With over seventy episodes recorded, the British History Podcast is giving people a lot to listen too. Created in 2011 by Jamie Jeffers, the podcast is a tour of the history of the British Isles, starting from prehistoric times and moving up chronologically. After covering the Roman period, the podcasts are now dealing with the Anglo-Saxon period, including episodes ranging from food and feasting to the Staffordshire Hoard and Arthurian Legend.
We interviewed Jamie Jeffers about his podcast…
1) Why did you want to create a podcast on British history and why did you think this would be a medium for you?
Well, that’s a hard question to answer since there was a confluence of events that all lead me to this. Ultimately, I think losing my job in 2010 was a major catalyst. I had spent the better part of a decade either training to become, or practicing as, an attorney. I was accustomed to working ridiculous hours and basically living and breathing the law… and suddenly that was over. I had a tremendous amount of free time to fill, and wasn’t sure what to do with myself.
Something that many people don’t realize is that attorneys don’t really argue for a living. They research, but suddenly I didn’t need to research legal issues for a client, and instead I could research anything I wanted. Being a British Ex-Pat who was raised in the States, I was taught relatively little about my ancestors. As a child I was told stories by my grandfather, who was an incredible storyteller, but for the most part the history I had been exposed to in school focused upon American History. And I missed those stories of Britain. So the choice for me was obvious, I could use the training and experience I had in research to look into those old stories and find new ones. I didn’t even think about running a podcast at first, to be honest. I just was in love with the material and began to pore over any sources I could get my hands on. Just out of sheer enthusiasm for the subject.
Actually, the first starting point was Churchill’s The History of the English Speaking Peoples, largely because I love his writing style and it gave me a solid four volume overview. By that point I was quickly consuming everything I could get my hands on, and I had found that I really had a passion for this material. The tales my grandfather told me as a child came flooding back and I found I wanted to tell stories as well.
The problem is that while I’m passionate about British History, most people aren’t. In fact, many people think that they hate history (often due to a few poor experiences in school). I quickly realized that if I wanted my friends and family to continue talking to me, I’d need an outlet.
As luck would have it, I have been a long standing fan of two stellar podcasts: The Memory Palace and Stuff You Should Know. And I thought that maybe I could tell stories the way Nate DeMeo does, but maybe with a little more of an irreverent tone.
The podcast was an ideal medium for me because ultimately what I wanted, when I was doing all this research and putting these stories together, was to have a community to share this with. I’m a big proponent of the democraticization of knowledge and creating a podcast allowed me to further that goal. What I mean by “the democraticization of knowledge” is that this history doesn’t belong to any one person; it’s all of ours. It has shaped all of us in some way, and so it shouldn’t be restricted only to those who attend the right schools or have access to the right material. It belongs to everyone. And part of making it available to everyone is presenting it in a way that is accessible.
The way I’ve decided to go about doing that is by engaging in an ancient tradition: telling history as a story. Oral histories have been with us much longer than written histories, and there is something primal that we tap into when we tell stories. It’s why we love films, and novels, and theater. It’s why we can be entertained for an entire night with nothing more than the company of friends or family. Everyone loves stories, and I had some incredible stories of heartache, betrayal, and sacrifice to tell.
So I sat down with my microphone and started talking about these events the way I would tell a friend over a pint. And I’ve been incredibly lucky in the reception the stories have received.
2) The series is running chronologically through history, and you have recently got into the Middle Ages. What kind of topics are you planning to cover?
Well right now I’m covering cultural issues. As you know, the early middle ages are largely a blank spot in history with regard to Britain. We have a few names and dates recorded in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, but in general we don’t have much meat on the bones, so to speak. The focus of my podcast isn’t on the names and dates, but rather on the people and the events. I try to pull these figures off the pedestal of history and make them as real as you or I, but I need more than just a name and birth date to do that.
So rather than making the kings three dimensional with an inadequate amount of information, I’m focusing on the culture. If I can’t shine a light on the rulers, I can definitely shine a light on the people living under them. We have spent an incredible amount of time on food, as food is a major pillar of society from this period in time. We’ve covered where it comes from, how it was prepared, how it was distributed, how it was used to consolidate power, and how it was used to form social bonds. I’m going to spend some time discussing the organization of the Anglo Saxon state and also on the Anglo Saxon approach to war. I imagine I will also cover issues related to day to day life, such as clothing and the like.
Once the people are fleshed out, we will launch into the record we have and I imagine that we will return to the storytelling tone that the Romano-British period had by the time we reach Alfred the Great.
3) What kind of research do you for each episode?
It changes depending on the topics I’m covering. I turn to primary sources whenever possible. However, this period isn’t known for having a great deal of primary sources. So I also turn to literary sources, such as Beowulf, and a variety of secondary sources. With advancements in Archaeology, and with the exciting discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard, we are always learning new things about this period in history and so there is much to be gained by reading scholarly articles and books from major figures working in the field today. Ultimately, I’m a narrator and synthesizer of history, so the research that I do is substantially different from the scholars currently working in the field and I benefit greatly from the work they are doing.
So the short answer, I suppose, is that I turn to primary sources whenever I can but a lot of the time I turn to the work of experts. I’m fortunate to have so many great minds working in history to draw from, and I’m well aware that I’m standing on the shoulders of giants.
4) Listeners can also become members – if they do sign up, what kind of extras do they receive?
Members are really what keeps this whole thing running. More often than not, members support the podcast simply because they want the project to continue, and for about the price of a latte each month they can do exactly that. But I also like to provide little extras to thank the members for supporting the project and enabling me to continue working on it. So they have access to a special bi-weekly podcast that covers material that I find interesting but might not fit in with the story I’m telling in the main podcast. For example, during the Romano-British period, I had quite a few episodes that focused on the Celts. Later on I released a reading of Le Mort D’Arthur by a local voice actor. Recently I was doing a series of experiments where I attempted to recreate Anglo Saxon beef and Anglo Saxon ale (which was weak, leafy, and rather flat). Currently I’m doing a series on the history of Saint Patrick. Members also have access to the rough transcripts of the show, timelines, and character summaries. Just in case you wanted to know how to spell Venutius.