Postgraduate Spotlight: James Howe

Blog written by first-year PhD student James Howe. You can follow him on Twitter @JHowe1996.

James was born in London and spent most of his childhood living in Liverpool. From an early age, James was interested in history from the perspective of ordinary people and marginalised groups. This interest was nurtured by weekly visits to the city’s museums dedicated to maritime and military history as well as the transatlantic slave trade. He has tried to study and research history from this perspective throughout his academic career so far.

James first came to St Andrews to study for a BA (Hons) in Modern History in 2015. It was during this degree that he began to explore academic history from below. Through his optional courses, James became interested in the history of travel and tourism, which would inspire much of his later postgraduate work. His undergraduate dissertation used the war memoirs of ordinary working-class soldiers who fought in the Napoleonic Wars, analysing their impressions of the countries they travelled through after leaving their birthplaces for the first time in their lives. During this time, he also spent time studying the history (and lived experience) of dictatorship, in particular the Spanish Franco Regime and the Soviet Union. After graduating from St Andrews, he completed an MPhil in Modern European History at Cambridge, submitting a thesis entitled ‘The Experience of British Travellers to the Soviet Union, 1953-1964’. This research explored British travel literature on the Soviet Union, establishing travellers’ impressions of Soviet bureaucracy and propaganda. These books represented both a part of the discourse on Anglo-Soviet relations within Britain as well as historic Western European perceptions of Russia and Eastern Europe.

James couldn’t stay away from St Andrews for long and returned to begin a PhD in 2020. His project is supervised by Dr Kate Ferris and Dr Gillian Mitchell and focuses on the experience of British people who travelled to the dictatorships of Spain and Portugal prior to their respective transitions to democracy. Spain was ruled by General Francisco Franco from his 1939 victory in the Civil War until his death in 1975. The Portuguese Estado Novo (New State) was established in 1933 and lasted until the Carnation Revolution in 1974, which for the majority of this time was administered by António de Oliveira Salazar. British people travelled to these nations for a wide variety of reasons, on coach tours, new package holidays, as well as to work or study as part of university or government exchange programmes. The project is centred on oral history interviews which James hopes to begin conducting over the coming months. His PhD examines the presentation of Spain and Portugal as travel destinations to British people by both commercial and state-operated agencies. The material produced by these entities will be used as the project’s printed primary source base to be compared with the oral testimonies. Ultimately, his project contributes to the discourse on ordinary life during the late period of the Iberian dictatorships, as well as the ways in which travel and tourism were used by these regimes to reward and ensure the loyalty of their citizens, whilst improving their nations’ international reputations.

Outside of academia, James enjoys cycling and can often to be found dodging potholes on the back roads of Fife. He plans to ride the North Coast 500 before he finishes his PhD. James used the lockdown to improve his language skills by taking an online Spanish course and also took a deep dive into Russian literature because the last year hadn’t been bleak enough. James has played the guitar since he was young but remains a terrible musician. He is keenly waiting for life to get back to normal so he can resume visiting museums and exhibitions and finally talk about history in person again.

Postgraduate Spotlight: Áron Kecskés

Blog written by third-year PhD candidate Áron Kecskés. Áron’s research focuses on Norman lordships in early twelfth-century Southern Italy. You can follow him on Twitter @aron.kecskes.

Áron’s research, supervised by Dr Justine Firnhaber-Baker and Professor Frances Andrews, looks at how the society of the eastern Campania deployed organic and localised responses to great political and societal turmoil in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. The eastern part of Campania, a part of southern Italy, underwent enormous changes over the course of the eleventh century. Notably, the Lombard Principality of Benevento, which formerly ruled the whole territory, was replaced by a set of lordships ruled by an immigrant Norman aristocracy. These lordships form the principal subject of Áron’s thesis. Otto Brunner defined lordship as a conceptual category encompassing economic, social, and political aspects linked to both land and the household of the lord. An entirely alien phenomenon to our post-Enlightenment separation of economic, judicial, and military affairs, lordship was a principal ordering force of medieval politics and society. This does not mean that lordship was present in all medieval societies or that it was equally important in each. Áron’s thesis looks at a period when lordship became one of the central ordering principles in southern Italian society and politics, seeking to explore the reasons for this and the forms this process took. In particular, the thesis focuses on the documents lords produced (seigneurial diplomatic), the place of lordship in local society, and interactions between lords and seigneuries in extra-local contexts.

