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James Burge

James Burge

What first attracted you to the period or periods you work in?

My interest is in the Middle Ages, particularly the Twelfth Century. I think what first attracted me, in my school days, was sheer weirdness of the period: bizarre beliefs, arcane knowledge, alchemy, plagues, Gothic architecture. Later I came to realise that in addition to these things the Middle Ages is the starting point of the world we are in. Most of the issues and institutions which surround us now have their origins in the Middle Ages. And if you want to know why something is the way it is, look at how it began.

Can you tell us a little more about how you research? Has the process changed over the years?

No change. I am originally a television programme-maker so I am used to picking over the scrapheap of human culture in search of things I can reuse. I have learnt to do respectable academic research as well but at heart I am still a scavenger.

The common phrase is that history is written by the victors. Do you think this is true?

Yes. But of course the winners are not necessarily always the same people. The finger of history can move and point in a different direction. The losers now will be later to win.  And that’s how statues get pulled down.

Are there any historians who helped shaped your career? Similarly, can you recommend three history books which budding historians should read?

I have had a copy of Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for a long time and I dip into that. I like the feeling of confidence in the forthright assertions. And the massive scale of the project is so impressive. There is also the slightly perverse thrill that I get from the fact that this is “historical history” and therefore you don’t have to concern yourself too much about whether it is true. Its errors are in themselves historically interesting.

On the serious side I would recommend R. W. Southern’s The Making of the Middle Ages as one of the finest examples of considered, scholarly explanatory writing that you will find anywhere. Before the days when academics were judged by how many papers they published Southern apparently went for years at Balliol, gently learning and assessing and then just came up with this  masterpiece. It wouldn’t happen today.

No medieval library would be complete without Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages, a tour de force of cultural history and a feast for anyone who delights in medieval weirdness.

If you could meet any figure from history, who would it be and why? 

I think I would go for Francis of Assisi, but I would like to meet him before he was made a saint. He was a man of extraordinary talent and energy who lived through the early stages in the formation of the global economic system which we have today . He struggled with problems of wealth and inequality in his own time and I would just like to get his take on how things have turned out since then.

Also, if you could witness any event throughout history, what would it be?

I don’t think I would add anything but I would like to take something away – the Second World War. Well, perhaps not take it out entirely but reduce its dominance in school education. Although it is undoubtedly a worthwhile area of study it can too easily degenerate into a smug narrative of the victory of the virtuous. History should teach us how to get away from that sort of thing, not encourage it.

If you could give a piece of advice to your younger self, either as a student or when you first started out as a writer, what would it be?

Work harder, read more but above all write, write, write.

Can you tell us a little bit more about the project you are currently working on?

I am writing a novel set in Paris in 1122. It concerns the rise and fall of an esoteric cult which attracts huge popular support among the people of the fast-growing new city. Its eventual downfall makes the story what you might call a political thriller. The narrative also explains why it is that this particular cult has left no mark on the pages of history, unlike for example its contemporary organisation the Knights Templar. The more I work on the nature of the cult, though, the more I realise that I may actually be writing a book about love, sex and the meaning of life. Hope so.