On the Spot: Paul M. Cobb

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

Because I find the elegant, varied and voluminous literary culture of the medieval Islamic world to be wonderfully challenging and enriching.

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

Contingency, the humbling notion that no one can predict what the next step in history will be while it is happening. 

Which history book has had the greatest influence on you?

Marshall Hodgson’s The Venture of Islam. Wonderfully idiosyncratic, but thoughtful, humanistic history on the global scale. 

What book in your field should everyone read?

Edward Said’s Orientalism, although not my field exactly. 

Which moment would you most like to go back to?

Pope Urban II’s crusade speech at Claremont in 1095, I suppose. Would be nice to know what he really said. 

Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?

My PhD supervisor, Fred M. Donner. A careful historian, accessible writer, and generous scholar.

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

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (d. 1762). A great mind and superb fashion sense.

How many languages do you speak?

Never enough! Mostly Arabic, but some Persian and Syriac. And French and German. And Greek and Latin. I have my eye on Uighur next.

What’s the point of counterfactualism?

It allows us to appreciate the nuances of what did happen by considering what might have happened.

What’s the most exciting field in history today?

At the moment, I’m amazed by how DNA & linguistic analysis helps us understand the peopling of Eurasia.

What historical topic have you changed your mind on?

The prominence of people of colour in European history.

Which genre of history do you like least?

National histories. They straight-jacket narrative terribly and foreclose on answering larger human questions.

Is there an important historical text you have not read?

I live surrounded by them and will die buried by them.

What’s your favourite archive?

That box you discover in your grandparents’ attic.

What’s the best museum?

One that challenges received ideas of history rather than reaffirming them.

Tudors or Stuarts?

Bickering tyrants of a petty island kingdom.

Normans or Anglo-Saxons?

Normans for the food; Anglo-Saxons for the vocabulary.

Rome or Athens?


Cromwell or Charles I?

An unpleasant choice.  But I will reluctantly side with the monarch in this case, as my family originally came from the village of Corfe Castle, which was badly bombarded by vile Roundheads.

Braudel or Gibbon?

Gibbon. As a stylist of the English language alone he rewards repeated readings.

Paul M. Cobb is Professor of Islamic History, University of Pennsylvania. His latest book is The Race for Paradise: An Islamic History of the Crusades (Oxford, 2014).