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August 2011: Keith Wrightson

1.  Where, when, and why did you become interested in British history?

I grew up in the north east of England in the 1950s and 60s. I would like to be able to say that I was inspired by the very visible evidence of the past that you encounter all over that region: pre-historic; Roman; Anglo-Saxon; medieval; industrial.  I certainly became aware of it all eventually, but mostly in my teens.  The enthusiasm for history actually came much earlier, and it came first from Hollywood movies. Ivanhoe (1952) with Robert Taylor, George Sanders, and the young Elizabeth Taylor was particularly influential. I saw it as a small child and was completely captivated by all things medieval as a result. I also loved historical novels, especially those of Henry Treece and Rosemary Sutcliff. At secondary school history was my favourite subject from the start, and I began reading history books from the school library.  So that’s how it started.

I always preferred reading about the more distant past, whatever the country. Initially that meant medieval history and I have continued to read that just out of interest.  But by university I was already particularly interested in the early modern period.  I never really considered doing anything except British history mainly because at that time there were very exciting developments in British history that really spoke to me, especially in the early modern period.

2. Who most influenced your academic development?

I hope I gained something from most of the historians I’ve read and most of the people who taught me.  But a few people do stand out.  The head of history at my school in Newcastle, the Rev. Charles Hay was a brilliant teacher.  He made it both intellectually exciting and also fun to debate historical problems, and he told us a lot about local history as well as teaching the examination curriculum.  I admired G.R. Elton’s combination of scholarly rigour, interpretative imagination and pungent prose.  I loved the way Christopher Hill revealed an alternative history that gave a place and a voice to the common people.  When I read him for the first time there was a sense of discovering a history that I had suspected was there, but had never before had the chance to read about.  E.P. Thompson deepened that commitment to ‘history from below’, though I found he stimulated dissent in me as well as exciting admiration.  When I read Peter Laslett’s The World We have Lost (1965) I literally sat up all night to finish it, and it made me want to sign up for the ‘new social history’ under his supervision.  His phrase ‘understanding ourselves in time’ encapsulates for me what this enterprise is all about.  I never became a historical demographer, but I learned a lot from interacting with them at the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, especially E.A. Wrigley, who I regard as one of the sharpest and most imaginative historians I have ever met. As a graduate student I also read a great deal of sociology and social anthropology: social network theory (represented at that time by J.A. Barnes, J.C. Mitchell and Jeremy Boissevain) influenced me a lot, as did Eric Wolf.  The list could go on and on: Keith Thomas’ way of broadening the agenda; W.G. Hoskins’ and Margaret Spufford’s way of making laconic local records speak; Alan Macfarlane’s earlier books; Carlo Ginzburg and other microhistorians.  Not all of these people got on, and some disagreed fiercely, but one could learn from them all.  And there is always a new influence somewhere whenever one’s work takes a new turn: previously unread and long-neglected early classics like the works of W.G. Ashley and William Cunningham; theorists like W.G. Runciman, Anthony Giddens, or James C. Scott; historians of other countries and periods whose work one encounters (Susan Reynolds, for example, or Chris Wickham, or John Demos); colleagues and friends; former pupils.  I hope I’m still learning and developing, albeit somewhat more slowly.

3. If you hadn’t become a historian what career path would you have chosen?

I knew very little about possible career alternatives. My original intention was to become a secondary school teacher back home in the north,  get involved in the local cultural scene (which was very lively in Newcastle), and hopefully write.  If I had not done well enough in my final examinations to get a PhD studentship, that is probably what I would have done.

4. Of your academic projects, which one has proven to be most fulfilling?

I could divide my work into two parts: things I really wanted to write, and things that I became persuaded I should try to write, because they were needed, or would be a challenge worth taking on.  The former would include Poverty and Piety in an English Village (1979 – co-authored with David Levine) and my new book Ralph Tailor’s Summer (2011).  The latter would include English Society, 1580-1680 (1982) and Earthly Necessities. Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain (2000).  Most of the essays would also fall into one or the other category.  Both types of job are fulfilling in different ways.  On the whole, though, I prefer the former. These projects tend to have in common the fact that one stumbles on the material in the course of one’s research and realizes its potential; that they have an exploratory and experimental quality – seeing just what can be done with the evidence to answer questions that develop with the project; and finally, small scale, intense focus, and painstaking record linkage.  I get a lot of satisfaction out of that kind of craftsmanship, and the way that it can reveal things previously unsuspected and answer large questions that are otherwise inaccessible.  I was trying to do that sort of thing, under the influence of the best English local history, and of sociological and social anthropological case studies, before the term ‘microhistory’ was coined. But now that the label exists, I am happy to wear it.  I’ve done plenty of large scale, big sweep history, but the microhistory is what I really most enjoy.

5. Where do you see the field of British history heading in the next few years?

That is very hard to say, but I can offer one generalization.  It is becoming less of an international field in the sense that fewer people from other English-speaking countries are studying it.  I don’t think it will ever die out completely in America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand etc. but knowing something about British history no longer has anything like the same significance in those societies that it had as recently as thirty years ago.  This is a pity, because it is part of their history too; but the fact is that it is no longer generally perceived in that way.  The saddest part of that development to me is that if British history ceases to attract the interest and input of scholars from across the world, there is a risk that it will become more insular and introverted.  It has benefitted enormously from the stimulating insights and varied perspectives that derive from the involvement of an international community of scholars.
I would be very sorry to lose that.

6. What advice do you have for graduate students and beginning academics about finding a topic of interest and publishing on it?

There are different ways of going about finding a topic.  You can immerse yourself in an issue or debate that really engages you and then sit back and ask yourself what it would take to move it on, and then what records would provide appropriate material, and then figure out a research plan.  Or you can start with the records.  Take a category of records that has been little used; explore it carefully; get to know it, and in doing so consider what these records are and what they can reveal.  Or you can be more serendipitous.  Just read some records relevant to whatever broad topic most interests you; let them speak to you, and stay alert to how they might be used to open up something new or to resolve an outstanding problem.  If you are lucky you may even stumble on something with exceptional potential.  I think most people work in all these ways at one time or another, or combine them in different mixes.  I personally started with a plan that did not work out.  But by the time I realized it was not going to work as originally envisaged, I was working on a neglected source that had other kinds of interest and potential, so I changed tack.  And along the way I also stumbled on some very nice unanticipated material.  Perhaps the best advice is what Miles Davis famously told the younger members of his bands: ‘Play what you know and then play above that’.

Getting published, of course, depends on persuading editors that it matters.  The best way to do that is to keep asking yourself what it means until you know, and can express it.

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