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. He is obsessed with Twitter.
What is an historian?
This is one of those questions that should be really easy to answer, but it really isn’t. Much like people who vote for UKIP, historians are people who are unhealthily obsessed with how things used to be. We strive to understand what happened in the past, based on our interpretation of available evidence, but inevitably we are influenced by our own lives and times, and so our conclusions tend to be a reflection of modern concerns. So, to study history is often a subtle analysis of the here and now, though that’s not a popular view amongst my colleagues, as we sometimes like to imagine ourselves as objectively neutral scholars!
There is also a debate as to whether we are public servants, fulfilling a crucial role in educating others, which makes us sound like guardians of the past. This can be a bit problematic, as others might argue the past belongs to everyone, and shouldn’t be mediated via some elite class of professional custodian. For example, there’s been a huge amount of controversy in North America with Native Indian tribes having the reliability of their oral histories challenged by expert archaeologists and historians, and it can deeply problematic in such sensitive situations. In Britain, we see it more commonly with people who self-identify as pagan Druids, even though evidence for that religion is almost entirely modern.
What made you decide to pursue a career in history?
I just find it utterly fascinating. There is nothing on this planet that doesn’t have a story beginning somewhere else; we are just the latest in a succession of 107 billion humans and the world we inhabit is a vast assemblage of all the stuff that went before us – we inherit other people’s lives, and live in their legacy, so why wouldn’t we try to understand that better? I’m also really interested in people; when I meet someone new I am terribly rude and un-British because I love to quiz them about their opinions on all sorts of things. I’m terribly annoying!
What is the one history book you simply couldn’t do without?
I read about 250 books a year, and I don’t have a historical specialty anymore, so there isn’t one core text that I rely upon. There are definitely books I love, but I often haven’t read them in a decade, simply because I don’t have time. For me, I’m always in the search for new information – it’s a necessary hazard of working on Horrible Histories – but it is always interesting to revisit things from my student days and to see them with wiser eyes, having acquired more contextual knowledge since.
Do you have a favourite website for historical research (or procrastination)? Why?
I’m a big fan of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, because there are just so many amazing people I’ve never heard of! It’s a reminder that you can dedicate a lifetime to reading every history book you find, and you still won’t know even a tiny percentage of what can be known. It’s said that Aristotle and the Georgian polymath Thomas Young knew everything there was to know, but now that’s literally impossible. Wikipedia shows just how much information there is out there, and we’re constantly adding to it.
What is your favourite historical place?
I’ve been very lucky in my TV career to film in some extraordinary places – Westminster Abbey, Hampton Court, Stonehenge, Bronze Age Bulgarian tombs – but as a kid I just fell in love with Bodiam Castle in Kent. To me, it was a proper medieval castle with a real moat! The romance of that had a big impact on me, and it’s probably why I ended up as a medievalist at university.
You have a time machine for 24 hours, where do you go?
Ah, the Marty McFly dilemma! I’d love to spend a few hours in a pub with Shakespeare, just to see what made him tick. He had an extraordinary ability to capture the subtleties of human nature, and wrote such compelling female characters, so I’d definitely fire some annoying questions at him!
You have a new research project and a deadline. What is your normal working pattern?
I’m a workaholic with a Twitter addiction, which is not a healthy combo, so I tend to do 10-14 hour days, interrupted constantly by writing stupid jokes or playing pun-based word games. In the TV industry you get used to very high-pressure, short-term deadlines but I’ve just spent the past 14 months writing my first book, and that was a very strange experience because it was like switching from sprinting to long-distance running. After 10 months I was exhausted and starting to struggle with the creative process. I could still work long hours, but my mind was much less inventive. It was like I’d had a mild lobotomy!
Your period of expertise no longer exists. Which historical period would you research instead?
I’ve always been too interested in everything to focus on one thing properly. Even when I did my MA in Medieval Studies, I was still dabbling in archaeology, linguistics, anthropology and film studies. I regret my lack of Classical knowledge, and am working hard to improve that, but I’m totally in love with the 18th Century at the moment, as it was a time of tremendous ideological radicalism and revolution. I’d also love to do more research into the history of medicine – that’s such an interesting subject.
Why is history important today?
Well, the old adage is that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. This is very apt, but it doesn’t take into account the point I made earlier that each generation rewrites its history to correspond better to its own social mores, so we have to remember that the past and history are different things. The past is gone and is unknowable; history is merely our attempt to know it, so it is contingent on our own experiences now. This means learning from the past is complicated because we muddy the waters a bit.
But, of course, I’m not saying we shouldn’t try. Studying past failings can help us make better decisions as individuals or as nations, so it’s not a futile exercise. I think we just have to be careful about how emphatic we are in our assertions of truth and factual knowledge.
Finally, what is your best historical fact?
Ooh, there are loads! Horrible Histories is crammed full of them. I suppose people often like it when I recount the story of William the Conqueror’s bloated stomach exploding at his funeral, and the church catching fire. That is a properly grim story to capture the imaginations of kids!
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