Dr Robert Priest - Senior Lecturer in Modern European History
I am a cultural and intellectual historian of nineteenth-century Europe. While my first projects focused on France, I am increasingly interested in the interconnections and exchanges between European cultures and countries. At Royal Holloway, I teach undergraduates on everything from broad surveys of modern European history to modules on my research specialisms, such as France in the aftermath of Revolution or the history of anti-religious ideas.
My first major project tried to understand one of the most popular and controversial books of the nineteenth century that you have probably not heard of: Ernest Renan’s Life of Jesus. In the 1860s, this book sold in volumes that exceeded famous novelists, was read by everybody from barely literate agricultural workers to European monarchs, and provoked a controversy that consumed the European press for years on end. Why? Because Renan had argued that the Bible was fallible and that Jesus was only human, rather than a miracle-performing son of god. These claims were somewhat unoriginal but highly provocative. More importantly, they were written in compelling prose that captivated ordinary readers from across France and beyond. In The Gospel According to Renan: Reading, Writing, and Religion in Nineteenth-Century France (2015), I used an eclectic range of sources to explore how people understood Renan’s ideas, from leading politicians and academics in Paris to unknown readers in the French provinces.
This project got me interested in how the whole spectrum of the population both within and between different European countries were, in various ways, united and divided by religious questions during the great social and cultural transformations of the ‘long’ nineteenth century. This led me to my current major research project, which tries to unravel the international history of one of the world’s longest-running dramatic performances: the enormously successful Passion Play at Oberammergau. This small village's mass re-enactment of the last days of Christ's life exploded from a regional tradition into an international phenomenon during the nineteenth century, attended by hundreds of thousands of tourists and celebrities from across the globe. Despite its small size, Oberammergau offers a springboard onto a range of issues, from the internal dynamics of the village, to the broader forces of Bavarian and German politics, to the transnational currents of aesthetics, scholarship and tourism.
When I am not researching these and other projects, I take part in various collective activities and events. In London I am one of the organisers of the Modern French History seminar at the Institute of Historical Research. On the internet I am a Region Editor for the Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophers. In recent years I have been invited to give lectures at venues like New York University and the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism in London. Elsewhere I have enjoyed several collaborations and exchanges with our colleagues in Europe, most recently as Visiting Lecturer at the University of Regensburg. Over the following few years I am excited to work with the British Library on a project exploring their amazing collection of caricatures from the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune.
More information about my research is available via PURE
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