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With the recent birth of the royal baby, British history has been very much in the news, with particular attention paid to the history behind the child’s names.[1] This is popular history at its most obvious – striving for a very wide audience of non-specialists. I was involved in this myself, both writing about the proposed end to male primogeniture for a national publication and appearing on BBC Breakfast to outline the history behind the baby’s names.

Popular history is often looked down upon by more academically minded historians, but is this altogether fair? I am unusual in having a foot in both camps. As well as articles and (a few) television appearances, I have written a number of popular history books, including England’s Queens: The Biography, which contains short biographies of every English queen from the ninth century to the twenty-first, and biographies of four of Henry VIII’s wives. In contrast to this, I am also working towards my PhD at King’s College, London, researching the Blount family of Kinlet, who were a gentry family of some local significance in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. As part of my academic work I have published journal articles and will shortly be reading a paper at an academic conference.

Popular historians can draw a very large following, writing what has been described as ‘comfortable, unchallenging, nostalgia-fodder’.  They also regularly attract vitriol for their work – I have previously been asked by a reader not to write a popular biography of one Tudor queen since, once they have finished their A-levels and then graduated, they intended to write the definitive academic account and were concerned that I might over-saturate the market!  

My biography of Bessie Blount, one of the Blounts of Kinlet and Henry VIII’s mistress, provides a useful comparison for the distinction between popular and academic history. I used a wide range of original sources, particularly family wills, chancery records and contemporary letters, many of them stored at the National Archives at Kew. I also made use of printed primary sources and secondary works, including a number of academic accounts. These are, in fact, many of the same sources that I am using in my PhD. In my experience, most popular historians will use manuscript sources to some extent, although, since many of the topics are treading a well-worn path, original research is unlikely to be as deep.

The main difference between the two approaches is one of style and analytical depth. In my PhD, I am currently preparing a paper on the experience of Elizabethan Catholics, using the Blounts as a case study. This will eventually become a chapter of my thesis, while, in my biography of Bessie Blount, a discussion of her religious views took up two pages. Similarly, the family’s links to Christian humanism are a fascinating element of my academic study, but did not even merit a mention in the biography. Instead, the biography began with Bessie’s family background and childhood, moving chronologically through her life and ending with her death.

Popular historians often aspire to write in a novelised form – so that the reader can experience and feel the subject’s life and times. In some ways, their style should be considered more akin to that of historical novelists, and indeed the increase in popularity of Anne Boleyn can largely be attributed to Philippa Gregory’s bestselling novel The Other Boleyn Girl. But while fiction can inspire the choice of subjects for popular history and the style in which it is told, this is as far as the similarities go. Popular history is history, simply in a different form to that of its academic counterparts.

Popular history and academic history are often expressed as being in opposition to each other. Works that are popular in tone and nature are considered by some to be inferior to academic works. Others believe academic works to be boring or out of touch with what interests people today. Viewing the two as entirely separate is, however, a misstatement. Most academic historians will have first gained an interest in their subject in their teens through reading popular history – I know I did. This then leads them into their academic work, allowing them to make a real contribution to scholarship if they choose that route.

History is fascinating and anything that helps to widen interest in the subject can only be a good thing. There is enough history to go around, and historians such as David Starkey have demonstrated that it is possible to bridge the gap between the popular and the academic, with each using the raw materials of history in different ways. The two approaches use the same sources, after all – the difference is just one of intended audience.

Elizabeth Norton is a popular history writer who is currently working on a PhD at KCL. She has her own blog at http://www.elizabethnortonhistorian.blogspot.co.uk/ and you can find out more about her research and writing here.

Image [chosen, we confess, for its effect rather than substance]: Harry Potter queue at Borders, San Francisco [Wikicommons]


[1] For example, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2376835/Royal-baby-How-Prince-George-Alexander-Louis-seventh-royal-George.html.

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/aug/26/history.celebrity

Tags : academic vs popular historyBessie BlountBlount familyhistory writingpopular historypublic history
Elizabeth Norton

The author Elizabeth Norton

5 Comments

  1. Self-evidently, this is all about politics. Any academic who can rise above the level of being merely snobbish about writing for ‘ordinary folk’, and who wants to dislike ‘popular history’, is going to end up arguing, somehow, that the latter is either culturally conservative, or in some other ways ‘dangerously’ uncritical. This supposes of course that academic histories are the opposite of those things, whereas in fact they are often merely navel-gazing – and the more elite the institutional context, the closer to the navel in question.

    One might very well argue the converse, that historians ought to have a duty to communicate effectively to as wide a set of audiences as possible – else what are we actually doing it all FOR, except to keep polishing the inside of the ivory tower?

  2. I’ve noticed a lot of recent popular history books seem to focus as much on the historian as the central character – the “follow me on my quest to uncover this unknown historical tale” type of thing. Maybe it’s the Dan Brown effect? But, nevertheless, this can still be a valid and highly engaging way of hooking the reader into the text. But I think there is another aspect to this debate which goes beyond merely thinking about relative perceptions, intended audiences, or certain reader markets, etc., and this is simply a question of style.

    Style, whether it be in terms of writing or presenting, is the real key to accessibility. If an academic text is written well with an eye to a good use of language it need not be dry as a bone, but can be highly engaging and even compelling reading. I can think of several academics who achieve this balance and its a real marvel to read their work and ponder upon how effortlessly they manage to convey such heavyweight themes without sacrificing all the necessary detail either. Similarly I’ve read some ‘popular history’ books which are very poorly written with no eye to making the text flow. A well written piece is far easier to follow and comprehend than one which is trying to over egg the pudding by revelling in shock and awe “wow” factor tactics, or peppering a text with awkwardly spun platitudes, and unnecessary journalistic clichés. Good writing has a habit of recommending itself to the reader who is then more likely to recommend the book to others in turn, and this is generally how books end up selling well.

    In terms of accessibility I don’t think it’s so much a question of balancing stodginess with razzmatazz, or popular versus academic; I think it’s more important that the historian focuses on writing well and writing clearly. If historians in general paid a keener eye to ‘how’ they write as much as ‘who’ they write for, I think there would be less concern or quibbles over whether what they write is too high-brow or too low-brow. Writing well is the best way of appealing to all audiences.

  3. I think the issue really boils down to the nature of story, in both academic and popular writing. The best popular history identifies a good historical story in the first place and then makes it into a page-turner. No-one will be reading my thesis(on Edward III’s household), until the early hours, unable to put it down. At least I hope they won’t be – that wasn’t what it was for. But I hope some people might do that with my recent popular history book, The Day Parliament Burned Down. The process of turning a complex set of contingent events and characters into a coherent and compelling narrative means that some of them just get abandoned by the wayside, to the annoyance of specialists in the field. There’s also the question of how some academics write – it’s just not suitable for sustained narrative. “You have a very lively style”, said my supervisor once (and he didn’t mean this in a good way). What I would really love to see happen – not least because then I could use it in my public history teaching – is a research project which seeks to identify the impact of popular history on readers in terms of whether they then move more towards academic interpretations of the same subject to find out more. Now that really would be a great story.

  4. Thanks for this article. As a Master’s student, I am debating these two paths. I think at the moment it’s more important than ever to help cultivate critical thinking skills. At least in the US, this isn’t being achieved right now, even at the University level. I just had a student in a class I am TA-ing for do research on a website that states it’s bias on every page, which really stood out from the peer reviewed assigned reading. There are a number of people in their last semester who never learned the basics of logic and argumentation. It’s really not their fault that nobody taught them these things, but I am often depressed thinking about the anti-intellectual climate of the US and other place right now. Perhaps popular history is one means of rectifying the situation.

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