I get the sense, from reading your own book, that you feel that history as we learn it in school—in other words, what many of us think of as history—is quite boring.
I’m not sure it’s boring. There are lots of exciting things you can study: different periods, exciting reigns, changes taking place. But I guess, even as a young boy, I felt that things were set up wrong because, at school, I learned about Henry VIII three or four times and the Battle Hastings and the First World War repeatedly.
Then, I would come home from school and watch the news and everything I was watching on TV was about Soviet missile deployment into eastern Germany or the revolution in Iran or Vietnamese boat people or the Khmer Rouge or Apartheid. I couldn’t quite understand why these parts of the world were headline news and I wasn’t being taught about them. Surely I needed to understand why people were pointing nuclear bombs at us and why there were these big crises in other parts of the world?
That started me off—even when I was very young—thinking about what history means. I do understand that you have to understand your own family, your own backyard, first. Everyone starts with themselves at the centre of the world. I start my book by talking about maps: everyone puts themselves right in the middle. If you’re a child growing up today in Shanghai, it doesn’t have London at the centre of the world as it does if you live here in the UK.
“I think reconfiguring how we think about geography, how we think about history, and how we think about international relations is hugely important in a world that we keep on being told is globalised.”
That focus in history is relentless. It’s suffocating that you can leave a school in the US and only know about US or western history. And then, what you do know about other parts of the world—say China—would probably be about Mao. That would teach you that Chinese people are violent, rather than learning about China’s dynasties and achievements.
Likewise, when you learn about the Middle East, you learn about dislocation and fracture—rather than about the fact that, for 1000 years, this was the engine room of scholarship and culture.
And I think reconfiguring how we think about geography, how we think about history, and how we think about international relations is hugely important in a world that we keep on being told is globalised, where we can travel and exchange information quickly.
So I’m trying to work out how to broaden that appeal. I’m not a hectoring academic who insists that people have got it wrong or should follow my lead. It just seems to me entirely natural that there are parts of the world that we should look at, that we don’t.
Books like yours, that have an extremely broad sweep, seem to be very popular at the moment. There’s also Yuval Harari’s book, Sapiens, which puts the human race in perspective. Like you, I learned about the Tudors multiple times at school, but I never did find out when the human race started. I think there’s a thirst for it, maybe.
History will tell you that there’s always a thirst and a search for prophets at a time when there’s turbulence and transition. Part of it is that the world suddenly seems to us to be very unusual, very uncertain, and very unfamiliar. We read about the growing Chinese economy, we see challenges between India and Pakistan suddenly flaring up again, the rising Indian economy, we see the Middle East in movement and migration from the Middle East and Africa. Then you have Trump in the States. This feels like a very uncertain time. People also want to read because they suddenly feel that they need to understand better.
Having said that—I’m not going to lie to you—on a day-to-day basis when I go to drinks parties and I explain what it is I do, people’s general reaction is either their eyes glaze over or they have a look of absolute panic because they can’t talk about anything to do with the Persian empires or Russia pre-Putin (apart from the Russian Revolution) or about south Asia or China. So, my personal anecdotal experience is that no one would buy my book because people don’t want to read about these parts of the world.
“All this talk about fake news annoys me. Fake news is as old as the written word.”
And, in fact, in faculties like mine, most of my colleagues work on Europe or Europe’s experience with other parts of the world. I think in the US it’s more of the same. More than 90% of history faculties work on the West—whatever that means—and that seems completely crazy when 70-80% of the world’s population is based elsewhere.
But I suppose that at a Chinese university in, say, Beijing, they’ll be studying their own “very long” history, as they refer to it.
It’s not uncomplicated, because China has been through periods of great transition, particularly over its understanding of its own past, in the last 100 years. One cannot overestimate what a revolution does to the intellectual life of a country.
It’s been an interesting last three decades, where China is clearly trying to understand very aggressively the world around it. The silk roads that are now being built are the signature economic and foreign policy of President Xi’s government. They want to reconnect these trade routes and exchanges across the spine of Asia that were very effective connectors for millennia.
