Project Officer: This interview is being conducted for the
‘Making history: the discipline in perspective’ project, and the project
officer, Danny Millum, will be speaking to Susan Reynolds about her
experience of, and views on, changes in the discipline and academic
profession of history.
Susan, may we start with you giving us some brief biographical information?
Susan Reynolds: Well, immediately after taking my first degree at Oxford, I trained as an archivist and went into archives. I worked as an archivist at Middlesex County Record Office for a year, and then I went into the Victoria County History (VCH) where I worked for seven years. And between the archive training and the VCH, that was really the equivalent of my PhD, it was my training. I haven’t got a PhD, I haven’t even got an [examined] MA in History, though I’ve got a diploma in archival administration.
Working for the VCH was fun, but I didn’t want to do it all my life and I thought I wanted to do teaching, so I went and taught in school. First of all in a secondary modern school for two terms, which was very educational for me, and then in a girls independent school where at first I felt I was going to fall forward because there was so little coming at me compared to the secondary modern! But I enjoyed it a lot and I wouldn’t have moved into university teaching if it hadn’t been suggested to me, and this I think is actually quite an interesting story because I must have been one of the last people appointed to a university job through an ‘old girl’ network.
This was the winter of ’63 –4, when there had been a lot of new universities just opened, and my predecessor – who had been my tutor teaching medieval history at Lady Margaret Hall – was going to retire, and there weren’t many women about. They had to have a woman to be a Fellow of a women’s college, and women on the whole didn’t do so much postgraduate work, and if they did, they tended to be married and having babies. And they were not very mobile, or indeed employable full time, or didn’t want to be employed full time.
So I got this letter, a manuscript letter, from the Principal of my old college – where I had not got a first, I may say, but I had kept a little bit in touch – and this manuscript letter said in effect, though not an exact quote: Dear Miss Reynolds, Miss Hurnard is retiring and we wondered if you would come to lunch one Sunday.’ So I went to lunch and it was extraordinary. Before I went to see the Principal, I went to see the other History tutor who had rung me up and told me I was to come and see her first, and she then kept saying, ‘Well, you’ll be teaching this and I’ll be teaching that.’ And I was a bit flummoxed!
Then I went to see the Principal, and three other people came in to have drinks before lunch – they were the selection committee, for goodness sake! That was all that happened, and after about a month actually, I was a bit worried. What was happening? Was I going to be summoned for an interview? And I’d already consulted my ex-boss, Ralph Pugh, and friends, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do this, but it seemed crazy not to do something, to refuse a change if it was offered to you. And in the end, the delay was simply because they had to wait for the next meeting of the governing body. So anyway, that’s how I landed up at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford.
I went into it very much for teaching – I enjoyed teaching a lot. And I’d actually more or less given up doing medieval history. I had been editing a text which my ex-boss in the VCH – while he was still my boss – put me on to. -He was very determined that his assistants should be improving their careers, so made me edit a text in the evenings.
PO: And who was your boss ?
SR: This was Ralph Pugh, who was a bit of a character but he was a very good boss. He was very benevolent. He quarreled with people a bit, but if you treated him straight he was fine. I learnt a lot from him.
But I’d more or less finished that text, finally, and I thought I might toy with some 19th-century history, because medieval history’s unsuitable to do in the evenings, or the sort of medieval history I was thinking of with documents and so on. So I’d really given up medieval history, and I had to take it up again. I decided I’d do something on urban history – medieval urban history – because that linked up with my local history.
Barbara Harvey of Somerville was wonderful – she gave me lists of essay topics to set and books to read, and during that summer I worked very hard, but I was pretty ignorant.
PO: And that was in preparation for your teaching?
SR: That was for teaching, that’s right. It was the teaching that really preoccupied me and the first year or so I was pretty ignorant. I gradually accumulated knowledge. And meanwhile, I got keener and keener on research so that after about twenty years there I was getting a bit stale, partly because I was more and more interested in the research and therefore spending less and less time on doing new things in teaching. So the teaching got staler.
PO: And that was by the early eighties?
SR: That’s by the early eighties. And so then I decided to leave a bit early. It was really because of an American friend who did medieval history, and who had stayed in my London flat while I was in Oxford once. He had got a whole year’s leave coming up from his job at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and he thought it’d be nice for him and his wife to spend the year in London, so he had to get rid of me, as it were! I had always had a flat in London that I occupied in vacations, which I found worked very well because I liked the IHR and the British Library more than the Bodleian.