A stranger in foreign parts like the Norman lords he studies, Áron has lived in the UK for almost a decade now. His long-held fascination with medieval history turned into academic interest during an undergraduate degree at the University of Glasgow. While the intellectual history of the War of the Three Kingdoms almost seduced him, in the end he stayed loyal to his chosen period and came to St Andrews for an MLitt In Medieval History. This led naturally to his current PhD at SAIMS. Over the course of the last decade or so, Áron has worked in warehouses and shops, on petrol stations and assembly lines, rode bicycles and driven forklift trucks, and baked bread and assembled bouquets of flowers for a living. This has been just as much a formative experience as university education, instilling a deep interest in the systems and structures that order society.

Áron has been accused of being ‘overly invested’ in the Beastie Boys and of ‘quoting too much from their songs’ by his office-mates. This is actually an oversimplification: music, especially new wave, punk, and early hip-hop, plays a huge role in Áron’s life. His chief artistic interest, however, lies in literature, especially nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels. He considers Bolaño’s 2666 to be the best novel he’s read in the last few years. Áron is also an enthusiastic kickboxer. Originally introduced to Muay Thai by the Glasgow Uni MT Club, he has taken every opportunity to train ever since. Lockdown finally let him fully embrace the dark side, permitting him to grow a man-bun, put up a heavy punchbag in his living room, and ride a red fixie everywhere.

Áron is very much looking forward to returning to Italy to continue his research, but until then he is always keen on meeting people interested in chatting about Normans, music or literature, kickboxing, or cycling.

Postgraduate Spotlight: Maria Zukovs

Blog written by first-year PhD student Maria Zukovs. Maria’s research focuses on Irish press reactions to the French Revolution. You can follow her on Twitter @m_zukovs.

Maria was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. Her passion for history arose at the young age of four when she discovered the story of RMS Titanic and grew from there. Despite being engineers, her parents always encouraged her to follow her own interests. Her grandfather also played an important role in nurturing Maria’s love of history by teaching her about Ireland, his home country, from a young age.

Maria began studying history in 2011 at the University of Toronto, where she majored in history and Celtic studies. Her experiences in the Celtic studies programme solidified her love of Irish history and culture. Following her graduation from the University of Toronto in 2015, she immediately pursued an M.A. at Western University in London, Ontario. There she explored settler-colonialism in seventeenth-century Ireland through the lens of Bardic poetry. As history is often written by those in power, this research sought to understand perceptions of colonialism through the eyes of the colonised. After completing her M.A., she took a break from academia and went on to complete a certificate in museum studies. After working several jobs in culture and heritage, she realised she missed doing historical research. Leaving the world of art galleries behind, she looked to Scotland.

Her current research, under the supervision of Professor Andrew Pettegree, focuses on Irish press reactions to the French Revolution. This topic brings together Maria’s two main historical passions: Irish history and the French Revolution. She examines newspapers published in late eighteenth-century Dublin and how their coverage of the French Revolution may have impacted Irish society at that time. Much of the scholarly focus for this period of Irish history has been on figures like Theobald Wolfe Tone, organisations like the Society of United Irishmen, and the 1798 rebellion. In particular, the United Irishmen’s relationship with France has been the subject of several in-depth studies. However, despite there being a significant number of newspapers printed in Dublin during the period of the French Revolution, there have been few studies about them, their contents, and the role the press played in spreading news of the Revolution. Going through these newspapers, she will examine what reports on the French Revolution looked like, what information was being disseminated to the public at the time, and how accurate those reports were. The government response to this press coverage (legislation, libel cases against proprietors) plays a key role in understanding whether these reports on the French Revolution were seen as a threat to Irish society.