My own book is not about China very much. The reason it’s gone to number one there—and is being read out on the evening news—is to show to China how important it is to understand other people’s cultures, other people’s religions, how other people have connected, and what the downsides of instability are.
China, in a way, is very receptive to trying to make sense of the world, which makes it feel very different to us in Britain, where we are obsessed with Brexit and what’s going on in our own continent—and completely ignoring change in large parts of the world.
One of the things I really like about your book is the use of details as a way of telling history. For example, I loved the bit with the Roman emperor, Diocletian, talking about his cabbages. He’s a Roman emperor living hundreds of years ago, and yet what he’s thinking about turns out to be not too different from the stuff going through our own heads.
Yes, and his edict that lists the taxes on different types of shoes! It’s like going to an outlet village, there are so many different kinds of footwear people were wearing. When we think about the Romans, we don’t often think about fashions or hairstyles and haircuts.
There are a couple of sculptures in the Ashmolean Museum that I sometimes take my children to. I used to hate going to museums as a child, because we’d spend hours in there. But sometimes we go in and look at just one thing. One statue has a proper 1970s Afro hairstyle and there is a guy next to him in the Cast Gallery who has got George Michael c. 1990 stubble etched into his face. And you think, how did fashions move around? Would people have said, ‘That’s a hipster’ or ‘That guy spends too much time thinking about his hair’?
Our ancestors were not so very different to us and that comes as a shock when you study history. In classrooms it tends to be about great leaders—normally men—and lots about battles, warfare, and political change.
“More than 90% of history faculties work on the West—whatever that means—and that seems completely crazy when 70-80% of the world’s population is based elsewhere.”
It is important for historians to get the big picture but when you get close, the detail has to be there. So, if you want to know how staircases changed in Venice in the 1600s, or about the prices of wool in Amsterdam, or what was being written in Isfahan or Tabriz 700-800 years ago, the footnotes are all there in my book and you can drill down. A bit like a work of art, it looks equally detailed close up as it does from afar.
Sometimes big picture books can lose that detail. There are a lot of half-truths, lots of things that are broadly right, but actually need to be qualified.
The trick, of course, is to write a book that is readable. I try and flag up where there are disputes or where things are complex or where there are scholarly debates, and leave it in the footnotes for people to follow up. As you know, it’s a highbrow book but it shouldn’t be too hard. Mary Beard called it, “perfect poolside reading.” I need to buy her drinks next time I see her, to say thank you for that.
Let’s go through the books you’ve chosen. First on your list is The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov, the Russian playwright and short story writer.
I used to spend my summer holidays in Sweden in the middle of the woods with a lake and my grandfather—who died before I was born—had a collection of Russian novels in lots of different languages. He was multilingual. One summer, when I was 14 or 15 and bored out of my mind, I picked up a book by the 19th century author Turgenev and I fell in love with Russia. I fell in love with Russian music, architecture, history and literature. I was very lucky that I went to a school that had a Russian teacher.
When I was 15 or 16, I found Chekhov for the first time. The Cherry Orchard captures—more than any book that I’ve ever read—this period of transition where the world is changing. Half of the characters are in complete denial. Lopakhin is the great merchant whose fortunes have transformed him from the lowest of the low to being able to buy the places where his family used to be indentured.
And yet—despite that sense of change and the denial and these beautiful themes—what Chekhov didn’t know when he wrote it is that Russia’s glorious opening to the future was about to implode with war and then revolution. It has these hopes and fears and misgivings and the end point is that it all ended in disaster. It was a great moment in Russian history. So, as a kind of period piece that captures Russia in the late 19th, early 20th century, it’s the most poignant text I’ve ever read.
“You learn much more about Russia before the revolution by reading The Cherry Orchard than you will by studying the tsar and his land reforms or other decisions made in St Petersburg by the leadership.”
False dawns have been persistent in Russian history. There’s another one in the 1920s when art and literature and music explode, and then Stalin represses it. It comes again after the great sacrifice of the Second World War and with Khrushchev taking over after Stalin. There’s a process of liberalisation that is, again, kneecapped. And, in a way, in the early 1990s again, when Russians started to arrive in London. Oligarchs kept our property market afloat here by buying football clubs and buying mansions. We have failed to understand Russia in the modern age too. We have a cartoon-like view of what we think Putin is really like and what Russia’s interests and designs are.
