For those of you who don’t know, Geoffrey Parker is a renowned historian, Distinguished University Professor and Andreas Dorpalen Professor of European History, and Associate of the Mershon Center at The Ohio State University. I have known him for some years now, and I wanted to write about two things. First, about the making of a historian, where it all began, and second, how Geoffrey Parker writes his books, where all that begins.
I myself had never heard of him, when in 1987 my Modern History Professor recommended that we read his book Felipe II, first published by Alianza Editorial in Spain in 1984. I had never read anything quite like it, and I soon began to discover other British historians, who we call hispanistas, for their research matter is Spain.
After school I landed a job at a historical monthly called Historia16. There I was asked to translate a short summary of Felipe II, which would appear in the form of a booklet, in a series called Cuadernos de Historia16. (You won’t find my name on it, by the way, translators were invisible in those days).
Some years passed without me thinking about Parker or any other hispanist, for that matter. I drifted away from History, with a capital H, and began working in publishing. As an editor at Taurus (a non-fiction imprint now part of Penguin Random House Spain), one of the first books I would work on would be El éxito nunca es definitivo (Success is never final), by Geoffrey Parker.
As soon as I met him in person I told him his book on Philip II had changed my view of historians. Up to then I had found most of them very boring. They seemed to make reading difficult, Parker made historical figures come alive on the page. I could see —and almost hear— Philip walking around the monastery at El Escorial. I also told him proudly it was I who had translated the Cuaderno on the king Philip for Historia16.
As it turns out, that first meeting would be the beginning of a long friendship, and we would publish quite a few books together. Recently, we chatted on Skype and he was so kind as to give me this interview. Let us take a peek at how the making of a historian occurrs.
The making of a historian
How did you become interested in Spanish Modern History?
I graduated from Cambridge University in December of 1965, and surprisingly, I was offered to do research for three years, leading to a PhD. I had never thought of making a life as a historian, but I was very impressed by some lectures I had heard by John H. Elliott. He had talked about European history from 1494 to 1715, but he clearly became animated when he talked about Spain and particularly Spain and the Dutch revolt. I remember he said “what we’ve never understood is how Spain, so far from the Netherlands, managed to keep a war going there for eight years. They sent the troops, they sent the money, they sent the support, how did they do it? We don’t know.”
“…what we’ve never understood is how Spain, so far from the Netherlands managed to keep a war going there for eight years.”John H. Elliott
I thought: “that’s an interesting subject.” So I went to talk to him. He asked if I read Spanish. I said no, but I read French, could you give me some reading on the subject? He told me to read Philippe II et la Franche-Comté by Lucien Febvre (800 hundred pages), so clearly he thought he’d never see me again. He was wrong. I read it, I found there was a final chapter indeed on the Duke of Alba’s march to the Netherlands in 1567, and I was hooked. I decided to get a sombrero and go to Spain to follow the Spanish road.
But you didn’t speak Spanish.
I had to learn Spanish, I had to learn Dutch, I needed to be able to read Italian, it was a difficult first two years, but I got myself to Spain and that’s where I started.
“The Dutch are not interested in why the Spanish lost, all they want to know is why they won.“Geoffrey Parker
You learned Dutch?
I thought I had to, because I thought the Dutch historians had covered the Dutch side of the revolt. I was wrong. The Dutch are not interested in why the Spanish lost, all they want to know about is why they won. So, in fact, there was virtually nothing in Dutch. There were one or two pieces that were very good, but they were easily read so I acquired a reading knowledge of the language, never a speaking knowledge. Spanish was hard enough, I daresay.
When I arrived at Simancas in 1966 for the first time, virtually no one spoke English.
What is an archive?
Could you tell about your experience at Simancas and, very briefly, how an archive works?
At that time, I didn’t know either. Before my Spanish trip, I had arranged to spend the summer working on an excavation in Northamptonshire. There they found out that I could read Latin and they sent me to the archive. I asked “what is an archive?”
