French Historians under the spotlight: Dr Penny Roberts

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.

March’s post features Dr Penny Roberts, Associate Professor (Reader) in History and Director of the Centre for Arts Doctoral Research Excellence (CADRE) at Warwick. Her most recent monograph Peace and Authority during the French Religious Wars, c. 1560-1600 was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2013. In her capacity as co-editor of French History, Penny is speaking about publishing journal articles at the French Postgraduate Study Day at Exeter on 7 March – find out more about this event here.

Dr Penny Roberts: ‘It’s a rare privilege to study French history. Embrace the culture, the archives, even the solitude, but above all get out and see the country.’


 In one sentence, what is your research about?

The social, religious, cultural and political history of conflict in sixteenth-century France.

What was your motivation for researching French history?


If you could travel back to any historical period or moment, when would it be?

The Colloquy of Poissy in 1561 (I was discussing it with my Special Subject group only the other day).  It must have been amazing to witness those hard-hitters Theodore Beza and the Cardinal of Lorraine battling it out theologically-speaking in front of the court.

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

Quite unintentionally, I have come up with a list that is all women: the Merovingian queen, Fredegund; Heloise; Joan of Arc; Catherine de Medici; Simone de Beauvoir; Natalie Davis.  So a couple of formidable queens, a couple of flawed religious figures, and a couple of inspirational feminists.  Let battle commence!

Served and waited upon by Abelard, Montaigne and Nicolas Pithou (author of the main source for my PhD thesis).  They could do the washing up too.

Which French History monograph do you wish you had written?

If I’m allowed a monograph by a primarily French historian, Stuart Clark’s Thinking with Demons.  It’s beautifully written, scholarly and engaging.  It took a good twenty years and would never get written now in the world of REF.

Which book(s) are currently by your bedside?

An eclectic mix and no French History.  Mostly short stories or poetry, nothing too demanding: Simon Armitage, Seeing Stars; collections of short stories by Truman Capote and Alice Munro; and James Hamilton-Paterson, Cooking with Fernet Branca – horrible drink, very funny book.

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

Enjoy it.  It’s a rare privilege to study French history.  Embrace the culture, the archives, even the solitude, but above all get out and see the country.

A few quick-fire questions…

Favourite early modern theorist?

Has to be Michel de Montaigne.  His Essais are another good by-the-bed read.

Archives Nationales or Archives Départementales?

Neither.  I’d prefer Bibliothèque Nationale (Richelieu site) and municipal archives anyday.

Monograph or journal article?

Journal article (in the premier French History journal of course!).  I don’t really like writing at length and articles are such a satisfactory way of condensing and presenting an argument and absorbing someone else’s.

Politics or culture?

Why choose when everything is both?

Pick a century?

I have to say sixteenth, but I do have a bit of a soft spot for the fourteenth…

Éclair or saucisson?

I’d like to substitute the unassuming pain aux raisins.  I would regularly rate out of 10 each one I sampled from a variety of boulangers around Paris.  It’s all in the custard/pastry ratio…


Many thanks to Penny for taking the time to answer our questions.

If you’d like to take part, or suggest someone to feature on the blog, then let us know!




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