A worms-Eye view of history: EPOCH interviews Nick Barratt
Interview by Louis Pulford | Lancaster University
Issue 01 - September 2020
s the author of Restless Kings, The Forgotten Spy, and Guide to Your Ancestor’s Lives, presenter of Who Do You Think You Are?, and founder of Sticks Research Agency, Nick Barratt has attributed a wealth of experience working in both academic and public history. He kindly agreed to discuss his career, the public’s fascination with genealogical history, and his views on the future of our discipline and its role in the modern world with EPOCH:
L.P. : You have had a very varied and multifaceted career. Starting with looking at medieval pipe rolls and finances, through to being one of the big names in genealogical history. To get started, in your own words could you explain to us how that developed?
N.B. : Really, I'm glad you avoided the word chequered career because people often use that with my meandering path through different fields and institutions. It's a really hard question to answer because it's always felt right when to move on to the next thing. I still have an incredible passion for medieval history, and I'm so disappointed I've not had the chance to present papers this year that I've been writing and working on. I have never lost that passion for the arcane and archaic mechanics of the Exchequer. There's so much more we can do that is so important. I still have that sense of ‘follow the money’ in everything that I do and that was ingrained in me when I started looking at the records and trying to understand firstly, how it worked, but also what the money was telling us about the ability of administrators and Kings to exert power. So, I guess that approach to history has stuck with me throughout and whenever I've gone into a different field, I always try to apply that and get into the accounts, understand how the money was spent, what does that mean in terms of the power? How is the money spent in terms of house history? Where does money flow in terms of wheels looking for people? I guess the other thing is that I'm just naturally curious or naturally zipping onto the next thing before the first thing is finished, but I love exploring the past for various reasons. It is about storytelling. I do like spinning a yarn every now and again, but that ability to be able to look at a bunch of random stuff and bring it together into a narrative that you can then present and possibly defend and be challenged on lends itself to the media and also what I'm trying to do now, which is to get more people telling their stories.
I'm passionate about the fact that so much history throughout the course of human experience has been written by the privileged elite and actually it's the voices of the everyday folk that often get airbrushed out, so we don't get the true story emerging. That's often because the records that are kept are pre-selected to define what people wanted to say by keeping them in that particular way. I'm really struck by the records at the National Archives. The war historians were appointed to select which Army records would go in. It was often around massaging evidence to provide the official war history of the First World War. So, you are already determining what you wanted the sources to tell you, so that you could select them and get rid of the rest, and we don't often, as historians, perhaps challenge that.
That's why I'm so keen on genealogy, microhistory, call it what you will. That worm's eye view up as well as the top down view, you have to have two parts, otherwise you're not getting the true picture, and I think that's where some of the challenges that we face today, with the proliferation of channels and media to explain and share our experiences are going to be posed to the historians of the future. But coming back, I'm just naturally curious and I like exploring and sticking my nose into the areas where the stories are.
L.P. : I'm intrigued by what you said about how much you enjoy telling stories of people who don't normally get acknowledged by the top down approach to history. What are the methodological differences between that traditional method and the process of researching, uncovering, and constructing the stories of those stories that haven’t been so diligently recorded?
N.B. : Firstly, reflecting on medieval history and the traditional focus on the elite. The records are actually stuffed full of everyday folk, maybe not quite on the ground, but certainly in the locality. Thinking back to the pipe rolls and the general ayres that were conducted throughout the 12th and 13th centuries, royal justice was the opportunity to break out from your local administration by paying some money, so you’d have to have a certain amount of status, but the names of those individuals are captured and you can then start to get into some of the nitty gritty of the manorial administration and their local lives, and it's all there. But we don't give it the significance, and in many ways, I think that's the challenge with micro history or genealogy. We all like a grand story or a dramatic finish, and in many ways, that's why programs like Who Do You Think You Are? often avoid the humble agricultural labourer. What do they do all day? They worked in the fields. Why does that make a good TV show? It doesn't. But actually, it's the experience of most people and we are saying that that experience doesn't matter. But now I think we're coming back to understand it.
