Spotlight on Tom Hamilton and David van der Linden

We’re pleased to announce the next instalment of Historians Under the Spotlight – an occasional interview series which offers a snapshot from academics’ lives: their passions, interests and reading suggestions. You can catch up with previous posts here.

This time we took advantage of our brave new online world to converse with Tom Hamilton (Durham University) and David van der Linden (Radboud University, the Netherlands) about their work, including their current French History special issue on ‘Remembering the French Wars of Religion’ and how they remain friends despite one favouring the sixteenth century and the other the seventeenth… 

Should you want even more French Wars of Religion content (and who doesn’t?) Tom and David have also curated a virtual special issue from the French History archives, on the theme of ‘Legacies of the French Wars of Religion’, which will be available soon.  

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In a nutshell, what is your research about? 

David: In a nutshell, it’s about religious conflict in the early modern period. I’ve always been interested in how Catholics and Protestants managed to live together – or not live together. In my PhD research, for example, I examined Huguenot refugees in the Dutch Republic, which resulted in a book on their tortuous exile experience and memory cultures. I am currently focusing on France to understand how Protestants and Catholics dealt with the aftermath of the Wars of Religion. I always tell my students that these are important questions to ponder. After all these centuries, we’re still struggling to create peace in nations torn apart by civil conflict. Reflecting on how early modern people responded to this challenge – asking why they failed or succeeded – might actually teach us something. And I think we can all agree that early modern France offers a particularly exciting case study.

Tom: I work on similar themes to David, but our neat divide is that David tends to work on the aftermath of the Wars of Religion in the seventeenth century and my interests focus primarily on how people lived through the troubles and worked towards their settlement at the end of the sixteenth century. In a broader sense, my research is primarily about the social and cultural impact of the French Wars of Religion in their European context. Initially, this interest drew me to work on the life and times of one of the period’s principal historians, a curious Parisian collector named Pierre de L’Estoile (1546-1611), who was the subject of my first book. Now I’m working on the changing character of criminal justice at the end of the civil wars, especially as it relates to defining and prosecuting war crimes. My article in the special issue is in a sense a first attempt to explain the wider significance of that project.

What got you both first interested in French history?

Tom: I first got interested in researching French history when I was travelling to France as a student taking A-Level French and then as an undergraduate on a year abroad. That year I had plenty of time to travel around, read widely, and make friends in a new country. I have been going back ever since. So above all it’s thanks to language teaching in school and at university that I’ve been able to pursue my interests in this way. On the more personal level, about why the Wars of Religion, I suppose there might be something related to my childhood too, which I know David has in reverse. My mother comes from a Catholic family and my father a Protestant one. I find the problems set up by religious division extremely interesting, and the French Wars of Religion are a particularly intense version of that. 

David: As Tom mentioned, my upbringing was the reverse of his. My mother’s from a Protestant family, my father from a Catholic family. There is a useful expression in Dutch to capture this confessional tension: “When two beliefs share a cushion, the devil sleeps in between”. My mother has always joked that this family heritage is the reason I began writing about religious conflict in France. There may be some truth to her claim, because there is a story passed down through my mother’s family that we are descendants of Huguenot refugees. Moreover, we always went on summer holidays to France and I took a minor in French at university. So there’s always been this mix of personal interest and upbringing that has shaped my love for French history.

In the length of a Tweet, what is your Special issue about?  

Tom: “The diverse and profound impact of France’s sixteenth-century civil wars on society and culture in the centuries that followed.” I can’t see that tweet going viral… but it covers the necessary ground, I think.

David: On a basic level, it explores how Catholics and Protestants remembered the Wars of Religion on a local level and across generations. Authors discuss the long-lasting effects of civil war and the role memory played in keeping this conflict alive. One of the key findings is that by the mid-seventeenth century a generation had come of age that had not lived through the wars, but which nonetheless viewed itself as the victim of injustices committed a century before. Although I now realize this is not really tweet length!

So what made the two of you decide that you wanted to do a special issue on this subject?

Tom: We first discussed these issues in 2012, at a brilliant summer school for graduate students that we attended, run by the Institut d’histoire de la Réformation at the University of Geneva about a similar topic (the Wars of Religion in Catholic historiography, taught by Phillip Benedict and Daniela Solfaroli Camillocci) and we have kept up the conversation since then.

David: Phil’s summer course was hugely inspirational, but we were looking mostly at elite histories. I rather wanted to know what Catholics and Protestants on a local level actually remembered. That’s why I applied to the Dutch Research Council, which funded project “Divided by memory: Coping with religious diversity in post-civil war France”. My aim was to explore the local and transgenerational aspects of memory-making after the religious wars. Towards the end of that project, I organized a conference with Tom and my colleague Chrystel Bernat, who generously invited us to Montpellier. We had such a good round of papers that we decided to do a special issue. We were sitting on Montpellier’s beautiful Place de la Canourgue after the conference had ended, talking with some of the speakers over a glass of wine. Penny Roberts suggested we pitch the issue to French History, and that’s exactly what we did.  

