP: I think it is likely to, yes, I don’t think it’s going to go further as far as medieval history is concerned. My sense is that I think it’s come and gone.
PO: Okay, that seems like an appropriate place to leave it. So, Professor,
thank you very much indeed.