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‘I was a Historian by the Age of Six…’ An Interview with Prof. Nicholas Orme

The Centre for Medieval Studies at Exeter hosts a lively programme of activities throughout the year, a number of which are only possible through the generous support of Emeritus Professor Nicholas Orme. Nicholas is a renowned and well respected scholar with expertise in the history of the medieval Church, education, and childhood. He is also well known for his local studies of the Southwest. This year, as part of the annual ‘Orme Day’ festivities, we invited Nicholas to tell us more about the origins of these interests and how they developed. He also explained how he first came to Exeter and why he continues to support our activities at the Centre.

Q. When did you start studying medieval history?

‘I was a historian by the age of six. I know this because, when I was at infant school, we had to write every day in a little book called a ‘newsbook’ and I wrote a story about a prince and a princess. But instead of ending it ‘…and they married and lived happily ever afterwards’, I said ‘they married, but then he died and his brother became king’. And the teacher wrote in the margin, “Oh, Nicholas, what a sad story”. But what I had realised at that age was that, unlike literature, history doesn’t stop. I had elder brothers who had history books at home and I must have read something like The Life of Henry V: Henry wins Agincourt, marries the king of France’s daughter, and then he dies – and it all changes. So history was there at a very, very early age.

But my ‘Damascus road’ moment came a lot later, when I was 20 and was in the vacation of my second year [at university]. My parents had retired to the Forest of Dean, which was a very run-down area in those days, and we had no car. I really found it a very depressing place to spend the vacation.

All Saints Church, Newland, Gloucs.

But my brother came over with a car and we went to a village called Newland. It’s a pretty village with an interesting church and when we were wandering round it, I saw a cottage gate which said on it ‘The Old Grammar School’. And I thought to myself, ‘why on earth should there be a grammar school in this village?’ In the history I had done hitherto, nobody had ever mentioned education. And on investigating this place, it turned out it was a medieval, fifteenth-century, grammar school foundation.’

Q. When did you start researching medieval schools in depth?

‘In my third year, I did a Special Subject on Richard II’s reign. Although I did labour very conscientiously on the political history, the thing that really got me was the discovery of collegiate churches. I knew about monasteries and one had done Bede, Cistercians and that sort of thing. But I suddenly realised that there were these things called collegiate churches, which were very commonly founded in the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They fascinate me because they are all sui generis – and I always find monks boring because they’re so uniform. I discovered that collegiate churches very often had schools, as well as hospitals, alms houses, and things – and that built on my personal discovery of Newland grammar school.

So when I was in my third year and wanted to do research, I went to see my tutor, Bruce McFarlane, saying I wanted to do something that combines national history and local history. I made three suggestions to him and, of the three I mentioned, he said schools would be the thing to do. And ever since I’ve enjoyed these two things: national and local history. I’ve never wanted to do local history that was entirely self-contained, because it’s the interplay of the general and the local that interests me. And, of course, you’ve got that with a school because you’ve got a curriculum that’s beyond the school itself. So when I became a postgrad, I started to work on schools and I did a thesis on schools in the West of England, based on Gloucestershire.’

A medieval schoolroom – and the cover image for Nicholas’ book on ‘Medieval Schools’ (Yale, 2006)

Q. When did you come to Exeter?

‘In the summer term of my second year of research, my supervisor stopped me in the quad and said that Exeter was looking for a one-year appointment. What had happened was that they hadn’t had any applicants – or one or two very poor ones! Bertram Wolffe, who was at Exeter then, was a pupil of my supervisor and had written to him asking if he had anybody suitable. So I said to Bruce McFarlane, “do you think it would help with my CV?” And he said, “yes, it would because you’ll get a year’s teaching experience and that will stand you in good stead for getting a permanent job”. They advertised the post as half-teaching, half-research – but it turned out not to be that at all, as you might imagine!

I was very lucky while I was here because three [permanent] posts came up. They had a very small number of applicants for the three jobs to the extent that one of them had to be filled with a temporary chap so that they could have a look at him before they decided whether to keep him on. But I was one of the other two who came in, so I was very lucky.’

Q. When did you start to become interested in medieval Devon?

‘It wasn’t for a long time that I got into Devon. First of all, I wrote a book and it took me an awful long time. It is difficult when you start teaching, isn’t it? Writing your courses… For the first few years I was just doing the courses and the teaching all year. I only did the research in the vacation so I didn’t get the DPhil for five years after I started here, which wouldn’t be allowed now. And then it took me another four years to publish it, because it needed a lot more work to turn it into a book. I’d been here nine years before my book came out, which, again, wouldn’t be allowed nowadays! And then what I couldn’t publish from the thesis in the book, I put into a second book on the West of England. And that’s when I decided I had to get up on Dorset, Devon and Cornwall – and came to realise that the Cathedral archives had wonderful stuff. Then I started to work on that and got involved in the locality.’