When I got to Spain, I found that in Simancas —a small, isolated village, eight kilometers from Valladolid— was the archive of the Crown of Castilla, from the 15th Century down to 1808. That experience in Northampton was actually very valuable because they had taught me the sort of questions you need to ask. You don’t want a specific date or a particular document, you want the series, and you want the Institution that generated that source. So in the case of Simancas I was looking for the sources on Spain and The Netherlands and it was a series called Estado and the section was Flandes.
Simancas, a treasure of Spanish heritage
How has your experience researching in Simancas changed since 1966?
The archive has not changed at all. When I got there in 1966 it was extraordinarily well run, it was welcoming, it was efficient, you asked for the documents, you got them within minutes. It’s the only place I’ve been in my research career in which that happens, and the last time I was in Simancas in 2016 it was exactly the same. I asked for the documents, they came out in minutes.
Now you have access through this fantastic Spanish system called PARES (Portal de Archivos Españoles en red), which has 50 million documents from various Spanish archives, all of them available on line. I can call up a document on Charles V, for example, Testamento de Carlos V 1554 , and up come ten different links to archives, I chose the one I need, and I can print it out. That is the novelty.
I’ve never really experienced anything quite like it. Spanish archives are just fantastic.Geoffrey Parker
But it is part of this tradition of welcome in the Spanish archives. I’ve never really experienced anything quite like it. Spanish archives are just fantastic. Simancas village has changed a lot. When I arrived it was very rural, there was still a rebaño which went through the village every day at eleven o’clock. I would here the bells and know it was time for coffee. Now it has become a ciudad dormitorio for Valladolid. But the archive is just the same. We have photos from the 1850’s and if you compare it to the archive today it is the same. It’s a treasure of Spanish heritage.
The making of a historian
How do you decide to work on Philip II and, more recently, on Charles V? Where do you begin?
I started with the Dutch revolt, which begins in Philip II’s reign. I was writing a book on the Dutch revolt, which was published in Spanish, La rebelión de los Países Bajos, and in order to do that I became more interested in Philip’s pulses towards Netherlands. So I moved from logistics (getting the troops from Spain to Brussels) into policy. What were the politics here?
There are these stream of consciousness notes, a series of what are called billetes (there are at least ten thousand of them), I knew that some were in the Instituto de Valencia de Don Juan in Madrid, and I got permission to go (it was open three afternoons a week from 4.00 p.m. to 6.00 p.m.), and I found a billete that was quite extraordinary. It was a message from cardinal Espinosa, Philip’s chief minister and Inquisidor general to the king around 1569. The king wrote his reply on the bottom of Espinosa’s letter, he said he felt terrible, it was the worst thing that could happen to him.
He sounded like Trump on hearing that there is going to be a special inquiry into him. “I wish I were dead,” he said. So I thought: “Wow, if I could find more letters like that, it would make a great biography of Philip II.” Nobody had ever used them. So I began to shift focus. I finished La rebelión de los Países Bajos but at the same time I was accumulating material for a short essay, a short book on Philip II, which would come out in Spain in 1984 with the imaginative title Felipe II, published by Alianza Editorial.
The historian and his chosen subject: Philip II
That’s the book I read in 1987. Nobody had used these billetes for research and has never used them since?
Nobody had used them then.
One of the problems was that the archives were closed. The other problem was that, late at night, when the king’s glasses aren’t focused —because we know he wears spectacles—, his writing is really, really bad, he abbreviates heavily, at least one word in five, so you need to know not only Spanish, and 16th Century Spanish, you need to know the abbreviations. That combined with a pretty awful script, makes it difficult. But by 1976, which is when I found it, I had got to 90.9 percent proficiency with Philip II’s hand. I think that is why very few people had used them before. But they have been used since.