The Cherry Orchard doesn’t just capture a period of Russian history but captures the Russian soul, which is a big thing in Russian literature: the ‘dushá.’ I picked it because it was a hugely formative text in my life. That text turned me into a Russianist. It turned me into someone who wanted to study Russian at university and now, with the things I work on, I read Russian every day. I have a great deal to thank Chekhov for.
I think that’s quite interesting for people thinking about studying history, that actually your path down a particular area of historical study might start not with a history book, but by falling in love with a piece of literature.
Yes. In fact, I didn’t do history at ‘A’ Level. I loved history but you need to be able to read other languages to be able to read other sources. Otherwise you’re stuck with English spies in World War II. I picked English literature instead because I realised, even as a teenager, that you need to understand how to read texts. Sometimes historians can make the mistake, when reading something, that because it’s old it’s truthful.
All this talk about fake news annoys me. Fake news is as old as the written word. People sometimes spread fake news because they’re mistaken, sometimes it’s for propaganda, or sometimes it’s to intentionally mislead. But there is no such thing as objective truth— everyone is trying to write things how they see the world or events. As historians, we do the best we can to detach ourselves from biases. Sometimes we don’t. That process of learning how to read is very important.
Literature is a way through to history and understanding the past. It asks different kinds of questions. I think you learn much more about Russia before the revolution by reading The Cherry Orchard than you will by studying the tsar and his land reforms or other decisions made in St Petersburg by the leadership. I think that’s important for historians—to not always be thinking about some guy at the top and power.
Number 2 on your list is De Administrando Imperio, written by the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII.
In my last year at Cambridge, I wanted to do a paper on early Russia. Russia and Ukraine—as they are now—are formed by Scandinavian traders who come into contact with the near East. We think of the Vikings as being interested in heading to Newfoundland or coming out of the mists to ransack the British Isles. But the really smart, ambitious Vikings all headed down the Russian river systems into the Black Sea to trade with the East. You don’t learn about that in school.
I had never learnt anything about the Byzantine Empire before, but my professor, Jonathan Shepard—who is a genius—introduced me to this world where Christianity and Islam sat side-by-side. You have the Caucasian countries which we don’t think of as being important—and yet if you ever do something wrong in the States, you’re going to hear ‘We’re looking for a Caucasian male’ over the police radio. We don’t ever think about why.
“We use the word ‘Byzantine’ to mean smoke and mirrors and shady dealing, when, in fact, it’s the most single successful political entity in history.”
So, there’s this world of exchange from China to the Mediterranean, from the Persian Gulf up to Scandinavia. And Western Europe was a bystander. It was completely irrelevant—not just in terms of trade but also in terms of scholarship and ideas.
The Byzantine Empire lasted more than a thousand years and was multilingual, multi-ethnic and multiregional. The Byzantines managed to work out an administrative system that the European Union could actually learn quite a lot from. We use the word ‘Byzantine’ to mean smoke and mirrors and shady dealing, when, in fact, it’s the most single successful political entity in history. That revelation was fantastically exciting.
The De Administrando was written not at its peak moment but in the 10th century. It’s a very complicated text. I love it because it’s a series of chapters that may or may not have been written at the same time. They have lots of gaps in them and we need to work out why. It’s a real enigma that requires difficult answers.
But it has in it, for example, long sections on the routes taken by Viking traders as they came south. It records the names of the different rocks where they could smash their heads and where they would have their rests. It shows CIA-style intelligence gathering thousands of years ago and thousands of miles from Constantinople.
It’s the sophistication of this world—and how the same sorts of questions are being asked: ‘How can you manage the arrival of a new threat? What benefits might they bring? How do you manage to play people off against each other to your benefit? How do you build a network of connections’?
“The Byzantines managed to work out an administrative system that the European Union could actually learn quite a lot from.”
