You have recently been on television in a programme about the importance of books and the royal line in Anglo-Saxon England. How did you find the programme both as a historian and as a viewer? – I haven’t seen it, I have seen the second one, but not the first one cause I was away at the time, but we have recorded it, I did sneak a look at some of it on Iplayer where I could have it very, very small where I didn’t have to see myself blown up just to check that it was alright. The second programme I thought worked very well, Janina is a presenter who used to do some teaching here at the University, she is an art historian and I think she did it very well. The one I saw last time had some really stunning manuscripts, so I am looking forward to going to the exhibition, so yeah, I am all in favour of that sort of programmes that got sort of a high production value, and it makes what can see as a dreaded subject quite accessible to people, so I think people should contribute to things like this. Else we risk history becoming too narrow and specialized, so we need to get it out there and get people interested, and demanding that their children are taught history and that sort of thing.
What do you think has been the greatest challenge you have faced throughout your career in history and archaeology? – that is one of the more difficult questions, but if you are doing both teaching and research that is quite challenging, because you get pulled in different directions, and you get one load of things to do in respect to teaching and another you are also expected to publish. And keeping up with both areas are quite difficult, since you might be teaching a much broader area than your research, so there is a huge amount being produced, so when I first started here, I was teaching archaeology as well, and there wasn’t much published on Anglo-Saxon archaeology, so it was relatively easy to cover it when you had the background in it, but as the years has gone by there have been so much work in Anglo Saxon Archaeology I could not possibly keep up with that, and all the historical side I am covering as well, so I did drop some things, which now other lectures are teaching, which made things a bit easier, there are quite a lot of demands upon you when you are working in a university, you have to be a bit firm with yourself not to try to meet all those demands, and say you are going to stop now and say you are not going to do that anymore. Though it is hard to know when to stop, do you come into University from 9 to 5 and that’s it? or? You know you have to go home eventually; I have always tried not to work on the weekend and so on.
To what extent would you say that for the period in which you have specialised in, one needs to understand both archaeology and history to be able to create a fuller picture of the past? – Obviously it is needed, but its quit difficult to be an expert in both of them, so I get a bit worried when I read archaeology things and they do not include or fit in with the written evidence, and you get people working on the 5th and 6th century and extrapolating what the social structure might have been like without it bearing any resemblance to the earliest law codes. And I think that is a bit worrying, I think they’ve got to tie up, so you want to do that. And yes you can specialise on an area or another, but if you want to get the whole picture then you have to look upon both, well you will never get the whole picture for a period like that, but you can make a better text if you look at everything that is available. It is difficult to do, for they don’t always lead in the same direction, but that’s what is interesting and stimulating about it.
Would you say that king Alfred really was ‘the great’? – I think he was an quite exceptional person, you know unusual for his time, not afraid to study books which people often would laugh at, and being the boy who only wanted to study not to fight. However, on the other hand he was that sort of fighter as well, and he went out there and he lead the army, and it is very unusual to get someone who does that, but he is a great self-publicist as well, one of the quotes about him is; ‘we know that Alfred is great because he tells us so’. So there is a bit of that with him, so I think he often gets the credit for things that perhaps should be shared out among a greater range of Anglo Saxon kings, such as his son and brothers. In a way since he is such a well-known name it sort of snowballs from that, and there are many reasons why his reputation have always been higher than other Anglo Saxon kings. But after all he did choose a different life than what was expected of him, he moves out of the box in a way, for he could have chosen an easy life lying on the sofa taking it easy, but he is rather out there and wanted to find out more and he wanted to study so that’s very stimulating about him, when you look and see all the things that happened in his reign, such as laying the foundations of the Old English state, but it is very hard to see a lot of innovation in his reign. He’s got big ideas, but not always the means to put them into practice.
Part II of the interview ends here, but part III and IV will soon follow, in part III we are will hear what Barbara think of Asser and Bede, and how students might keep their motivation up.