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Caroline Burt

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Lecturer profile

Dr. Caroline Burt

Murray Edwards College (formerly New Hall).

What is your field of history?
I work on medieval British and European political and social history, specifically the reign of Edward I (1272-1307). I focus mainly on how rulers ruled and what made them effective. Medieval kings didn't have a monopoly of force; in other words, they couldn't rely on police or a professional army to implement their commands. So somehow they had to make their authority felt. In practice, people co-operated and served the king because they needed someone to lead them, to take responsibility for defending the borders, and for keeping crime and disorder down. The relationship between rulers and ruled was therefore an interesting and complex one.

How did you come to specialise in this area?
I did the Tudors at A Level, and when I came to Cambridge I was advised to pick something to study that I'd never done before. I always wondered what things were like before Henry VII, so I picked the 1050-1500 paper and loved it from the start. What I enjoyed most was the fact that I had to do lots of 'big' thinking: why is a king important? Why did the English king, even from a relatively early point, have such effective, centralised authority? What did a king have to do to be successful? Why did kings get deposed? I was fascinated to find out how things like parliament and national taxation had their origins in this period.

What sort of source material do you tend to use, and what are its strengths and weaknesses?
I use lots of things that are stored in The National Archives at Kew in London. Some is published and translated into English, but most is written in Latin - not just any old Latin: the scribes abbreviated words because they expected the reader to know the meaning (a bit like shorthand now), and many had really bad handwriting! Some documents have also been nibbled at by mice over the centuries! Most of what I look at is a mixture of charters (what we now would call deeds – land transactions between people), legal records from the royal law courts (where I find out about disputes and levels of disorder), correspondence that people addressed to the king, and finally governmental records, detailing anything from appointments to local offices (like sheriffs) to commands to judges to deal with criminals in a certain area, to lists of soldiers going on military campaigns.

Students who do dissertations with me or who choose to study medieval history in their first or second year don't have to be able to read medieval handwriting or Latin, though. In the first two years, they only look at some documents, and these are translated and typed, and for the dissertation, so much has been translated and published that a good topic can always be found.

You have to be careful with the sorts of sources I use because they usually only present points of view, not objective accounts (if such things are ever possible!).

Which individuals, events or forces are especially important in your area of history?
Well, it's probably clear from what I've said so far that kings were pretty important! They made decisions that affected the whole country, and if they were not very good, chaos could and did ensue. When Edward II was deposed in 1327, his nobility said that he had been 'incorrigible and without hope of amendment'. The knock on effects of this were so great that he had to be removed from his throne. As time went on, not just nobles and gentry, but peasants too could exercise influence over policy-making, and they had more interest in doing so as they came to pay taxes in increasing numbers.

Freak events like the Black Death of 1348-9 also have a huge effect on history in my period, as with any period. The Black Death wiped out around a third, or maybe even half the population.

Then there are the things that other leaders did, like the French king or the Scottish king. At several points in the later middle ages (c.1250-1500) England faced attacks from the French on the south cost and the Scots in the north.

How has your field developed over the course of your career?
I would say that we have begun to think more and more over the last decade or so about ideas. I.e. we aren't just studying politics, but the framework of ideas that existed about how people should act; in other words, the interaction between ideas and action. This is something we haven't talked about enough previously.

Which areas of your field most urgently need further exploration?
Lots! So much hasn't been touched, and we have an amazing bounty of sources in The National Archives waiting to be analysed.

What characterises good history?
Close attention to what actually happened and exactly when, thorough reading of sources (whether primary or secondary, or both), a consideration of all the possibilities when seeking to explain something, and conclusions which articulate why the historian has chosen a particular explanation over another. Good historical writing needs also to convey a clear sense of the direction of the discussion, and it needs to be written in an engaging and interesting way.

How did your understanding of history change during your time as a university student?
Through taking courses which covered long time spans and sometimes several continents, I learnt about seeing the 'big picture' – how the second world war affected the British, French and Belgian empires, for example, or how the Viking raids affected both Britain and the Continent – and to consider explanations for similarities and differences of experience. In other words, I learnt never to see one event in isolation.

Where should somebody interested in your area of history go for further information?
They can email me directly, or look at the reading lists for the medieval papers in the Faculty Part I papers guide [you can find these via links in the Suggested Reading section of the Virtual Classroom]. Recent books which have been particularly good and which are easily accessible are Helen Castor's Blood and Roses, which is about the Wars of the Roses, John Hatcher'sThe Black Death, David Carpenter's The Struggle for Mastery in Britain, and Christine Carpenter's The Wars of the Roses.