Q. Why did you decide to support medieval studies at Exeter?

‘When I left [the history department] I was not replaced, which annoyed me. There were only two medievalists left: Sarah Hamilton and Julia Crick. So I thought, they need some support, we need to keep medieval history alive. So I said to Simon Barton [then in Modern Languages], “would you like to have the resources to bring in a special lecturer?” The idea was it should somehow fire people up, both students and the general public – although it’s obviously difficult to get somebody who relates to both. But we have managed quite well over the years – we had a very good one on Magna Carta, for example. And I have got a bit of spare money and I don’t want to give it to my Oxford college, which has got far too much, and plenty of other donors. I’d much rather it came down here where it can be useful.’

Saintly Monarchs and Cities of Strangers at the Annual ‘Orme Day’

The Centre for Medieval Studies here at Exeter is well-known for its sense of community, and for the value it places on the exchange of ideas in an informal and relaxed setting. One of the key events in our research year, the annual Orme Day, aims to achieve exactly that with a postgraduate symposium followed by the Nicholas Orme lecture, a public lecture on medieval studies by a visiting speaker. This year’s event – affectionately known as the ‘Feast of Orme’ – took place on Tuesday 12th March. After the unfortunate disruption to last year’s event caused by industrial action, we were delighted to be able to run the event in its traditional format once again.

The day began shortly after lunch, with a series of 20-minute presentations from current postgraduate students. The topics of these presentations reflected the wide range of research undertaken at the Centre. Philip Wallinder’s talk, ‘Apocryphal? Who, Me?’, examined John Trevisa‘s approach to translating the Gospel of Nicodemus into Middle English and was informed by both translation theory and the close-reading of Latin and Middle English texts. Trevisa’s concordance of several distinct calendar systems and his use of intertextuality offered fruitful topics for discussion, as Philip drew on texts from St. Jerome’s Chronicon to recent editions of the Latin Nicodemus to illustrate the relationship between the Middle English ‘Nicodemus’ and its sources.

Q&A for the speakers (standing), under the watchful eye of Prof. Orme

By contrast, Ekaterina Novokhatko, a visiting PhD student and member of the HERA After Empire project, focused on more geographical questions in her presentation. She outlined her attempts to map the spread of martyrological texts (and their attendant communication networks) in eleventh-century Europe. Her talk showed how Catalonia functioned as a zone of contact, within which French interest in the life of St. Gerald met the northern Italian focus on St. Alexius; using mapping tools, she neatly illustrated how these two ‘models of the layman saint’ circulated together in the area in which a contemporary pope, Silvester II, had studied in his youth.

There was a similar saintly focus to Henry Marsh‘s talk, albeit in a less conventional sense: Henry explored the Gesta Henrici Quinti (1413-16), a text that has typically been interpreted as a paean to his namesake’s celebrated martial prowess. Henry, however, focused squarely on those readings that emphasise the almost-hagiographic elements of the text, arguing that in order to grasp the anonymous author’s full understanding of the king, it is necessary to acknowledge those readings that look beyond the commonly-cited sources of chivalric texts and to consider the Gesta as a response to challenges posed both by France and by Lollardy. The text, Henry noted, frames the King’s physical struggles as spiritual struggles, down-playing traditional ‘hack-and-slash’ romance-inspired elements and aligning the monarch, perhaps counterintuitively, with saints who had faced off against temporal power. While the Gesta might be useful for analysing myth-making, Henry suggested, it is equally important to ask precisely which myths its author was attempting to create.

Following a short break, the gaggle of medievalists reassembled in the plush surroundings of the Business School for the keynote Orme Lecture, delivered by the inimitable Miri Rubin. Prof. Rubin’s talk concerned urban societies in the Middle Ages and was entitled ‘(Italian) Cities of Strangers: Some Ways Medieval Cities Thought About Their Diversity’. As she explained, this topic was just one of many that would have paid tribute to the work of Nicholas Orme, but it was probably the most effective in allowing the assembled audience to engage with the ‘search for the human’ that has been at the heart of his research.

Prof. Miri Rubin giving the annual Orme Lecture

Over the course of her lecture, Prof. Rubin examined attitudes to ‘strangers’ and ‘foreigners’ in medieval Italy and beyond, charting how the ‘Great Transformation’ of the fourteenth century led to a shift in views on non-locals. Thinkers and legal theorists, she stressed, increasingly moved away from ‘pathways to citizenship’ and embraced a ‘rhetoric of exclusion’. Her startling final slide – showing a post-Black-Death ‘ideal’ city as one that appeared to be empty – left us all with plenty to think about. It was a talk that talk invited comparisons with contemporary attitudes towards immigration and integration, and stressed the complex relationship between medieval and modern attitudes to the ‘other’.

It certainly was a fascinating and stimulating day for all involved, and a reminder of the vitality and vision that characterise the Centre for Medieval Studies’ research community. The Centre would like to thank all of those involved in planning, organising and contributing to the event, from postgraduates to our keynote speaker; in particular, however, we would like to show our appreciation for Nicholas Orme, whose generous funding of the lecture series allows us to invite many of the leading lights of contemporary medieval studies to challenge, inspire, and invigorate us all.

Ed Mills, PhD student

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