Winchester and York History Weekends: 5 minutes with Joanne Paul

Was Thomas More a saint or torturer? Hero or villain? At our Winchester and York History Weekends this autumn, Joanne Paul will explore some of the common misconceptions about More – from the circumstances of his birth to his last words, from A Man for all Seasons to Wolf Hall – in an attempt to better understand this fascinating and controversial figure...

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Ahead of her talk ’10 myths about Thomas More’, we caught up with Joanne to find out more and to learn about her passion for history…
 
Q: How and when did you first realise you had a passion for history?
 
A: Like many, it was fiction that first led me to a love of history. My mother read to me, typically books set in the past like Anne of Green Gables, The Chronicles of Narnia or the novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder. As a child I remember being drawn to the ‘otherness’ of the past, the adventure of a time that is not now. I still consider imagination to be an important element of historical work.  
 
Q: Why do you love your period of history?
 
A: There are two answers to this question. I can certainly provide all the rational reasons for why the Renaissance fascinates me. The period was a unique and interesting moment of convergence and change, which produced fascinating and influential ideas, many of which are the foundation to our world view today, and many of which we’ve forgotten and need reminding of. 
 
There is also the less rational and probably more important reason, which is that I feel more at home in this period than any other. I feel better able to understand the mind-sets of those I study in the 16th century than I do when I try to read works of the 15th or 17th. I think there are just some places and periods that resonate more with a historian than others – for me it is the English Renaissance of the 16th century. 
 
Q: Which other historical areas fascinate you and why?
 
A: Studying the English Renaissance means having at least a proficiency in classical ideas as well, which means I couldn’t do it if I wasn’t drawn to ancient writers and ideas. 
 
But if I had to choose an area entirely distinct from my own to study, it would certainly be ancient Egypt. I was obsessed with Egyptology as a child. It was my first historic love, and it would be really lovely to return to it at some point.
 
Q: Which history books are you reading at the moment?
 
A: It’s more of a historical book than a history book, but I’m rereading Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier (1528) at the moment, which is a wonderful and entertaining glimpse into Renaissance court culture. I’m also reading Marc Morris’s King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta and Miri Rubin’s The Hollow Crown: A History of Britain in the Late Middle Ages, after recently finishing Dan Jones’ The Plantagenets
 
Q: Are there any developments in your field that are really exciting you at the moment?
 
A: There are two in particular I’m following very closely. The first is the appreciation of different temporal thinking in the past: the acknowledgement that how we think about time shapes how we think about other elements of life, such as work, religion and politics, and the attempt to understand how that changed world views of the past, especially in the Renaissance, when ideas about time were in flux. 
 
The second is the study of iconography, emblem and image in the Renaissance. Just as we communicate ideas through images today – such as logos, emojis and gifs – the Renaissance was a very visual culture. Seeking to understand an image in an emblem book or on a mantel is like unlocking a fascinating code. It’s very revealing once you work it out. I’m interested in moving past the written text as the only source for the history of ideas, and examining images as ‘texts’, which can reveal just as much, or more than, a piece of written evidence. 
 
Q: What are you most looking forward to about the York and Winchester History Weekends? 
 
A: I’m interested to hear what the audiences at the weekends have to contribute, and what they’re particularly interested in. It’s very easy as a historian to become closed off to the world outside the archive and the academy, so I’m looking forward to sharing my research more widely.
 
Q: What can we expect from your talk?
 
A: I’ve taken a ‘myth-busters’ approach to my talk, so expect to see everyday assumptions shattered (or at least questioned) under the lens of historical research. Hopefully it will be interesting and maybe even a tad controversial! 
 
Joanne Paul is a historian based at New College of the Humanities in London. Her new book on Tudor statesman Thomas More is due to be published later this year.
 
Joanne will be speaking at both the Winchester and York History Weekends this autumn. You can find out more about the events and Joanne’s talk, ‘10 myths about Thomas More’, here.
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