Anyway, he asked me to go and do his teaching for a year at Dartmouth. I wasn’t entitled to sabbatical leave because I’d quite recently had some, so I decided to leave LMH. At that stage I was 57, and I had to do two and a half years before I could get a pension and it wouldn’t be such a big pension, but you see I’m single. And my first year I was paid at Dartmouth, and then I just had a small gap.
Dartmouth was fascinating, I really loved it, but it was an awful waste to accumulate the knowledge for teaching there in a quite different system for just one year and then be retiring, but never mind, it was great.
So that was 1986 when I left Oxford, and in 1987 I stopped teaching at Dartmouth. I’ve actually been retired for as long as I was teaching. Retired from gainful employment…
PO: As many historians are, from gainful employment but not from the act of research.
SR: I’m working, that’s right. Because the chief reason I retired was I was getting a bit stale at teaching, but I wanted to work on this subject of feudalism with my friend, Peggy Brown. She’s American, and must count as one of the important figures in my field of research. She wrote this wonderful article in 1974 called ‘The tyranny of a construct: feudalism and historians’, just saying what the hell do historians mean by this word? We did think at first we would write a joint book, but actually it was much better that we didn’t because we have different views about footnotes and all kinds of minor things.
PO: So that would have made things complicated.
SR: It would have made things complicated, and she was busy with other things, so I went ahead and wrote a book which simply concentrated on the two key aspects of non-Marxist feudalism – that is fiefs and vassalage. And she read it all and gave me criticism and so on, but I did it on my own and that was what I did for the first few years of my retirement and I then went on from there.
The influences on me were I think Ralph Pugh at the VCH, I suppose my original tutor Naomi Hurnard, my early-modernist colleague at LMH, Anne Whiteman, and then – looking at important figures – Peggy Brown, who started me on feudalism, was certainly important. But then I also got interested in the whole question of what people mean by ‘nationalism’, and Anthony Smith – who is at the LSE, who’s a sociologist – wrote one article in the early seventies which I thought was brilliant, defining the ideas that lie underneath nationalism. I don’t go quite so much for what he’s written since.
After I retired and was living in London all the time, the early medieval seminar with Janet Nelson, John Gillingham, Michael Clanchy and others was wonderful – still is. So Janet or Jinty Nelson is also a major influence. I don’t know if you’re going to talk to her?
PO: That’s someone who I’m hoping to speak to.
SR: Yes, quite . She’s a splendid runner of a seminar, and her history also influences me a lot.
PO: And are there any figures, casting your mind back further in the past I suppose…?
SR: Oh , yes, Maitland. Absolutely. Now, I’m writing a little book on a subject in which he was completely wrong, but it doesn’t matter, I think he was a frightfully good historian.
PO: How, if he was completely wrong, could you still say that he’s a good historian?
SR: Yes, yes. This was actually about a year before he died. He threw out, in a letter to a friend, the remark ‘I have been wondering where the Americans got their eminent domain’, which is what Americans call what we call compulsory purchase. And he thought that this didn’t exist in this country, giving reasons about feudalism. And these were completely wrong. He was merely throwing out this idea in a letter to a friend, but if somebody had stopped and said to him, ‘What about railways and compulsory purchase?’, he would have said ‘Oh yes, of course’. And my view of him is that he wouldn’t mind being proved wrong, he’d be interested in new information.
PO: It was asking the questions, the discourse of ideas.
SR: Exactly. So it was that remark that started me trying to write a history of expropriation for the public good. In other words, what we call compulsory purchase, or what Americans call eminent domain.
So, okay, he was wrong sometimes, and I get rather irritated that there are one or two medieval historians who keep trying to prove Maitland wrong. That’s fine, you know, but I think it’s sort of irrelevant. He had terrific historical imagination.
PO: But maybe people who are more pedantic and are able to pick up on these arguments may not have had…
SR: Yes,but he was very ‘pedantic’. I mean, he worked very closely on documents and on a pretty narrow field most of the time – English medieval law – but he infused this imagination about how it worked into it, so I think he was a very good thing.
PO: And besides individuals, would you be able to talk about any institutions or organisations that you think might have been important in the development of this field?
SR: Well, the Victoria County History is no longer really relevant to what I do now because that was very nitty gritty stuff and now I do great cloudy ideas. But it was very important in training me.
The early medieval seminar at the IHR, I think, has been very important in my research since I started going to it from 1987.
PO: And when did that come into being, that seminar?