Outside of academia Maria is a horror film enthusiast who has been told she makes excellent bread. When she is not playing with the neighbourhood cats, she is knitting sweaters and hosting Jeopardy nights with her friends. She also enjoys playing the violin, which she has been doing since the age of nine. Since moving to Scotland, she has discovered an interest in walking and hiking, mainly along the Coastal Path. She welcomes recommendations on any paths she should check out.

Postgraduate Spotlight: Manon Williams

Blog written by Manon Williams. Manon is a first-year PhD student. Her research examines how medical knowledge was constructed at sea among surgeons in the British and French navies

Manon is a first year PhD in Modern History under the supervision of Dr Sarah Easterby-Smith and Professor Aileen Fyfe. Her doctoral research, funded by a Wolfson Postgraduate Scholarship in the Humanities, explores how medical knowledge was constructed and implemented at sea among surgeons in the British Royal Navy. Using naval medical journals from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, her thesis examines how surgeons applied various contemporary medical theories to different patient populations. She is especially interested in the role of medical bias, including how patients were categorised based on preconceived or constructed notions of disease susceptibility and transmissibility.

After an undergraduate degree focused on late antiquity, a master’s degree in medieval history, and a brief interlude as a research assistant in a paediatric hospital, Manon has inexplicably yet irrevocably landed on late-eighteenth-century naval medicine. She likes to think that her previous study of hermits and monks has some bearing on her current research, but in general it was her experience analysing data in a paediatric infectious diseases department that brought forward many of the questions that drive her research. After nearly two years of analysing patient data, she realised how powerful of a story those data points could tell once interpreted and contextualised. In her search for historical records of patient data, Manon discovered the National Archive’s collection of naval surgeons’ journals (series ADM 101) and fell into a world of poisonous fruits and arachnids, death by lightning and battle, and the devastating effects of tropical diseases. By analysing various illnesses and comparing their treatment in different geographic locations and among different patient populations, Manon hopes to identify how prevailing medical theories informed patient care and shaped modern clinical practice.

Raised by a family of architects and engineers, Manon’s passion for history has often perplexed relatives whose experiences with the discipline consisted mainly of rote memorization and monotone lectures. Undeterred, Manon has spent nearly a decade trying to convince her friends and family that history is a fascinating subject requiring deep critique and contextualisation. To Manon, history teaches empathy, introspection, and awareness. Whether discussing medieval saints or eighteenth-century sailors, Manon’s drive is to find ways to make history interesting, engaging, and approachable to all. She is looking forward to taking this time during her PhD to explore opportunities with public engagement and public history.

Originally from Denver, Colorado, Manon has happily exchanged her 300 days of sunshine a year for a PhD on the windy east coast of Scotland. After an undergraduate semester abroad in Edinburgh, she is excited to be back and looks forward to exploring the country further. When not buried deep in a monograph or computer screen, Manon enjoys bicycle rides, long walks in nature, photography, games, and gardening. This summer’s task is to figure out how to grow vegetables in a new climate. She hopes that the excess of moisture, compared to semi-arid Colorado, will make up for the loss of sunshine. Any tips are most welcome.

Postgraduate Spotlight: James Earnshaw

James Earnshaw is a third-year PhD student. His research focuses on gender and ‘Englishness’ from 1850 to 1914, examining these ideas in the context of Anglo-German relations during this period. His thesis examines how concerns over English masculinity shaped perceptions of Germany and responses to German foreign policy. 

James Earnshaw

Born and raised in ‘the city of dreaming spires’, James was encouraged to apply to St Andrews on the basis that ‘it’s just like Oxford, except it has three beaches and you can walk on the quad.’ Perhaps placing an inadvisable degree of faith in these incentives, James arrived in September 2013 as an undergraduate to read history having never visited the town. Fortunately, the recommendation was well-founded: this is his eighth academic year in the town having completed an M.Litt in Modern History in 2018 before starting his PhD! 

