Interview with Ian Mortimer


Ian Mortimer is a well-known historian who focuses on English political history. An Honorary Fellow of the University of Exeter and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Dr. Mortimer is well known for challenging conservative views about history and the writing of history.  One of his most important articles is ‘The Death of Edward II in Berkeley Castle’, The English Historical Review, 120 (2005), where he argues that Edward was not killed in 1327.

Dr. Mortimer’s recent book The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century, has been an international bestseller.  We interviewed him via email about this book as well as his upcoming work 1415: Henry V’s Year of Glory.

One of the questions you tackle in this book is “How does a vision of medieval England as a living community differ from one in which it is described as dead?” Most historians have a kind of standard way of writing history, but your work here asks us to take a look at the subject in a much different way. Why do you think this is important and what were the advantages for you in approaching this method in your book?

There are lots of questions wrapped up in this. Basically you are asking me about my philosophy of history and how it relates to traditional academic history. Yes, most historians do have a set way of writing history but I would argue that that is because most of them are paid to write in that set way. The majority of highly qualified historians in the English speaking world are employed by universities and their employment is primarily either to teach a specific syllabus or conduct research for a particular purpose, and the two functions are closely linked, so that the research connects with and extends the teaching. The majority of historians who fall outside this bracket are either employed for a specific role (e.g. heritage/public history, archives, etc) or write for the general public on a freelance basis. The freelances tend to mimic the academic approach for two reasons: (a) their readers expect it and (b) a traditional approach more clearly aligns them with other professional historians. As a result there are very, very few people in the English-speaking world who are keen to challenge the forms in which history is written.

As I see it, the traditional pseudo-objective stance of the academic – the study of evidence whether on an empirical or a theoretical basis – is a very narrow slice of a very large historical pie. There are simply thousands of ways of writing history. In The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England I designed the whole book around the interests of a theoretical reader, prioritising his/her questions over the evidence. In 1415: Henry V’s Year of Glory I designed the book to be a day-by-day account of Henry V in that year. This approach is radical, and no academic would employ it; yet it avoids many of the criticisms that postmodernists level at historians: for example, that historians ‘select their evidence’ and neglect conflicting evidence, or ‘arrange their evidence to suit their argument’. In 1415 I laid out every detail of every event I could find in relation to Henry V on the calendar day on which it took place. So in these two books, Time Traveller’s and 1415, you have two very different ways of writing history, both of which are heavily referenced and connected to their source material yet which are both aimed at a mass readership. And there are many, many other ways of doing this. Traditional academia is enormously restrictive and – to the general public’s mind – hugely difficult to understand or enjoy.

As soon as one realises that one can adopt any one of an infinite number of approaches to the past, the limits are taken away from history. It becomes a much more versatile subject. It may still have pin-point accuracy – for example, in the employment of statistical methods, or information and archaeological sciences, to answer specific questions; and yet it assumes many more dimensions. We can ask more questions and we can provide more answers; and the quality of those answers is often greater than a pure right or wrong, yes or no.

To my mind, the fundamental advantage of a multi-dimensional approach is that it allows the historian to draw into his work elements of a common understanding of the nature of humanity. That might be the calendar and its seasons or it might be a common understanding of the physical and psychological needs of human beings. There are, of course, those who argue that this is not properly history – that we cannot presume that people in the past were anything like us. But such a line of argument is both self-defeating and false. It is false because, if we deny the humanity of the past, then we cease to study history, for history is specifically the history of our species – the past of uninhabited islands and other species belongs to other areas of enquiry. It is self-defeating because as soon as one starts to deny that a common understanding is possible, or worth pursuing, then one renders oneself an entity unto oneself and incapable of understanding anything about other members of humanity, in the present as well as the past. However, if the historian does adopt a humanistic approach, then he or she hugely enhances the possibility of writing something meaningful to a large number of readers, and discovering something important about the human condition.

How did you go about developing the idea for and researching The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England?

I have always been interested in breaking up traditional forms of history. As I wrote in my ‘Point of Departure’ article in the magazine History Today (October 2008 issue), I have come to think of this awareness as beginning with a visit to Grosmont Castle at about the age of ten, and wanting to see the place not as ruins but as a living castle in circa 1310, complete with a pregnant mother of Henry of Grosmont, the future first duke of Lancaster, surrounded by servants, priests, retainers. In subsequent years I simply could not understand how I could be so interested in the history of my own country and yet so bored by the syllabus. It seemed as if someone had designed teaching methods to be as unattractive as possible – almost as if they wanted to put people off studying the most wonderful subject in the world.