SR: Oh, years before. I think John Gillingham – he’s a good person too, to talk to –thought that he had started it, but it’s always been run by a group of people. But I think he was one of the first. And Alan Brown, and then Jinty Nelson. It was going long before I started going to it.
PO: And that was running at the IHR. Do you see the Institute as having played…
SR: Oh, yes, yes of course. I mean, the VCH is in the Institute too, so yes, I think the Institute is frightfully important. I’ve just finished being Chair of the Friends which I must say is a relief because I’m getting to be too old to be doing it and it’s getting to be hard work, but for about six years I’ve been chairing the Friends of the IHR and I really think that is very important. I just hope they manage to raise the money to do the next bit of converting the building, which I think is vital.
PO: And do you think the importance lies in the seminars that are run?
SR: I think it’s the library, primarily – this wonderful, open access library. Of course it’s best on English history, but it’s pretty good on sources for Europe too. It’s most use on medieval history because there’s more in print, though for modern history I think they’ve got a lot of reference works and guides to archives and so on. I think it’s vital, all open access. But at the moment the trouble is that seminars are held in the library, so that people can’t work in the library where seminars are going on, and I think it’s absolutely vital that the next stage of conversion happens, when they’re going to separate books from seminars, so the seminar rooms will not have books in them. So that people coming in the evenings to work can go on working anyway.
PO: And there’ll be a designated area for seminars?
SR: Seminars will be in separate rooms. And also, the other thing that they’ve got to do with the conversion, is get it so that the desks are round the edge so that computers can be plugged in.
PO: Of course.
SR: Because that’s something which at the moment they mostly can’t do – all these things are planned but it’s raising the money.
PO: As ever, it’s all dependent on the finances isn’t it?
SR: Quite, quite, but that’s getting off the point.
PO: So maybe moving onto the next point I wanted to talk about, looking at surveying the whole time that you’ve been occupied in the field of medieval history, what would you consider to be the main debates or points of contention in this area?
SR: Well, of the things that have interested me I suppose feudalism. It’s 13 years ago since I published this book, and some historians absolutely won’t look at it and others think it’s reasonably sensible. What has hardly happened yet is anyone actually arguing with the evidence. There’s been one person who’s proved me wrong on something, which is fine, knowledge is advanced. Feudalism is certainly important.
PO: And that book is Fiefs and Vassals?
SR: That’s Fiefs and Vassals, and I’ve written some articles and bits since. And then, my other interest is the idea of the nation – what people mean by nations and what historians mean by nations, and what people at the time meant by the various words they used. That suffers dreadfully from teleology – people always think of the nations that there are now as the ‘real’ nations and everything as leading to them, and I argue about that.
And then there’s law, which I’ve always been interested in and am more closing in on. I thought I wouldn’t write another book after Fiefs and Vassals because it was too exhausting and my memory is getting so bad, and I get so tired. This expropriation for public good was not meant to be a book, but it got a bit big and so it’s going to be a short book which I hope will be published in the USA. Law is what I’m more focusing on now because I can do little bits. That suffers from teleology too, very badly; I mean, lawyers are always looking for the origin of present procedures and ideas which is a bit distorting – they don’t read Maitland!
I think those were the things I thought about.
PO: And do you think – again, surveying the field and the period as a whole – that there has been a move from a more strict, constitutional political history towards a broadening of the subject?
SR: Yes, of course.
PO: For instance, when you started teaching in the early 1960s, it was presumably a time when-
SR: We did more straight political history, though not exclusively. One of the troubles about teaching as it was then at Oxford was that you were left pretty free but the Oxford system involved a Board of Examiners who had been teaching but were not each examining their own pupils. Different tutors were teaching different ways, and you had to cover topics which would enable your students to answer enough questions. So that in a way it was subject to tutorial decision, and there was quite a big choice of questions but it was much better if you stuck to fairly obvious themes – which were obvious also because they often had quite a lot written about them in a controversial way, which gave the students a chance to argue. The sort of questions which one thought of as old war horses were often awfully good questions to get people thinking. But it was more old fashioned narrative – politics, the church and so on. You see, I’ve been retired for too long to know enough about people teaching now.
PO: But did you notice over the twenty years you were teaching there, the kind of subjects that became acceptable to be assessed in examinations for instance, changed?
SR: No, I don’t think so because there were always quite a lot of questions on the papers. The more fancy subjects came in too, as it were. There wasn’t a big change I think while I was there.
PO: That’s interesting.
