Featured Historian: Brendan Smith

In the latest in our regular ‘Featured Historian’ series, we caught up with Brendan Smith.

Brendan is Professor of Medieval History. His published works concern medieval Ireland and in particular the consequences there of English colonisation. His teaching ranges from the impact of the Black Death on late medieval England to the reception of the Norman Conquest in nineteenth-century historical discourse.

Hi Brendan, thanks for doing us. What’s the title of your next book? What’s it about?
A likely title for my next book is The Migrants’ Tale: Moving Around Medieval Britain and Ireland.

It’s a study of the scale and character of population movement within and beyond the British Isles from the fifth to the fifteenth century. Migration is recognised as a historical constant but its importance as an agent for change, particularly in the Middle Ages can be overlooked. I hope to move it to the centre of our thinking about historical developments in Britain and Ireland in the Middle Ages, and the legacy of this for later periods.

How did you become interested in medieval migration?
Brexit, and feeling the need to acquire ‘settled status’ to reside here undisturbed brought home to me in an intense manner my position as a migrant in the UK after almost thirty years living in Bristol.

That got me thinking …

What is the importance of studying historical migration today?
Human migration is as old as the species itself and as natural to it as eating or breathing. In itself it is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’, but it has provoked intense emotional responses throughout recorded history. Present day concerns about migration are almost entirely devoid of historical perspective, which leads to impoverished analysis and ill-informed policies.

Historians can do something about that.

The legacy of migration. Brendan Smith meets Joe Biden in September 2018. The future president agreed to launch the four-volume Cambridge History of Ireland at the residence of the Irish Ambassador in Washington DC. (Professor Smith edited the first of these volumes.) In his address the former Vice President, who had yet to declare his intention to run for the presidency, emphasised his Irish ancestry and his belief that migration continued to have an important role in securing the prosperity of the United States. Copyright 2018 by Marty Katz

What advice would you give to a student interested in historical migration?
O pioneers! Enjoy the sensation of unearthing and following trails that been waiting to be rediscovered for many centuries. If you think that the human experience lies at the heart of history, then this is the topic for you.

What’s the best advice you ever got about history?
My PhD supervisor, James Lydon, quoting an earlier scholar, Eoin MacNeill, used to say: ‘Neither apathy, nor antipathy, will bring out the truth in history.’ I’ve taken that to mean that if you’re emotionally detached or merely partisan, then you’re not doing this right.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?
Novels by W.G. Sebald – Austerlitz, The Rings of Saturn, The Emigrants.

Powerful evocations of the migration experience that take a hammer to the boundaries between history and fiction.

If you had a time machine, where and when would you most want to go?
I would use my time machine to take me to the future – I’ve had enough looking back!

I wonder how much a pint of Thatchers will set me back in The Mardyke when I drop in on a Friday evening in 2122. Surely it will have broken the £2.50 barrier by then! Will Johnny Cash still be blaring from the juke box?

What’s your must-do Bristol experience?
A bright summer evening. Sitting in the gallery at St George’s looking at the sun stream through the windows and listening to the pianist Paul Lewis playing Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms.

What are you working on next?

I’ve been trying unsuccessfully for years to get funding to conduct a detailed study of medieval Irish financial records. I’m not finished yet!

Thanks for joining us, Brendan!

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