It has been seen, by some scholars, as an intelligence manual to be studied and read by operatives before they went out into the field. That’s probably a little bit simplistic but it’s a fantastically rich, beautiful text.
The book starts off with the emperor saying ‘This, my son, is to explain to you how the world is all connected and who everybody is.’ It’s a kind of history book and the kind of thing, probably, that we should give our children today: ‘Here’s the history of the world, this is what you need to know, here are the people who pose a threat and I’ll explain to you why. I can’t necessarily tell you how to deal with them but here are a set of answers that you can give in a series of set circumstances.’
It’s a text I first came across 25 years ago. It’s like my laptop and my iTunes folder, something that I cherish. I love picking it up and looking at it. There’s a sense of humour going through it too.
It’s the introductory text for anybody studying the Byzantine Empire and yet no one has ever heard of it. Constantine VII is called ‘Porphyrogenitus’ which means ‘born in the purple’. If you were the son or daughter of a ruling emperor, you were born in a purple marble chamber. You were extra important if you weren’t just heir to the throne, but your father was the emperor before you and was ruling at the time.
Let’s look at the next book on your list, which is The Alexiad by Anna Komnene.
It’s a bit cheeky to get another Byzantine text in there. I met my wife at Cambridge and the first time we had coffee she asked me where gender, kinship, religion and ritual fit into my work. I was absolutely floored–I couldn’t answer it. I’m not stupid enough to argue a lost cause so I said it wasn’t really something I’d ever thought about. I wouldn’t say she radicalized me, as I come from a family of very strong female figures, but…
There are several jewels of medieval Greek literature but Anna Komnene’s is probably the brightest. She was the daughter of one of the emperors—she was porphyrogenita—and it is the first narrative history written by a woman in any European language. It’s a text that is incredibly florid, very beautiful, and extremely interesting.
What’s it about?
It describes a world from about the 1080s onwards—the time of the first Christian response to the Islamic expansion, of the First Crusade. It describes credit crunches and quantitative easing—the same sort of things we have today. It talks about foreign relations and how to try and reinvigorate a Brexit-type world where peripheral regions are splitting off and being led into disaster by lunatics.
It’s written by a woman and it’s therefore interesting in its own right, but the most interesting thing about it is that because it’s written by a woman, historians have completely ignored and misunderstood it. Edward Gibbon wrote that it betrayed the vanity of a female author on every page. It’s simply dismissed, with people saying it’s overly eulogistic praise of a ruler by an adoring daughter who is trying to make her father sound good.
In fact, when I wrote a book about the First Crusade—which was heralded as ‘overturning a millennium of scholarship,’ a great thing to have on my tombstone—the doyen of Crusader historians wrote a very nice review but then said, ‘You can’t take anything this text said seriously because it was written by an old woman living in a convent.’
“Even though, in today’s world, we think people who go and commit acts of violence in the service of their God as being incredibly dangerous, we still glamourize the Crusaders.”
But the material that is used by Crusader historians is all written by old men living in monasteries, thousands of miles away from the action. She was an eyewitness at all these events. She had access to the imperial library, she used letters written by and to her father, imperial documents. Not only did she have the archival material, but she met these people herself.
Because her text isn’t written in chronological order, it has flummoxed scholars for the last thousand years. It’s about rehabilitating a text like that and understanding it.
The title, The Alexiad, is a direct nod to The Iliad. She’s much better read than I am, so she’s quoting Homer and Hesiod and Plutarch and other classical authors, with lots of in-jokes and nods and puns. Although my Greek is good, you can’t always see those. Every single sentence has got some juice in it and if you can’t see it, it’s because you’re not smart enough.
When I started doing my PhD research on it, I thought, ‘I’m going to write on an interesting book written by a woman and gender is going to be important here.’ In fact, it allowed me to completely reconfigure the background to the Crusades—which is the single most written about thing in history apart from World War I, World War II and the Tudors.
We tend to think of the Crusades as a Christian response to the Islamic conquests. But the city of Jerusalem fell to the Muslims 450 years before the Crusades. Where was the Christian response? If we really thought it was that serious, why did it take nearly 500 years for there to be a military reply?