SR: There was certainly a change in some of the questions, but not a total revolution. I think that people got quite a good training in arguing, in taking a question and trying to solve it – problem centred work rather than meditations, as it were.
PO: You mentioned when we were corresponding about this interview about your obsession with historical method.
SR: Oh, did I? Yes!
PO: In fact, I think you said you wanted to sound off about your obsessions!
SR: Right. I do get rather worried. I think that historians are not interested enough in historical method and how you prove something or don’t prove it. Karl Popper, disproving things and so on. I remember at one stage I got very fussed about this and I couldn’t find anything to read on historical reasoning.
PO: So a kind of historical equivalent of Popper’s positivist…
SR: Just reasoning in general, more widely. And people kept saying ‘Oh, there’s this book’ or ‘that article’ and they were always about the philosophy of history, but that’s quite different. That’s about causation and what I was interested in was historians thinking harder about what they’re doing. You could call it theory, but I wouldn’t want to go into what is considered theory now. One of the things, for instance, that I found is that people are not really interested enough in the words they use and what they mean. ‘Oh, Susan, there you go about words’, but it isn’t the words, it’s the concepts behind them that are in your head when you say the word and then there’s the relationship to the actual thing out there that you’re describing.
PO: So there are almost two meanings of words?
SR: Three. Three. There’s the word, the concept and the phenomenon. I’ve got a little diagram of that actually, which is quite good. But if you take the word chair it can also mean a Professor’s job. And we sort of take for granted if I say ‘Are there any tables in your book?’, you don’t get worried that I’m talking about a table with legs. You know what I mean, but in fact I could be thinking about different things. So there’s the word, which is of course different in different languages, it changes its meaning, and the person hearing doesn’t always have the same concept in their mind as the person talking. There’s the word and the concept, and then there’s the physical thing.
PO: So assuming the meaning of such a word when it’s in an 11th-century source is a dangerous thing to do for exactly that reason?
SR: Well, that’s right. Historians tend to want to give medieval Latin words defined meanings, fixed meanings, to say that feodum, fief meant this. Well, it meant lots of different things. If you start to read the documents it’s used in different contexts and presumably referred to different rights and obligations in different circumstances. But people don’t like doing that enough.
And I do find – this is very petty – but there are some things that reveal the lack of interest in exact meaning. For instance, people often refer to assuming something, or assumptions, when they mean arguments. There’s an important distinction it seems to me, between arguing something and assuming it. I’ve been cross with colleagues who’ve said that I assumed something, when it was something I was arguing about. And then there’s the word ‘refute’, which is not the same as ‘deny’. ‘Refute’ means you do it successfully.
SR: You know, little things like that are very petty but they reveal this lack of interest in the processes of reasoning and so on.
PO: And do you think that that lack of interest has been maintained, or do you think there’s been a change?
SR: In some ways people are beginning to think about things like that, or some people are more, but in other ways the pressure to publish works against that, and also the pressure to be popular. You know, the distinction between academic and popular history is really difficult. I think that some people do get infected by the wrong aspects of popular history. Not to the extent of actually explaining all the words they use, which would be really useful, or writing short, clear books, but, for instance, using the historic present all the time: ‘James I comes south in 1603’.
On Thursday mornings Melvyn Bragg and those people who talk about history (In our time)almost always use the historic present . There was one this morning who didn’t use the historic present, but I turned off the radio before I could discover who she was. But this sort of thing, slightly sloppy writing, and using the historic present, which implies ‘I’m so close to it, it’s so close to us, it’s so immediate’. This is not true. They were not us, we are not close to them, and I get worried by that – and professional historians have started to do it.
PO: So you think that’s an infection from popular history?
SR: It seems to me that the real thing that popular history needs is clarity, and it needn’t be just giving one side of the story or just narrative. You can make people interested in problems. Actually, I go on getting little bits of money from people using my first book, which was about English medieval towns.
PO: Which is an indication of enduring clarity?
SR: Well, I tried to make it clear, I tried to explain words. I didn’t start writing or publishing, except on the VCH, until late. But my first article was about forged charters and in fact it’s very technical, but I found that I can use it talking to non-professional groups, and they quite like it generally. They can understand it and I think popular history doesn’t need to be simplified. It needs to be clarified and kept short. Simplified a bit but not with all the problems taken out; I think people like problems – look at detective stories!
SR: Some people of course, do this beautifully, but it’s rather surprising I think. I’m trying to think of really good examples of things which are not officially popular history, but are in fact readable and clear and explain problems, like Paul Fouracre’s Charles Martel .
