Beginnings: getting to know your subject
My project is about King Arthur’s Table. I described this in a previous post. As I’ve explained on my own blog, it stems from my PhD research into a 14th-century manuscript, The Equatorie of the Planetis.
Yesterday I was in London, looking in the archives of the Royal Institution for information about how and why King Arthur’s Table was built according to the instructions in the manuscript. I didn’t find any direct evidence, but I discovered plenty about its creator, Derek Price, and his relationship with Lawrence Bragg, the director of the Cavendish Laboratory where KAT was made.
I was struck by how many of my research projects have included a strong biographical element. Maybe it’s just the way my research interests push me, or perhaps there’s always a biographical aspect to every history. Either way, I do think personal stories add some human interest.
Price’s story is an intriguing one. I haven’t got to the bottom of it, but it seems that for him, coming to Cambridge was a new beginning. His background was far from prosperous: his father was a tailor and his mother a singer, and he studied for his first degree and doctorate at South West Essex Technical College (part of the University of London). After taking his doctorate in physics he moved to teach applied mathemetics at the then University of Malaya in Singapore. This was in 1947, the same year he got married. But in 1950 something changed. He decided to change subjects from mathematics and physics to the history of science, and began to make enquiries about studying or working at Cambridge. This was to lead to his second PhD, for which he researched the Equatorie manuscript he had discovered in the library at Peterhouse.
The archives show that several people in Cambridge were curious, even suspicious, about his reasons for leaving Malaya. There are hints that he did not fit easily into life in Cambridge. It’s tempting to suppose that this may have had something to do with his social or racial (Jewish) background, but there is no clear evidence on that point. Either way, it is fascinating to see how, when he decided to make a new start in his career, he was prepared to work incredibly hard to make it happen.
As I’ve also come to Cambridge a little later in life, it’s something I can identify with. And of course it’s been said that a biographer must be able to identify with their subject to some extent. Is this the beginning of a beautiful biographical relationship? We’ll see.