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Eureka! Historians share their experiences

EurekaWe’ve all had a moment like it. That flash of inspiration. That shock of insight. That moment when the stars align and you suddenly understand. Here, eleven historians share the ‘Eureka moment’ that set them on course to specialising in their chosen field.

Dr Miranda Kaufmann

I remember well the moment that History laid down her gauntlet and challenged me to pursue research into Africans in Early Modern Britain. It was when I read the line ‘There are of late divers blackamoors brought into this realme’ in a Privy Council letter of 11th July 1596. Until that moment I had no idea there were any Africans in Elizabethan England- I had imagined Tudor sailors had encountered Africans on their travels, but not at home. From then on, it became my mission to find out all I could about these ‘blackamoors’- how they got to England, where they lived, what they did, and how they were treated- and share their story with the world.

Dr Miranda Kaufmann’s first book, Black Tudors, will be published by Oneworld in autumn 2016. If you can’t wait that long, check out her website for her latest blogs, articles and details of her upcoming talks. 

Dan Jones

I’m not sure if there was a single ‘eureka’ – but the time when I knew I really wanted to continue working on the wars of the roses was when I was studying the medieval law and society paper in my final year at Cambridge, with the brilliant Christine Carpenter. There was just this sense of being close to a seriously exciting and popularly neglected area of history – Plantagenet England and the wars of the roses – that I didn’t want to leave behind. The principles and approaches that I absorbed during that term have stuck with me ever since and it has been incredibly rewarding to turn them into books for a popular market.

Dan Jones is a medieval historian, award winning journalist and author of The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors.

Dr Adam Smith

I think looking back my interest in America began with a visit, age 15, to Washington DC. I remember feeling the excitement that this is where real power was and was awed by the confidence of the neo classical architecture and the vast open spaces. I felt like a barbarian visiting Ancient Rome, which was, I now realise, exactly how the designers of that city intended visitors to feel.

Dr Adam Smith an historian, author and senior lecturer at University College London specialising in 19th century American history. His publications include  The American Civil War (American History in Depth) and  No Party Now: Politics in the Civil War North

Both Greg Jenner and Dr Sarah Peverley have been inspired by Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur.

Greg Jenner

My first portal into the past was my grandfather’s WW2 experiences, and even as an undergrad I was trying to sample as many periods of history as possible. But I suppose the thing that eventually turned me into a medievalist was the profound level of violence in Le Morte D’Arthur. I found it utterly shocking at first – it was so different from the heroic Hollywood movies of knights and damsels – but the closer I looked, the more I saw humour and irony in the text. It was like a Tarantino film, or even Monty Python’s Holy Grail: the amputations and skull-smashing became absurd in their repetition. Consequently, as an MA student I specialised in such medieval romance literature, and frequently confused my fellow students by seeing humour where they saw none. I think we read too many ancient texts with a straight face; I’d argue that medieval poems of brave knights are as funny as The Simpsons if you read them in a certain light.

Greg Jenner is a writer, historian and TV freelancer. He is best known as the Historical Consultant to the BBC’s comedy sketch show Horrible Histories, and has just written his first book – One Million Years In A Day – which will be published in 2015.

Dr Sarah Peverley

My love affair with the Middle Ages began as a child – I loved watching cartoons like Alias the Jester and listening to stories about King Arthur and Robin Hood – but the real ‘eureka’ moment came as an undergraduate studying Medieval Literature. Discovering the original texts that had inspired the stories I adored was incredible. The first time I read Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’arthur, I was left with an insatiable desire to know more about the imprisoned author and his world. I found the Wars of the Roses and never looked back

Dr Sarah Peverley is a Medievalist and a Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Liverpool. She was a 2013 BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker.