Despite the efforts of his classicist father to guide him to Ancient History at a young age (including illicit showings of Gladiator, Alexander, and Troy), James finally allied himself to the nineteenth century after reading Richard Aldous’s The Lion and the Unicorn for an A-S history module. At honours he continued this interest by taking modules on British and German foreign policies in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the former, he was introduced to The Battle of Dorking: Reminisces of a Volunteer (1871), a short story written by George Chesney which imagines a successful German invasion of Britain. A gripping tale which shifts effortlessly from pulsating military action to moments of tenderness, James was fascinated by the sensation caused by the story and sought to unravel its popularity. Under the supervision of Professor Aileen Fyfe, James explored how the story exhibits and exacerbates anxieties over the condition of English masculinity in ‘The Battle of Dorking: A Re-Examination Through Gender’, which was awarded the Alan Robertson Memorial Prize for best undergraduate dissertation in Modern History.

The Battle of Dorking. Reminiscences of a Volunteer, 1871

After holidaying from the nineteenth century during his master’s dissertation, which analysed British army chaplains’ responses to regulated maison tolérées on the Western Front, James returned to more familiar territory with his PhD project. Drawing on the concept of ‘gender damage’, his thesis explores how recurrent concerns expressed over English masculinity between 1850 to 1914 illuminate contemporaries’ sensitivities to the social construction of binary gender categories. Examining English press articles, public speeches and popular cultural works, James explores how these mediums encouraged contemporaries to fear non-conformity to prescribed gender roles. James applies this theoretical framework to Anglo-German relations in the period to illustrate how these sensitivities underpinned interpretations of German foreign policy and influenced ensuing political, social and cultural responses. Beyond his thesis, James also researches the histories of sexuality and emotion in the Victorian and Edwardian periods.

Outside of academia, James can be found playing cricket for both the university and staff sides. Elected captain of the latter prior the pandemic, he hopes to be able to lead the team this coming season to avoid the ignominy of being the only captain in the club’s history never to win a game. In the winter months James plays six-a-side football, martyring himself for the team as goalkeeper in the freezing conditions. Like many during the pandemic, James has become well-acquainted with Strava (other fitness apps are available) and now enjoys long walks and runs with greater enthusiasm. When travel restrictions end, James intends to complete an academic pilgrimage to Dorking and trace the Volunteer narrator’s footsteps like an ambling Michael Portillo. Hopefully the excursion will end in a less calamitous fashion.

Postgraduate Spotlight: Irina Mattioli

Blog written by Irina Mattioli. Irina is a second-year cotutelle PhD Student in medieval history, completing her degree at both the University of St Andrews and the University of Milan. Her research focuses on the history of animals in thirteenth-century Italy.

A portrait of Irina using the collodion process invented in 1851, by Alessio Vissani.

Irina grew up in Umbria, a region in central Italy that still looks very ‘medieval’. It is reasonable to assume that the landscape and constant exposure to ancient art and architecture played a role in her fascination with the past. She is quite confident, however, that she would not be doing her PhD in history without the input of some notable figures in her life. These include her grandmother Maria Adelaide (a schoolteacher who was very fond of humanities, history, and culture) and the inspiring mentors she worked with through her university cursus: Professor Donatella Scortecci at the University of Perugia, Professor Paolo Grillo at the University of Milano, and Professor Frances Andrews at the University of St Andrews. The last two are currently supervising her cotutelle PhD in Medieval History.

