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Five Minutes With… Dr Joanne Paul

Dr. Joanne Paul is a Lecturer in History at the New College of the Humanities. She has published previously on political theory in the Tudor period (in her edited volume Governing Diversities: Democracy, Diversity and Human Nature, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012) and her work on the Renaissance revival of kairos will be published in Renaissance Quarterly spring 2014. She is currently revising her thesis on the discourse of counsel in England from 1485 to 1651 for publication.

What is an historian?

My initial response is that an historian is someone who studies the past, but that does seem a bit shallow and vague. I suppose an historian is someone who attempts to bring the past closer, to make it more real to us without obstructing the reality it had to those who lived it. A historian helps us understand where we came from, how we got here, what makes us who we are. Perhaps most importantly a historian helps us to understand our own agency, what we are capable of and how to make choices responsibly and with awareness of the consequences, good or bad.  

What made you decide to pursue a career in history?

Initially I wanted a career in politics, and perhaps one day I will return to that. But I became captivated by other ways of thinking and acting politically, by the choices that others had made and the rationale that went with it. Now I’m following so many interesting threads I don’t think I could get out if I wanted to; luckily I don’t want to!

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

In terms of a text that I constantly refer back to when I write, and that informs my own methodological inclinations, it would be Quentin Skinner’s Visions of Politics. But I also have to recognise an historical fiction which continues to inspire my motivations for continuing in history, and that is Iain Pears’ Dream of Scipio.

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

I am constantly checking the seminar listings on the Institute for Historical Research website. Attending seminars in diverse topics is at least an educational form of procrastination.

 What is your favourite historical place?

I really enjoy Hever Castle (family home of Anne Boleyn) – beautiful medieval castle with stunning gardens. For me, of course, the draw is the history of the place, and I think because it isn’t as popular as, say, Hampton Court, you can still almost feel it’s history.

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

First priority would probably be the England of Henry VIII. I would very much like to spend some time speaking to Thomas More and others of the humanist circle at the time. I might be interested in clearing some much-derided names, find out some answers to some Tudor mysteries.

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

I’m a pretty proactive researcher; I like to get things done far in advance. But I have noticed a process when I come to a new project. I do as much of the background reading as I can, preparing typewritten notes that I then print off and scrawl all over. Then, the panic usually sets in when I realise I have to bring all this material together, and I spent a few days in a funk trying to sort it all out. Then, I give up and write something down. Once I have the momentum going, and I start to see a structure develop, the rest usually comes. The trick is getting past the self-editing impulse and just writing; you can always edit later. As a wise writer once said, ‘You can’t edit a blank page’.

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

That’s a long list! I’ve always been fascinated by the ancient world. Growing up (like many kids) I was obsessed with ancient Egypt, and that’s never really gone away. Greco-Roman history also fascinates me. Currently, I’m also doing a lot of reading about Canadian confederation, and the intellectual history of Canada (yes, such a thing does exist!). I really think that side projects help to keep you going and motivated.

 Why is history important today?

I think it has a lot to do with what I mentioned in answer to the first question. Part of understanding how we came to be where and what we are today is understanding what we can do from here. For me, this has a lot to do with the relationships we as political agents have with political institutions. Yes, institutions limit and regulate us, but developing an understanding of how and why these institutions came to be – and most importantly that they were created by agents just like us – can help us assess if they are still relevant and useful, if they ought to serve other purposes, and open the very important dialogue about their limiting and liberating functions. 

Finally, what is your best historical fact?

Hm, as an intellectual historian I have less juicy historical gossip. So perhaps I will provide a quotation that I enjoy instead from George Puttenham’s widely-read Arte of English Poesie of 1589, one of the most important rhetorical handbooks of the age: “we limit the comely parts of a woman to consist in foure points, that is to be a shrewe in the kitchin, a saint in the Church, an Angell at the bourd, and an Ape in the bed”.

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