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Five minutes with… Dr Ian Mortimer

Dr Ian Mortimer is an acclaimed historian, bestselling author and television presenter. His latest book Centuries of Change: Which Century saw the Most Change and Why it Matters to Us is published by Random House and out now.

What is an historian?

A historian (I don’t use the old-fashioned ‘an’, I pronounce the ‘h’ instead) is simply someone who studies Mankind in respect of past time. Those are the only two criteria. If you’re studying an uninhabited island’s flora a hundred years ago, that isn’t history, it’s botany. And if you’re looking at some aspect of human behaviour today, that’s not history but sociology. But put Mankind and time together, then you have the makings of history.

What made you decide to pursue a career in history?

I am not sure why history chose me; she just showed her pretty ankles and I followed, mesmerised. From about the age of five or six.

I have three possible explanations: (1) I grew up in a house with a number of antiques, where the family still referred to our ancestors, who ran a business of dyers and cleaners from 1773-1932, as ‘us’. You have a different outlook on time when you are having a conversation about what ‘we’ did in, say, 1817. (2) I have the name Mortimer, which I knew from a very early age was one of the most evocative of the English medieval past. (3) The word ‘time’ is in my name, and apparently people are often subconsciously drawn to professions that are related to their name.

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

None. I am not inspired by modern books but by the past itself, its relics, and thinking about it. The most essential books on my shelves are merely tools.

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

No. The web is still in its infancy as far as historical research goes. Having whole runs of journals such as theEnglish Historical Review available, or Jstor, is a great asset.

What is your favourite historical place?

Rome. Venice. Florence – I wander around them agog. Carcassonne too.

There are two places in England which have a magic for me that transcends mere place. One is Wigmore Castle, seat of the medieval Mortimer family (no connection to me, by the way). It is a wonderful overgrown ruin, with trees growing through the remains. The second is Newstead Abbey, formerly a major medieval abbey, then a country house – the seat of the Byron family. The poet Lord Byron was my hero when I was a boy. Other special places include the great cathedrals (especially Westminster, Durham and Exeter), three National Trust properties, Ightham Mote, Cotehele, Blickling, and some of the Bronze Age remains on Dartmoor, such as Drizzlecombe stone rows.

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

Do you mean I have 24 hours in one place in the past? If so I would want to watch one of the great 14th century battles – such as Dupplin Moor, Poitiers or Crécy – from a safe distance. But if I can use my twenty-four hours to travel in time, I’d like to spend an hour with twenty-four generations of my family, starting with my great-grandfather and his wife, then an hour with my great-great-grandfather and his wife and so on. That should take me back to the thirteenth century.

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

I work all the time I am not doing something more interesting – so most of the time I am at home. I sit on various committees and public bodies, so that’s less time at my desk than I would like. I also cook. But I often have days when I start work, still in my dressing gown, at 8.30am and write a bit of the book, research a bit, work on an article and even answer a set of interview questions, and go back to writing the book – and go to bed at 2am, having only left the house for a brisk walk (which is when I get my best ideas). I don’t watch TV or read for pleasure, so I tend to be quite productive.

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

Unlike most historians I don’t limit myself to one period. I’m best known for my fourteenth- and fifteenth- century books, but I have also written on the reign of Elizabeth. I’ve edited two books of seventeenth-century documents, and my PhD is on the seventeenth century. I’ve written peer-reviewed research papers on an aspect of English history for every century from the twelfth to the twentieth. Centuries of Change, which comes out on 2 October, covers 1000 years of the Western world.

Why is history important today?

You cannot get the present in perspective without looking at the past. It’s only by looking at Mankind over a number of years and in different situations that you get a true idea of what we are and what we are capable of, how resilient and adaptable. You cannot get a firm grasp on where we are going without seeing where we come from – charting the trajectory of humanity in time is beyond the skills of a futurologist, you need a historian.

Finally, what is your best historical fact?

In the Dartmouth parish of St Saviour in 1737, an illegitimate daughter was born to a woman called Ann Sex. She gave her the virtuous name ‘Constant’. Despite her name, Constant Sex never married.

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