The idea that became Time Traveller’s came to me in 1993. It was to write a history book that not only appealed to the reader but also directly prioritised their interests. Being a fan of the Douglas Adams books, my first idea was a ‘hitchhiker’s guide to history’. I planned to include all the extraordinary facts I knew about the English past, from Henry VIII passing legislation requiring those guilty of mass poisoning to be boiled alive (it was enacted twice), to nineteenth-century wife sales, reactions to public executions, great escapes, secret treaties, etc. In seeking a publisher, John Hale wrote back to me and said that he thought my idea would work if I concentrated on one period. At that moment, a light bulb went on above my head. John Hale recommended that I try Elizabethan England but the light bulb flashed colours that were distinctly late medieval… Although another ten years passed before I acted on the idea and wrote the book, the idea was developed instantly, in the combination of the ‘hitchiker’s guide’ with a specific country and time. Various publishers over the years tried to ‘develop’ the idea further but I remained close to my inspiration – and I am very glad that I did.

As for research, by the time I wrote the book I did not need to do very much. So many visits to medieval castles and houses over the decades meant I just had to refer to personal knowledge or my collection of guidebooks, or the research library that had grown in my study. Over the years I had written three medieval biographies, and in two of those (on Edward III and Henry IV) I had made extensive use of royal household accounts, including Henry IV’s accounts as earl of Derby, which are hugely informative. I had devoured superb textbooks like Christopher Dyer’s Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge 1989; revised ed., 1998), Chris Woolgar’s The Great Household in Late Medieval England (Yale, 1999), Carol Rawcliffe’s Medicine and Society In Later Medieval England (Sutton, 1995), and Barbara Harvey’s Living and Dying in England, 1100-1540: The Monastic Experience (OUP, 1993). I had also read a fair bit of archaeological research too, and some archaeological textbooks, which hugely helped. New books – such as Chris Woolgar’s The Senses in Late Medieval England (Yale, 2006) only added to the growing possibilities in my mind. In fact, having spent so many years of my life picking up details, I was in serious danger of over-researching the book by the time I came to write it. This would have been fatal for I could easily have lost the imaginative power to bring the subject to life. For this reason I deliberately didn’t do much research but only referred to volumes, articles and photographed documents as and when I felt that I needed to check a detail or point a doubtful reader towards my source or a reliable authority.

There was one moment that stands outside all of the above. I drove into town alone late one night to watch the film ‘Atonement’. On my way back it struck me that, if a fiction writer can derive so much power from a historical setting, then a non-fiction writer ought to be able to too. In fact, a historian ought to be able to develop an even greater an emotional impact – for his/her characters were real human beings, not fictional entities. Thus, as I drove back down the hill, looking at the lights of the village ahead of me, I had the germ of the idea for the ‘Envoi’, which concludes the book.

You are able to use many sources to cover a wide range of topics – from measuring time to dancing. Were there any topics that you wanted to cover but could not (at least to your satisfaction) because of a lack of sources/research?

I’m really glad you asked this question because one of the key aspects of my Time Traveller’s Guide is that no area of research or enquiry is impossible. A few reviewers, including some very erudite ones, completely missed this point. They declared that the present tense approach of the guidebook is less revolutionary than I claim because I am still using the same evidence as every other scholar. Their mistake lies in their assumptions about ‘use’ of evidence – that it is always the same. The traditional approach to evidence is to ‘use’ evidence in the sense of exploiting it for what it can tell us about the past. Therefore the research questions that arise are evidence-based. In the Time Traveller’s approach, no regard is paid to the evidence in forming the research questions. The ‘use’ of evidence in this book is secondary, only employed after the research question has been formed, and often used in conjunction with other, perhaps disparate pieces of evidence to answer that research question. Travellers want to know about personal hygiene – so I’ll tell them about personal hygiene. Travellers want to know about comfortable beds and costs of accommodation – so I’ll tell them about these things. I might have to scout around a bit for suitable evidence, and I might even have to use fifteenth century evidence for the late fourteenth century, or thirteenth-century evidence for the pre-Black Death period, but I will come up with an answer. A succinct way of illustrating the difference is to say that I am studying humanity over time (then and now) whereas traditional academics study evidence from the past.

Your question is thus interesting because it is not wholly appropriate. What you are driving at is really a matter of accuracy. If I claim that one can answer every research question that could occur to a modern-day traveller by using the best available evidence, then certain inaccuracies are likely to arise. How vulnerable is this book to charges of inaccuracy? There are bound to be points that certain specialists will regard as wrong – and things like the medical identity of the Great Plague remain debateable and very contentious to this day – but I have done the best I can, and cited my sources whenever it seemed necessary. Therefore my work is probably no more inaccurate than most scholarly studies of social life the fourteenth century. Indeed, as many scholarly studies are concerned with research questions that would have had no meaning at the time – no one in the fourteenth century would have understood you if you had argued about the Black Death, the Hundred Years War or Bastard Feudalism, for example – one might say that my book is as near to a sympathetic portrait of the reality of the period as one can get.

Having said all that, yes, there obviously are questions that one cannot answer. But they tend to be the same questions that no one at the time could answer either. The medical nature of the Black Death is a good example: I cannot answer that with any degree of certainty as rodent-carried plague cannot spread as far or as fast as the Great Plague of 1348-9. But nor could anyone else in 14th century England. So the answer to that question is to explain their understanding of the nature of the Black Death.

