- In Search of New Narrative Frameworks:An Interview with Ian Mortimer
Please describe briefly how you became interested in history and outline your career as a historian.
I grew up in a house full of antiques and listened to family conversations that constantly harked back to days of greater wealth and greater glory. (My family ran a successful dyeing and cleaning business between 1773 and 1932—I was born in 1967.) Having the name "Mortimer," I did not feel distant from the Middle Ages but associated with the famous warrior family of the same name. I also naturally questioned historical judgments about the medieval Mortimers, which were usually negative and unsympathetic, and so developed a critical faculty at a very early age. I started tracing my family history at about the age of six or seven. At the age of eight, in the summer of 1976, my history master wrote in my school report: "Here surely is a future historian in the making; he has a very sound knowledge and good understanding."
My career as a historian has been unorthodox. Although I read for a BA in history in 1986-89, I spent more time studying creative writing. Later I qualified as an archivist. In the years 1993-2000 I worked as an editor of 17th-century documents for the University of Reading, as a Curatorial Officer for the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, and as an archivist at the University of Exeter. I did not start to read for my Ph.D. (in the social history of medicine 1570-1720) until 2000, when aged thirty-three. I completed it in twenty-two months. Since March 2003 I have published four medieval biographies, one innovative social history (The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England), one scholarly monograph (The Dying and the Doctors, published by the Royal Historical Society), half of the guide to a university archive, and twenty-three peer-refereed articles. Collectively these have touched on every century of English history from the 13th to the 20th. I also have completed a book of essays, Medieval Intrigue, due for publication in September 2010, in which I seek to advance the philosophy and methodology of medieval history, testing the limits of certainty by examining aspects of royal secret business. I was awarded the Alexander Prize by the Royal Historical Society—a silver medal for the best essay submitted by someone within three years of completing his or her Ph.D.—in 2004.
What was the genesis of your thinking about history as an art? Have you been long disappointed by the published scholarship produced by academic historians?
When in youth I was fascinated by history, it had no bounds. But within a few days of being taught formally at school, I found all my amazement being driven out of the subject. I hated the syllabus at the age of seven, and I still hated it when I left school at seventeen. My relationship with the past has always been a personal one, and my vision of history equally personal. But it has also always been serious, so that it includes both a sense of spiritual reassurance—in that the dead go on before us—and drama—in that people performed almost unimaginable acts of bravery in the past, as well as acts that were desperately sad, loyal, haunting, cheating, ambitious, hate-filled, loving, etc. The school syllabus never included these emotions.
I am not at all "disappointed" by scholarship—I am not sure what gave you that idea! I have produced a fair bit myself. I know well the thrill of finding out and contextualizing something that no one else knows. My book The Dying and the Doctors, which is an extremely detailed reconstruction of the level of medicalization in southern England in the 17th century, was a tremendously exciting project. It is not a fun read, but we need works like this to produce reliable structures for understanding the past. My point is not that this is disappointing, but that we also need people to look beyond the academic horizon and to build something out of such research...