On the Spot: Helen Castor

We ask leading historians 20 questions on why their research matters, one book everyone should read and their views on the Tudors ...

Because I love medieval history. There are lots of ways in which the period is important, but the only reason to spend your life in a particular part of the past is if you can’t imagine doing anything else.

What’s the most important lesson history has taught you?
If you want to understand something, start with the most basic questions you can think of. They matter, and they’re overlooked more often than you’d think. 

Which history book has had the greatest influence on you?
Norman Davis’ edition of the Paston Letters. Such scholarship, such a wealth of humanity and language, and so frustratingly non-chronological. It taught me how much I value narrative.

What book in your field should everyone read?
I’d love everyone to read the Paston Letters. (In fact, if anyone would like to commission a complete modernised version, I’m ready and waiting...) Otherwise, Eamon Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars.

Which moment would you most like to go back to? 
To find out what happened to the princes in the Tower. Not pleasant, I suspect, but it would be a relief to settle the debate once and for all.

Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?
My PhD supervisor, Christine Carpenter.

Which person in history would you most like to have met?
Elizabeth I. I’d love to see the enigma up close.

How many languages do you speak?
Speak? A little French and a lot less Italian. I wish I could do more of both. I read French and Latin. Oh, and I know the Russian words for collective farm and buckwheat porridge – leftovers from my O Level, eons ago.

What’s the point of counterfactualism?
To remind us that no one in the past knew what would happen next. Just like us. We’re all flying blind. 

What’s the most exciting field in history today?
The one you love most. 

What historical topic have you changed your mind on?
Late medieval religion.

Which genre of history do you like least?
Counterfactualism. Once the point’s been made, it too quickly stops being history.

Is there an important historical text you have not read?
Too many to count.

What’s your favourite archive?
The financial and legal records of late medieval government in the National Archives. You could spend a lifetime putting tiny jigsaw pieces together and still need lifetimes more.

What’s the best museum?
I can’t pick a best. But favourite? Hard to see past the British Museum.

Tudors or Stuarts?

Normans or Anglo-Saxons? 

Rome or Athens?

Cromwell or Charles I?
Neither, thank you. I’ll take Milton, though, if that’s ok?

Braudel or Gibbon?

Helen Castor is a Bye-Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. Her most recent book is Joan of Arc: A History​ (Faber, 2015).