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Five Minutes with… Dr Sarah Peverley

Dr Sarah Peverley is a Medievalist and a Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Liverpool. She is a BBC New Generation Thinker and recently took part in BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking Festival at The Sage, Gateshead. She’s a regular tweeter and can be found here: @Sarah_Peverley.

What is an historian?

A time-traveller without a time machine. 

What made you decide to pursue a career in history?1

I get goose bumps when I visit historic places or touch artefacts from the past, so working in a profession that allows me to spend time with the material remains of our past was a natural choice. Deciding which period to specialise in was pretty easy too. I’ve always loved the Middle Ages, its culture and literature: at school my English teacher once wrote: ‘Sarah needs to move on from stories about princesses and knights’… I thought he was wrong, so I’ve never stopped reading about them! 

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

There are a few, but at the moment Ralph Griffith’s The Reign of Henry VI is right up there. 

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

The British Library’s online catalogue of illuminated manuscripts and their digital manuscripts. I’m working on late medieval manuscripts at the moment and it’s invaluable.

What is your favourite historical place?

Warkworth Castle, Northumberland. Without a doubt one of the best castles in the UK. I get shivers down my spine every time I’m there. It also has special significance for me because John Hardyng, the chronicler I’ve worked on for the last decade, was once constable of the castle. 

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

I’d be a female Dr Who and go everywhere and ‘everywhen’ because 24 hours is irrelevant in a time machine! But, if I had to pick, I’d cram as much of this in as I could:

Late medieval England to high-five Chaucer, chat with John Hardyng, and see the York Mystery Cycle being performed. Fifteenth-century Italy to take Leonardo Da Vinci for a drink or three. Elizabethan London to catch a Shakespeare play and see good queen Bess. Ancient Egypt and Rome under Cleopatra and Caesar. Ancient Greece to watch Oedipus Rex. Film set of Raiders of the Lost Ark to swoon over Harrison Ford in his prime. And the day before my granddad died to give him one last hug.

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

Read, read, read. Spend lots of time getting my hands dirty with medieval manuscripts and old documents. Think a lot. Drink a lot (ginger tea, but not near the manuscripts!). Write a little. Think some more. Drink some more (this time red wine!). Stay up late. Repeat ad nauseam until a few weeks before the deadline. Then, write like there’s no tomorrow, stress, get over moments of self-doubt. Write more. Read more. Look at more manuscripts. Send off work. Breathe. And sleep.

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

Ancient Egypt. When Raiders of the Lost Ark came out I wanted to be an Egyptologist. I studied Classical Civilisation at A Level and seriously thought about combining it with Egyptology at university.

Why is history important today?

It’s the story of who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.

Finally, what is your best historical fact?

I have a few favourites, but the most recent fact to blow my mind comes from the recent AHRC-funded ‘Grosseteste Science Project’. Bishop Robert Grosseteste was a thirteenth-century theologian who wrote, among other things, a treatise on the physics of light (De Luce). It contains the earliest known reference to the visible universe expanding from a fixed point. This is what we call the Big Bang theory being posited seven centuries before modern descriptions of the Big Bang! Utterly Incredible.

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