What Can't You Do With History?
SVSU History Department
SVSU History Department
Common belief holds that October 31, 2017 was the quincentenary of the Reformation and marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther bursting on the historical scene. A leading scholar of the Reformation – especially how it manifested in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England – is Peter Marshall, professor of history at the University of Warwick. Students at Saginaw Valley State University have had exposure to Marshall's work in recent years, especially those who have enrolled in HIST 111 (Introduction to Historical Study), a course in which they engage in the historian's craft and meet general education requirements at the university. Perhaps the most compelling exposure comes in the form of an interview of Marshall conducted by Isaac Stephens (a SVSU history professor) in the summer of 2014. Below is the interview, in which we learn about Marshall's background, his thoughts on history, and his writing and publication of the 2007 book, Mother Leakey and the Bishop: A Ghost Story.
Peter Marshall (Warwick University)
Isaac Stephens (Saginaw Valley State University)
Part I – Background and Academic Career
Stephens – Part of the goal for having my students read this interview is so they can learn more about the author of Mother Leakey and the Bishop and gain a better sense of who he is – both as a historian and a person. By the time they read the book, they will have explored how the cultural and social context of a historian affects her/his scholarly work and perspectives. Consequently, in this section of the interview, I’d like to ask you things about your background and academic career.
1) Stephens – Could you please tell us where you are from and a little about your background?
Marshall – I am an Orcadian – that is, a native of the Orkney Islands, which lie off the north-east coast of Scotland, and have strong historical and cultural links to Norway. It’s a farming community, but I grew up in the capital of Kirkwall (c. 5000 inhabitants), where my parents were primary school teachers. (Kirkwall, btw, is where Groundskeeper Willie in The Simpsons is supposed to come from!)
2) Stephens – Why did you choose to be an academic and, in particular, a historian of early modern England? Do you think your background influenced your career choice? Why or why not?
Marshall – I grew up in quite a bookish home (my father was working part-time on a book about the poet, Edwin Muir), so scholarly interests were not any kind of rebellion or extraordinary change of direction. We visited a lot of historical sites, and my brother and I always played history-based games (usually involving fighting). But the impetus to study history at university largely came from an inspirational (and somewhat eccentric) school history teacher, Ray Fereday, who expected a great deal from his pupils at what was a very ordinary Scottish state school – my first piece of real historical research (aged 17) was an extended study of the ‘improvement’ of an Orkney island estate in the mid-nineteenth century, based on the voluminous correspondence of the estate’s ‘factor’ (or steward) – I’m still quite proud of it.
Early modern England came much later. I studied history at Oxford, and dealt with a wide range of topics. My final-year classes were on Italy in the age of Dante and on Nazi Germany (I spent the year between school and college teaching English in a German boarding school, so my German language was then quite good). There was no real vocation to be a professional academic, though. I entered the PhD programme (for some unfathomable reason they call it a DPhil in Oxford) largely because I didn’t have any other real ideas at the time what to do with myself, and was recently married to a fellow student who was also staying on to do research. The notion of working on a topic connected to England in the Reformation also came about by chance. Around the time the application needed to go in, I had been reading A.G. Dickens’s The English Reformation. It’s a book I later became critical of, but it’s good to put on record the extent to which it inspired and captured my imagination at that time.
3) Stephens – Much of your scholarly work has centered on religious history, especially in regard to the Reformation and its short and long-term impact on English/British society and culture. Could you please explain why such history interests you and why you think it is significant?
Marshall – I’m interested in the history of religion mainly because I’m interested in religion, and am I suppose a religious person (a theist and a churchgoer, though not a very pious one). My background (going back to Q2) probably did play a role here – a lot of my work deals with religion as a source of social, cultural and personal identity, which may have something to do with growing up as a Catholic in a place where Catholics are a tiny minority (my parents were converts, from the Churches of England and Scotland respectively). I’ve never really engaged very much with religious thought or high-level theology (I possibly have an undeserved reputation for expertise in these areas). Rather, I’m primarily interested in the historic role of religion in structuring relationships – to place, to groups and to ideals.