All these billetes come from the archives of Philip’s secretary, also the secretary of cardinal Espinosa, Mateo Vázquez de Leca. He is a wonderful source, because he dates everything that comes across his desk. When the king does not date something, which he very rarely does —what is time if you’re a king?—, on the back, Vázquez has written “his majesty, El Escorial, June 8th, 1581,” and sometimes he adds “in the afternoon.”
That is great, but there comes a point where the collection of billetes is divided up. I used to think —till 2013— that there were only four collections: one in el Instituto de Valencia de San Juan, one in the British Library, which has a large collection of Philip’s holographs, one in Geneva in the Public University Archives and the fourth one in the Archivo Francisco de Zabálburu, en Madrid. I tried to go there, but I couldn’t get in.
Ten years later a TV producer wanted to have Philip II manuscripts on camera, and he asked if I knew where they were. I told him about the Zabálburu Archives. He said he could get me in. It was being reconstructed in 1987, everything was torn down except the magnificent library which is still there. I found masses of billetes, some of them just as exciting as the ones I had already seen.
Then, in 2013, I went to the Hispanic Society of America, and found documents very much like the billetes I had seen in Spain, Geneva and London. I asked the librarian, John O’Neill, if they had any more. They did, but they had not sorted them. O’Neill explained they had acquired them in the 1950’s, but hadn’t had the resources to classify them. I asked if I could try to sort them out myself. He said sure. So I spent a couple of months. There were around 3,000. Nobody had seen them. So I decided to write a new account of Philip II.
That’s when I came into the picture.
Exactly. You said: “Geoffrey, have you ever thought of reviewing your Felipe II published by Alianza?”
“Sure,” I answered.
“How about making it a bit longer?” you said.
And I asked: “Twice as long?”
“Great,” you replied.
By the time I finished it was four times as long, and you never, ever complained about that. It also took about three times as long as it should have, but in 2010 we had that wonderful launch of Felipe II. La biografía definitiva, in El Escorial. (Where the photo that opens this post was taken.)
A title which made some historians very angry.
Indeed it did, indeed it did. It was something colossal to call it definitiva, because only three years later I discovered a new collection of Philip II volumes, and Yale University Press was interested in a slimmer version of Philip II, and you again said “Wow, if you are going to publish a shorter version, we’d like to do it at Planeta,” so there I am with three versions of Philip II, the last one called El rey imprudente.
It was something colossal to call it “definitiva,” because only three years later I discovered a new collection of Philip II volumesGeoffrey Parker
How is the writing process of a work of this magnitude? Because your writing makes the historical figures come alive on the page.
It’s very flattering that you think that of my writing. Writing is not easy for me. I work very hard on it. I do read my stuff out loud to see how it sounds. I need a printout to edit properly. Someone made a recording, an audiobook of Imprudent King, and I was very impressed by that. So when I was working on Carlos V, my latest book, I began to think “how will it sound?” So I made some changes in the way I wrote to make it sound better, that was a novelty for me.
Otherwise, it’s just very hard work. It takes me a long time to write, and I’m seldom satisfied. On the other hand, you have to agree with me, once I send I final text I don’t mess with it.
I spend a lot of time getting it where I like it, and I must say when I read my books again I think: “Ok, that’s not bad,” so I think the time is worthwhile.
The masters. Where it all began
They’re very well written. Now, perhaps it’s more common, but it used to be that historians were pretty bad writers, especially Spanish and French historians, in my opinion.
Ah, but they were not tutored by Sir John Elliott whose style is impossibly good and he has no sympathy for writer’s block. He just saw that as a sort of indiscipline which was to be punished. He was incredible as a supervisor. He had six graduate students writing their PhDs at the same time, and those of them who had phones, he would telephone at the beginning of the week and say “I’m going to see you on Friday and we’re going to do the next chapter.”
To the rest of us —we all lived in Cambridge— he sent postcards saying: “Parker, I expect to see you on Friday, at such and such time, with the next chapter. Yours sincerely, JHE.” Such was his power, and such was our sense that it was a privilege to work with him, that we all delivered. We all started writing our thesis in October of 1965, and every one of us had finished our PhD by July of 1968, we were so terrorized. That’s an incredible achievement, to get all six finishing in slightly under three years.
