'Why History Matters'
Professor John Arnold is Professor of Medieval History in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology.
The following is an extract from his inaugural speech entitled Writing Heresy, Capturing Dissent on what history is and why it matters.
'I am a member of a department notable for its strong sense of collective engagement with not just the 'what' of the past, but the continuing 'why'; the recurrent question of why history matters, as the title of the recent book by John Tosh puts it.
'The case for history mattering is plain if the topic of study is Nazi Germany or, in our current economic conditions, the development of modern capitalism. Historians of the middle ages have to work a little harder.
'The Arts and Humanities Research Council, in line with government funding policy, are currently very big on 'the impact agenda'. This seems to be conceived primarily in economic terms – and I would have to admit that the middle ages probably doesn't provide the means of escape from our current financial and political crises, unless we find it of help to reflect upon medieval warnings about the moral consequences of the sin of greed and the crime of usury. But a wider sense of 'impact' – of how what we do might matter – does have some appeal.
'So whilst thirteenth-century France, medieval heresiography, and the manuscript history of Benedict's Tractatus are all important issues, I would like, in the particular context of this lecture, to turn also to some more contemporary ideas; to show that what matters is not simply what happened and what was written long ago, but what we now perceive and how we continue to write about it today.'