Tom: I think it worked well to bring people together at the conference, a range of really interesting historians, all at different career stages, from France, the UK, the US. So that conference gave us the chance to shape the conversation ourselves and build on the summer school we attended as graduate students. As editor of the journal, Joseph Clarke was a great help at every stage of the process, and the anonymous reviewers gave us extremely helpful, critical feedback on all of the articles.

What are the main insights that you’d like people to take away from your special issue?

Tom: Perhaps the main point of our special issue is to highlight the diverse ways in which the Wars of Religion made an impact in the post-war years. This diversity is social, from peasants to aristocrats. It’s geographical, in cities, towns, and villages across France. And it’s chronological, across the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries primarily. Perhaps one of the differences between a special issue and an edited volume is that the special issue is shorter, so we can try things out rather than feeling like we have to be comprehensive. Instead of offering the definitive, closed volume on this subject, we can try out different perspectives on a topic that hopefully opens it up for further work. David, would you agree?

David: Absolutely – on the one hand the special issue opens up a new branch of scholarly research on the aftermath of the Wars of Religion (the memory of the wars), building on Philip Benedict’s work. But on the other it also identifies new directions of research, in particular focusing on local memories, different social hierarchies, and transgenerational memories.

What new thing(s) did you learn in the course of putting together the SI?

David: I have to say I was very grateful I had Tom as co-editor. We really were able to work together, it was just very intuitive. Having a trusted and experienced colleague really helps getting things done quickly and smoothly. I also serve as managing editor of the journal Early Modern Low Countries, so I know from first-hand experience that special issues often come with special issues, but putting this one together with Tom was just a lot of fun!

Tom: And I really enjoyed working together with David too! I was working on another special issue around the same time (on Soundscapes in early modern France) and I discovered the same thing twice – it’s great fun working with colleagues on topics we both think are important and interesting, exploring ideas, and seeing the articles from different perspectives. Academic work cannot happen in isolation and in so many ways it depends on collaboration. I also found it extremely rewarding to approach topics in a new light when I thought I was already familiar with them. For example, Barbara Diefendorf’s article, which was also her keynote lecture from the SSFH conference last year, really puts her interpretation in a long-run perspective. I’ve been inspired by her work since I was a student but this article takes a distinct approach from her previous work. It’s not possible to see the trends or continuities that she highlights without stepping back and looking over a century-and-a-half in a way that only someone with her knowledge and expertise can do. On a much more specific note, I learned a great deal about the genealogy of the Coligny family through translating Nicolas Breton’s excellent article from the French! How did Gaspard II differ from his grandson Gaspard III, or the many Coligny in between? That was a technical challenge for me and I really admire Nicolas’ deep and critical understanding of the history of the French aristocracy.

What advice would you give to other people contemplating guest editing a SI?

Tom: Having the conference was really useful. It enabled us to bring everyone together, define the topic, and test out ideas before expressing them more formally in the articles that made up the special issue. We started with an open call for papers. And then the conference was basically a dry run for the special issue. Having chosen which papers we wanted to include, we were able to give speakers detailed feedback on their conference papers, so we essentially had another round of peer-review which really helped us give coherence to the special issue from the beginning. If we had commissioned the pieces separately it would have been more difficult to make them speak to each other. And, actually, the informal side of the conference was also crucial in providing an opportunity for us all to agree on what we were trying to do together and establish common ground.

David: I would echo Tom’s advice, and add that having a partner in crime really helps to deal with unforeseen issues and dividing the workload.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

David: The freedom to follow your interests. I cherish that every single day – well, maybe a little less now that I am teaching, but during my postdoc years the freedom to explore the French archives, meet new colleagues, and have insightful conversations was utterly brilliant. It’s also how I met Tom, and how we were able to have our conversations about French history over the years, reading each other’s draft articles and sitting on conference panels together.

Tom: There’s a lot to say about the rewards and frustrations of academic work but I’ll pick an example that connects the two sides of the question and picks up on David’s answer. One of the most rewarding aspects for me has been collaborating with colleagues from different countries, with French and European history as our common point of interest. David and I have been involved in a rage of different conferences over the last few years and we’ve benefitted so much from those discussions. This is why the conference that led to our special issue was so enjoyable too. And so one of the most frustrating aspects for me right now is how the current political situation is putting barriers up that make those cross-border exchanges more difficult, whether it’s the Erasmus exchange programme or the European Research Council, or even the basic principle of freedom of movement. For me, these restrictions make European collaboration even more important to pursue now, despite these difficulties.

David: My only frustration is not having a permanent position. I realise it’s not me, but the state of academia in general. It is under-funded, certainly in the Netherlands: student numbers are up each year, but we’re expected to do the work without extra staff or funding. But I am an optimistic person, so I’m sure things will turn out fine. [Editor’s note: Since recording this interview, David has secured a permanent position, so that optimism proved well founded. Congratulations David!] I also share Tom’s frustration that Brexit will hamper collaboration, which is what academia is all about in the end!