The Reformation is a field of study where ‘religion’ self-evidently matters, so perhaps it was a lazy choice of topic. But it also fascinates as a period when belief both consolidates and fractures patterns of relationship, and forces people to assume forms of identity in ways that they wouldn’t in more settled times. There’s also the vicarious excitement of conflict (which I instinctively draw away from in life) but am curiously drawn to in work, and of observing far-reaching processes of change. The sheer messiness and unpredictability of the Reformation as an engine of change also appeals – the combination of dramatic change and deep underlying continuity, of free choices and constraint, of people having to live conflicted and contradictory lives. I’m the kind of historian who likes to argue that everything is a bit more complicated than we usually like to think – which may not be an advantage to either my teaching or writing.
4) Stephens – Did you ever consider a different career path? If so, what were the other possibilities?
Marshall – Not very seriously. I did think about Law and about publishing, and I applied to join the British Civil Service, failing the entrance exam twice (that did lead to an invitation to be considered for a position with the Intelligence Services, which I didn’t pursue). Unlike some of my very able contemporaries, I didn’t manage to land a postdoctoral fellowship position on completing my doctorate, so I went to be a schoolteacher at an English monastic boarding school for a few years. I might quite possibly have done that for life, but a position in my field opened at Warwick University just as I had published my first book – proof of the ‘doors will open’ theory of life.
Part II – A Historian’s Take on History
Stephens – The course in which my students are enrolled is a general education requirement at SVSU that focuses on improving both history majors and non-majors’ skills in critical/analytical thinking and persuasive argument/writing through an introduction to the historian’s craft. I thought it would be interesting and thought provoking for the students to read some of your thoughts on history.
5) Stephens – The students and I will ponder and discuss what history is/means on the first day of class. Could we please know what you think history is/means?
Marshall – Wow. I’m usually not given to this sort of high-level theorizing, but it’s a fair question. History, to me, is I think a kind of obligation to the dead. All those millions of lives were actually led, and were replete with experience, joy, suffering, triumph and failure – kind of like our own. We can’t ‘recover’ the past, any more than we can bring the dead back to life. But we can honour those who lived in it by trying honestly to understand their concerns and motivations – by attempting to tell true stories about them. Of course, those stories will always be about ourselves and our society, as much as they will really be about our ostensible subjects. There’s no way around that, and in any case that’s probably something to be celebrated as much as regretted. The researching and writing of history is fundamentally about dialogue – with our subjects, with our sources and with ourselves. I don’t usually hold to functional or instrumental defenses of history – that we need to study history in order to avoid the mistakes of the past, that sort of nonsense. But I do think that honest dialogue with difference – and the people of the past are very different from us! – is something which in a small way might help make us better and more tolerant people. The sort of history which combs through the past looking for people reassuringly like us, and apparently anticipating our attitudes and values, doesn’t appeal to me much.
6) Stephens – What do you feel are the major differences/similarities between popular history (e.g. The History Channel, Hollywood films, historical novels, Civil War reenactments, etc.) and academic history?
Marshall – That’s a more difficult question than it sounds. To say that popular history is simplistic and wrong and academic history insightful and truthful would itself be a simplistic distortion. The very existence of ‘popular history’ is itself a noteworthy and rather wonderful thing. There isn’t much popular mathematics, or popular inorganic chemistry. People are instinctively interested in the past, which in itself is a vindication of the importance of History.
The best popular history fires the imagination in a way that academic history usually fails to do. And imagination is really important here – in a way, all we can actually do with the past is imagine it. The best historical novels (my own recommendation, the Napoleonic naval novels of Patrick O’Brien), or films (Spielberg’s Lincoln is a recent favourite), and the best heritage sites (like Plymouth Plantation or Jamestown) are infinitely more important to the study of the past than a great deal of mediocre scholarly history.