In her PhD Irina focuses on Animal History in thirteen-century century Italy, particularly on horses and their polyvalence in the society of the time. The idea is to explore the socio-economic implications, ethos, and ideology of an animal which, for a thirteen-century commune, was undoubtedly a multifaceted being. It was at one time war mount, means of transportation and communication, work resource, valuable asset, and, above all, a powerful symbol in the collective imagination and iconography. The commune of Perugia in the second half of the thirteen-century seems to provide the ideal case study for her project: it experienced a great phase of expansion, and its prosperity had visible effects both on the flourishing of architectural and cultural production. In this scenario, the horse emerged as an essential component of both the ‘state machine’ of the commune and of the needs of the society.

Credit: c. 50v, Massari 1bis, Archivio de Stato di Perugia-1277.

Irina’s choice to study animals in her historical studies was an intuitive, yet unavoidable one. She has always had a deep love and an utter fascination for nature, plants, and all the living creatures that are part of the Earth system: we share the present as we shared the past, and it is something worth investigating. To keep a broad perspective about this, she is also quite fond of ethology and ecology themed readings.

Irina prides herself on her interdisciplinary methodology in her studies. Since her bachelor’s degree, she has learned how to incorporate material evidence and iconography in her research alongside written primary sources. Due to this interest, while proceeding in her studies as a historian, she has worked at archaeological excavations every summer for the past eleven years on sites ranging from the Roman to Medieval periods.  

Irina photographing prima ballerina Joy Womack (Kremlin Ballet) in Moscow

Alongside her PhD, Irina has been a full-time professional photographer for the past fourteen years ( She has accomplished several artistic achievements between commissioned work with notable clients, exhibitions, publications, and prizes (first place at the Anna Pavlova international ballet photography competition, awarded in Moscow). Her photography focuses on portrait, reportage, fashion, and ballet, the latter subject being near to her heart as a former dancer with more than 20 years of experience and passion.

Postgrad Spotlight: Christin Simons

Blog written by Elena Romero-Passerin. Elena recently submitted her PhD thesis, which focuses on the comparison of public botanic gardens in Scotland and Tuscany in the late eighteenth century.

Christin grew up in the Ruhr valley, a region of Germany historically well-known for its Roman camps and important coal mining industry. Though she was not particularly taken with history at school, Christin did like practical approaches to the discipline, enjoying visits to museums and ‘medieval markets’ (which, by her own admission, might shock actual medievalists). As she finished school these visits inspired her, and she decided to take an internship in her local museum, where she guided visitors around exhibitions about—surprise, surprise—Roman history and coal mining!

After doing an undergrad in Classics at the Ruhr University of Bochum (those Romans really got to her!), Christin decided to switch topics for her master’s degree and began studying Early Modern History. This was when her great peregrinations around the world started, as she decided to leave Germany for an Erasmus exchange in Stockholm. There she began to take an interest in Swedish history, an interest that was helped along by her attending the course of a visiting professor from St Andrews who introduced her to maritime history and the East India Companies. Christin decided to continue her exploration of the world and registered for a PhD at the University of St Andrews to work with that very same visiting professor, Prof Steve Murdoch.

Before moving to St Andrews, Christin spent a year in Beijing with the support of the Chinese Scholarship Council. She ‘tingbudonged’ (Chinese for ‘I don’t understand’) her way through a language course and started to work in the archives the very same year. She then moved camp again to come to Scotland where she fell in love with St Andrews.

Christin works on the perception and legal strategies of the Swedish East India Company during its first charter (1731-1746). Her research explores the understanding of maritime conflicts in the absence of international maritime law and the role of foreign influence in the Swedish East India trade. She focuses in particular on the ‘Porto Novo affair’ of 1733, a conflict between the British and the French Companies on the one side and the Swedish East India Company on the other. The affair resulted in an eight-year-long lawsuit and illustrates the struggle between British exceptionalism and Swedish sovereignty. It involved characters such as the Scot Colin Campbell, director of the Swedish Company (but condemned ‘interloper’ by British legislation), who used his knowledge of British law to further the success of the Swedes in the East India Trade.

