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Peter Mandler

peter mandlerName
Dr. Peter Mandler

Gonville and Caius College

What is your field of history?
I work on British history over the last 200 years – most aspects, but with a special interest in ideas about 'Englishness' – what do people think is peculiar to or unusual about England and its people? So I have written about English country houses – the 'continuity' of English history – the idea of 'English national character' (what psychological characteristics are English people thought to have in common – the stiff upper lip, 'muddling through', and so on).

How did you come to specialise in this area?
A lot of historians nowadays are interested in those things which seem 'natural' or 'timeless', and how in fact ideas about them get built up and change over time. The idea of 'the nation' is a particularly good example – 'nations' as we think of them today hardly existed before the French Revolution (not many people spoke 'French', for one thing).

What sort of source material do you tend to use, and what are its strengths and weaknesses?
A very wide range of sources – that's both a strength and a weakness! You get a wide variety of inputs, from different places and kinds of people, but then it's hard to know how to compare them or put them together. For example, in writing about country houses, I looked at the buildings themselves, but also at how people viewed them – and believe me, tourists and owners (for example) have very different ideas about what country houses are for!

Which individuals, events or forces are especially important in your area of history?
For me, the most important thing to remember about ideas about 'the nation' is that they are much more diverse than they appear on the surface. For example, in the 19th century most English people thought of themselves as hardworking; for much of the 20th century, they were thought to be lazy. In the 19th century, they were thought to be brash and arrogant; in the 20th century, kindly and reticent. Even that over-simplifies – who are 'they'? Upper-class commentators? Workers? Left-wing intellectuals? Right-wing intellectuals? Men or women? City or country dwellers?

How has your field developed over the course of your career?
This kind of enquiry – into how seemingly timeless or 'natural' features such as 'the nation' (or for that matter 'the body') are changed by culture – has developed almost completely from nothing over the course of my career. When I started out, I was, like most of my colleagues, a 'political historian' – I wrote about ministers and parties and elections (in the early 19th century). History has vastly extended its range of subjects since, and I've been part of that development.

Which areas of your field most urgently need further exploration?
Lately people in my field have become interested in what goes on in people's heads – the 'psychology' of history. But it's very hard to do, because the evidence we have isn't always well suited to finding out what people were thinking and feeling in the past – only what they were writing (or painting or...).

What characterises good history?
A wide range of sources, which recognize the subtlety and complexity of human behaviour. A good sense of judgement, which allows us to balance up those factors without too obviously imposing our own values and priorities. A genuine sympathy for the past, an understanding that what makes history interesting is precisely that people were not like they are now in all ways – which gives us a better idea of the true depth of human possibility.

How did your understanding of history change during your time as a university student?
I was still trained pretty narrowly in 'political history' – today, I think I would get a better grasp of all the different facets of human society. But even in my day, I did get a better understanding of complexity by seeing how different historians in different generations had interpreted the same problems (and even the same evidence) in different ways. My favourite teachers were those who were so immersed in the taste and texture of their period that even when they were talking just about politicians they conveyed a vivid impression of a wholly different way of life.

Where should somebody interested in your area of history go for further information?
Books! The internet only gives you snippets.