That said, popular history sometimes struggles to know what to do with the strangeness, otherness and complexity of the past – it tends to prefer a single narrative voice, rather than conflicting interpretations, and it usually likes its heroes and heroines to be easy to relate to. At its worst, is can become simply a type of playtime dressing-up. In the UK we sometimes call this the ‘Cadfael Syndrome’ – a 1980s TV series based on a successful set of medieval mystery novels. Our hero is a twelfth-century monk, but has all the liberal attitudes and values of the late twentieth century. (There are honourable exceptions: the western TV series Deadwood is courageously unremitting in making the old west seem alien and challenging).
7) Stephens – Do you think it is worthwhile to reconcile the differences and blur the lines that exist between popular history and academic history?
Marshall – Absolutely. The temptation for academics is simply to talk to each other, using a closed jargon which only other scholars can understand (or pretend to understand). That seems to me a failure of nerve rather than a high calling. At the risk of sounding pompous and pious, I think there is a moral obligation on professional historians (particularly if they are in receipt of public funding) to relate their findings to a broader audience than just ‘The Academy’ (a self-serving designation which I really dislike). This isn’t actually ‘dumbing down’ – my own experience is that it is much harder to write for a general readership than just to plug oneself reactively into an academic controversy of some kind.
There is also the argument that the public appetite for history exists: if professional historians don’t attempt to engage with it, then the vacuum will be filled by the less impressive sort of popular historians, recycling old clichés.
Some of the forms of ‘popular’ history are also actually really challenging and productive. ‘Narrative’ history is often seen for example as simplistically straight-forward, self-evidently less worthy than thematic analysis. But narrative is a form of interpretation, and a form of reconstruction, which is intrinsically concerned with the meaningful relationship of elements – in my experience, it’s really hard to do well!
Part III – Peter Marshall’s Thoughts on Mother Leakey and the Bishop
Stephens – The students in the course will spend approximately three weeks reading, discussing, and writing about Mother Leakey and the Bishop and some of the printed tracts you examine in the text. The following questions relate to your thoughts and memories about researching and producing the book, and how you now view the work seven years after its publication.
8) Stephens – In the preface, you are quite straightforward in explaining the gestation of the project and the goals that you hoped to achieve in the book. As you write: “I have thought it best to be more transparent than is customary about the genesis and creation of my text”(ix). Could you please elaborate for the students what you meant by such a statement? Were there any aspects of the making of the book for which you could have been even more transparent? Did you have a particular audience in mind when writing the book, and, if so, did that imaged audience help shape the final product?
Marshall – Rather like my career as a whole, Mother Leakey evolved rather than being carefully planned from the outset! It was an idea I just decided to take for a walk. In some ways it may also have been the academic version of a mid-life crisis! I had been researching and writing history for twenty years when I embarked on the project, and had spent most of that time concentrating on how to be a proper historian. But over that time I found myself getting a bit frustrated with the pretense of utter objectivity and scientific rectitude which most history books exude. As anybody who has been in the business knows, it’s not really like that – we choose subjects because of personal interests, we use particular archives because we live close to them, we include things or miss them out because of a myriad of chance reasons. It’s supposed to look like the swan gliding graciously across the surface, but in reality the feet are paddling furiously underneath.
So I wanted to be more honest about the contingent ways in which history is researched and written – to draw attention to my text’s actual status as a history book, and as a mathematician might say, to show some of the workings.
That said, of course there is a degree of ‘art’ to the confessional and autobiographical aspects of the book – I wanted the parallel story (sub-plot?) of how Marshall came to research and write the book to be in itself interesting. So I don’t go into all the dull detail about actual research methodology – the extent, eg, to which I used Google as a research tool! Nothing I say about the research and writing of the book is untrue, but it is also an account, a story.
As to imagined audience, that’s a very good question. I knew it wasn’t going to be an airport bestseller, and that it broke a lot of the rules of the more popular sort of popular history. I hoped that other scholars would read it, and get something from it, but that it would also appeal to a larger group of readers (not necessarily, but probably, college graduates) looking for a quirky and challenging read.
