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If research is a giant compost heap, then it is all the maggoty doubts that provide nourishment and, ultimately, enrichment. When I began writing about history, I was drawn to the 18th century primarily because the people felt like us: they had left behind the medieval mindset and were moving towards the modern. Admittedly, their jokes were crude and terrible and they had some suspect laws and traditions, not to mention fashions, but for me they were more similar to the way we live now in terms of intellectual curiosity and society than the people who came after them. The Victorians, the Edwardians and the people of the early 20th century who experienced the two catastrophic world wars were all markedly different generations, affected by varied, rapid changes in society and the trauma of war.

The experiences of love, war, family, ageing or for instance, as with opium, addiction, are common threads, but the people are ultimately unique and individual. How we see the world, and accomplish change within it, has been changing constantly for millennia and the pace of that change will only accelerate in the future. In the next century, technology will deepen the gulf between us and those who follow to a degree previously unimaginable.

The collective and individual legacies we leave will be examined by these future generations of historians, but this is our time, and they will be a very different people. The text is one of the jewels of Byzantine literature.

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Written in beautiful Greek, it is the work of a highly intelligent author who was able to draw on a glittering array of contemporary resources, including letters, official documents, imperial orders and eyewitness accounts. Although the Alexiad was very well known, it had not been subject to a great deal of critical attention. Many had written about Anna as an author; not surprisingly given hers is the first narrative history written by a woman in a European language.

My great breakthrough was to establish that the sequence of events presented in the text was extremely unreliable. Misleading, in fact, to the point of distorting the history of the Byzantine Empire in the late 11th and early 12th centuries; a crucial period in the history of Byzantium but also of the Islamic world, of Russia, of the Caucasus and of Western Europe as a result of the First Crusade and the capture of Jerusalem. Reconfiguring the chronology of what had actually happened when was therefore extremely important: challenging, but also highly rewarding and satisfying. Like solving a puzzle or, as I often told myself late at night, hunched over my notes, like solving a complex crime.

The big question, though, was why the chronology was wrong. For years, I was convinced that the errors were all unintentional, the result of an author juggling with complicated and conflicting accounts, doing her best to make sense of the material at her disposal and re-assemble a picture of events that she knew about, and in a few cases, and seen for herself. Slowly, though, I began to query if I had not been over-generous or even misled.


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All too often it turned out that it was rather convenient that sequencing errors had crept in, all too apt that something was in the wrong place. The wheels began to turn as I realised that perhaps I did not really understand the text at all, that there were layers I had not recognised and allusions, nods and winks that I had not been able to see.


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The penny only really dropped when I translated the Alexiad for Penguin Classics. Then I was forced to deal with the text line by line, to ponder quotations and borrowings from Homer, Hesiod and Horace and to wonder why well-known verses from the Book of Proverbs contained a mistake. It finally dawned on me that these slips were intentional, sometimes meant as in-jokes that would have brought smiles to those who read or listened to the text.

The results brought me about turn with how I have understood this seminal text — but also of the dangers of not understanding primary sources in general: that, of course, is the greatest lesson any historian can learn. My own raw, mistaken views about the simplicity of the text are one thing; but I think that my formation as a historian owes a great deal to the fact that not only did I learn how to really read, but that I also learned how to recognise that changing my opinion and keeping an open mind is the best thing someone who looks at the past can — and must — do.

My lightbulb moments as a historian often occur while travelling. One of the most enlightening took place in Trier, the Rhineland city where Constantine the Great d. One comparatively modest case captured my imagination: a gold tray under a skylight bearing perhaps a dozen gold rings collected from excavations across the Roman Empire. During the civil wars of the early fourth century Constantine gained fame as an outstanding leader of men, and already during his lifetime historians suggested that the secret of his success was in his Christian faith.


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But they have been arguing ever since about his conversion to Christianity. The emperor himself told the story that in October of , as he prepared to capture Rome — on the eve of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge — a vision told him that he would win under the sign of the cross. Accordingly he had new standards prepared for the decisive battle, which he resoundingly won.

Sometimes, the change comes simply by realising you were looking in the wrong direction. The situation for working-class women was entirely different.

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So finding new material, finding new arguments that make you read events differently is key. I can think of half a dozen moments when I have sat in the library quietly bouncing in my seat as a new path is opened up to me by another historian hacking through the wilderness of sources. Not changing your mind is dull. Last month I thought the Duke of Wellington was a dreadful politician. Because what readers want isn't so much an idea that's never been done before, but the story told with your style, your wit, and your voice.

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