The challenge is providing enough detail to give that person back their identity, their personality, the nuances of their life, because the way we have created, and curated records tends to lead to a focus on those on the margins that were picked up by the state. Thinking of some of the grand Victorian record keeping which brought more people before us today in terms of census returns, civil registration, it's often those marginalized, the Poor Law Records for example, which document the people put into an institution because they can't be captured elsewhere, through the generosity of their families, because of the conditions they were living in, criminal records, people who went off to fight. It tends to be that where the records focus is where the state is intervening. And therefore, we're looking at people's lives that are atypical or abnormal, and because we don't have this massive ephemera in everyday life because people weren't literate, or they were, but they didn't keep stuff or there was nothing valid to be passed down to the next generation, it's just gone. We've lost that level of human history, the human experience. That's the area that I love to explore, there’s more than I've given credit for there, but it tends to be 18th century when we start to get the Great State Department and the emerging Home Office. There is some fantastic, radical material in the Home Office, it just gets you into the nitty gritty of what was happening. You need to spend time peering into those records, and that's where the groundwork takes place. There's a lot of that out there, it's just it's not very well indexed and you have to work, you have to research. You don't need to search for it. The way that genealogy and family history is perceived; You stick in a name onto a large commercial search engine and out spits your family tree, of course is not research, it’s searching, and the discipline that I learnt as a medievalist has given me the skill set to interrogate a whole range of other records because we have to go through this thought process of what exists, what doesn't exist, what is the structure to get into those records, what is it telling us about, who are the people who created them, used them and then have kept them, and how do we then start to untangle that myriad of lives. Then you can start to build a picture around that individual or that place with that event.
L.P. : If people want to see the Grand Narrative of history on TV, why do you think that genealogy has become such a popular pursuit? Why do you think that people have become so fascinated by that smaller narrative?
N.B. : I think there's something around identity at one level, and that sense of legitimacy if you can connect to someone of status you legitimize yourself. I'm not so sure that it's the same though. The way people go looking for their ancestors, some of it is just curiosity and love of research, and I hesitate to use the term stamp collecting, I've heard it used about people who come up with 1500 names in a family tree. That isn't for me. I admire the research that goes into making those connections, but I think it's something more human than that, that desire to be connected as much as establishing one’s status, because a lot of people are not going to find anyone of status and a lot of the hardcore genealogists don't want to find royal connections or the great and the good, they want to get down in the dirt, literally in many cases and find out what it was like living in a village in the 18th century with no money. And they want to reclaim these people. They wanted to reclaim them for history, posterity, and for their own lives, and their descendants to come.
It's a very human thing, reaching out and finding another human that you're connected to that you might share a story about someone in the past. You're creating that bond, and in many ways, as we are doing now, we're communicating, conversing. There's something about gathering together in social groups and just chatting. Sharing stories is a different sort of storytelling and the Internet, I think, has fractured some of that, the real joy and magic often happens in family history conferences where you’ve got groups of people just chatting about people who they've found on who they're connected to. I was at Reach-Tech in November last year and they had some meet and greet sessions where long lost family could come together, and they were just hugging and saying ‘Oh yeah, I'm your cousin from Pittsburgh and we've never met, but we had this person we found on the Internet’, and they were just chatting and sharing. It's a very human thing. It's a really human thing.
L.P. : In the spirit of this humanistic and holistic approach to history, I wonder if we could turn to a quote of yours in history today where you commented that history in the twenty-first century needs to be vibrant, inclusive and relevant to survive’. How do you think that has taken shape, and what do you think needs to be done in order to continue that process?
N.B. : Right, so this is about how we challenge what history is, and try to make it more vibrant, inclusive and relevant, otherwise, history becomes a bit redundant. So, this is, I suppose, applied history, history in action campaigning history. We've obviously seen this year the protests of the Black Lives Matter movement and the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, because too many voices are not heard in the history that we write, create, and share via the media. The media is a powerful tool, but it's also a stifling tool and for so long we've only seen one view. And there are some brilliant historians who are now beginning to articulate the alternative version. So, we have to use history the right way. I can't believe I'm saying this, but we have to learn from the past to help the present. It is trite, but just an example from a genealogy perspective, I tried to get some funding to put together based on death certificate data, the spread of the 1918 nineteen Spanish flu in order to see if you could see a ripple effect around communities and get some sort of means of communication and spread out of it and just play around some of the datasets, and it wasn't funded as it wasn't relevant. Why would we want to track the spread of a disease during a pandemic?
