On the Spot: Michael Burleigh

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

Historian Michel BurleighWhy are you a historian?

I like to understand what is going on around me. History is one guide, though sometimes on what not to do.

What’s the most important lesson history has taught you?

That intangibles like honour or national sentiment invariably trump hard economic interests.

Which book has had the greatest influence on you?

Marc Bloch’s French Rural History, A.T.Q. Stewart’s The Narrow Ground or Reginald Lennard’s Rural England.

What book in your field should everyone read?

Mainly books on Asia-Pacific, such as Howard French’s Everything Under the Heavens.

Which moment would you most like to go back to?

The 18th century. I was once in Voltaire’s house and thought, yes, this is for me.

Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?

Rees Robert Davies, Jonathan Israel, Conrad Russell and Michael Baxandall, who all taught me.

Which person in history would you most like to have met?

Does Xi Jinping count? Otherwise, Peter Paul Rubens. His combination of dexterity, fluency and scale amazes me.

What foreign languages do you speak?

German, French and Italian.

What’s the point of counterfactualism?

I have zero imagination so on the one occasion I tried to write this, the results were hopeless. I am very much a facts person.

What’s the most exciting field in history today?

Prehistory at one end and trying to make sense of the Industrial Revolution 4.0 at our end of things.

What historical topic have you changed your mind on?

Like Zhou Enlai on the 1968 Paris événements, which makes more sense than 1789, ‘it’s too early to say’.

Which genre of history do you like least?

Most of the kind we get on TV.

Is there a major historical text you have not read?

Ibn Kaldun’s Muqaddimah (1377), which starts with seven cardinal errors all historians should avoid.

What’s your favourite archive?

The Bundesarchiv.

What’s the best museum?

Naples’ Museo Archeologico.

Tudors or Stuarts?

Pass. I know very little British history before 1945.

Normans or Anglo-Saxons?


Rome or Athens?
Rome. Better food and wine.

Cromwell or Charles I?

The former in radicality, the latter by virtue of taste (see Rubens, above).

Braudel or Gibbon?

I’m more of a Robert Conquest and Richard Pipes kind of guy.