French Historians under the spotlight: Sara Barker

Welcome to Under the Spotlight, a monthly interview series which offers a snapshot from academics’ lives: their passions, interests and reading suggestions – all summarised in less than ten minutes. You can catch up with previous posts here.

Dr Sara Barker is Lecturer in early modern History at the University of Leeds. Her first book was on the pastor Antoine de Chandieu; she has also edited volumes on the impact of Robert Kingdon’s work, Renaissance Translation and, most recently, International Exchange in the Early Modern Book World. Sara is currently completing a monograph for Brill entitled New and True? Translation, news and pamphlets in early modern France and England for publication in 2019. Sara tweets via @DrSKBarker.

Sara Barker: ‘Social media has been a real game changer for breaking some of the taboos about good and bad practices in academia’

In the length of a tweet, what is your research about?

Printing and book production during the French Wars of Religion, mainly news, pamphlets and history, with a particular interest in translation.

What was your motivation for researching French history?

I was fascinated with France and French culture as a child – I was a big fan of ‘Dogtanian and the Muskahounds’. My Erasmus year in Nanterre and Paris just confirmed that interest even more. By that point I’d discovered the Wars of Religion, initally through watching ‘La Reine Margot’ – it was the combination of a complex story to unpick and so much incredible scholarship to consider too. I was intrigued by what drove people to kill their neighbours in the name of faith –a question we still have to deal with today.

You’re given a time machine for one day. Where would you go? What would you do?

I would like to spend time in a printing house producing something controversial, and then wander outside to see the immediate reaction. There’s a pamphlet I’ve always been fascinated by which tells the story of a woman having sex with the Devil in the form of a monkey, and then giving birth to a monkey-baby – being around for that coming off the presses would be quite something.

I might have said Paris in July 1559 to stop Henri II taking part in the joust that cost him his life, leading to a succession of young and inexperienced kings, but I’m not sure that would have entirely averted the bloodshed that came next. Also, if Catherine de Medici couldn’t bully him into staying off the horse, I don’t fancy my chances, to be honest.

Who would you invite to your French History fantasy dinner party?

The Lyon printer Benoit Rigaud, because I want to know more about his business practices. Natalie Zemon Davis, partly because she’s written on Rigaud, but mainly just because when I’ve met her before, she’s been fascinating to talk to.  Roger Chartier. I suppose I should invite Antoine de Chandieu, as I spent so much of my life thinking and writing about him, but I don’t think he’d be a fun dinner guest.  Definitely Catherine de Medici, although I’d have to keep her away from Chandieu if he came and I wouldn’t necessarily trust her to pass the wine. Sir Robert Dallington, who wrote a survey of what France was like in 1598 and was quite brilliantly bitchy about some of the things he saw – including women eating on the streets.

I’d also like the whole thing to be captured for posterity by one of those Troubadour-style artists.

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

Most rewarding: seeing students develop confidence over their time at university. And on a selfish note, opening a box to find a publication with my name on it inside.

Most frustrating – that there seem to be fewer students coming through with the language skills to pursue higher level studies in European History. Also that I do not have endless time and money to chase up all the fascinating things I want to investigate, and so I have to prioritise.

What one change would you like to see in Academia during the next 5 years?

More concerted efforts to support ECRs, particularly in relation to contracts which don’t actually allow the next generation of scholars to live and eat, let alone have space to think, research and occasionally have a life.

If you weren’t in your current role, what would you be doing?

It would be something to do with books. I’d probably own a bookshop, although I’d have real problems bringing myself to sell anything.

What key piece of advice would you offer postgraduates/early career academics?

You don’t always have a good sense when you’re an ECR about what are reasonable expectations, both of yourself and from employers, and you can easily accept some quite exploitative practices without realising it. Social media has been a real game changer for breaking some of the taboos about good and bad practices in academia. I’ve made some very important connections via Twitter in particular. However, you need to remember it’s a public face you’re presenting, and don’t overshare or rant to your detriment – which can be very hard when you’re having a hard time. That’s when you need to turn to your senior colleague friends – offline – and get some private perspective.

A few quick-fire questions…

Archives Nationales or Archives Départementales?

Bibliothèques all the way. I particularly love the Mazarine and the Arsenal in Paris. However my new project on sixteenth-century imprints and printers copying each other’s works is going to take me back out to the Bibliothèques Municipaux, and I cannot wait – I worked in dozens of BMs as a PhD student, and I have missed them.

Writing in silence or to music?

Neither – I need background noise but music is usually too distracting, so I either take myself off to a coffee shop, or use an app like Noisili to create pretend background noise. That’s also fun for scaring colleagues who walk into your office on a bright sunny day, only to be confronted with the sounds of a thunderstorm on a train.

Tea or coffee?

Both – although the only acceptable tea is Yorkshire Tea. When they started selling it in Monoprix, three different people turned up at my Paris flat brandishing boxes, so I might have been a bit vocal about my preferences there.

Best conference you’ve ever been to?

SHARP in Paris in 2016 – even though I was told two minutes before my paper that Roger Chartier was in the front row. The feedback from those sessions has had a big impact on the book I am writing. It was also great because I got to spend time with a number of female scholars more senior to me who took the time to give me career advice.

Typed or handwritten?

I handwrite most things first, and then edit as I type up.

Éclair or saucisson?

Neither. Rillettes & cornichons followed by a Paris-Brest, thank you!


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