PO: And do you see this as being a change from so-called popular histories that might have been around in the sixties and seventies?
SR: I think it’s a change in the academic history in a way.
SR: That people have tried to become more popular, but haven’t always done it in the way that they could have, by clarifying, using proper indexes, proper maps, proper genealogical tables. And also keeping books short, I think, is vital. And I think that some academic historians who try to be more popular don’t do those things. I mean I’ve stopped trying to be popular; the only thing I’ve ever written that was remotely popular was that first book, though I think my second book some people found comprehensible and that was bigger.
PO: So you’ve gradually got more unpopular!
SR: I suppose I have really! By the time it comes to eminent domain…
PO: Okay. Well, maybe we can move back to a more general focus now. I was wondering if I could ask you your opinion on how you think the pressures on academics have changed during your career or lifetime?
SR: Yes, the pressures to publish. And for people teaching – the numbers of people to teach has increased. I left the profession in 1986, which is just when it was beginning to get tough – though less tough in Oxford than elsewhere.
PO: That’s the beginning of the RAE and just before the expansion of the universities?
SR: It was before the RAE, but when money was clamping down. And I know from my friends and colleagues, in the seminar and around, that it is much tougher now and they have to teach more students without more books or, even worse, more rooms. So there’s that, and also the pressure to publish, which really didn’t exist while I was teaching in Oxford.
PO: At the time, had you not published anything at all, would that not have impaired your career, so to speak?
SR: Well, once I got appointed I was secure – unless I behaved badly. I think that what did happen actually by the time I was leaving (or even earlier than that) was that people who didn’t publish at all cut less ice in the history faculty in Oxford . And I think that applies generally, and it’s very unfair because there are some people who teach very well and who have a certain, local reputation as teachers, but it doesn’t work outside. They’re not anybody. And that has become more and more so, I think. But while I was still teaching I did, in fact, publish. It took me a bit of time to get going because I had so much to learn. But I didn’t actually need to publish in order to keep my job. And there just wasn’t any promotion really that I wanted or needed, so that didn’t arise for me but it certainly arises now with the RAE.
PO: And I guess a connected question to that is the relationship between teaching and research – do you see that as changing over that period?
SR: Teaching has got much more professional, I think. It was awfully amateurish, particularly at Oxford, which includes the good side of amateur – people taking a lot of trouble over their students. They didn’t have to but they did, some did and some didn’t – it was very amateur in that way. And the way you gave out lists of books – when I was an undergraduate in the late forties, the list of books to read for my next essay were just dictated out loud including of the names of authors. You wrote them down madly on a little bit of paper and they were all really garbled.
PO: I suppose this is before the days of photocopiers and printers.
SR: That’s right, that’s right. And when I was doing it, I typed them and got them .duplicated
PO: But again, before photocopiers.
SR: Before photocopiers. And then when photocopiers came in I typed my own lists and photocopied them. But there was a stage before that.
And I think lecturing has changed at least a bit. Gradually, coming in before I left Oxford this idea was coming in that people starting off should be told how to lecture, which was a jolly good idea.
SR: But that’s if it’s done at the beginning.
PO: Before you go out there and start making mistakes!
SR: Well, it’s terribly hurtful if you tell somebody they’ve been doing it all wrong.
PO: When they’ve been doing it for twenty years.
SR: Exactly. But I think it is very helpful to have some guidance. I think joining up the new universities – the ex-polys – was extremely helpful because they were often much more professional about lecturing and teaching, I think, than universities were.
PO: So you think that subsequent to the joining of the polytechnics that fed into…
SR: I think that had a bit of influence. Though not much for the people who despised new universities. But I think it helped. I remember hearing a story about somebody lecturing on the spread of settlement in the USA westwards, who talked about the Ohio gap and so on, without a map. To British students! That used to go on and people, I think, are still not professional enough. Even people who are up to date enough to use Powerpoint then sometimes find some rotten little map which doesn’t actually say quite the right thing to put up on their Powerpoint. But it is getting better.
PO: You mentioned the new universities, the merger of the polytechnics and the university sector. Do you see that as being something that’s had a large effect on the university experience and the experience of teaching and researching history?
SR: Being retired I wouldn’t know from personal experience. I’ve got some great friends who taught for years in what was a poly and they did extremely well, and also were clearly very professional: efficient in what they did but also took a lot of trouble about their students. I think that it doesn’t make an awful lot of odds between universities and ex-polys. I mean, there are some people who are teaching in very prestigious universities who aren’t much good, and vice versa. But I think in the long run it must produce mutual influences which I should have thought were good.
