Each month, Herstory Club feature an interview with a woman currently working in History. We are aiming to share the experiences women face in the industry (the good and the bad!) and to shine a light on the incredible work currently being undertaken by women across a wide range of specialist disciplines.
Sophie Thérèse Ambler
Herstory Club (HC): Thank you so much for taking the time to share you story with everyone. Firstly, tell us a bit about yourself and your work.
Sophie Thérèse Ambler (STA):
I’m a medieval historian, and my work is varied. I’m a Lecturer in Later Medieval History at Lancaster University, where I research and teach as part of a department of historians, and at Lancaster I’m also Deputy Director of the Centre for War and Diplomacy, which brings together researchers working across the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. An important part of what I do is also sharing historical research with a broader public – for instance, my second book, The Song of Simon de Montfort, was written for a wider readership. I also work with history and heritage organisations, including in my role as North West regional chair of the Battlefields Trust.
HC: What period of history are you interested in?
STA: I work primarily in thirteenth-century history. In England, this is the age of Magna Carta and England’s First Revolution, when a cohort of barons and bishops led by Simon de Montfort seized power from the king and established a council to govern with the help of parliament. These events were part of a broader context, involving the papacy and other European powers, as well as the crusading movement, which is an important part of my research. I also work and teach on later medieval history (1200-1500) more broadly, particularly when it comes to military history. In the past few years, my approach has been increasingly informed by historians working in different periods addressing similar themes, because this can help to spark new questions of medieval sources.
HC: Tell us about your favourite female figure in history.
STA: This is difficult! I’m very interested in the women who played military roles in my period, leading the defence of castles and raising armies – something far more common than people might realise. Amongst many examples, my favourite is Matilda de Briouze. Matilda was a great baron of the Anglo-Welsh borderlands, and probably best known for her tragic end: she and her family opposed King John, and in response the king starved her to death in the prison of a royal castle. But I’d rather remember her fearsome character and, I think, sense of humour. A source close to her recalled with affection how she had once boasted, as a great cattle baron, that she had 12,000 dairy cows, which produced enough cheese to sustain a castle garrison of a hundred for a month, with the men being able to hurl the cheeses over the battlements at their attackers – they would never run out, and could keep it up as long as they never got tired!
HC: Can you tell us a bit about your journey to your current role/research interests? How did you get to where you are now?
STA: I fell for medieval history as an undergraduate at King’s College London, and found it so thrilling I stayed on for a Masters. I discovered an area of research that enthralled me and to which I could contribute, which was the role of churchmen in politics in the tumultuous events of the thirteenth century, and was lucky enough to secure funding to undertake my PhD on the subject. Afterwards, I worked as a post-doctoral researcher on two big research projects funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council: first the Breaking of Britain (on Anglo-Scottish relations before the Wars of Independence) and then The Magna Carta Project. Both were fantastic experiences, apprenticeships of sorts, where I learned huge amounts from the senior historians on these teams; they also opened a lot of doors. I was able at the same time to publish my first book, developed from my doctoral research, and begin work on my second, The Song of Simon de Montfort, an academically researched book for a broader market. I came to Lancaster University in 2017, which has been a wonderful place to develop in a permanent role. All of this has taken a huge amount of work, dedication and resilience, but also a great deal of support. This has come from family and friends, and from many historians: from my doctoral supervisors and project leaders (who were all inexhaustibly wonderful), to other senior historians who took the time to read my work and offer feedback out of sheer kindness, or have thought to put me forward for opportunities. The same has been true working in popular history, where I’ve benefitted from a lot of encouragement and generous support from people established in the field. At the same time, as in all walks of life, one needs a healthy dose of luck, for the right opportunities to open at the right time.
HC: Can you tell us a bit about your experiences within the wider historical field and your line of work – both positive and negative experiences are welcome!
STA: There’s a lot of negativity on social media about academia, particularly about working culture and unkind behaviour. There are certainly problems, and I’ve been on the end of some bad examples, but these are far, far outnumbered in my experience by acts of kindness, generosity and thoughtfulness, of the sort I mentioned in my previous answer. It’s mostly only the negative experiences that get documented, but that doesn’t mean they’re representative – there’s a lesson there for historians! At the same time, and particularly in recent years, there’s been a lot of aggro in both academic and popular history about what is the ‘right’ sort of history to be studying, or the ‘right’ way to do it or write about it. I find this mad, given that as historians we have the whole breadth of human experience open to us to research, and there’s plenty of room for everyone. We learn the most from being curious about other people’s topics and approaches, not from sticking to our own little corner.
HC: What are your thoughts on how women are treated in your sector/this field?
STA: Again, there are some problems within and without academia. It can still be a struggle to ensure that women are properly represented, particularly as speakers/panellists, although the increasing leadership roles taken by female historians, particularly as heads of learned societies, will hopefully help change this. There are working practices that disadvantage women, as well as some bad apples. And women are still under-represented in my field, the more so the higher up you go. There are various female historians who are conscious of this and push hard to support each other, which is wonderful. At the same time, I’ve had incredible support from the many men who populate my field – from my PhD supervisors, to project leaders, to unofficial mentors, to friends and colleagues. Personally speaking, beyond one or two bad apples, I’ve not had cause to feel ill-treated on account of my gender. I love my field and my work, and the historical profession.
HC: If you could give any advice to women in this sector/those wanting to get into history, what would it be?
STA: For those wanting to get into academic or popular history, read as much serious history and good writing – whether history, fiction or any other genre – as you can, and pay attention to what makes it work or where its problems lie. Join your local history society, go to talks and conferences, and pick up everything you can, including beyond your immediate field. Visit the sites you’re interested in: there’s no substitute for walking that battlefield or exploring that castle, because landscape is as important as historical records for understanding the past. For academic history, technical skills are hard-won and important, particularly languages and palaeography – these are what will allow you to break new research ground. Most importantly, find mentors and friends who will support you but also challenge you, who will help you up but also push you to be a better historian.