Tim Hughes meets the TV historian and Oxford academic Janina Ramirez, who has written a study of Britain's forgotten saints - and sinners

Janina Ramirez is a most unlikely medieval historian.

Young, engaging, blessed with jet black hair, cherry red lips and with a penchant for goth-chic dress, she looks more like the lead singer in a metal band than an expert in Latin, Old English, paleography and archaeology at Oxford University. But then that’s a big part of her appeal.

Sparky, enthusiastic and distinctly un-fusty, Dr Ramirez is doing to history what Nigella Lawson did to double cream.

Her programmes for BBC TV, in which she unveiled Anglo-Saxon treasure, translated vivid Viking literature, revealed the secrets of medieval monarchs and poked around in ruined monasteries, have made her a household face.

Yet, she admits, she hadn’t realised quite how well-known she was until she began to be recognised around her home town of Woodstock.

“When you are doing TV there’s a delay between all the hours of filming, and the programmes actually coming out,” she says.

“And when my programme Treasures of the Anglo Saxons came out in 2010, I was totally unprepared.

“I had no idea what the viewing figures would be. I hoped to get up to 100,000, but we got a million viewers on BBC4 and two million on BBC2. The day after it was shown, I went out for a walk into town and people were staring, coming up and complimenting me.

“I was shaking so much I had to go home and hide under the duvet. I was really paranoid!”

Janina, 35 – a fun-loving mother-of-two, known to her friends as Nina – is relaxing over coffee in the bar of the Kings Arms in Woodstock. It’s a warm, lazy morning and sunlight streams through the windows.

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“I do love it here,” she smiles, staring out at the street with its honey-coloured stone houses. “It’s so beautiful. You can feel the history of the place.”

Janina developed her love of history at school in, of all places, Slough.

After picking up a degree in English literature and language – specialising in Old and Middle English – from St Anne’s, Oxford, she headed north, completing her post-graduate studies at the Centre for Medieval Studies in York.

There she developed a passion for medieval art, and completed a PhD on the symbolism of birds. She went on to take up an art history lectureship, spending her spare time exploring the city’s rich medieval history and delving into drama, directing Beowulf and performing in medieval plays.

It’s no surprise that she has also fronted two rock bands – first with the unfortunately named Lolita and then with Rolemodels – with whom she still keeps in touch.

She returned to Oxford to became director for the Undergraduate Certificate in History of Art, via lecturing posts in Winchester and Warwick.

“I didn’t plan to do television,” she says. “I was just a badly-paid academic. I had no idea this was going to happen.

"I had a phone call when my little boy was tiny from someone at the BBC researching Anglo-Saxons. He wanted to talk for a few minutes but three hours later we were still talking, and my name was suggested as someone to front their programme. It was never an intent. But I teach with a lot of energy and passion, and treat television in the same way. I don’t see any difference. I don’t have a script, I just lecture.”

After the success of Treasures of the Anglo-Saxons, she presented documentaries on Icelandic literature (The Viking Sagas) and the stained glass of York Minster (Britain’s Most Fragile Treasure), wrote and presented a three-part series on the Royal Manuscript collection of the British Library (The Private Lives of Medieval Kings), and fronted shows on The Hundred Years’ War (Chivalry and Betrayal) and the first Gothic age (Architects of the Divine).

But it was this year’s three-part series on Britain’s monasteries, Saints and Sinners, which saw her elevated to celebrity status as our trendiest TV historian.

The show sprang from her research on the little-known saints of Anglo-Saxon England, The Private Lives of The Saints. The book, published last month, is a fascinating look at the lives of our often little-known, homegrown religious figureheads.

“Christianity was a multinational corporation of its time, its power spreading from the edge of the British Isles to the Middle East, and that’s what makes the saints fascinating.”

Despite being raised a Catholic, Janina – who comes from good Irish-Polish stock (she takes her surname from her Spanish husband) – is less than complimentary about these erstwhile cult figures, some of whom, she reveals, were very unholy indeed.

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For every gesture of devotion, charity and good leadership, she reveals, is an act of greed, self-publicity and a hatful of fake miracles.

This is no pious hagiography. Janina is unflinching in her dissection of these early celebs, politicians and power-brokers – Alban, Brigid, Patrick, Gregory, Columba, Cuthbert, Wilfred, Alfred et al – presenting a rounded, unsentimental picture of some colourful, if sometimes unsavoury characters whose influence, nonetheless, echoes through the centuries.

“Some were local heroes who became tied in with Christianity whereas others had pan-European interests,” she says. “Christianity was a multinational corporation of its time, its power spread from the edge of the British Isles to the Middle East, and that’s what makes the saints fascinating.”

When I ask about her favourite saints she talks passionately about St Hilda, Abbess of Whitby, a powerful woman in a man’s world who convened a synod of bishops from around Europe in an age when communication and transport links were at best, tenuous.

“In the early stages of Christianity, before it entrenched itself, they were recognising the authority of this intelligent, educated woman," she says. "She was top dog… boss cat! The organisation that went into the Synod of Whitby is incredible. She brought together Irish monks who looked like hippies and important figures from Rome. Just to keep them housed and fed and to stop them killing each other was no small feat. She was a real mover and shaker.”

 And then there’s Bede, who she says “wrote the history books.”

“He was a spin doctor of his time and one of the only Anglo-Saxon voices to have remained strong and clear across the millennia.

"He was someone who couldn’t stop writing,” she says with a broad smile. “The number of works he produced is amazing. He was like Stephen King in his output.”

And while she is keen to separate religion from what is, otherwise, a set of rollicking good tales, she admits there are glimmers of spirituality. “Many of them denied themselves and sought enlightenment in a most extreme way. Saints like Cuthbert, Columba and the early monks were people you could identify as religious extremists.”

While no longer playing with her band, Janina loves music, along with visiting theme parks, growing vegetables and trying to impart her love of history to her children. Next, she says, she plans to write an historical novel “in the same way Hillary Mantel has”.

“Some people criticise,” she says. “They can’t believe a young woman can do this. Some have been even nastier. But I spent so long doing lectures for £20 and working harder, and with more enthusiasm, than anyone else.”

And that has brought her something unexpected: her own fanbase. “There are fans,” she laughs. “They come from all sorts of demographics – from A-Level kids to octogenarians who love that I’m doing things the old way. And, yes, there’s a strong goth following too.

“I just hope some of this rubs off on them. I am not doing dumb TV but hard-hitting programmes, and if people are happy to sit through an hour of it, I’m delighted, as they may hear something they wouldn’t normally.

“And, to be honest, most people are really friendly. They come up and talk to me as if they know me – and even hug me. The thing is, I’m so bad at names I think I must know them too and say ‘hi’ back!”

“At least I’m not hiding under the duvet!”

Where and when
• Janina Ramirez talks about her book Private Lives of the Saints at Blackwell’s Bookshop, Oxford, at 3pm,  tomorrow (Friday). Entry is free.

 • The Private Lives of the Saints: Power, Passion and Politics in Anglo-Saxon England is out now