PO: And in terms of the expansion of the number of people doing history, which has been an inevitable consequence?
SR: I know, that’s difficult. I think the trouble is I actually don’t believe in the single subject degrees that are the rule in this country and in all universities; they’re too much shaped by the old single subject degrees and I think that this is not a way of giving a general education.
PO: So this is a change that hasn’t happened but should have done?
SR: Should have, yes. Everyone – certainly up to eighteen and preferably at university – should, for instance, study a language and some sort of mathematical or science subject. And then also mix in a bit more – a first degree is a first degree and I think a general education ought to be a general education. The idea has been that you teach people best by letting them do one subject in great depth. The standard thing that people say, ‘the best general education is to do one subject’, is because that’s what they teach and they want to go on teaching it.
PO: So there’s a vested interest there?
SR: There’s a vested interest.
PO: I was wondering, maybe you’re too far removed from this I guess now, but that ties into the teaching of history in schools.
SR: Yes. Well, languages. The situation about languages is just desperate, thinking of the future and the discipline. I remember quite recently meeting a young man who had been doing a special subject on modern France – possibly the French Revolution – and everything was in translation.
PO: So all his sources…
SR: That’s right. And he was thinking of going on and doing a research degree. I remember saying to him, ‘In the summer, maybe you could go to France or do a really intensive course’. I think our civilisations, in this country and the USA, are both so monoglot it’s appalling.
PO: And would that have been different when you were taking your undergraduate degree?
SR: There were more languages then, yes. Everyone had done Latin, everyone had done French, and a few had done other things. It didn’t mean that people could actually chat in French, let alone of course Latin.
PO: Chatting in Latin probably wasn’t very…
SR: Chatting in Latin is different, that’s right. But they have died away. When comprehensives were started there was this wonderful idea that with big schools you could have more specialists, and you could have all these options, and then they started to take the money away from them so they couldn’t.
PO: And are there any other observations about the teaching in schools and particularly the teaching of history that you would like to make?
SR: Well, it isn’t so much the teaching of history but other subjects, like maths. I used to find that when I set an essay on economic history – the Black Death and prices – people didn’t want to do that, and thought they couldn’t do that, but they could actually if you led them into it simply and made little diagrams. I had a little diagram where you had a pin man and a loaf of bread, and a penny; then you had three men, three loaves of bread and three pennies. And you tried taking out one from each row and seeing what it did to prices,. This sounds as if I was saying I was wonderful at it – I don’t mean that – but I did find that a lot of people could do economic history and even get interested in it if they were led into it. But they started off with virtually no maths.
PO: That specialisation at an early stage where people decide that they are humanities or arts students, and not scientists.
SR: Yes, I do think people should have to go on to eighteen at least with more subjects.
PO: So that was prevalent….
SR: The IB.
PO: The Baccalaureate?
SR: Yes, that does that.
PO: There’s been continual talk for some time, hasn’t there, about introducing that. You mentioned economic history; other people I’ve spoken to have talked about how that came into vogue and is now in decline.
SR: That’s right, it’s very sad. In fact, it’s not entirely in decline, as there are some very good economic historians about.
SR: Of course I’m talking about the Middle Ages mostly, but the fashion did go over from economic to social, after the stage when people talked about economic and social as if they were the same but the content was basically economic. And now they’ve dropped off the economic, and it’s social, but it’s not always clear what they mean by that. There’s some very good social history that is written, but it’s very various. I don’t know what’s happened to economic history, it’s sad. But there’s some goes on.
PO: Because I know that one of the manifestations of the so-called decline has been the closure of economic history departments.
SR: Of course, I never have thought that it was good having lots of different history departments. I’d rather have History, in which there will be economic history. And arrangements like those at Leicester, where they had local history and economic history and history, seem to me a mistake because it does make a difference, the people you associate with. I think it isn’t necessarily true that if you close an economic history department there’s less economic history. It may be.
PO: But that those economic historians may be…
SR: It can get embraced into history. Just as I cannot approve of people being able to do medieval history on its own. I think you ought to do a whizz through history, at least a bit, and I think some of the old fashioned political history teaching, had the advantage that people got a sort of framework of dates.
PO: In contrast to the more modular approach, if you like?
SR: Yes, that’s right. And I think that you would want people to finish a History degree and have heard both of Charlemagne and Bismarck. Even if they’ve only heard of them, could put them into the right centuries.
PO: And that gives you a context.
