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Five Minutes With… Dr Angela McShane

Angela McShaneDr Angela McShane is Head of Renaissance and Early Modern Studies at the V&A/RCA. She specialises in Early Modern broadside ballads and is a project leader on Intoxicants and Early Modernity and the AHRC funded 100 Hit Songs of the 17th century .  She is also the editor of the V&A’s online journal.  

What is an historian?

Someone who is interested in people in the past and they way they did things so that they can understand a bit more about who they are now.

What made you decide to pursue a career in History?

That’s easy. At 18, I fell in love with Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden from 1611-1632. Then, at University, despite initially being tempted by the delights of English and French, I fell in love with the subject itself and the fact that unlike novels or poems, it was a story that never ended, with endless twists, turns and possibilities.  I was also incredibly fortunate to have wonderful teachers, at school and University, who inspired me to want to teach too. Wanting to be the ‘real thing’ and to research and write history came later, and has been both phenomenally hard and wonderfully stimulating.

What is the one history book you simply couldn’t do without?

Historian Stuart Clark revolutionized my way of thinking about how to study the past and how we might understand how things change. His articles on witchcraft and especially his book Thinking with Demons. Clark used Wittgenstein’s rules of language as a way into thinking about past belief systems, and helped me see how each culture needs to be taken seriously on its own terms, and that is it difficult but fascinating to try and understand how the ‘rules of language’ that structure past behaviours and beliefs might change over time. I find this kind of thinking particularly helpful for example when investigating drinking habits and rituals (as I do).

Do you have a favourite website for historical research (or procrastination)? Why?

As a historian of printed political songs, the Bodleian ballad and EBBA website provide endless opportunities for timewasting, while it is a rare thing for a day to go by without having spent a while on Early English Books Online locating yet more examples to add to my stash for whatever projects I am working on.  I also find the

V&A’s Search the Collections resource wonderful. I hope, in the process of the Intoxicants and Early Modernity project, that we will create a research tool as good and as worthy of procrastination time as those all are!

What is your favourite historical place?

For me, nothing beats the historical wonders of Italy. I always find it spiritually uplifting to experience the incredible engagement with beauty that you encounter in almost every town. However, I was also blown away by the Parthenon and Agora in Athens…just being able to look at the spot where Socrates spoke, and be in the place where the great ideas of Western Civilization were created.

You have a time machine for 24 hours, where do you go?

In view of the fact I am currently writing my long-delayed book on political ballads, I would wish to stand about on the streets of London where I could take notes of all the sellers and singers of ballads to get the evidence we otherwise so sadly lack. A good day would be 20 April 1653, when Oliver Cromwell dissolved the Rump Parliament, as I know there was lots on singing on that date!

You have a new research project and a deadline. What is your normal working pattern?

Panic, Panic some more, then…listen out for the deadline whistling over your head as it passes.

 Your period of expertise no longer exists. Which historical period would you research instead?

19th century – because the Victorians are to blame for everything. Or classical times when everything really did seem to be new.

Why is history important today?

In my view, the key contribution that history has to make to modern day society is in providing perspective. And maybe alternative ways of thinking and solving problems. I think this is particularly true of early modern history because there are many unexpectedly illuminating correspondences between us and the early modern period than between us and what some would describe as the ‘onset of modernity’ in the 19th c.

Finally, what is your best historical fact?

People are often surprised to learn that before the 19th century, ‘ordinary’ people in England were seldom married before the age of 26 or 28. This leaves us an interesting question of what they were up to during this extended time between childhood and marriage? For one thing, between the ages of 15 and 28, many people were free to think about their material life.

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