Now that you have written the book on travel in 14th century England, where (and when) would be the place you would most want to be in if you had the opportunity?

As I am interested in all historical ages, not just the medieval period, the honest answer to that question is Elizabethan England. My PhD was on the social history of medicine in the period 1570-1720, so I feel quite at home discussing the social history of a later period. And my publisher has recently contracted a Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England, which I should finish in 2011 for publication that in the autumn of that year or the following spring.

If you want me to give a medieval answer then you’re asking a question of my political-historical interests. My favourite subject and area of greatest specialisation is the supposed death of Edward II, his secret imprisonment in the years 1327-1330, and his reputed subsequent afterlife on the Continent. So the medieval answer to your question is actually Corfe Castle in Dorset in the year 1328. I want to know whether the ex-king of England was actually confined in what was described as the Prison Tower in 1331: a room with no doors or windows, in the middle gatehouse, entered by a trapdoor from the room above. I don’t suppose for a moment we will ever know where in Corfe the ex-king was held – even though we can be confident he was held there for a time – but the thought of a man falling from regal dignity and royal power to sightless and soundless solitary confinement for perhaps as long as two and a half years (from late 1327 to early 1330) is cause for us to pause for thought. Many people opposed to my line of thinking have declared that Edward II would have done this or that if he had been set free in Ireland after Lord Mortimer’s fall in late 1330 (as the Fieschi letter suggests). But I cannot help but think that a long period of solitary confinement must have a profound effect on a man, and especially a king.

I also would like to see Edward III on the battlefield: at Halidon Hill (1333), Sluys (1340), Crécy (1346) and Winchelsea (1350). I would like to see the king leading his troops to victories which no Englishmen would have believed possible in 1330. How did he inspire such loyalty – in the face of the better-equipped and more numerous French forces? There’s only so far I could go in The Perfect King: but Edward III (like his grandfather, Edward I) is a man who inspires the imagination to wonder what he was really like. 5.

Finally, you have two more medieval books coming out over the next few months. Could you tell us a little about them?

1415: Henry V’s Year of Glory (The Bodley Head, due for publication on 24 September 2009). This book is both an experiment in historical form as well as a historical micro-biography. I’ve touched on the radical form above but basically it’s an account of Henry over the course of the year, day by day, including events of importance to his rivals, friends and enemies – so including things like the progress of the Council of Constance and the French civil war. Writing about the year 1399 in my book The Fears of Henry IV, I found myself wanting to focus on one year and explore an inter-related series of events in closely-measured time. 1415 was an obvious choice – not just because there was so much going on but also because I wanted to write about Henry V without covering the same ground as all the many books that already exist on him and the battle of Agincourt. Also I wanted to get away from traditional history and do something which addressed the criticisms made by postmodernists and critical theorists like Hayden White, such as selection of evidence, arrangement of evidence, etc, as mentioned above. So everything about Henry V is mentioned, and everything is arranged by date. It was a real literary challenge – but the result is an interesting series of juxtapositions and a new way of stripping away the propaganda of the time. Henry V does not come out of the exercise well. He comes across as truly remarkable, and astoundingly brave; but what he did in France he did for the sake of God’s approval, not England, and his regard for his common men was low. And as for his misogyny – I leave you to discover that for yourself. In case you’re interested, the prologue is now freely available on my website, http://www.ianmortimer.com/histbiogs/1415/1415.htm

Medieval Intrigue and the Nature of Historical Evidence (working title, forthcoming, Hambledon Continuum, 2010) When I first published a view that Edward II did not die in 1327, in my first book, The Greatest Traitor, I was treated almost with hostility by many members of the history-writing community. This was not unexpected: extreme revisionism has always worried what is fundamentally a very conservative profession and their (sometimes, even-more-conservative) readers. So I went back to the drawing board and wrote an article, later published in EHR, that shows why we can be confident that Edward II did not die in Berkeley Castle in 1327 and was still alive in 1330. To my ever-increasing astonishment, even some serious academics have completely misunderstood and misrepresented my arguments in their own attempts to counter my work. As a result I intend in this book – a series of essays – to present the basic information science I am using in a methodological essay entitled ‘Objectivity and Information’ and to show how that underpins a number of arguments that, on the face of things are quite contentious, including the origins of the accusations of sodomy against Edward II and the origins of the idea of the pretender, as well as my original EHR essay. As readers will note, this is a far cry from the spirit of Time Traveller’s. While the social guidebook is perhaps the most general approach possible to medieval England, aimed at encouraging wider understanding of life in other ages, Medieval Intrigue is the sharp end of the stick – how we can prove (yes, I said the word ‘prove’) things about specific individuals in the past. But history can accommodate both ends of the spectrum – the most detailed arguments about a single event and the general understanding of the development of history over time. That is why it is all-consuming as an intellectual discipline.

We thank Dr.Mortimer for answering our questions.

Click here for his online article : A Note on the Deaths of Edward II