Peter Burke interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 31st July 2004 – Part 1

0:00:05 Parentage; father’s family from Galway; father born in Birkenhead a week after his parents arrived in England in 1904; mother’s father from Vilnius, left Russia in 1883; mother’s mother came from Lodz in Poland in 1887; on mother’s side Jewish, father’s Catholic; mother converted to Catholicism but without fervour; parents met at a German club but only ever spoke English; mother had spent year in Berlin 1930-31; father a real linguist, a professional translator, and learnt languages as a hobby; later became a bookseller and learnt Chinese and Japanese so he could sell Japanese prints

0:05:35 Have carried on the family tradition though never learnt Irish; speak romance languages – French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and a bit of Catalan; can read the Germanic languages and decipher  some Slav languages; made an effort with Polish as more relevant to seventeenth century history than Russian

0:08:10 Not easy to describe influence of parents; mother more outgoing; when talking with sisters and parents used Yiddish words; father more solitary and not keen on socializing; hobby was reading; have inherited a bit of both

0:10:02 Went to St Ignatius, Stamford Hill [London]; a Jesuit grammar school, so started at eleven; at sixteen went on compulsory Jesuit retreat; just like Joyce’s ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ with hell-fire sermon; have been a sceptic for a very long time; Jesuits enjoyed arguing for the existence of God; at Oxford tried formally to leave the church; visited by a Jesuit and a secular priest; the latter, sympathetic,  was Anthony Kenny, who later left the priesthood and became Master of Balliol

0:13:20 Had a history master at school, Father O’Higgens, who had ambitions for me; at seven had decided I wanted to be a professor of history; by ‘S’ Level only person in the class; he was serious about history which may have influenced me more than I thought at the time; got open scholarship at St John’s in history in 1954; nobody from my school had done this before; interviewed by Costin who was later President of St John’s and Howard Colvin, who taught me mediaeval history

0:17:23 Before going to Oxford did National Service; wanted to do Russian course and to be sent to Germany, but not possible; became a clerk after basic training at Caterick; horrible but illuminating; posted to Singapore as a pay clerk for locally enlisted personnel – Malays, Chinese, Indians; I was doing something like fieldwork without knowing; until I was twenty-one I had not come across the word ‘anthropology’; then read a book on anthropology by Evans-Pritchard and found from the description of fieldwork that I had been doing it in Singapore; had boring job that didn’t take long to do; fascinating mixture of peoples; wanted to observe and write down; real culture shock; first shock was to realize how corrupt the regiment was; officers didn’t see anything; large quantities of equipment ended up in a market in town, known unofficially as the “Thieves Market”; drivers used to siphon petrol out of the tanks of lorries; protection racket; renting out space to civilians to sleep

0:24:45 Race issues between British and the rest; questioned Malays on their customs which they seemed to enjoy; now think it was the experience of Singapore that has given an anthropological edge to my work; even thought about reading anthropology at Oxford, if so would have work among the Malay people; had very easy rapport with Malays

0:29:43 Back in Oxford, in the first week went to see the Senior Tutor and said I wanted to learn Chinese but told I would lose my scholarship; I might have had a career like Jonathan Spence or Mark Elwin; decided to read early modern history; tutored by Keith Thomas; memories of Keith Thomas; in 1958 shy and earnest, wanted everybody to work really hard; think that his tutorial style based on what he had learnt from Christopher Hill; later, when a graduate student, rather critical of the system, encouraged by Keith to write in Oxford Magazine; also organised talks about history and something; Asa Briggs did History and Sociology and Keith did History and Anthropology, later published in Past and Present; what had impressed us as undergraduates was his article on double standards in History of Ideas; mixture of conventional and unconventional; his teaching was conventional but his research unconventional; his style closer to Bloch than others;

0:38:10 Trevor-Roper my research supervisor much more flamboyant, constantly denouncing people; as Regius Professor used to interview anybody that wanted to do historical research; critical of all those I thought I’d like as supervisor and realized he wanted to be asked; saw him every term and he walked up and down delivering a lecture; never communicated with me; never finished the PhD; we stayed quite close until after I’d published an article on tacitism; my later involvement with History Workshop ended our relationship

0:41:49 Meeting Raphael Samuel was one of the great formative experiences for me; ranking of historians, Namier above Tawney; Keith above Tawney, below Namier; on intellectual power, the greatest I have met were Isaiah Berlin, Momigliano and Leszek  Kolakowski

0:45:39 I had meant to do research on the Jesuits in Rome; went to Campion Hall and got a letter to the archivist; took a negative response as final although it might have been open to negotiation; decided to do research on history of historical writing; chose a Venetian anti-Jesuit, Paulo Sarpi; Trevor-Roper one of the few who would have known of Sarpi at that time as he’d read The History of the Council of Trent; historiography; introduced to Momigliano by Trevor-Roper who was working on reception of ancient historians, especially Tacitus; stayed in touch for the rest of his life; like having a continuous conversation; think he was maybe the greatest scholar that I have encountered; realized that Keith Thomas was an important historian when I reviewed his book on the radio in 1971; in the same class as Stone’s Aristocracy and Thompson’s Making of the Working Class

0:51:02 Lawrence Stone and Christopher Hill were the lecturers at Oxford for early modernists; Stone histrionic; read Edward Thompson’s books but didn’t meet him until conference where he said he was a Marxist empiricist and Ernest Gellner said it was a contradiction in terms; difficult but fascinating character; Stone was instrumental in my getting to Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton; Felix Gilbert at the Institute may have asked Stone to suggest names of younger scholars; had to get reference from Trevor-Roper who suspected the hand of Stone; I said I was applying to the Institute because I was writing a book on the Renaissance and that  Ervin Panofsky was there; at Princeton shuttled between the Institute and the Firestone Library and the history department where there were tremendous graduate seminars; first week there Tom Kuhn came to talk; Edward Thompson’s was an intellectual influence; I was very interested in and sympathetic to Marx; at St Anthony’s had spent a lot of time reading Marx and Weber

0:55:05 Not only people that influence you but environments; St John’s Oxford was a great environment for relatively conventional history; not such a good idea to do research in own undergraduate college; got senior scholarship at St Anthony’s where most people were studying the twentieth century and very few people came from Britain; there had been a division in the college fellowship and James Joll had the idea that there should be a few people within the college with interests other than the twentieth century; also thought they should bring in a few Oxford graduates each year to be able to explain British and Oxford culture to the rest; this environment very important to me; my best friend was an Ecuadorian with whom I am still in touch; continental atmosphere where one could talk about philosophy over dinner, unlike other Oxford colleges; I gravitated to Mediterranean, Latin, people; joint sociology philosophy seminar on alienation with Iris Murdoch and Norman Birnbaum; found myself giving a paper on ‘The Concept of Alienation in the Context of Recent American Sociological Studies of Factory Workers’, Norman Birnbaum providing the bibliography; read a book on the man on the assembly line; interested in the long quotations from interviews; talk based on this single book and Birnbaum asked why; because it was the only one where you heard the voices of people being studied not just the sociologist.