The Oxford Historian: Hilary Term 2019

Professor John Watts

It is spring in the Faculty: the mahonias are in full flower, and the leaves are unfurling on the remaining chestnut tree in the front garden.  We are enjoying the stillness before Trinity Term, with its hordes of anxious examinees and then its avalanche of marking – less now than it used to be, and more evenly distributed through the year, but still appreciable.

Last term was the term of big lecture series – the Fords, on British History, the Carlyles, on intellectual history, and the Slades, on the history of art.  These were a tremendous treat, as always – hard as it is to rush to distant lecture halls at family-unfriendly times, the pleasure of hearing experts from around the world deliver big public lectures, accessible to the intelligent non-specialist, makes a huge difference to the atmosphere of Hilary Term.  We’re delighted that one of the three lecturers, Mark Bailey, has been willing to share some of the conclusions of his series on the aftermath of the Black Death in the present issue.

Of course, Hilary Term was also to be Brexit Term – or at least, the last term in which we were members of the EU.  As I write these words, the moment of departure has been postponed again, perhaps indefinitely.  Whatever one’s view of the rights and wrongs of this affair, it’s hard not to echo Gibbon and say that it ‘may deserve, as a singular prodigy, the reflection of a philosophic mind’.  For me, as a political historian, and one much interested in the deep structures and trends of English political history, it has been riveting.  As a citizen, I may wish that none of it were happening, but, as a historian, I feel as if I’m learning a lot about the lived experience of political crisis: the sheer uncertainty of decision-making in circumstances when the legitimacy of the governing class is brought into question, the difficulty of grappling with big divisions and hard questions by political means, the narrowness of the space between safe and wild courses of action in unstable times.  It is helping me understand the Wars of the Roses in new ways – but let us hope the parallels are not too close.

Meanwhile, in the Faculty, we continue our work in many areas.  Access and diversity continue to be priorities.  Our application for Athena SWAN accreditation is about to go off, and we shall begin to implement a suite of plans and activities to promote gender equality; we are about to start discussions about a community history project; and we have scheduled a race equality teach-in for 21 May, when Margot Finn, President of the Royal Historical Society, will come and lead a workshop on the Society’s recent Report on ‘Ethnicity and Race Equality in UK History’.  We are also pushing ahead with plans to expand our fund-raising, as the future of state funding for research and teaching in the humanities darkens: among other initiatives, we aim to establish a London-based Development Panel, and we shall be inaugurating a series of Oxford Lectures in the City.  Past efforts – and the kindness of our donors – are already paying off: in this year, we have made appointments to three completely new posts: the Edward Orsborn chair in US Politics and Political History (combined with the directorship of the Rothermere American Institute); the June and Simon Li associate professorship in the History of Chinese Art; and a donor-funded associate professorship in the History of Science.  Alongside all this, of course, we have been getting on with our core business of teaching and learning, reading and writing.  The Faculty’s vast submission for the 2020 Research Excellence Framework is steadily taking shape, and many of us are scurrying around tidying up footnotes, to get the last few ‘REF-able outputs’ off to the publishers.  ‘Continuity and Change’ is one of the great clichés of historical research, but in this time of rapid change – some good, some bad – it’s maybe consoling that some things stay the same.

John Watts

Professor of Later Medieval History, Chair of the Faculty Board

Corpus Christi College

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