9) Stephens – As a book, Mother Leakey and the Bishop seems to bridge the gap between popular and academic history. Would you agree? Why or why not?
Marshall – Does it bridge the gap, or fall into it?! Yes, that was the intention – to produce a book that would be able to say something both to professional historians and serious-minded students, and to a wider audience. This is to some extent a commercial and marketing calculation. A number of publishers, including Oxford University Press, have both ‘academic’ list and a ‘trade’ list. Items on the latter tend to be printed in a larger run, priced more reasonably and promoted more energetically (as well as getting more direct input from an editor). Mother Leakey was originally signed for the academic list but later transferred onto the trade one. My editor told me, on more than one occasion, that ‘this book is a risk for us’.
I’m genuinely not sure how far it succeeded in the aim. Certainly, it was reviewed (usually very favourably) both in the academic journals and in a number of magazines and newspapers. It sold considerably more copies than my earlier books, but not a huge number by the standards of popular history. That may have had something to do with the strange subject matter – biographies of Anne Boleyn or Hitler have more immediate appeal! Or perhaps with my reluctance to ‘tell’ the story in a straightforward chronological way. But a few ‘ordinary’ people wrote to tell me they enjoyed it, which I actually appreciated more than some of the praise from peers.
10) Stephens – Do you recall what may have been the most imposing challenges that you faced when researching and writing the book? Do you think that only a historian could have experienced such challenges or do you feel that some/all of them are commonly faced by any person who engages in the writing of a book?
Marshall – It’s structure, structure, structure. Just the same challenge really as putting an undergraduate essay or paper together. The actual writing I quite enjoy (though some phrases I would change now, if I could). But I spent a long time sweating over how to put the different, very disparate elements of the story together. Historians always have gaps, incomplete sources, and apparently contradictory explanations to deal with. But I think the break-through came when I decided to make a virtue of the fragmentary nature of my evidence, rather than trying to glue everything together, and to make the chapter structure consciously showy and artificial. Some of the challenges of writing a book are surely universal – what’s the first sentence going to be? But historians, unlike novelists, can’t actually make stuff up...
11) Stephens – The historical memory and the link between the stories of Susan Leakey and John Atherton are central to the book. As you write: “More than anything else, perhaps, Mother Leakey and Bishop Atherton suggest to us the extent to which the very substance of history is memory – personal and collective, local and national, recorded and suppressed” (271). The students in the course will be exposed to the concept of historiography/historical debate. Do you see any similarities between the formation of historical memory and the production of academic historiography? Why or why not?
Marshall – Interesting, and tricky to answer. There do seem to be powerful currents of historical memory within society that are pretty immune to academic historiography and debate (the idea that the Reformation was caused by the ‘corruption’ of the late medieval church, for example; or that the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery). It would be tempting to contrast this with a model of historiographical debate that is precise, focused and unfailingly truthful. But history writing develops its own mythologies and memories – the arguments of particular books or historians are often (unconsciously, one hopes) simplified in order to make them easier to attack. A number of texts that I thought I had a clear handle on turned out to be more subtle and complex when I looked at them again. We all have ideas about books we haven’t read, and the historical community has its own inherited history, a sense of where it is, and of how it has ‘moved beyond’ certain subjects and approaches.
12) Stephens – It can easily be thought that a historian or an author’s work is a solitary and an isolated endeavor, but it is clear, from those whom you acknowledge in the preface of Mother Leakey and the Bishop, that there were a number of people who proved enormously helpful in the process of producing the book. With reference to your memories of writing the book, could you please discuss how important you feel communities of friends, colleagues, peers, and institutions are to the work of a historian? How much do you think your background and cultural context shaped your approach?
Marshall – A lot of historical work is now overtly ‘collaborative’ (that’s where the research grant money is), but the business of writing books and articles is still a fundamentally solitary one. The most important relationship is with the computer – who is not always faithful or reliable!
