Spotlight on Staff: Dr Elizabeth Gemmill

‘The past belongs to everyone, not just to professional historians, and everyone should have a sense of it and why it matters.’ With her commitment to bringing history to all, it’s no surprise that Dr Elizabeth Gemmill was named in 2012 as our Department’s most acclaimed lecturer by Oxford University Student Union.

The Associate Professor in History has been opening Continuing Education students’ eyes to the past since the year 2000. And as Director of our Weekly Classes Programme and Certificate of Higher Education, she has inherited a large share of this Department's original mission to bring Oxford teaching to those beyond Oxford’s traditional full-time undergraduate student body.

How history explains our world

Dr Gemmill’s interest in teaching history comes partly, she says, from wanting to share her fascination with the medieval period and for her students to enjoy the happy privilege of working with historical documents. But it’s also because she likes to show students how history helps to explain the world around us.

The everyday detail of life in medieval times - and how much of it continues today - is especially intriguing for Dr Gemmill. ‘Once you become a medieval historian you realise how much there is – our institutions, our buildings, our beliefs, our celebrations, our patterns of settlement – that owe their origins to medieval times,’ she says. ‘Think of how many medieval parish churches there are in Oxfordshire, as well as sites of monasteries and castles; think of the origins of the jury system, parliament –and the University here in Oxford.’ Dr Gemmill’s research has always been manuscript-based, and studying documents firsthand, she stresses, ‘gives a real sense of connecting with the past - and perhaps of intimacy with the writer.’

Recent research-leave led her to Durham Cathedral archives, reading hundreds of the account rolls written by the monks of the medieval priory to understand, for example, the price of fish in the Middle Ages. Don’t laugh, she says – it’s a very illuminating question. In studying the records of medieval monks’ buying and selling of commodities which are still with us today - cheese, wax, wool, hides, cloth, canvas, wine, sheep, oxen, iron, lead, coal, lime – Dr Gemmill is reflecting on why and how we do things differently now – or, remarkably perhaps, in the same way – as people did in the Middle Ages.

‘What we now call ‘shopping’ tells us all sorts of things about ourselves, our economy and society – and the same is true for the Middle Ages,’ she says. ‘I compare my own shopping choices with those made by the monks of Durham. What counts as luxurious? How far do I travel to make my purchases? Do I cut back in times of difficulty? That negotiation between familiarity and strangeness is at the heart of our fascination with the past.’

Dr Gemmill’s father was a banker and, growing up, her family moved frequently. Now, she’s happy to have settled in one place – she and her family live in the ‘very beautiful’ village of Beckley, opposite a medieval church and above Otmoor.

She first came to Oxford in 1986, as a research assistant on a project based at the Ashmolean Museum. After gaining her PhD in 1988 from the University of Manchester, she began looking for a more permanent position and was appointed to a University Lectureship in Medieval History at Glasgow. In 2000 she began working for the Open University as an Associate Lecturer in History, and for the Department for Continuing Education – and she became a University lecturer and fellow of Kellogg College in 2006, where she is now Senior Tutor.

A fondness for subfusc

In 2016-17, Dr Gemmill took on the role of Junior Proctor, which gave her a renewed insight into the running of the University and our Department’s contribution to it – not to mention a new fondness for subfusc, she laughs.

‘It was a wonderful year,’ she says. ‘We had the opportunity as proctors to visit all sorts of places in the University – the Harcourt Arboretum, the Begbroke Science Park, the amazing collections in the University’s museums and gardens, the University Parks, Wytham Woods – that we hadn’t previously visited or, if we had seen them, hadn’t fully appreciated. As a Proctor you gain a much better sense of how much care and dedication go into supporting students during their time at Oxford. I loved being part of the University’s ceremonial – on degree days, but also at University sermons and inaugural lectures. I feel now that I belong to the University as a whole, and not only to a part of it.’

Published 30 January 2018