Interview with R. Malcolm Smuts, Professor Emeritus of History, University of Massachusetts at Boston
Malcolm embraced the study of court culture in the 1970s, when historians generally regarded it ‘as an idiosyncratic topic’. Tirelessly productive, always insightful and generous, Malcolm’s work on the late Tudor and Stuart court is distinctive by its reach beyond traditional political history to encompass cultural history – art history, literature, material culture and court ceremony. With numerous, far-reaching books, edited collections, scholarly articles, book reviews and a prominent role in both The Society for Court Studies and the Court Studies Forum, Malcolm has been widely influential to a generation of scholars working in court studies (the two of us included).
What is the most fulfilling aspect of your job?
It’s tremendously rewarding when a younger scholar tells me that something I’ve written has been important to his/her work. (This has only happened to me a few times). The sense of engagement with other scholars – feeling able to contribute to the conversation but also learning from them – is what makes it all worthwhile.
What is your background? / How did you get interested in the Stuart court?
I think I was originally attracted to early modern English history because I liked early periods but didn’t know Latin; otherwise I might have been tempted to become a medievalist. But in terms of historiography I liked the kind of work then being done (before 1975) in fields like the Italian Renaissance to the obsessive focus on parliaments and county politics that dominated English political history. So I wanted a topic that would let me integrate cultural history and political history. Court culture was actually suggested by my supervisor, Lawrence Stone but I immediately took up the idea. As I recall he had in mind a synthesis of the secondary literature but I wanted to include primary research as well. At the time (the mid-1970s) court culture was regarded as an idiosyncratic topic by most historians. It became fashionable a few years later, much to my benefit.
What was the title of your PhD and who was your PhD supervisor?
‘The Culture of Absolutism at the Court of Charles I’, supervised by Lawrence Stone, completed in 1976. Tony Grafton, then in his first year at Princeton, was on the committee; I remember him complementing my typist for bringing consistency to my misspellings of Italian words.
What book or article was particularly formative to shaping your approach to court studies?
Roy Strong, Charles I on Horseback, appeared just as I began research, followed by his joint work with Stephen Orgel on the court masque. That work and the studies of Strong’s mentor, Frances Yates, provided the best available model at the time. But I was working under a social historian who’d admonished me on my first graduate school paper for doing ‘intellectual history in a vacuum’, and so I wanted to provide more of a social (and political) context, derived from archival sources, than Orgel, Strong and Yates provided. Figuring out how to do this was a challenge, with which I’ve continued to wrestle ever since.
Tell us a little about your writing process, including where you write, any rituals around writing.
I start by trying to work out the structure and opening paragraph, either in my head or in notes jotted down longhand and then plunge in, writing away and reogranizing as I go if I decide I’ve put something in the wrong order. Then I’ll usually go over the draft once, making revisions before putting it aside for a time and then returning to it later. Sometimes I decide in the process of writing that I need to read more about some point, so I’ll do that in the interim. Revision often takes longer than producing the initial draft.
What is your favourite castle, country house or art collection and why?
I love Fontainebleau because it’s such a beautiful early sixteenth century palace but I have lots of favorites. Knole is wonderful because of the galleries and the fact that it is such an irregular, picturesque sprawl.
What are you currently working on?
The big, long-term project is a study of the impact of problems of religious war and instability on political culture and the formation of a state in Britain and Ireland, ca. 1578-1615. Part of the argument is that since problems of religious instability had simultaneous local, national, British and European dimensions, focusing on them provides a way of highlighting ways in which early modern politics transcended national boundaries.
There have also been a number of smaller projects – most recently an article just completed entitled ‘The Politics of Defamation in Jonson’s Poetaster’ and an essay that tries to place the courts of lord deputies in Tudor Ireland within a broad perspective, especially in comparison to Spanish viceroys.
What’s one thing you wish you’d known earlier? / Number one tip for early career researchers?
Don’t be shy about tackling head-on any prevailing assumptions in your field that don’t fit well with your arguments or the content of your work. Realize that many readers will instinctively approach your research through the lens of standard assumptions and questions in the field. If those are the wrong assumptions and questions, it’s up to you to tell them why. While there is no point in being needlessly contentious, politely disagreeing with senior scholars and prevailing views is almost always less costly in the long run than evading issues.
I’d also suggest trying to find odd hours while you are still young to obtain a working knowledge of more languages (and to maintain the languages you already have).
What do you think has been understudied or misinterpreted by scholars and needs a fresh assessment?
Methodologically I still think we need to work harder at integrating social history with the traditional tools of art history, intellectual history and literary criticism. There’s still too much a tendency to do one or the other: to concentrate either on analysis of images and texts or examining social environments and relationships. In British fields some architectural historians, beginning with Mark Girouard but now including many others, have provided one model for bridging the gap. (I especially admire Nicholas Cooper’s Houses of the Gentry).
We also need more work on the culture of aristocratic dynasties, which have been relatively neglected as scholars concentrated either on royal courts or popular milieu.
What recent book or article (of the last year or so) do you recommend reading?
Depends entirely on the field and discipline. I do think there are several important chapters in the book I recently co-edited with Luc Duerloo, The Age of Rubens: Diplomacy, Dynastic Politics and the Visual Arts in Early Seventeenth Century Europe. In British cultural history, Peter Lake’s Bad Queen Bess is a provocative book on public political culture, both for what it has to say and for what it leaves out. Erin Griffey’s On Display is important both for material culture and as a comprehensive study of the material and visual dimensions of a queen’s environment.