SR: That’s right.
Of course, one of the troubles also – and this goes back to languages – is that the traditions of national history departments and history teaching in different countries are generally very much attuned to that particular country.
PO: That’s interesting.
SR: When you think about it, it makes sense. As soon as history became more professional about 1900, it became more national. In the 19th century there were lots of people who ranged rather widely over Europe. I’m talking about medieval Europe, but there were also other periods I think it applied to. It was a bit superficial maybe, as they used chronicles rather than archive sources, but then archive sources began to come in about the end of the 19th century – and they are of course always national.
SR: And there’s an awful lot of them. Each country has its national archive and its local archives, and people are set to do their postgraduate work on those things which are there. And then they go on teaching on that. And it isn’t just the English who are insular. I’ve got very interested in comparative history. I really am dotty about historians comparing.
PO: Comparing between countries?
SR: Between countries. The Germans do German history, the French do French history and see it as the whole of Europe. The English do English history but don’t exactly see it as all Europe – they see it as separate.
SR: Which is a slightly different thing, but they all produce the same result of not looking beyond the country. To some extent it’s inevitable because of the sources – there are too many of them. And they’re there.
And then there are languages. A lot of people when they start their undergraduate degrees say they aren’t going to be interested in English history, they want to do other countries. But if you do other countries, you can only do it in a very A-level or sub A-level way if you only read English. And if you want to do something on south-east Asia, there may be only one book in English that you can get at.
PO: So, as you say, if you’re not prepared to learn these new skills – and you want to be a historian – you’re inevitably going to be forced back to the same field of study.
SR: That’s right. Yes, you really need to start earlier, like the Dutch. I was once assisted by a young man who was only at an MA stage at the University of Amsterdam. English was his fourth language. After Dutch he’d done German, French and then English.
PO: But I bet his English was still good?
SR: His English was fine! He had an English girlfriend. But even his written English wasn’t bad.
PO: So talking about the national histories, do you think that’s something that’s remained constant since that period of professionalisation that you talked about?
SR: It’s very constant, it’s very worrying. It sets in with the 12th/13th century. After that, practically everything is about one country. The Carolingians did a lot for the the historiography of the earlier Middle Ages because they cover such a lot of ground, so that people up to the 12th century are much more international. At first, the Anglo-Saxonists didn’t join in much, but they do now. But after that it becomes increasingly separate and this isn’t because of national stereotypes in the sense of ‘all Germans are like that’, but because all German historians may be like that because they’ve been trained in that discipline. And the same goes for French and English and Italian, and so on.
PO: I suppose another question arising from that is how do you see the practice of history in different countries. Are there also different approaches and ways of doing history which are country specific?
SR: Yes, absolutely. Just in passing, British historians tend to study England. That’s improved recently, particularly for the Middle Ages. This wonderful man, Rees Davies, who died about a year or so ago, started that. He was a Welsh historian but he got everyone on to British history.
PO: I was just wondering about what you thought about different national approaches?
SR: Oh, yes. Well, the French say that they’re not interested in political history, with the Annales school, but what this means often is that they’re not interested in old fashioned political narrative. Actually it’s a great mistake not to study politics, because for the Middle Ages you often get at ideas and society through sources which are about politics. The chroniclers are writing about kings and the documents are about government and law, and you have to use those to do other things. And in fact people do do that, but there is a slight tendency to shear away from it by doing things like laughter or death or something.
PO: Or the body.
SR: Fancy subjects. The body – you’ve got it, absolutely. Which are fine subjects and I think it’s a good idea to expand, but I don’t think you can actually dispense with the old tradityional subjects But the French are particularly into that.
PO: The Germans?
SR: One of the troubles about all the civil law countries, but particularly Germany I think, is that legal history is in law departments. And it’s quite separate from ordinary history and this means it’s much more like old fashioned legal history was. In this country, legal history’s got much more integrated with looking at the society round it, at least the Middle Ages and I think the with the early modern period too. This has benefits both ways – you can’t ignore law, it seems to me.
PO: And similarly, law and the lawyers can’t ignore the wider circumstances?
SR: Exactly. And that’s one trouble in Germany.
There are also questions about the structure of professions. In Germany, when you’re writing a thesis it has to be something that your supervisor will agree with.
SR: And you go on being under authority for longer. Some people break out, but it’s quite difficult sometimes.
PO: So the structure of the profession is different?