The empty pedestal of slave trader Edward Colston. The statue was removed on the 7th June 2020 by Black Lives Matter protesters. Photo Credit: Caitlin Hobbs
That was a few years ago anyway, but there is something around history that needs to evolve, and I think that because we have got more people both partaking in the pursuit of history and sharing their findings. It’s not necessarily at an academic level, but still, it’s sharing their view, and this is the really important thing to me, creating the raw material from which history of the future will be made. I'm thinking here around social media platforms. Love them or loathe them, they're an outpouring of people’s feelings and expressions and moments. And so, the days of all history being tied up in state or local archives or the family papers of people of status, and thus surviving is long gone, and we need a new generation of historians coming through working on ultra-modern history, but also thinking about some of the techniques that we're developing to explore different avenues of the past and then retrospectively applying them to some of the disciplines of old and make them more vibrant and relevant. Otherwise, I do fear for the future of the traditional ivory tower history. I went to a British Academy sponsored event a few years ago where I was told that my brand of history was insidious. It’s insidious that we are handing over the narrative of the past to an army of amateurs. I think that we have to move away from that approach. The job of a historian is to curate stories, but we need to blend that with a language of dissemination that people are going to understand and react to or contribute to. Contribution, I think, is a really important part of this. House Through Time has done that brilliantly in the sense that it was very timely. They couldn't have known about the current round of protests when filming, but it touches upon slavery and gives voice to some of the challenging histories that we simply don't talk about or learn about in our curriculum.
I think we need to be teaching a different style of history. It should not be just the teaching of what happened, but then how do we ask questions? How do we learn? How to we question, and how do we challenge? Fake news, surely, should be a catalyst for a new generation of history to challenge and provide alternative narratives, or get people to interpret sources in a different way. I'm so tired of listening to people say ‘it must be true, I found it on the internet’, so my goodness, you know, let's just let's just use our historians to try and help people build a different relationship with the content and the opinions, and actually have proper debate. I'm not a great fan of cancel culture, but I do understand that we need to recognize the debt that we collectively owe to the disenfranchised, the voiceless, the underrepresented, and so we need to find that balance. But the only way we're going to build a consensus and a better opportunity for all these to be shared is if we recalibrate the medium for discussion and stop shouting at each other. And instead, talk together and use our historical skills to be able to curate that conversational framework and look at the evidence in a very different way. We need historians now more than ever, but we do need that new generation of historian to broker a way forward. And for me that comes back down to grassroots movements and one of the other networks I'm involved with, the Community Archive and Heritage Group, because they're not state archives, they've been collecting micro histories and community histories that are not in any other place. Communities of refugee groups and migrant groups who have brought their own culture with them, but no one has actually captured that and said this is an important part of the community, which they have joined. They’re having to do it themselves, and so again, they’re isolated, and we need to make sure that these are mainstream and all being drawing upon so that we can then rethink our narratives moving forward. So, there's a vast amount of opportunity, a vast amount of material out there, but we do need this generation of historians to come forward and use it in the way that I think it could be done.
I think we need to be teaching a different style of history. It should not be just the teaching of what happened, but then how do we ask questions? How do we learn? How to we question, and how do we challenge?
L.P. : As someone who’s done a very successful job of remaining a part of that academic community, but also managed to broaden the audience that you reach, how do you think that the academic community can change what they do now in order to achieve what you are suggesting?
N.B. : The first thing is that we need academic history, we need academic historians, we need that level of professional skill, and we need the intellectual rigour and freedom to debate and discuss the top-level ideas. But what we need to be doing is sharing those ideas in a different way. And I don't just mean around scholarly comms, I mean the language of communication that we use. We're thinking around multi-channel presentation of content. So, you write your peer reviewed article for a Journal, but then you should be doing a blog about that or a podcast, making sure that you've got your social media streams to disseminate that out into the groups that are going to benefit from that. Use different words, use different phrases, make it relevant. Again, this goes beyond ‘impact’ and academic frameworks for the sake of getting money, and there are some great practitioners who really do that; Mike Esbester at the University of Portsmouth on his old railway lives project, Laura King at York. In many ways it's using some of the techniques of the public historian with the networks in which they work to make sure that we're communicating across all levels, but also engaging with and drawing up on some of the materials and experiences and micro histories that they've got.
