Saturday, 21 July 2012

A Short Q&A with Historian Catherine Fletcher

Catherine Fletcher latest book is called Our Man in Rome is set in the six-year period of Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. It's the story of Gregorio Casali, Henry VIII’s ambassador in Rome from 1525 to 1533, but also the first book-length account of the diplomatic intrigues behind the divorce for several decades.

Q. What made you tackle an already crowded field of historical study of the Tudor's especially Henry viii? My interest was originally focused on Renaissance Italy and the way today’s diplomatic system grew up there. I started looking at Henry VIII’s ‘divorce’ from Catherine of Aragon as a case-study of how monarchs negotiated in Rome, and realised that the Italian side of the story really hadn’t been told before in any detail. I found so much fascinating material that I thought it would be worth writing up.

Q How would you described your historiographical style. Who were your mainly influenced as a younger historian/writer.?

Writing The Divorce of Henry VIII I was influenced by microhistories that take one small example – in my case the ambassador in Rome – and use it to tell a bigger story. Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms and Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre are a couple of the classics. Microhistories tend to focus on people lower down the social scale, but I don’t see why they can’t be used to look at the experience of elite figures like ambassadors too. I also had Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana at the back of my mind (my book was first published as Our Man in Rome). That’s a great book about diplomatic duplicity – and makes an important point for historians that you can never be quite sure that envoys’ letters are telling the truth.

Q What advice would you give to an upcoming historian.

First, I’d say go and explore the archives. There’s a huge quantity of documentation out there – in local record offices, family holdings, and the like – that’s never been properly sorted through. Find a story that interests you and follow it through. And second, I’d say that it’s well worth taking the time to learn languages other than your own. Being able to read material in other languages can give you a very different perspective on historical issues.

Q How do you view the development of history blogs and other internet based historical resources.

History blogs are a great way for historians to discuss work in an informal way – and to find out what’s going on in the world of history. I wish I had more time to read them! They can make for much wider interaction between members of the public and academic historians than would otherwise be possible. The internet has also allowed the creation of some great digital databases of original source material. The Medici Archive Project in Florence has put thousands of letters online, and the Old Bailey Online site is a brilliant resource for anyone researching English legal and social history. My only concern is that we may now see a bias towards research on those themes that have good online resources at the expense of areas which don’t.

Q What are you working on now.

I’m trying to finish an academic book about the development of diplomacy in Renaissance Rome. After that, my plan is to write another book based in Renaissance Italy, and I’m working through the options for that now. There are so many good stories to tell about the great dynasties: the Borgias and the Medici, for example. I’m trying to make up my mind which one to write first!