SR: The structure of the profession is more rigid. And it is of course government controlled. You’re appointed by the provincial government – universities are more under governmental control. I don’t know whether that really makes a difference or how much difference it makes, but it is more top down. Here, there are gangs of course – you know, different groups with their ideas – but there are quite a lot of them, so that even if one lot of people disapproves of you, other people may approve of you.
PO: Simply because the other lot disapprove possibly!
SR: Well, possibly! That’s right. So I think it’s more open.
PO: And again, is that something that you see as being constant since the professionalisation of the discipline?
SR: I suspect so. But gosh, I’m talking without evidence. I’m not writing footnotes! And this is just gossipy opinion really.
PO: But that’s all interesting. This is exactly what this is about.
SR: Yes, right.
PO: We’ve actually come through all the questions that I wanted to ask you, so the only question remaining was the dreaded one about the future of the discipline, which I didn’t know if you felt like speculating upon?
SR: I think unless languages get better in this country, that’s fatal. I hope people will become more comparative, more interested in making comparisons, but unless they learn languages it’s so difficult.
PO: So you hope but don’t necessarily expect?
SR: That’s right. But I think comparison is vital. If you find that in your bit of history A leads to B, you assume that it always does – but if you immediately look somewhere else, you find that A leads to C, or to X.
PO: You question the universality of your conclusions.
SR: It connects things, that’s right. Then it sends you back to look into why B – well, it came after A but wasn’t necessarily because of A. It leads you into more ideas about your own subject and area and into two-way comparisons. People sometimes do comparisons with bits of France – actually in this country ‘the continent’ often means north-west France. Medieval historians say that things were different ‘on the continent’, and you discover they’re citing something about north-west France! Just comparing two things leads you to suppose that it’s either /or. As soon as you get three, it opens it up.
PO: And the possibility of things being more contingent occurs more I suppose.
SR: That’s right. Yes, yes. I think comparisons are vital for history. But they are very hard work. I’ve slowly become more comparative. Kingdoms and Communities was my second book and for that I didn’t read nearly enough. Some people like it better than Fiefs and Vassals, which is a very tedious book. But with those two I got more and more interested in looking at different countries and I think it’s important.
But I don’t know about the future of the discipline. I do wish that it didn’t have to be just history on its own for undergraduates; I think it would be better if they went on later to specialise. This is where for instance the American system is rather good I think. The first degree is often mixed subjects, and may even compel you to have things like one language and one maths, or one science.
PO: That’s right, things that to us seem incongruous almost.
SR: That’s right. And then they take much longer and get much more serious teaching at the postgraduate stage. Mind you, I don’t think it actually ends up with them speaking languages any better. It does for some, those who decide to go into Catholic history or French history for instance But I do think that it produces a better educated person for general purposes and after all, most people who do history as undergraduates are not going to be historians.
PO: That’s right.
SR: They’re going to do jobs, outside. And one of the few things that does seem to me relevant from a history degree to people who are going to work in all kinds of other things, is having to do an exam on the day required or even write an essay on the day required. That’s what your boss is going to ask, that you turn up and you do it, good or bad.
PO: Well, I suppose that would apply to any subject in a sense, wouldn’t it?
SR: Yes, it would. Exactly so. But that’s one of the things that you can learn on a first degree – to do things on time, when wanted. And maybe also to express yourself, to write things down and know how to do it. But allowing people too much freedom to do just what they want and are interested in is not a very good training for what they’re actually going to do afterwards.
PO: Tends not to happen so much in the world of work, does it?!
SR: It doesn’t much!
PO: Sadly. I think we’ve covered everything there, thank you very much.
SR: I have just, while corresponding with a publisher, thought of something that I should like to have said in my interview, but that was not on your list and that I did not think of then. It is about the troubles I have sometimes had in getting work published. I suspect that few of those you are interviewing have had as many rejections, but I think it is encouraging to any beginners who may read your transcripts to know that some historians who are reckoned to be reasonably successful have had some.
Whether you can insert this or not, I wish I had said:
A literary agent thought An Introduction to the History of English Medieval Towns, from which I still get small sums each from PLR and photocopying, would not have any appeal. Kingdoms and Communities was rejected by Leicester UP and Blackwells.
As for articles, so far as I remember I have had articles that were later published (though sometimes with changes) rejected by the EHR, the American Historical Review, Interdisciplinary History, and three on different subjects by Past and Present.
In fact I have come to find it so discouraging to send my babies out
into the world to be rejected that I now only write essays that have
been commissioned – which means that they will be in single books in
which they are much less likely to be read than if they were in journals.