I often get asked how I can research historical personages who aren’t “nice people”. It began with my doctoral research focusing on such wonderful people as Henry VIII (he of the six wives and several executed advisers including Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell), Richard Morison (a rabidly self-promoting evangelical humanist) and other early sixteenth century figures who emerge from history, warts and all. Some of them are more appealing than others: I’ve argued that Jane Seymour gets a bump rap from modern culture that’s eager to embrace Anne Boleyn as the epitome of a liberated woman while condemning Jane as a mealy-mouthed lump. That said, I don’t think I would have liked to be a part of her court!
Let’s be honest: we spend a lot of time trying to get into the heads of our historical subjects. We attempt to read everything they wrote and everything written about them. If we’re able, we travel to places they knew well, visit their burial sites and try to catalogue their libraries and possessions.
There are days when I think I know some of my subjects better than my own relatives. I can tell you in great detail about Morison’s illegitimate children (and his provision for the same) as well as his marriage to Bridget Hussey. His widow’s subsequent two marriages and high-profile courtiership are some of the jumping-off points for my forthcoming book. She doesn’t seem to have been all that easy a person to love, either, mind you!
So, how can I spend so much time in the company of people I would never want to invite over for dinner let alone a Meeting of Minds? I suppose it’s the same way that we can sit, fascinated by the awful truths revealed on shows such as Celebrity Rehab or following the beach-bound crowd on Jersey Shore.
It can also be that there aren’t that many “nice people” to study. At least in terms of the surviving historical record, it’s more often the strivers and back-stabbers who make their mark. Even some saints strike me as people who were rather too focused on their faith to be comfortable company!
Truth be told, there may be an extra dollop of interesting to study a few of the “bad boys” and “bad women” of history. We’re eager to see if the reality of their lives measures up to the legend and how they came to terms with their actions. They track widely through the historic record and often leave a wealth of material to explore.
But the last thing that a good historian wants to do is to become so emotionally involved with the figures they’re studying that they lose perspective. I have few illusions about Henry and Richard, Jane and Bridget, but I still have a lot of questions to answer so it’s back to the sources I go!