French Historians under the spotlight: Prof. Colin Jones

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.

April’s post features Prof. Colin Jones CBE, Professor of History at QMUL who is currently Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Fellow at the National Humanities Center, North Carolina. His most recent monograph, The Smile Revolution in Eighteenth Century Paris was published in 2014 by OUP.

Colin Jones
Prof. Colin Jones: ‘the best intellectual thrills and most of the best research come from taking risks and trying something new’. (Photo credit: Ron Jautz)

In one sentence, what is your research about?

France – which is to say that although my current research is on a single day (9 Thermidor Year II /27 July 1794), I have researched and written on most periods of French history – while focusing mainly on the eighteenth century, the French Revolution and the history of medicine.

What was your motivation for researching French history?

I can honestly say: avoiding the Middle Ages. I now love medieval history and count medievalists among my close friends. But I had gone to Oxford as an undergrad to study history and found writing an essay on the legacy of Roman to Anglo-Saxon Britain rebarbative and utterly (forgive me: this was 1968) ‘irrelevant’. By mere chance while whingeing to fellow-students the next day I learnt that I could switch to History and French, do French literature instead of medieval history, and spend a year abroad (in Paris as it turned out, in 1969). It was a no-brainer.

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

The French Revolution.

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

The Committee of Public Safety minus Robespierre. It would be fascinating to hear what these eleven men really thought of him. To make up numbers and to lighten proceedings, I would definitely like Sophie Arnould to be present. One of the finest opera singers of the eighteenth century as well as an accomplished courtesan, she must be the only Enlightenment woman to have a book of her witticisms published, showcasing her wicked and not infrequently very crude sense of humour.

Which French History monograph do you wish you had written?

I can still feel almost as a bodily thrill my encounter with Michel Foucault’s Histoire de la folie during my year out in Paris in 1969-70. I believe this must make me the first English historian ever to encounter his work – or at least to take it seriously. It proved to be a pivotal work in my career. I did an undergrad dissertation on the treatment of insanity in Paris in the Revolution, and followed it up with a DPhil on a related topic. Foucault probably helped me more on the literature side of my degree than in history, and for a number of years thereafter was irrelevant to what I was up to. Most historians I knew mocked the book: but I was always in awe of it, and remain so. I don’t really wish I had written the book however as I think Foucault manages it quite well.

Which book(s) are currently by your bedside?

I am reviewing Tim Tackett’s wonderful new book on the making of the Terror, and this has forced to the back of the shelf the half re-read Tristram Shandy by Lawrence Sterne and a collection of Edith Wharton’s novels.

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

Have a go, seek advice and keep smiling. Have a go because so much professional REF/Student-Survey/corporately-managed life is geared around playing safe and being cautious – but the best intellectual thrills and most of the best research come from taking risks and trying something new. Seek advice because the best work needs to be bounced off someone. And keep smiling because professional as well as personal life can be tough, so you might as well.

A few quick-fire questions…

Favourite revolutionary?

Louis-Sébastien Mercier wasn’t a great revolutionary qua revolutionary. He was a Girondin rather than a Montagnard and one of the very few times he spoke in the Convention was to point out that Robespierre’s assumption that French foreign policy should be based on the motto ‘liberty or death’ was fatuous. For this he was roundly excoriated by Robespierre and soon ended up in gaol where he spent the Terror. But anyone who is interested in late eighteenth-century pre- and post-Revolution can only be thankful for his sprawling and extraordinary Tableau de Paris and Le Nouveau Paris. Although all his work buzzes with curiosity and humanity, for sheer, heart-stopping sadness, also try the scraps of his correspondence with his wife from the Luxembourg prison at the height of the Terror.

Archives Nationales or Archives Départementales?

In the manner colourfully endorsed by my doctoral supervisor, Richard Cobb, I prioritised departmental over national archives in the first part of my career. But I then made a conscious decision to focus on Paris, not simply for the national archives but also for all the other libraries and archives in the city. While we are on the subject, I would like to add that despite its location, I really like the Pierrefitte Archives Nationales and recommend it to any researcher. I hear a lot of people moaning about it but it then turns out they have never been there! It may not be a great place to get to but it really is a great place to work.

Monograph or journal article?

What I really love is a journal article that packs the punch of a monograph.

Politics or culture?

Why choose?

Pick a century?

Has to be the eighteenth. Despite everything, the twenty-first is pretty good too. My most recent book on the history of the smile has quite a lot on the history of dentistry. And if I had tooth-ache I would definitely like to be living in the present day.

Éclair or saucisson?

As Zhou Enlai said of the French Revolution, it is too soon to tell.


Many thanks to Colin 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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