That said, historians do tend to see themselves, and want to be thought of, as part of a community. One can be cynical about this – sometimes you suspect that the long lists of names (especially important names) you can find in the acknowledgements section of a book is partly about demonstrating how popular and well-connected the author is! But getting help is important, driven partly – like so much else in life – by the fear of making a fool of yourself. The biggest favour you can ask of a fellow historian is to read and comment on your work in draft. That can be a hard thing to do (especially if secretly what you really want is praise and endorsement) but I have always been lucky in having a good handful of people whose judgment I really trust who have been prepared to read my work and be honest about its shortcomings (and in many cases I have been able to return the favour). Mother Leakey was a little easier in this regard – because I was going so obviously ‘off- piste’ I felt less embarrassed about asking for help and guidance, and because in many areas I was so obviously not a specialist, the real specialists (eg in the history of Ireland) seemed very glad to give it. My experience has also been over the years that it is the peers (ie friends and contemporaries) who are the most useful and supportive readers and critics, rather than the more senior figures, though of course it is always cheering, especially in early career, to be encouraged by these. The institution where one works is also very important, though in a rather different way – the best institutions don’t put obstacles in your way, don’t try to micro-manage your research, and do manage to provide an atmosphere where your research work is valued. I’ve been, in the main, lucky in this respect.
I’m sure my background and cultural context did shape the approach. The Oxford tradition I was formed by is very much one which sees the single-authored monograph as the pinnacle of scholarly achievement, and I don’t think I’m ever going to stop believing that, despite the existence of a lot of bad books, and other excellent forms of academic work and output.
13) Stephens – Did the experience of researching and writing the book change how you practiced your craft as a historian? Did the experience change how you thought about history in any way? Why or why not?
Marshall – It did change my practice, I think, and I hope for the better. The curse of much modern academic history is over-specialization: we all know more and more about less and less. Mother Leakey was liberating in that it involved cutting a swathe through seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth-century cultural history, and it encouraged me to think it was ok to write about, say, London print culture without spending a decade intensively studying it first. It broadened my horizons in directing me for the first time to work in foreign archives and libraries (Ireland not so very foreign, but still...). It also opened my eyes for the first time to the potential of the internet and of digital and electronic sources for research. And more broadly, I think it encouraged me to see that in the writing of history there are no absolute rules.
14) Stephens – Do you have fond memories of writing the book? In other words, was it fun to do? If you had the opportunity to do it all over again, would you do it exactly the same or change things about your approach and methods? Do you foresee ever pursuing a similar project in the future?
Marshall – Yes, I do have fond memories and it was fun to do. I started the project not because I thought here was some vehicle or instrument to make points about the writing of history or whatever, but simply because I found the story and the materials really interesting. That sounds self- indulgent (maybe it is). But I think it is actually very important to find one’s own work exciting – if you don’t, no-one else will! It was also fun, when people asked what I was studying, to be able to say I was writing a ghost story, rather than, say, analyzing tithe disputes or the distribution of ecclesiastical patronage.
I don’t think I would do it differently if I had the chance – maybe because I struggled so hard to find the approach and voice the first time. Perhaps I would do some of the manuscript, archival research more intensively – I live in fear of someone else finding a document I missed, something that sheds dramatic new light on the story. But that hasn’t happened yet!
I said earlier that the book may have been a kind of mid-life crisis: the scholarly equivalent of buying a Harley-Davidson and going off on a road-trip! At the time I was writing it I genuinely wasn’t sure if this was now the kind of project I was going to work on, and if it was time to move away from the debates around the English Reformation which had been my bread-and-butter up to that point. As it turned out, I have pretty much returned to the ‘day-job’, and have continued to research and publish on sixteenth-century Reformation topics. So in the end it was a kind of sabbatical. But it still represents for me the possibility of doing something different, and of doing that different thing reasonably well. I would certainly not rule out doing some other kind of unconventional project in the future. But I suspect I will need to wait for the topic to find me.
Stephens – Thank you for your thoughts and time!
Still Curious? See the Following: