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Elisabeth Van Houts

elisabeth van houtsName
Prof. Elisabeth Van Houts

Emmanuel College

What is your field of history?
The history of England and Normandy 900-1200, the writing of history in the Middle Ages, Gender (men and women) in the Middle Ages.

How did you come to specialise in this area?
At Groningen (Netherlands) I specialised in medieval History and medieval Latin. My supervisor in medieval Latin had published an article on the Latin poems written for William the conqueror in 1966 and suggested I might work on the oldest prose chronicle in Latin on the Norman conquest. Little did I then realise that I would publish the edition and prepare the first English translation. This sparked off my interest not only in Norman and English history but also in medieval historiography and the role of women as preservers of family traditions and as persons who handed over material objects from generation to generation with the specific request that they should be kept. Needless to say most are now lost but the written records of these requests are important sources for the active role women played in keeping knowledge about the past alive.

What sort of source material do you tend to use, and what are its strengths and weaknesses?
My main sources are Latin chronicles and poems, which by their very nature are biased texts written by authors who want to get a (political) message across to their audience. Nevertheless these narrative sources often form our most important evidence for particular periods.
How has your field developed over the course of your career?
The role of women is being studied much more than when I first started to work in the early 1980s. Also, there is much more attention paid to the literary nature of texts as constructs which warns us not to take their contents at face value.

Which areas of your field most urgently need further exploration?
Making medieval Latin and Old French narratives available in modern English translations so that as many people as possible can learn about their contents for themselves.

What characterises good history?
Good history is the evaluation of people’s actions and intentions and of events in the past. Naturally, we look at the past from our own contemporary perspective and bring to any evaluation our own experiences. This has its good side in that it opens up parts of the past that have not been explored, but also carries the danger that we project our own preoccupations and anxieties on to it and mould our evidence to suit our own preconceptions.

How did your understanding of history change during your time as a university student?
It was a great revelation to understand that knowledge of the past intrinsically means interpretation of the past. But I have always liked the detective aspect of it in the sense of discovering new evidence and trying to explain its rationale.

Where should somebody interested in your area of history go for further information?
The journal History Today carries good articles on medieval history. More specialized information about Anglo-Norman history can be found in the annual publication Anglo-Norman Studies (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer) which contains the proceedings  of the Battle Conference on Anglo-Norman Studies. For the history of gender and women I would recommend the journal Gender and History.