The differences and similarities between historical fiction and academic history: Ian Mortimer


Speaker: Ian Mortimer (author and historian)

‘Academia’ and ‘scholarship’ are not necessarily the same thing.  Ian Mortimer looks at the question of similarities and differences by first looking at the variance within so-called academic history.  Mortimer also offers an alternative stance to what is a good historical fiction than that provided earlier by Hilary Mantel and Alison Weir.


Please see the Podcasts feed for audio files

This entry was posted in Lectures by Matt Phillpott. Bookmark the permalink.

About Matt Phillpott

I am an historian of early modern Britain and the Digital Resources Manager at the School of Advanced Study. My main area of interest is in the authentication of knowledge in early print, including religious, historical, and agricultural texts.

3 thoughts on “The differences and similarities between historical fiction and academic history: Ian Mortimer

  1. Ian Mortimer’s distinction seems to be in the first instance between academia and scholarship, which he sees as overlapping, but in no sense identical. Academia for him appears to be more concerned with teaching, while scholarship (among other things) is the investigation of facts. Academics can be scholars, but in his opinion ‘academia doesn’t offer many opportunities for the historian’!

    Thus he most definitely sees works like ‘The Time-traveller’s Guide to Medieval England’ and ‘1415: Henry V’s Year of Glory’ as experiments with form in an attempt to progress historical scholarship (and not in any way inferior to history produced in the academy).

    Where he does see a fundamental split is between his history writing, and his historical fiction – as historian Ian Mortimer he has to be ‘responsible’, whereas as James Forrester ‘it’s playtime’…I guess the assumption of a pseudonym makes this very clear (or do all historians do this?), but his approach to his historical fiction seems much less serious than that espoused by other contributor to this conference…

  2. I’m with Ian Mortimer in the sense that I think historical novelists can be too obsessed with ‘authenticity’, or at least sometimes interpret that word in too narrow a way. For example, Samuel Pepys appears frequently in my Matthew Quinton series, but I’ve put Pepys in places where we know he couldn’t have been, having conversations that we know he didn’t have. So do I stick to the straitjacket created by his diary, or do I use artistic licence and put him in situations that are true to his personality and attitudes but are otherwise entirely my invention? I’ve gone for the latter, but I know some might criticise me for doing so. Going back to Ian Mortimer’s argument, though, I certainly feel different when writing fiction to when I’m writing academic history books; but for me, they’re both part of the same process. My ‘day job’ for most of my career was as a teacher in the secondary sector, and for me, everything I write is still a form of teaching – one of my main reasons for writing the Quinton series was to inform far more people about 17th century naval history than I could possibly reach via academic books or other means (hopefully also entertaining them and enjoying myself along the way, of course!). But the thing that most impressed me about this lecture was Ian Mortimer’s excellent critique of ‘historical fact’, exposing just how dodgy many of the much-vaunted ‘primary sources’ really are. Would that such insights had informed rather more of the dire teaching of ‘historical skills’ in British schools in the last 20-odd years…

    • I found Ian Mortimer’s approach to academic/scholarly history and historical fiction an interesting alternative. When I read historical fiction what I am looking for is an authentic world (i.e. a feeling of being transported to a past time). I am not necessarily looking for accuracy as to what a person from the past may or may not have done or to the exact re-creation of events as they might have happened. Sometimes I do want this – and it sounds as if Hilary Mantel’s book does this great service (I will be adding her book to my Christmas list!). However, sometimes its just enough to get the world authentic and allow the story to be its own things. I think C.J. Sansom in his Shardlake series does this well. ‘Real’ history is there but largely in the form of the world in which Shardlake lives rather than having a direct limitation on the story. Shardlake walks in and out of historical events but for the most part they are a backdrop that helps give that world a realistic feel.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s