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Five minutes with… Juliet Barker

Juliet BarkerJuliet Barker is an historian and biographer, specializing in the middle ages and the lives of literary figures. Her works include Agincourt: The King, the Campaign, the Battle and The Brontës. Her latest book England Arise: The People, the King and the Great Revolt of 1381 is published by Little, Brown and available to buy now.

What is an historian? A curator of the past, unearthing and gathering together material from sources of every kind, sifting through to identify what is relevant or important (not necessarily the same thing!) and then presenting it in a cogent manner to shed light on a moment of history or to tell a story which will inform or entertain. In this way the historian can make a living connection with the past and contribute to our understanding of the present.

What made you decide to pursue a career in history? If you’d asked me when I was thirteen what I wanted to do I’d have said I wanted to write a biography of the Brontës. I read History, rather than English Lit at university because I wanted to learn the tools of the historian’s trade but it wasn’t until I worked for six years as curator and librarian of the Brontë Parsonage Museum that I realized that there was still the potential for a radical new biography of the Brontës because there was so much unpublished original material and no one had treated them as historical figures (and used historical sources such as local newspapers extensively) rather than simply the creators of fiction.

What is the one history book you couldn’t do without? C R Cheney’s Handbook of Dates for Students of English History (London, 1978): the tables allow you to identify days of the week, festival days and dates for every regnal year from the sixth to the nineteenth century. An indispensable tool for the mediavalist trying to date documents but also useful for nineteenth century letters which often carry only the day of the week.

What is your favourite website for historical research? A toss-up between British History Online  for its range of primary sources, History of Parliament for its detailed biographies of MPs and Medieval Genealogy for access to the Calendars of Patent and Close Rolls. An honorable mention too for  The Soldier in Later Medieval England which uses muster rolls for campaigns 1369 – 1453 to identify those who enlisted and in whose company they fought.

What is your favourite historical site? There are so many I couldn’t identify a particular one but I have an especial love of medieval abbeys, castles and manor-houses. My favourite in the last category is Markenfield Hall, a hidden gem near Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, which is still a private house and is obviously lived in and loved, as well as enjoying a fabulous moated setting and a turbulent past.

You have a time-machine for twenty-four hours… where do you go? I’m too much of coward to want to be anywhere near Agincourt or the Great Revolt of 1381 so I’d probably go to Haworth Parsonage in the nineteenth century to eavesdrop on the conversations taking place between the extra-ordinary members of the Brontë family.

What is your normal working pattern? It changes depending on what part of the book-writing cycle I’m in. The first two to three years are relatively civilized, researching my subject and keeping normal office hours with the occasional foray to visit relevant sites, museums or libraries. The last year is spent writing up and, once that starts, the pressure builds with the approaching deadline. In the last few months I’ll be working seven days a week, usually beginning at four or five in the morning and working through till the late evening by which time I’m too tired to see or think straight.

Your area of historical expertise no longer exists. What would you research instead? I wouldn’t. I’d enjoy the freedom of waking up in the morning without a looming deadline and being able to take a walk, read a book unconnected with my subject or spend time with my family without feeling guilty.

Why is history important today? Because it belongs to all of us and because it helps to explain who we are, both as individuals and as members of a nation or other group. Most of all, perhaps, because if we understand the lessons of the past we can avoid making the same mistakes ourselves: history lessons should be compulsory for all politicians. But also because it’s fun!

What is your best historical fact? I love quirky facts and stories about individuals. One of my favorites is the fact that two Welshmen were arrested for affray in East Anglia shortly after the battle of Agincourt. Not in itself a remarkable or significant fact – but it tells you so much about that most famous of battles. They were in East Anglia because they were on pilgrimage ‘in fulfilment of vows they had made on the battlefield’ – in other words a fact that provides substance to support the much vaunted claim about the piety of Henry V’s army.

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