During her PhD Christin has continued to travel all around Europe as funding from St Andrew’s University, the Economic History Society, St Leonard’s Postgraduate College, the Royal Historical Society, the World Ship Society, the Society for Nautical Research, and the Dutch-Belgian Society for Eighteenth Century studies allowed her to go collect sources and speak at many conferences. She has also taken on a lot of organising duties, co-organising the Early Modern and Modern History Postgraduate Seminar for two years, as well as the International Postgraduate Port and Maritime Studies Network Conference twice (2019, 2020) with Scott Carballo (Stirling). In addition, she has pursued her interests in public history by developing an historical board game with her officemate Elena. ‘Merplantilism’ explores eighteenth-century trade, navigation, and science, and Christin has presented it to various audiences in Britain, Ireland, Sweden, and Germany.

Christin’s passion for engaging with wide audiences about history also shines through her work as a tour guide in Stockholm, where she now lives. She misses the time she spent riding, hiking, and dancing in Ceilidhs in Scotland. When she left St Andrews for Sweden in November 2019, she could not have foreseen that she would not be able to return before submitting her thesis, but she hopes to one day see her PhD colleagues in the flesh again

Postgrad Spotlight: Elena Romero-Passerin D´Entreves

Blog written by Christin Simons. Christin is currently in the midst of finishing her PhD and writes here about fellow PhD student, Elena Romero-Passerin D’Entreves.

It would have been a challenge for Elena to avoid history, as she was not only born in Paris, near Montmartre, but also is the daughter of two historians. The path was set. In her undergraduate degree, she took a class on Medicine and Hygiene from 1750 to WWI, which introduced her to the history of hospitals and science. A previous visit to the botanic garden in Edinburgh had made a lasting impression, so Elena decided to research it as part of her master’s thesis subject, which then developed into an interest in researching and comparing gardens, especially in Europe. Elena started her ‘Grand Tour’ of studying in Paris at the Sorbonne, followed by an Erasmus year in Strathclyde to explore the archives, then crossed the ocean to spend a year at Amherst College, where she also found the time to teach French with a Fulbright scholarship. Instead of pursuing a career in medieval history, as she had initially planned at the beginning of her studies, Elena decided to come back to the UK and follow the path of botany. Elena was lucky to find two very enthusiastic and supportive supervisors in Dr Sara Easterby-Smith and Prof Aileen Fyfe who shared her passion for comparative studies of botanic gardens, and so she moved to St Andrews.

Her PhD is a comparative study of public botanic gardens in Scotland and Tuscany in the late eighteenth century. Instead of focusing on the plants or the science itself, she is interested in how botanical gardens worked as institutions and about their role in society. Her research demonstrates that gardens are interesting examples of the institutionalisation of science and research, as they have often been ignored in the historiography of science and they have some of the earliest examples of professional scientists (who were paid to do research) in Europe. Usually the institutionalisation and professionalisation of science are associated with the nineteenth century, but in addition to including some juicy history about plants like rhubarb and pineapples, Elena offers new ways of considering the approach of botanical gardens. She has been able to apply her research in a number of creative ways, including the development of the board game Merplantilism, together with the author of this blog piece, and an endeavour to link the Linnean system to the evolution of Pokemon!

When she is not spreading the pollen of knowledge regarding botanical gardens, Elena is involved with the PGR History Community by organising the EMMH, teaching numerous students or going to the cosy movie theatre in St Andrews. In the ʽGreat Beforeʼ, Elena’s free time was filled with travels to conferences, archives (especially in Tuscany), and socialising with friends and colleagues over a good dinner or board games. During the pandemic, she has worked on her baking and painting skills and the ability to power walk through Fife. With finishing her thesis in 2020 and reaping the fruit of her labour, Elena will miss the community of great colleagues who became dear friends and the chance to run into people on the small streets of St Andrews, but she is also ready to start a new successful chapter—maybe by finally studying medieval history…

Postgrad Spotlight: Sofya Anisimova

Blog written by Sofya Anisimova. Sofya is a second year PhD student in School of History and International Relations. Her research focuses on Russia’s Military Strategy and the Entente in the First World War.

