On the Spot: Paul Lay

‘No genre reveals as much about the human condition as military history.’

View of a square with the Porta Capuana in the background and the dome of the Santa Caterina a Formiello in Naples, Italy. Photographed by Giorgio Sommer between 1857 and 1914. Rijksmuseum.

Why are you a historian of early modern Britain?

It’s the crucible in which modern Britain and subsequently much of the world was formed. It remains fascinating both on its own terms and for its contemporary resonances.

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

That living in Britain in the early 21st century is a pretty good deal.

Which history book has had greatest influence on you?

God’s Instruments: Political Conduct in the England of Oliver Cromwell by Blair Worden. 

What book in your field should everyone read?

Britain in Revolution by Austin Woolrych.

Which moment would you most like to go back to?

The Fall of Tenochtitlan.

Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?

Vanessa Harding.

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

Paolo Sarpi.

How many languages do you have?

I struggle valiantly in both German and Italian.

What is the most common misconception about your field? 

That you can study the period without an acute understanding of religious thought.

What historical topic have you changed your mind on?

Military history. No genre reveals as much about the human condition in extremis. 

Which genre of history do you like least?

Oral history.

What’s the most exciting field in history today?

The study of Late Antiquity.

Is there an important historical text you have not read? 

Many. I struggle, in particular, with Lucretius’ De rerum natura.

What’s your favourite archive?

The Thomason Tracts in the British Library.

What’s the best museum?

The city of Naples. 

What technology has changed the world the most? 

The printing press.

The Mediterranean or the Indian Ocean?

Ultimately, the two become one, so why choose?

Historical drama or documentary?

Drama. 

The Parthenon or Machu Picchu? 

Taking the advice of Samuel Johnson, the Parthenon.

What will future generations judge us most harshly for?

That we allowed feeling to override fact – though that, of course, implies that they may never realise it. 

 

Paul Lay is Editor of History Today and the author of Providence Lost: the Rise and Fall of Cromwell’s Protectorate (Head of Zeus, 2020), which was shortlisted for the Cundill History Prize. This is his valedictory issue.