It’s not so easy if you're working on 13th century state finance and physical history. I found that when Brexit was rumbling on, and I'm sure we're going to have more of that now that we've got rid of one major crisis this year, that it was really useful just to remind folks that this wasn't even the first, second, or third Brexit, we’ve had four or five of these ruptures with Europe and it's cyclical, it's been a bit of a gap since the last one, a few hundred years, but we need to put things into the wider context. So, you can make things such as 1203-4 (The loss of the Duchy of Normandy) relevant to a modern audience and highlight that our relationship with the continent has been rich and deep and meaningful for many years, and then we've had a hundred years of conflict and then we come back. That's the context we need to be providing and you can do that without having to talk about how the funding campaign that King John put together failed etc., it's about making sure that we are aware of that wider world. That's not easy, that's really not easy.
So, you write your peer reviewed article for a Journal, but then you should be doing a blog about that or a podcast, making sure that you've got your social media streams to disseminate that out into the groups that are going to benefit from that. Use different words, use different phrases, make it relevant.
The Academy needs to make itself relevant, particularly now when we do have real economic hardship. People’s jobs are going to disappear, we mustn't forget that despite the challenges of our academic status, the precarity and lack of contracts, there are people that have no jobs and are unlikely to have jobs for some time to come despite the government’s best intentions and their ‘large pots of money’. We've got the economy or part of the economy on life support and we're going to see some interesting changes, I suspect, over the next few months and years to come. So, let's see how we can help people make a difference to their communities. It's about that whole sense of applied history, practical history, making it work for a different range of people. Otherwise, we are just going to drift further out of touch and people can say ‘why are you sitting around researching long dead Kings and Queens and institutions like the Exchequer? Why should we fund you with taxpayers’ money? What's the relevance?’ And it's a question, it's not a comfortable question, that I think we need to answer, and I think it comes back to the skill set that we provide in that interpretation of context and understanding to help nuance and challenge public opinion. It’s the reason why we come together at IMC (International Medieval Congress) and other events to share our passion, share our knowledge, and share that experience. It’s our delight, just like genealogists gather together and swap stories about long dead ancestors, or local historians will come together and talk about how that particular name was found on the War Memorial and whether it's this person or that person, we just love sharing our stories and our research, there's nothing wrong with that at all.
L.P. : In order to engage more accessibly with more people, do you think there are, what might be termed, more unconventional skill sets that aspiring historians should be cultivating in order to sort of gain that understanding and begin that process of interaction?
N.B. : I think that the skill set that most historians don't have exposure to is oral history and that opportunity to interview, because it’s seen very much as a journalistic activity. That's where a lot of family historians are actually very good at recording their older generations, they’re not so good about themselves. they don't see the relevance, but there's something around that listening and empathizing, that's really key. I feel that I've become a better and more mature historian and then reapplied that back to the medieval period because of the work I've done investigating families and people. Because history is about people and getting that empathy is critical, because it allows you just to approach the past in a different way and think about, instead of rushing to the grand narrative, what it meant for that individual. It takes time and it's not something that you can necessarily put into a postgrad training course, but it is something that is a skill set that perhaps we don't have enough. It helps you with your research, but it also helps you with the contextualization, the broadcast, and the relevance piece, I suspect.
Another thing is having a thick skin. You’re going to have your papers shredded at some point, and not being afraid to have it shredded and learning from that. It's not the end of your career if you have some eminent academics pull you apart, it says more about them than it does you. If they're doing it in a constructive, helpful way, fine, but I've seen some car crashes of papers overtime, but good historians’ dust themselves down, they learn from it, and they carry on. It is a cut and thrust debate, but it's an academic debate. Again, I think it depends on what you're looking for out of that. If you want a career in the Academy, then that's absolutely fine, but like I said, maybe we need to rethink the academic approach a little bit. For practicing historians who don't necessarily have tenure positions, or any other sort of approach, then the skills that you take into the world are vast. It's about surfacing that when you look at alternative academic careers. And there's a lot of them out there and not just in the arts, culture, and heritage sectors, but applying to a whole range of different skill sets. So the most effective managers, or leaders that I have met are historians, because they get the context they understand where they're going because they can draw upon that ability to cross connect and see the bigger picture and then articulate that bigger picture and with their persuasive skills bring people on board with them. And I think that's something that's often overlooked, historians have a collection of skill sets that don't necessarily define them by their small niche piece of history that they're looking at. Don't forget that skill set when you go into your career, it’s really key.
EPOCH would like to thank Nick Barratt again for his time and generosity, it was a pleasure working with him, and we hope to do so again in the future.