What part of the process of creating a book do you enjoy the most? The research, when you don’t know what you’re going to find, or the writing?
Writing history books is a very lonely venture. There’s only one I have written with someone else and that is The Spanish Armada —and of course you have published that as well—, with Colin Martin. Never, or almost never, was it my own idea.
Philip II was commissioned not by John Elliott, but by my undergraduate supervisor John H. Plumb. Sir John Plumb was a great entrepreneur and very a great historian, and he had a good liaison with several publishers, one of whom was Penguin. He was a main history consultant at Penguin, he talked the editor into commissioning the book which in Spain would be La rebelión de los Países Bajos. He was also historical adviser for Little, Brown Ltd., a publisher in Boston, where he was director of a series called the Library of World Biography.
He asked if I could write a biography of Philip II, and I said I could. So he got me a contract. There I was, I hadn’t published anything in my life and I had two contracts thanks to John Plumb, one with Penguin and one with Little, Brown. He would later commission my Fontana history of Europe, 1598 to 1640, also published in Spanish. He advised Colin Martin as well, and that’s where The Spanish Armada came from.
The writing of history
But you asked me how I do it. I don’t usually come up with the idea, so I don’t spend time thinking what should I do. Then I have to start figuring out where the sources are, so I start reading widely. This is, perhaps, the least interesting part. Then I go to the archives, which is always exciting. That’s were you find things that are not generally known, or though known, have been looked at in a different way.
Every morning I went to the archive absolutely sure nobody had seen these things since the 16th Century, and that’s an incredible feeling.Geoffrey Parker
A classic example was the 3,000 Philip II holographs I mentioned from the Hispanic Society of America. They had been acquired in Spain in 1905 by the founder of the Society, Archer M. Huntington. He bought them from an aristocrat who was short of money, shipped them over, and they had never been classified. I appeared in 2013, and was asked to do it. So every morning I went to the archive absolutely sure nobody had seen these things since the 16th Century, and that’s an incredible feeling. Probably the most exciting thing of all.
Once you have all the material, you have to put it in context, you have to find out if there are there similar documents. You have to ask yourself does this source relate to a different source? Is there something in a different country, in a different archive? Is something being published? Almost all documents are two ways, that is to say there is the outgoing document and the incoming one. The outgoing usually comes from the secretary. Sometimes the king or the emperor himself makes a copy and keeps it. The person sending the reply does the same, so there are usually two copies (one may be lost), and there are differences between them. Then the questions arise: did the emperor read his own letter? Had it been drafted for him? Before it was sent, did he add a postscript in his own hand? You only know that if you find the original. So that’s the part when I’m running around, if you like, tying knots, dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.
Then the moment comes to write and I suppose it’s the loneliest moment of all.
There are three ways to do it. When I was studying I had little else to do. I was teaching, but I had time. I have always taught, so I tried to arrange for writing days, or to write in the morning and teach in the afternoon. Now I just write whenever I can. I like to have a whole day. With less than a whole day it’s hard to create anything. I like a day when there is no obvious stopping point. On a good day I’ll write 3,000 words. On a very good day I’ll write up to 5,000 words. I find the biggest challenge in turning a white page, well, a blank computer screen, to a written page. That takes time, effort, concentration. Those are days that are precious; rare, but very satisfying. And then comes the editing task.
So you would say going to the archives and finding documents nobody has ever seen is the most exciting part.
It also rejuvenates. Those two months in NYC looking at the archives every day, made me feel as if I were 21 again. It was breathtakingly good. In a way, writing makes you young too, you know. As you write, it doesn’t matter what age you are. I think I’m a better historian now, at 75, than I was at 25. But it doesn’t matter. I’m still doing it. I’m still doing something that I really enjoy. I really enjoyed it then, and I really enjoy it now. But the buzz you get from seeing something that nobody else has ever seen, since it was written, that takes a lot of beating.
