Histories of “bad” people

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!

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10 Comments

Filed under history, writing/editing

10 responses to “Histories of “bad” people

  1. I wrote about a bad person, and the problem there was not to demonize her — and she gave a lot of material with which to demonize! But, like the bad guys in movies and plays often being the most interesting characters to watch or play, so are the bad guys to write about. Of course, when I was done with her, I was DONE with her. Now, writing about a good guy — despite my constant joking about my emotional involvement — I find complicating his heroism just as interesting. The most fun of biography is doing that, regardless of the angle. Time made them good or bad, good biographers make them human again.

    Oddly, I think my worst worry is that other people will think that I support the ideas of the bad guy and am attacking the good guy. Silly, right?

    Thank you for the link! I’d love to read what you are writing.

    • jliedl

      Supremely interesting people are rarely good, through and through, i understand. But studying a person doesn’t mean we approve of their viewpoints, you’re so right!

      Complicating is what good history does but rarely what people want to read. They want a clear narrative with good guys to root for and bad guys to condemn. But if we show them how much fun the nuanced pictures are, maybe they’ll stay.

      It’s going to take me a while to get through the stories of Bridget and other early modern stepmothers, but when I do, you’ll be one of the first to know, Clio!

  2. So how did Morison provide for his illegitimate children? In his will, or—by any chance—in advance of their production, so to speak? I’m looking for examples of the second sort of provision, if you know of any.

    • jliedl

      Dame Eleanor, Richard Morison provided for them on the eve of his marriage. He alienated property to a friend who set it up for the children’s care (and, if I remember correctly, their mother’s as well).

  3. jillheather

    So at some point before grade 9 (the year we studied the Tudors), I read Margaret George’s Autobiography of Henry VIII, and . . . well, I have no idea how historically accurate it is, but it gave me a deep love for him, and also an inability to see him as a villain (at least, less of a villain than other royalty or certain popes).

    The book is probably less fun if you actually study this, but it was for a long time a favourite book of mine and got me rather into biographies (actual and fictionalised).

    • jliedl

      Margaret George’s fictional biographies occupy an interesting space – I don’t want to kick myself for reading them because they are well-researched and thoughtful even if I don’t agree with all of her interpretations and choices. I also believe that Henry wasn’t a thorough-going villain (few people are – that’s what fiction is for!) but he didn’t haven any effective checks on his power to suggest that what he wanted and what was right weren’t always identical!

      • Oh, good, as long as they are reasonably well-researched I am pleased enough. It’s interesting: I remember clearly reading her Mary Magdalene book and finding only one chapter interesting, the chapter on Judas — she wrote she had wanted to write about him but her publisher nixed it. Too bad, because the book suffered for it. She seems to like villains more than heroes, but she makes the heroes much less heroic and the villains much more so. (This rather informed my interpretation, say, of A Man for All Seasons.)

        How many royals or popes had many effective checks on their power?

  4. My people leave fewer traces, but I usually find out about them through court records, which usually means they are not goody two-shoes types. So I don’t know nearly as much about my folks usually as you (or Clio Bluestocking) do. And the slaveholders? Well, they really didn’t seem the nicest people! But I think also that you learn about a society a lot from what’s at the edge, the ways people are bad (or the ways people think about what’s bad). Today I was chasing a guy who was alleged to have had 70 illegitimate children… certainly not a boring person! And like most of us, historical characters are rarely all good or all bad!

    • jliedl

      I do enjoy the Old Bailey records as a snapshot of ordinary lives that have extraordinary elements when you look a little deeper. 70 illegitimate children? My oh my, that would be remarkable.

      As you say, few people are wholly good or bad – it’s the nuance that makes their histories interesting to research and read.