Jeremy Black

Britain's most prolific historian remains generally ignored by the intelligentsia

Jeremy Black, the Professor of History at the University of Exeter, ought to be a National Treasure, but instead is hardly known outside a few cognoscenti of history-writing. A Stakhanovite who has just published his 85th book, he deserves far more public recognition. The sheer quality of his output, especially in the field of 18th-century studies, ought to have marked him out as one of our great historians, yet he is curiously neglected, possibly because of his quiet Toryism, innate modesty and horror of providing TV-friendly soundbites.

Black is a natural didact, a word hardly ever used except pejoratively nowadays, but a noble calling nonetheless. He wants us to share his enthusiasms. He writes non-Marxist history with emphasis on narrative, readability and trying to understand the great actors of the past in their own terms and contexts, rather than in ours. He rebels against the tyranny of the contemporary, whereby our mores are assumed, simply through chronology, to be superior to those of earlier times.

In refreshing contrast to the increasing specialisation of British history-writing – featuring micro-theses in subjects with ever-smaller time-frames and geographical scope – Black is equally at ease with post-1500 military history, 18th-century UK and European history, international relations, cartographic history and newspaper history. He can also do pointilliste monographs when required, as The Collapse of the Anglo-French Alliance 1727-31 [1987] proves. Black’s sense of humour might count against him in some po-faced history circles. The Politics of James Bond [2000] might indicate a lightheartedness not considered appropriate in a profession that all too often takes itself extremely seriously.

There’s a good chance that you will have read one of Black’s books without really noticing it, as there are 33,239 books of his in library holdings around Britain, more than any other single historian. Yet where is his CBE or Companionship of Honour? Where are the birthday dinners hosted by the Royal Historical Society and the History Association? Where is his inclusion in Festschriften, in-depth newspaper profiles about him, his TV series on Channel 4, or any of the other myriad marks of public esteem that are lavished upon lesser historians, including the monster on the page opposite? So far Black has received only an MBE, and that was 10 years ago, for services to stamp design.

The key to this lack of recognition is his massive output. Fellow academics simply cannot believe that 85 books he has written since The British and the Grand Tour was published in 1985, can be any good. They have come out on an average of one every four months ever since. Yet they are good. If one has a body of knowledge and primary research built up over a lifetime of study, as Black does, it is possible to write many more books than most academics truly want to. Black shows other academics up – ergo, he can’t be any good. Except in the Salisbury Review and the Spectator, he is hardly ever reviewed.

Yet here is a man who won an entrance scholarship to Queens’ College, Cambridge. He took a starred first there three years later and then won the Harmsworth Scholarship at Merton College, Oxford. He took his PhD, and became a professor before the age of 40. He is generally pro-American, anti-Marxist and a believer in using chronology to tell an historical story. Because of this he has been largely written off by the fashionable, modernist wing of the history profession. There is also doubtless, consciously or subconsciously, a sense of envy that his books do something most academic historians’ do not: they sell.

Black’s books sell because they do precisely what they say on the tin. Georgian Devon [2003], The British Seaborne Empire [2004], George III [2006], The Rise of the European Powers 1679-1793 [1990] and so on are books that inform their readers in a comprehensive way, free of psychobabble and political ideology. Were a Polish, French, German or Russian historian to produce a body of work as good and as extensive as the 53-year-old Black’s, drawing on such vast knowledge and intensive research, while all the time holding down a professorial teaching post, he would be the toast of his nation. Here, he is largely ignored or treated as a workaholic.

I slightly suspect that we in Britain also like our historians to be waspish and tough, extrovert and noisy, rather than sweet-tempered, good-natured and jolly, like Black. It’s too late for him to contract the donnish malice that endeared AJP Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper to the British, or toss off the harsh asides of David Starkey, or acquire the revivalist Obamamania of Simon Schama, or even take on the instinctive megaphone reactionary opinions of some of the rest of us – including, I admit, myself on occasion.

Instead, he will merely keep on churning out very good books that are largely ignored by the intelligentsia. We must hope that perhaps when his 100th is published – presumably in only four or five years’ time – a grateful nation will finally recognise him as the fine historian he has always been.

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