Changing the subject, or not
Would you continue to research if there weren’t a publisher nagging you to bring the book to light?
Nagging? How can you possibly use that word? You were the most sensitive and thoughtful or editors, and you never reproached me. Well, actually, you did. For not handing it in on time, but you never nagged me for the length, and that is truly remarkable. You were always happy, you never said “this is too long.”
I remember telling you to cut the bibliography by a half in Philip II, but of course you paid no attention whatsoever.
Well, but we must say, that there is not another biography as big as Felipe II. La biografía definitiva. There isn’t one where the whole story is told, so I did address a need.
When you finished Felipe II you said, at the presentation in El Escorial that you were divorcing him forever. So why did you decide to write about his father, Charles V?
Well, we had a reconciliation, but only because of the billetes by his father. It happened in the Hispanic Society of America. I found Instrucciones de Carlos V a Felipe II (6 de mayo de 1543 [copia]). So being a thorough fellow as I am, as soon as it arrived in a red Moroccan leather binding with a gold tulip, I said: “Oh, this is not a copy,” and when I opened it there was the horrid handwriting of Charles V, and it was 48 folios of manuscript holograph instructions starting: “Hijo…”
These documents had disappeared from public view in the 1890s, nobody had seen them since. Archer M. Huntington had kept them in his private vaults, so it was only when he died in 1955 that the documents were released to the society, so they thought it was a copy. Some pages have more comments in the margins than on the main page. Later, he had second thoughts and wrote it all out, so the archivist logically thought it was a copy. But that was wrong.
You don’t normally make a copy of a document like this. You only have the original, though there was some question of whether the emperor had drafted these himself. It seems like he did, indeed, and I began to think this was an interesting character. He must have spent what seems like at least a couple of days writing all this down for Philip II who was sixteen at the time. He was going to read this in his absence. At that moment I thought “okay, I am going to write about Charles V.”
And that’s when you offered it to me at Planeta?
Yes, and I thought about it all by myself. This time it was not commissioned or suggested by someone else. The Spanish version was published in January of 2019 in Spain. The English version appeared in May of the same year in England, and in June, in the United States.
When you started researching for Charles V did you have a prefixed idea, a prejudice about the king?
Yes, I thought he was a man on a treadmill. who was constantly falling behind, because he was something of a slouch. I thought he didn’t work enough.
But the more I discovered about him and his working methods I changed my mind. In particular, he had a habit of writing things out. He wrote the grounds for decisions, he would make lists of pros and cons. Sometimes he would write several pages and a number of these survive. My respect for him began to increase. Yes, he spent time hunting; yes, he spent time travelling. Unlike Philip, he traveled all over his empire, all the time. He must have covered 10,000 miles. A team in Valladolid led by Claudia Mula has tracked the itinerary of his travels and have concluded that it was something like 400 days traveling by land, and 200 days traveling by sea. So my respect in that sense went up.
Charles V “First rate statesman, first rate shit.”Geoffrey Parker
I had not realized how awfully he treated his family. How he basically used and abused them for his own ends. First of all, his mother, la reina Juana who was imprisoned by her father, Fernando el Católico in Tordesillas, and created a fantasy world around her. They lie to her, and keep her locked up. Charles buys into that. He pretends, and orders her keepers to pretend, that Fernando is still alive. He refuses to tell her that Maximilian is dead, and he robs from her. Every time he goes to see her in Tordesillas, he leaves with some of her gold, her silver, her tapestries, her jewelry. He fills the boxes with stones, hopeful that she won’t notice until he has got away. You can also see how he treats his niece and nephew.
We have a joke here, we ask you to “say it in six.” The goal is to summarize an idea in six words. The guy who invented it said: “Everyone has a story. What’s yours?”
Here are my six words for Charles V: “First rate statesman, first rate shit.”
Can you readers summarize this interview in six?