Five questions for Martin Conway, Peter Marshall, Catherine Holmes – Editors of “The English Historical Review”

1.The English Historical Review (EHR) was first published in January 1886, which makes it the oldest journal of historical scholarship in the English-speaking world. Despite its ‘English’ title, the journal has a wide-ranging international audience. We are unusual among academic historical journals in producing six issues per year – this means that we can cover a wide range of topics, relating to all parts of the world and all forms of historical inquiry, in addition to being one of the foremost journals for the treatment of English and British History. Our coverage divides roughly equally between articles and book reviews. We also publish two annual round-ups of other research taking place. One is a listing, with brief descriptions and assessment, of ‘Records, Texts and Reference Works’; the other summarizes a wide range of periodical (journal) publications in History. Our focus in the first of those sections is mainly, though by no means exclusively, British; in the second, it is very international with a strong focus on journals published elsewhere in Europe, including (unusually for a generalist History journal) a strong interest in central and eastern Europe.

The EHR adheres to no political or cultural editorial line. We are a ‘generalist’ journal, and our efforts are focused on an inclusive and wide-ranging approach which is designed to inform and stimulate a broad audience of academic historians (and scholars in other fields). We never insist that contributors adopt particular political or intellectual perspectives. Where individual contributors choose to take a strong line, we usually find ourselves publishing something else in a subsequent issue which may argue its case from an entirely different perspective.

The articles published in EHR pass through a process of anonymous peer-review which is invariably rigorous. A requirement is for articles to be based on genuine and original research. That research can sometimes be very empirical, with a strong archival dimension. It can also be conceptual. Ideally, we look for research which combines both qualities and which will engage historians both inside and outside the specialist field in which the article is placed. EHR has a traditional strength in political history, but also publishes work in other fields of historical inquiry. It has always provided extensive coverage of medieval and early modern as well as modern history. Although we look constantly to publish research from as wide a geographical context as possible, British political and social history features strongly, especially in the articles; we try to complement this with a very broad range of topics and geographical contexts in the books that we review. Indeed it has principally been in the book reviews that we have tried in recent years to reflect current scholarly interests in extra-European and global history, and also to publish reviews of significant books written in languages other than English.

2.The editorial staff (three editors and two assistant editors) have all been educated in the United Kingdom. They all hold doctoral degrees in History. Our own research specialisms range widely across period, geography and theme: modern Europe and Britain, early modern Europe and Britain, and medieval southern European and global; political history, history of religion, social history, economic history, cultural history. The editors’ commitment to the journal comes from their sense that it offers a necessary and comprehensive service to a wider scholarly community: in the research it publishes, the reviews it carries, and in its annual summaries. The breadth of coverage is assured by the collective efforts of editors whose research and general historical interests are very wide-ranging in terms of geography, chronology and discipline. We are all enthusiasts for history, in whatever form that history comes.

Our contributors’ profiles are very diverse. Some authors (especially of book reviews) are advanced doctoral students; others are early career researchers, publishing their first work in a major scholarly journal. Very many are mid-career and senior scholars, and a number are recently retired. Many contributors, especially to book reviewing, are regulars with a wide range of experience and expertise. But we also draw on the services of a number of specialist reviewers, who may review for us only once, when a particular book calls for the specific knowledge or skills that they bring. Our pool of contributors is thus very wide, extending beyond the United Kingdom to North America, mainland Europe and many other parts of the world. We try to ensure a good gender-balance among our book-reviewers, though there is always more to be done on this score.

3.The EHR has a very long history, which goes back to the origins and institutionalisation of History as a university subject. In the century and more since then it has been at the centre of the development of History as a discipline, especially in the United Kingdom. A recent substantial review article, prompted by the anniversary of the issuing of Magna Carta in 1215, and drawing on the EHR’s own archive of articles, provides an illuminating demonstration of how each generation of historians has interpreted a ‘great’ constitutional moment differently. Similarly, each generation of editors has made its own decisions in its own context. It is hard for us to speak for the decisions of our predecessors. In recent years, we have chosen to expand rather than compress the scholarly dimension of the enterprise: moving from four issues per year to six in order to accommodate more articles (which can be up to 15,000 words in length); expanding the length of individual book reviews from 250-500 to 750-1000 words; introducing a new section on scholarly editions, translations and records. All these decisions could be seen to be counter-intuitive in a scholarly-political environment in which we are being encouraged to economise. But in fact our circulation continues to increase. This may suggest an appetite at individual, institutional and international level (especially in contexts outside Europe) for more history not less.

4.History is a discipline facing many wider challenges: historians need to consider not only the intrinsic merits of their projects, but how to find funding for them, and to demonstrate their public ‘impact’ and ‘relevance’. In an increasingly interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary scholarly world, there is also an ever greater need to consider how historical research relates to other disciplines, which themselves may be evolving fast. A prime consideration for younger scholars is to find a permanent position, something which demands considerably greater evidence of publishing and other accomplishments than it did for past generations.

If there are challenges, this is also a time of opportunity for historians: funding for research, for at least some historians and for some research projects, is at times remarkably lavish in a period of financial crisis. For a rigorous research journal like EHR, the possibilities of electronic publishing and dissemination (ie the internet) represents a tremendous asset, allowing us to expand our profile and reach. Yet when its capabilities are abused, the internet also represents a potential threat to standards of scholarly research and publication as traditionally understood. We are to a considerable extent reliant on an audience and collaborators who are interested in seeing scholarly standards maintained; but there is encouraging evidence that scholars do want precisely this.

Taken together, these environmental factors have both positive and negative aspects. In the current climate, history journals can both foster the positive (ie as venues for cutting-edge, well-funded research by new and established scholars) but can also protect against the negative trends in contemporary academic life (for example, providing opportunities for the publication of research which may not attract lavish funding but is still very rigorous, and as a stage on which new scholars struggling to launch their careers can demonstrate their command over their discipline).

The fact that we publish in the ‘lingua franca’ of English does of course ensure that we have a wide readership for the journal. But we are also conscious that the Anglicisation of History carries with it certain responsibilities and drawbacks. We are eager to give prominence to the work of non-English-speaking historians, and do not see our role as in any way to impose an English-language standardisation of approaches to historical research. We think of the EHR as one among a wide range of journals which today are doing much to ensure the lively and varied nature of History as a discipline.

5.We do not see any such existential crisis. Certainly, we need to take care that the ways in which historians are now encouraged to engage with the ‘public’, and the funding arrangements they are encouraged to seek with private or public sponsors, do not compromise standards of research, while also ensuring that history is not abused in the service of overly politicised positions. But it would be rash indeed to assume that history has ever been entirely agenda-free. It would also be both uncivic-minded and ultimately self-defeating to assume that engagement with a broader public necessarily corrupts the integrity of the discipline. Specialist history needs a wider audience, including among fellow historians, as much as it needs expert research, if it is to retain its status as a humanity, and its ability to inform wider public discourses.