Historians or amateur (non-fiction) enthusiasts….?

Here is something I hope will get your grey cells going. Some time ago, a friend of mine had a quote from her Amazon.com review of a book published on the book itself. The book was one of the Neophyte Warrior series by Richard Patton, of which I have read not one sentence. But it really doesn’t matter which book or author it was, rather the point my friend was making. I have extracted the relevant portion:-

“….the author…is not a historian by trade. Perhaps this is why his interest…is so easily—and vividly—brought to life…”

Do you agree with this? How many of today’s popular historians can light up their subject with a compelling glow? And how many can kill it stone dead on the first page? And what about the other, more traditional, historians, who are so steeped in their subject and the minutiae of every detail that wading through it all is hard labour that will only get you to the nitty-gritty if you can stay the course? I am not referring to ficton writers, who are, by definition, concerned with fiction, and if it is historical fiction, they will weave their story around the facts. No, I am talking about non-fiction.

Might it be that the amateur enthusiast can actually convey everything to a reader with more verve and excitement than many who have all the qualifications?

I know that “amateur enthusiast” can equal “a bit nutty”, and that “enthusiasm” can equal “fanatical obsession”, especially in this day of self-publication, but the same descriptions can apply to certain fully qualified historians with letters after their names. I am not referring to extremists of any kind whatsoever.

Opinions please? And which present historian or amateur (non-fiction) enthusiast is your favourite? Mine is Ian Mortimer, because he is a historian who crosses the divide sublimely, and brings his subject to wonderful life. In my opinion, anyway. Over to you…


  1. As a Librarian by degree and trade one of my major studies to earn my Master of Library and Information Science was to study Information Communities. My chosen study was to search for similarities and differences between amateur historians and those who have degrees in history of some specialty. Basically what it boiled down to was that there was no major differences in methodology used to research their topics. Both groups used primary (diaries, surveys, interviews, and people who experienced the era) secondary (research articles), and tertiary sources (dictionaries, monologues, textbooks).
    Both cited information using one of the many citation guidelines (APA, MLA, etc).

    The one big difference was that amateur historians usually focused on local histories and used local resources at hand. Thus primary sources such as interviews, diaries, etc were used more. However even that was similar to professionals in how they performed surveys and interviews if people were still alive and usually followed privacy laws when necessary. Many were retired and had an interest in local and familial genealogy more than say Richard III. Although some families are at least peripherally interested in finding someone such as Richard in their lines. However this often sparked an interest in a historical era to write about.

    For example I found that on my maternal side I am descended from Lacey families in Meath, thus I have started to become interested in the history of Meath and England, primarily from the Wars of the Roses and how Ireland was affected. My paternal family is Spanish and Finnish, so I am curious as to how Spain and Finland worked with or against England.

    The majority of amateur historians did have degrees or some form of higher education/training and were introduced to research methods at least for the 100 and 200 level courses (equivalent to an associate degree in the US). Therefore I would consider amateurs to be as knowledgeable about how to find and synthesize information as equal to most professional historians.

    Those historians by history degree tend to put more weight on secondary and tertiary resources and those articles and books mentioning primary sources rather than reading them themselves (ie More, etc). Thus I think that a problem exists for studying topics such as the Wars of the Roses because professionals tend to use research previously done or primary sources like More that has been watered down/translated wrong/in the wrong context, then collate it, and finally come up with their own conclusions. Or repeat a conclusion by a previous historian.

    Personally I think that amateur and professional historians should benefit from working together. They offer different perspectives about history. Curiosity that has not been hindered by career parameters can be an advantage while also reigned in for logic. Look at how the Looking for Richard project turned out. Whether or not one agrees with where Richard was reburied, the research by the RIII Society in combination with the university archaeologists etc was awesome. Neither would have found him in the time frame and resources needed without the other.

    There is something to be said for having amateur historians who are not afraid to step out just enough to get the professionals to think.

    So far my favorite “amateur” historian would have to be Matthew Lewis. I like that he researches like the law student he was but has passion for his historical writing, non-fiction and fiction alike. His knowledge of policies and the background for the policies in place during Richard’s life is something that many historians may not consider. History is often treated as less scientific and more ethereal than anthropology, sociology, and psychology all of which go into many legal degree paths, or as in my case library sciences in which I also focused much on law. Social sciences and humanities need to be involved with each other to figure out why someone behaved in a certain manner within the context of the society that person or group lived in.

    While I don’t mind some professional historians I am finding myself wondering why there is so much laziness in repeating what has already been said about a historical person. I think it was a brilliant stroke of Phillipa Langley’s to bring in psychology to profile Richard within his social context. Risky for certain but it is shaking up the status quo of how Richard is viewed.

    This makes me wonder how many others have been written into history with incorrect conclusions repeated by later generations. How much of the real story has changed to suit politics? For example Charles II was in political turmoil and what better way to get England to stop focusing on his shortcomings than to “find” the princes in the tower? I think that was a shrewd bit of propaganda that was still within a range of time that people thought about the princes and furthered the idea of Richard as a murderous tyrant rather than Charles being incompetent.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Maybe said amateur is not bogged down by the assigned reading lists and teacher biases, and is literally free to explore and discover in whatever manner they choose. And as they are truly interested in the subject matter to hand – not just because it is a course requirement – they will find more joy in their discoveries.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Interesting perspective. I think my favorite “amateur historian” is author Sharon Kay Penman, whose attention to detail and historical fact make her novels a delightful, rich reading experience.

    From the perspective of an amateur historian myself, I agree with the assessment above. We have much in common with the pros in terms of sources, etc. However, my philosophy is that I need to put “boots on the ground” as much as possible when researching my novels and make primary sources my first choice.

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  4. I agree that the ‘amateur’ has enormous advantages over the ‘professional’ – I live in both camps. My professional side has all the perks of ACCESS – to research and reference materials literally anywhere, any grad student knows what it means to lose that access once they graduate (oblivion!). My amateur side, however, has no constraints as to time, questions I might pursue, how big a ‘net’ I can throw and then follow up on what tidbits show up in that ‘net.’ I remember, very clearly, my first post-grad professor who was utterly mystified by my ‘research’ method, I explained, “I like a big net, you never know what you might find,” to which Dr. S replied, (Melisende would nod at this) “you don’t have time for a ‘big net,’ this is a semester paper!” Indeed.

    There are times when I wish mightily that I had the access of a Michael Hicks, but then look at what a Matthew Lewis (for just one) has accomplished!

    “We” have strengths in this area from both sides – a Rosemary Horrox (professional) and a Philippa Langley (as Colleen noted). I would add my own favorites, Alexander Rose (I’m not a fan of his too-big family biography of the Percy earls of Northumberland, but his Washington’s Spies is lovely, elegant, charming, witty, and changed my admittedly American-biased view of Major John Andre) – while Rose is a ‘historian’ he writes with such ease that it is closer to having a rather nice conversation with him than some arduous lecture about ole’ George (both of them!). My back up would be Annette Carson (Maligned King, 2008), who proves writers (she appears to have interests other than Richard – Jeff Beck for one), who can crossover from a entirely different field, music, and bring a delightfully critical eye to the material that as Colleen says, too many historians repeat ad nauseam. Agreed!

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