What one change would you most like to see in Academia in the next five years?

David: What to change? So, so many things … But I am heartened when I see my students on Zoom. Despite the crisis they’re still grateful to see us, even for a few hours on screen, and that gives me faith that our work serves a purpose. Even so, I wish governments would put their money where their mouth is, and invest in the so-called ‘knowledge economy’ they’re always claiming to defend – teaching the next generation is how you create progress.

Tom: One change?! Where do I start… 2020 has been an exceptionally difficult year in higher education. A commitment from universities and the government to end casualisation and precarious employment conditions would be a good start.

What are you working on now/next?

Tom: This! My article in the special issue is in many ways a trailer for my current project, which is about how people initiated criminal prosecutions at the end of the Wars of Religion in cases of war crimes that could be punished under the Edict of Nantes. It’s a work in progress in that sense, so I hope that any feedback or discussion that the article might generate will help me to think through the next stages of that research.

David: I am currently writing a book about the memories of the Wars of Religion in early modern France. This special issue serves as a mid-way point, taking stock of what colleagues in the field are doing. My own book will cover the period between 1598 and 1685, exploring local memory cultures in Lyon, Montpellier, and La Rochelle. How did memories change over time, and what impact did traumatic memories have on coexistence between Catholics and Protestants?

Quick fire questions:  

What French place/space would you most like to be able to go to right now?  

David: I would love to return to Paris. I was supposed to be there in September, celebrating at the Dutch Embassy, which has been in the same hôtel particulier for the last 150 years. We were to present an anthology of letters sent from France to Johan de Witt, Grand Pensionary of Holland. The embassy invited all contributors to this volume, including myself, so I was really looking forward to that. The event has now been postponed to next year – hopefully I’ll see Paris again before long!

Tom: Because of the global pandemic I have cancelled two planned trips to France in 2020, but in the circumstances travel for research is the least of my worries. I have missed seeing friends and colleagues in France, and visiting places I’ve been going to for years by now. I’ve missed conversations by the coffee machine and ordering boxes and boxes in the Archives Nationales, as well as a planned trip out to the Sénonais countryside, when I intended to look further into the people and places I wrote about in my article. That will have to wait.

Favourite archive or library? 

David: I would opt for the Bibliothèque du protestantisme français, located at 54 rue des Saints-Pères in Paris. During my PhD, I sat there for many hours reading Huguenot sermons. They have this old-fashioned, nineteenth-century reading room that creates an intimate atmosphere, complete with desk lights and book stacked in different levels. You’d hear the librarian walking around to get a book from the réserve upstairs. I also recall this tap on my shoulder one afternoon from Raymond Mentzer, who just happened to be over from Iowa for a week. I’ve not been back for at least two years, so I really do miss this place.

Tom: When I started my research the Archives de la Préfecture de Police de Paris were kept in the building of the Préfecture de Police in the fifth arrondissement, just off the Place Maubert. I remember the excitement as well as the confusion of putting my bag in a locker alongside the gendarmes, or eating my packed lunch in their canteen when it was raining outside… Now those archives have moved to a new site at the Pré Saint-Gervais, but their earliest records of the Paris jails starting in the mid-sixteenth century are still incredibly useful for opening up research into the criminal records of the Parlement of Paris in the Archives Nationales, which are the main focus of my research at the moment. It’s interesting that we’ve both picked Parisian examples, but we’re also both broadening out our research across different regions and I hope to get to know the records in Toulouse much better in the future.

Favourite century?

Tom: This is going to divide us…

David:  Seventeenth.

Tom: Sixteenth! I’m most definitely a seizièmiste, if you’ll allow that in French terms the classic chronology of the sixteenth century ends with the assassination of Henri IV in 1610. Having said that, I hope to expand later into the seventeenth century in my future research, not least since the criminal archives are much richer for the later period.

David: Although I am going back in time. When I began my PhD on Huguenot refugees, my research straddled the later seventeenth and early eighteenth century, but I’m currently writing a sort of the prequel. The introduction to my PhD thesis contained this long section on why the revocation of the Edict of Nantes took place, but my examiners opined this was a very different question that I’d best leave out. So that’s when I decided I needed a different project to answer the question why the Edict failed.

Éclair or saucisson?

Tom: Ah, I’m going to have to dodge this one… I have coeliac disease, which means a gluten allergy, so many French delicacies are sadly off the menu. It’s a packed lunch on an archive trip for me. But eating out of local fruit and veg markets on a trip to France is a pleasure!

David: I’m torn, but would probably have to go with saucisson. Éclairs? I am not much of a cream fan. If you would have said pain au chocolat, however, I would definitely have picked the patisserie, because I do have a sweet tooth!

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