I was very lucky working on this text because you could re-place events in a different order. Sometimes Anna deliberately gets them wrong, or makes a mistake. She says, ‘Look I’ve got lots of material in front of me, I’m not entirely sure what happened and when.’
That gave me the confidence to realise that you can actually go and tackle these sources head-on. You can go and read the Arabic, the Armenian and the Syriac sources on the Crusades—which nobody ever does because we’re too engaged with the knight-on-a-white-horse-fighting-for-his-faith. Even though, in today’s world, we think people who go and commit acts of violence in the service of their God as being incredibly dangerous, we still glamourize the Crusaders.
Who was Alexius?
Her father. He takes the throne at a moment of complete chaos. There has been a collapse of the economy and politics and there’s huge military pressure all around. He stabilises it. Part of it is through building relationships with Baghdad, part is through connections with Cairo into the Caucasus, with Russia and the West.
But it’s a work of literature as well, you don’t need to know anything about the history to enjoy it. Anna is a very human author. She does intervene and say, ‘this is what I think.’ Or she’ll get to the end of a section and go, ‘The people who caused these kinds of problems are like dogs who return to eat their own vomit.’
Anna reminds us—as with our Brexit discussions here—that there are people who will be destructive and turbulent without thinking what the consequences are. There are ways of trying to understand and intervene and try to provide a guide, to say ‘Look, this is what happened and it had long term disastrous consequences for us.’
You talk about her as if you know her.
I translated The Alexiad for Penguin Classics. I probably translated that more than ten years ago now. It was a very sobering experience, as it’s quite a long text. I’m very proud I did it, but it was not the most pleasurable thing I’ve ever done. It’s like dealing with something incredibly fragile because it’s very hard to do justice to someone else’s voice. You have to learn how to listen, you have to learn how to render it into English, you have to learn how to carry those allusions, and you learn, I think, how to be a historian.
That was a particular building block in my ability to both read history but also to write it: how do you convey things? What should the author’s role be in a text?
But it’s absolutely fascinating. It’s tells you about a world that we should know a lot about because Alexius’s problems, that Anna writes about, are the same kind of problems that we’re dealing with today: What should you do with militant fundamentalists who set fire to churches or murder priests? How do you best deal with regimes nearby who are potentially volatile and unstable? And they also had migration crises—the population of big cities, what kind of mercy should they show to outsiders who are either from the same country or from different languages or backgrounds?
The Alexiad is a kind of golden book for me. It was a very successful period in the Byzantine world. That’s why I sneaked it in too.
Let’s talk about the Voyage to the Volga Bulgars by Ibn Fadlan next. Who was he? What was he doing?
Between about 700 and about 1400, the intellectual centre of the world was nowhere near Europe. You’ve got a bit of Bede and, I suppose, Aquinas, who builds on Aristotle. Aristotle comes to Aquinas through Grosseteste, but above all via Anna Komnene. She commissions commentaries on Aristotle and these texts start to arrive back with the Crusades.
The fundamental intellectual superpowers of the world were in China, in the Khmer world, in South Asia, and in the great Islamic empire. And in places like Samarkand, Bukhara, Herat, Damascus, and Mosul. That’s where all scholars flocked to—from whatever background, whatever nationality, and from whatever religion.
Ibn Fadlan was an ambassador who was sent to go and explore the north. The lateral world of exchange between Baghdad, at the centre of the world—along the silk roads towards China and the Mediterranean and the Gulf and the Indian ocean—was mostly urban and sophisticated. There was good order, there were laws, there were passport controls. Your ethnicity was always recorded and what you were carrying was recorded. It was hugely bureaucratic.
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The north was filled with people who didn’t, by and large, live in cities, partly because of the harsher climate, which made it harder to live off the land. He was sent to go and explore who lived there and what they had to offer. And since Herodotus, that lip above the Black and Caspian Seas—the Steppe belt that eventually carried the Mongols—had been filled with all sorts of different peoples, mostly tribal peoples. They reared their sheep and, above all, their horses, which they sold into the sedentary world. The horse was the engine of movement and trade.