Dr Joanne Paul

I have always loved history, and from very early on it was the sixteenth century, the Tudor period, the Renaissance in England, which captivated me. I’ve also always been interested in politics, how we think about our world, its systems, and each other. In my final year of undergrad there was a definitely a eureka moment (unsurprisingly it was very late at night) when I realised I could – I should – study what I loved and what interested me – Renaissance political thought. Nowadays I can justify that decision, because I know that sixteenth century is this wonderful moment of thinking about politics, to which we can return for both insight into and critical reflection about our ways of thinking. But at the time it was definitely not the product of any sort of rational reflection; I simply wanted to study what I loved.

Dr Joanne Paul is a Lecturer in History at the New College of the Humanities and the author of an upcoming book on Sir Thomas More and his political works.

Adrian Teal

I first realised how close-knit society was in the 18th century when I started reading about HMS Bounty, the story of which seemed to show the Georgian age in microcosm. That world seemed to be run by coterie of adventurous movers and shakers on a powerful cocktail of schmoozing, patronage, and social climbing, and I felt compelled to discover more about these extraordinary and energetic personalities.

Adrian Teal is a national press cartoonist and the writer and illustrator of The Gin Lane Gazette. 

Simon Stirling

I grew up visiting Stratford-upon-Avon on a weekly basis, but it wasn’t until I was at drama school in London that I realised what a Mecca Stratford is for lovers of literature, theatre and history in general.  That’s when I knew I had to get to grips with Shakespeare and to understand the life and times – and works – of the man whose hometown I had come to know so well.

Simon Stirling is an historian, writer and author of Who Killed William Shakespeare? The Murderer, the Motive, the Means.

Melanie Backe-Hansen

My fascination with history first began when I was a child and was given a book on ‘The Middle Ages’ (plus winning first prize for my costume as a medieval lady at school), but my passion for the history of houses evolved over time, and was even developing before I really knew it. It came alive when I moved to England and I would often look up at houses and wonder – Who were the first people to live there? When was it built? What sort of people lived there 100 years ago? What was the street like when the house was first built? So, my interest in the social history of houses was already bubbling away when I was given my first ‘break’ and had the opportunity to pursue the study of house histories.

Melanie Backe-Hansen is an historian, author and speaker. She specialises in social history of houses and streets and is the author of the acclaimed books ‘House Histories: The Secrets Behind Your Front Door’ and ‘Historic Streets and Squares: The Secrets on Your Doorstep’ .

Amber Butchart

It wasn’t just one Eureka! moment I had, but a couple. I’d just finished my literature degree at King’s College London, and I had no idea what to do next. I’d always loved studying and didn’t know how to translate that into the outside world. Then one day I had a revelation – that my other love was clothes. I signed up for a pattern cutting course and got a job at my favourite shop, vintage store Beyond Retro. Within a year I’d become Head Buyer and was training other staff members in fashion history. I’d suddenly been able to combine my two greatest loves – research, and old clothes. Deciding to do an MA in History & Culture of Fashion at London College of Fashion was another Eureka! moment, as I translated my practical skills into academia, and had come full circle! I still lecture at the college today. Without that grounding in history, theory and practice I wouldn’t be doing all the things that I do today.

Amber Butchart is a fashion historian and author of Fashion Miscellany. Her next book Nautical Chic – a history of fashion on the high seas – will be published spring 2015.

Dr Angela McShane

2006AM9003_communion_cup1_overlay290A eureka moment for me, which led to my current interest in material culture studies, was back in 2004. I was still writing up my PHD on political broadside ballads, but was preparing for an interview to do 1 yrs teaching for the V&A/RCA History of Design course. I spotted a silver communion cup in the British Galleries that had literally been re-formed in 1575 from a Catholic Chalice. Suddenly it struck me that after the reformation, every catechised man, woman and child in England  – no matter how rich or poor – got to handle and drink from a precious cup at least three times a year. What an amazing shift in experience, one that was shared, by and large, by a whole nation. That realisation has inspired me to work on social history through material culture of the early modern everyday ever since.

Dr 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 .





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