On the Spot: Gordon Campbell

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

Magasin centrale of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Bibliotheque nationale de France/Wiki Commons.

Why are you a historian of culture?

It allows me to range freely through the history of art, literature, gardens, religion and, most recently, the Norse.

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

That it is a means to understand the present. 

What book in your field should everyone read?

In Pursuit of Civility by Keith Thomas.

Which moment would you most like to go back to?

I would prefer to go forward several centuries.

Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?

W.G. Hoskins. His Making of the English Landscape taught me how to read what I can see.

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

I co-wrote a biography of John Milton and would like to ask him some awkward questions.

How many languages do you have?

I muddle through many but excel in none.

What is the most common misconception about your field? 

That searching archives produces rapid results.

What historical topic have you changed your mind on?

Virtually all, because half of what I believe is contained in the last book I read.  

Which genre of history do you like least?

Nationalist history, such as H.E. Marshall’s Our Island Story

Is there an important historical text you have not read?

Many, notably E.H. Carr’s 14-volume History of Soviet Russia.

What’s your favourite archive?

The Vatican Archive. The document delivered to the reader is sometimes more interesting than the one that has been requested.

What’s the best archaeological site?

L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland.

What’s your favourite library?

The Bibliothèque Nationale de France, because it is built around a forest garden.

What’s the best museum?

The National Museum of African American History in Washington DC.

What technology has changed the world the most?

The wheel and the stirrup.

The Mediterranean or the Indian Ocean?

Neither: the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans.

Historical drama or documentary?

Documentary, preferably made by David Attenborough.

The Parthenon or Machu Picchu?

Machu Picchu, because the mountain air is clean and invigorating.

What will future generations judge us most harshly for?

Overpopulating and polluting the planet. 


Gordon Campbell is Fellow in Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester. His latest book is Norse America: The Story of a Founding Myth (Oxford University Press, 2021).