So in the early 10th century, Ibn Fadlan is sent on a mission to Vulgar Bulgaria, which is a long way into the north of Russia. He reports on all the different peoples he meets on the way.
I suppose it feels like I know him as well. Every time he meets people, he doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He meets people who pluck lice from their own pubic hair, crush it under their skin, say ‘yum’ and look at him and wait for his response. He doesn’t know whether they’re doing it specifically to unsettle him, to test him, or whether that’s how some of these people live.
He gets to people who worship frogs or have a giant phallus around their neck, or others who worship cranes. He is gathering this information and explaining the world he sees, trying as hard as he can not to be judgemental. It’s a kind of early anthropology.
How accurate and reliable it is is, perhaps, a different story, but it’s a world where knowledge and gathering information is important. It’s a kind of Arabic equivalent of the De Administrando period, describing a world beyond the palaces and bathhouses of Baghdad. It’s paying interest and attention to people who may or may not be important or useful and trying to learn and find out about them.
We forget that, as animals, human beings are very curious about each other. Ibn Fadlan is trying to explain who all these people are. When he arrives in Vulgar Bulgaria, someone says, ‘I’m a Muslim already because we had a doctor here who I think was Muslim and he converted me’ and recites a prayer.
Ibn Fadlan is thrilled. There’s the concept from the Qur’an of the ‘Ummah’—the community of all believers together. But he also notices that when they bang their foot or step on something by mistake they all invoke the Sun god of the Nomad world. He recognises that people will say what they need to say, rather than necessarily be accurate.
He is a man who is trying to make sense out of complicated, difficult things. He’s on a diplomatic mission, so there are bound to be things that he omitted—because diplomats always leave out uncomfortable things.
It’s a text that’s filled with humour, of a man describing a world that is unknown. And I suppose that’s a theme for me, looking at different parts of the world that have important significance and value and yet get overlooked because we’re always staring at our own reflection in the mirror.
Which ruler was he representing?
The Caliph, the leader of the Islamic world, was based in Baghdad. Islam rises in the Arabian Peninsula, in Mecca and Medina, but the engine room moves very quickly, after Mohammed’s death, to places like Damascus and Mosul and Baghdad – that bit right at the heart of the world, because that bit controls east-west, west-east, north-south and beyond.
Ibn Fadlan’s modern equivalent would be an American ambassador reporting back from Beijing or from Kazakhstan, or a British diplomat calling back in from Tehran, saying, ‘here are these people, this is why we need to work out how to deal with them, here’s what they eat, here’s how they live, here’s the things that they think are interesting and important, and this how we try and get on with them.’
I interviewed a Viking historian and she said that some of the myths about what Vikings did—like burning their dead on ships—came from Ibn Fadlan.
There’s lots of that sort of stuff—that the Vikings are all tall as willows etc. He’s not the only one who’s thrown us a dummy. There are lots of Arab writers who are commenting on the Vikings and talking about their tattoos and explaining how they use sex and treat their women.
One thing that is important to know about the Viking trade is that, in Europe, we were interested in it for things like lapis for our art, gold, silver and precious metals, and, eventually, books and ideas. But we have absolutely nothing to sell. We don’t have any precious metals. We’re good at growing crops, that’s about it. We have to work hard as a result, and that’s maybe why we fight so much.
What we do have a lot of is women and children. And the scale of human trafficking through the Viking world was huge. Again, there’s a corrective here because, when we think of slavery, we only think about the slave trade from Africa to the Americas.
“Eventually, the Vikings start to build cities. They start off as trading stations and eventually become cities—places like Novgorod and Smolensk and Kiev. All of them have a street called ‘Slave Street’.”
In fact, slavery has been a human condition for a very, very long time indeed. Our ability and willingness to enslave is not just to do with skin colour, it’s not just to do with a particular moment of Europe’s history where we can round up millions of less-well defended Africans and ship them to work for free, killing millions in the process.
