The Historical Gadfly — Episode 6: Robin Briggs, from Braintree to Oxford to France

I’m happy to have survived a highly schizophrenic, if overall good day at Oxford to be able to post another episode of the podcast. The day started auspiciously, with clear skies and sun glancing off the sandstone of All Souls and the Radcliffe Camera, and between receiving a press copy of Writings on War in the post (it feels real now!) and some mapping work in the Duke Humphreys Reading Room of the Bodleian Library, all seemed well. But by the latter half of the day, even a mind-expanding seminar on historical linguistics by Joshua Katz of Princeton couldn’t save the day: it was dreary, raining, and gloomy outside once more – Oxford’s other face. Making the ride in the rain over Magdalen Bridge with rain in my face, and trying not to get run over by buses / run over silly pedestrians myself, I felt like a wet cat.

Robin Briggs, FBA

Still, the day was saved by a lovely conversation with Mr Robin Briggs (pictured above), a lovely man, a retired Fellow of All Souls College at Oxford, and an eminent historian of early modern France. I had taken a course on Ancien Régime France with him this winter, which primarily consisted of me sitting in the sofa of his office and trying to absorb as much as possible (I had little to no experience on the topic), and after reuniting at a dinner with a shared friend of ours, I was able to finagle him onto the podcast.

Christopher Hill, a left-leaning Oxford historian of the 1950s and 1960s who features in this episode

We ended up touching on a huge range of topics, resulting in what might have been our longest podcast ever – nearly two hours! Sadly, we proved so loquacious together that I actually ran out of space on my computer’s hard drive to keep recording to the end of the conversation. As a result, I can include only the (intact, thankfully) first half of our conversation with this post (available both here as well as at the end of this post). I intend to transcribe / summarize the second half of our conversation, which focused more on Robin’s journey into the histoire des mentalités, his thoughts on future potential exciting directions in history as a discipline most broadly, and potential lessons for aspiring scholars and historians.

Bustling Braintree, England, the beginning of our story

I promise a more detailed run-down, maybe even later tonight, but as for this first part to the Briggs-a-Thon, we cover a lot of ground: Robin’s upbringing in Braintree, England (in Essex, to the northeast of London) and boarding school, being a student at Oxford in the early 1960s at Balliol, and getting some sense of a rich scholarly landscape that included figures like Hill (an influential Marxist historian of the English Revolution), Hugh Trevor-Roper (a more patrician historian of Britain and Nazi Germany), AJP Taylor (also a historian of Germany, perhaps best-known for being one of the first “television dons”), and others. As this short list shows, however, this was very much a man’s world – something we also touch upon in trying to articulate what precisely the culture of those years in British intellectual life was all about. But by the end of the conversation here, we’re well on our way to discussing Robin’s shift from English history (his focus as an undergraduate, and probably the dominant field in the English historical establishment at that time) to French history, under the encouragement of John Habbakuk, an economic historian then at All Souls College, where Robin was a Fellow. We’re barely into Robin’s first steps into France and his initial encounter with Structuralism when we cut out. I’m incredibly upset at the technical difficulties, but such is learning and recording – hopefully this will never happen again. I should have a summary of the latter half of our conversation up shortly, I hope!

Download our conversation here.

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One thought on “The Historical Gadfly — Episode 6: Robin Briggs, from Braintree to Oxford to France

  1. Christopher Thompson

    I greatly enjoyed listening to this interview with Robin Briggs, largely because I was amongst his first undergraduate pupils in the Hilary Term of 1965. I had been sent to him to revise for the European History paper 1555-1648 which I was about to take for my Final Examinations. He was a formidably sharp and intelligent Tutor and already very well informed about early modern French history. I well remember the sense of excitement with which he told me about the criticisms made of the Russian Marxist Boris Porchnev’s work on peasant revolts by Roland Mousnier, an area of enquiry clearly of great interest to him. We did, however, have one disagreement when he challenged my claim that the Ottoman Turks proficiency in artillery had been maintained into the late-seventeenth-century: fortunately, I had kept the page reference to the work by Gibbs upon which this claim rested. I should also like to qualify his remarks about the insularity of the Modern History course in the 1960s: it was less parochial than his comments suggest. Even so, I hope he has a very positive and productive retirement.
    Christopher Thompson
    Senior Research Fellow, Humanities Research Institute, University of Buckingham.

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