It’s about the fact that by and large, no one has really thought that there is a problem with enslaving until very recently. And that should warn us as to why, in many parts of the world, slavery still hasn’t been eradicated and human trafficking is still a major problem—even within the continent of Europe.
So, some of what we know about the Vikings and their activities comes from Ibn Fadlan. But you can find backup through sources like silver coins or from rune stones, such as in Lake Mälaren outside Stockholm. They’ll talk, for example, about the death of Ingvar who headed south and made a fortune for himself and died in Serkland, which was the land of the Saracens.
Eventually, the Vikings start to build cities. They start off as trading stations and eventually become cities—places like Novgorod and Smolensk and Kiev. All of them have a street called ‘Slave Street’. They start to become stable environments where, actually, they have their own commercial needs that start to evolve away from slave trading.
Last on the list you have ‘Assorted Conference Papers’. Tell me more.
When you write a book that is very visible like mine has been—and I’ve been very grateful and humbled by that—you suddenly get lots of exciting invitations. From the outside, it’s all very exciting and glamorous.
The truth is that the nuts and bolts of being an academic—outside the teaching—are hours and hours in libraries and heading to conferences which, annoyingly, quite often take place at the weekends. It’s often a bit scattergun: people are gathered together under a big broad heading of whatever the conference might be about and they’ll give their own two cents about things that may overlap a little bit with what you say and think, or perhaps not at all.
Every now and again, you get a conference that’s absolutely in the sweet spot—say on Anna Komnene—but that’s very rare.
But all these brilliant men and women are presenting papers at the cutting edge of their field. These papers then get put into conference volumes which are really only of interest to other scholars. No one is going to buy a copy of a series of the proceedings of a conference we’ve held here in Oxford, or it’s very unlikely.
But that kind of research is what allows the humanities to keep moving forward. We don’t shout out about that enough. Sometimes people don’t understand what we do in universities. We don’t explain why the humanities are important. We’re about to lose 30% of our funding into subjects like Classics and history—which comes from the EU. The National Endowment for the Humanities in the US is also scheduled for collapse. There’s pressure on the humanities across the world.
“The truth is that the nuts and bolts of being an academic—outside the teaching—are hours and hours in libraries and heading to conferences which, annoyingly, quite often take place at the weekends.”
We do, sometimes, need to remember that it’s all very well investing in the military and spending lots of money on drones and jetfighters and missiles. But you need to have analysts and people who are able to do the kind of work that historians do—listening in real time to people who are going to be potential threats but also offer opportunities.
Those conference volumes—which I’ve contributed to quite a lot of—are slightly thankless. They take years to come out, it’s a very slow process, and publishers don’t sell many copies so they usually get sold for 90-100 quid a go which means even fewer people will read them. It’s a real shame.
But there’s a real pleasure in reading conference proceedings because the articles are so detailed and so narrowed down that you see what it is people are choosing to spend their life doing.
Give me an example, of one that got you really excited.
There’s one about Zoroastrians—an ancient Persian religion—who are dualists and see the world as divided by the two fundamentals of light and darkness or good and evil. We’ve started to find evidence of the dissemination of Zoroastrian ideas in western China about 1,200 to 1,300 years ago. We can pick that up from assessing lots of different Chinese sources—there’ll be whispers in one or two of them—a few cave carvings, a few little bits of evidence that, when pulled together, indicate that there are ideas that are spreading.
We know there are these ideas, so it’s understandable that, as people move, they bring words and ideas and beliefs with them. It’s entirely what you’d expect to find. But like a good police investigation, you need to have the forensic evidence to prove it.
“Even today, you have people saying that the problems in the Middle East are all to do with Osama bin Laden and the intervention in Iraq. But Western policy in the Middle East has been a disaster for over one hundred years.”
Something like that is probably not going to make headline news or result in you being asked to come to the White House to give a talk—but without all that work, we’d fall apart as the humanities.
So, it’s great to write visible books that get read and it’s a wonderful thing for all historians that anybody’s book gets read because it means more books get commissioned and published. But, having said that, the nitty-gritty of what we do in the scholarly community is communing with each other to nudge the edges further forward.
I’ve had a once in a lifetime opportunity to say, ‘Maybe we should look at history in a different way,’ but that doesn’t come along often.
I was at a Princeton University Press lecture in London about the “usefulness of useless knowledge.” The head of the Institute for Advanced Study was talking about how academics contribute and he said that, in a way, they can’t be relevant to policy making. The whole point is that they’re doing something that is not related to practical stuff. But then, at the same time, you have this issue of also needing to have outreach.
For example, before the financial crisis, theoretical economists did have models suggesting it was a dangerous situation, but policymakers didn’t know about them. Or, in the part of the world you study: before the invasion of Iraq most people who knew a lot about Iraq thought going in was a very bad idea. But they were ignored. How do you get the balance right?
The States is much better at that than we are. There is a plug-in through the think tanks and lobby groups. It’s not necessarily an open door, but it’s much looser on the hinges, and you can get heard. Still, it’s all very well saying that you should listen, but you need to judge by the results. And, it has to be said, that interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria and so on have not gone particularly well.
But I remember, a few years ago, talking to a senior minister here in the UK involved with science and technology and engineering. He said, slightly patronisingly, ‘It’s important that we also have the humanities and subjects like yours [i.e. Byzantine history] that have no purpose at all.’ And I said ‘Okay tell me who you listen to who can explain Russia, Ukraine, the Caucuses, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, central Asia, and China?’
Now there’s this polarization over Brexit, with Michael Gove saying we’ve had ‘enough of experts.’ What that really means is that we should just shake the dice and gamble on what happens next.
It’s true that, as experts, we don’t feel comfortable pushing ourselves to get listened to. By and large we have some degree of humility. We can give you our opinions, but what you do with them is a different story. And it’s much easier to be observing than actually leading policy with incredibly difficult and complicated decisions to make.
“‘Okay tell me who you listen to who can explain Russia, Ukraine, the Caucuses, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, central Asia, and China?’”
But that doesn’t mean this knowledge is pointless. For example, in my view, what should have happened in 2003, in Iraq, is that the US State Department and the FCO should have gathered every British historian who had worked on the denazification of Germany. That was a clear example of the rebuilding of a state and a clue to how deep you had to go to purge Saddam Hussein’s inner circle.
They ripped out the entire Ba’ath Party! Whereas in 1945, they were looking at how much of the Gestapo and the SS you had to get rid of. How many people have to face justice? Who do you leave running the security services and the economy? There’s no win-win. In the 1940s, in Britain, there was real tension between people who felt it was wrong to allow former Nazi Party members to be in high-ranking positions, and the practicalities. i.e. Which is worse? A failed state that may pave the way to anarchy and the Soviet threat? Or is it better to square the circle? You need to use these examples from history.
Even today, you have people saying that the problems in the Middle East are all to do with Osama bin Laden and the intervention in Iraq. But Western policy in the Middle East has been a disaster for over one hundred years! You need to start joining up the dots.
All the authors that I’ve mentioned here—from the De Administrando or The Alexiad or Ibn Fadlan or Chekhov—were acutely aware that in the grand run of history there are big transitional moments that need to be understood within a context. In 2017, we’re all waiting for the world to return to normal, and what normal means is that the economy grows, we’re all happy, we all get rich, there aren’t any threats anywhere, and the West gets to lead without all these other annoying people all over the world.
I think we passed the tipping point ages ago: the Age of Asia isn’t beginning, it’s begun. These birthing pains that we’re seeing in the Middle East are a sign of a new world when the West looks much less relevant. And, in a way, Brexit, Trump, and this isolationist zeitgeist—a world where we, in the West, think we can be better off on our own—is a very logical response to that. The historian recognises those processes of walls coming up because that disengagement is a way of shutting up the shop.
But that’s difficult to see if you only start with the First World War, the Somme, and US hegemony. The bigger challenge I have in the States is explaining that there is a world that the United States needs to study, beyond the geographic US, while also understanding how the US rose. US independence was directly linked to what was happening in central Asia and above all in India. If you can’t see how the butterfly wings work, then you can’t understand science. History is the same.
Interview by Sophie Roell