Sofya was born in northern Moscow and grew up in an area next to a park that used to be the largest First World War military cemetery in Russia destroyed in the 1930s. However, even though she was raised right nearby, she did not know anything about the cemetery until she went to university. The First World War was not a very popular topic in Russia and was not studied in school in detail, but the lack of attention to the 1914-1918 conflict in Russian memory only spurred Sofya’s interest and was one of the reasons she decided to pursue a career as a professional researcher.

The specific topic that drew her attention to the First World War was the Russian Expeditionary Force (REF): in 1916 some 40,000 Russian soldiers were sent to fight in France and Macedonia, many of whom did not return to Russia until the 1920s. Their story fascinated her so much that she decided to switch her research field from politics, which she was studying at the Higher School of Economics, to military history. Upon graduation in 2016 she enrolled in the ‘History of War’ MA program at King’s College London before eventually coming to St Andrews for a postgraduate research degree in 2019.

Sofya’s postgraduate research looks into Russian military strategy and the Entente in 1914-1917 and benefits from the supervision of Professor Hew Strachan. The First World War was the war of coalitions: the Entente and the Central Powers. Members of these coalitions faced a similar ‘strategic paradox’ of whether to pursue their own strategy or stay loyal to the coalition cause. Sofya examines how this ‘strategic paradox’ affected Russian military strategic planning in the Great War. Her research requires working in archives in the UK, France and Russia, so she is spending this academic year away from St Andrews collecting primary sources.

At the same time, she has not abandoned her passion for the Russian Expeditionary Force and continues to work on the REF memory and veterans in Russia and in France as a side project. Some results of her research on the topic were published this year in the First World War Studies Journal. As for non-academic activities, in the pre-COVID world Sofya was an enthusiastic rugby player and was hoping to become a rugby referee, a goal she hopes to achieve as soon as the players are allowed back on the pitch.

Sofya runs a twitter account in English (@SofyaDAnisimova) and a telegram-channel in Russian ( dedicated to the Great War and her research.

Postgraduate Spotlight: Jacob Baxter

Jacob Baxter is a first-year PhD student. His research focuses on the literary life and afterlife of the diplomat Sir William Temple.

Jacob grew up in Sunderland in the North East of England. During his childhood, there were three important factors that directed him towards studying the past. First, was the vibrant history of his local area, from the Venerable Bede, to the experiences of his Gran and Auntie in the Second World War. Second, were the Horrible History books by local author Terry Deary. Third, and arguably most importantly of all, was the passion and enthusiasm of his history teachers especially Mr Crowe at Whitburn Church of England Academy and Mr Tilbrook at the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle.

Jacob arrived at St Andrews in September 2015 to begin a degree in History. In essence, he has never left. He completed his undergraduate in June 2019, achieving a first. His dissertation, on crowdsourcing in seventeenth-century Dutch newspapers, was awarded the Alan Robertson Memorial Prize. A few months after finishing his undergraduate degree, Jacob returned to St Andrews to start an MLitt in Book History. He wrapped this up in August 2020, achieving a distinction. Jacob began his PhD a few weeks later under the supervision of Professor Andrew Pettegree and Dr Arthur der Weduwen.

Sir William Temple

In his PhD, Jacob is focusing on the literary life and afterlife of the diplomat Sir William Temple. Temple is best known for his authorship of the Observations Upon the United Provinces (1673). This book remains one of the most important texts in the study of the Dutch Golden Age today. Its sharp and discerning insights were shaped by Temple’s time in the Dutch Republic as a diplomat. Still, what has been largely overlooked is the fact that this book was only one component of a much larger literary oeuvre. As an author, Temple engaged with a variety of different genre, from horticulture and history, to medicine and memoire. During his lifetime, he attracted a truly continental audience and his work was published in London, Dublin, Amsterdam, Paris, and Nurnberg. Jacob is exploring how Temple collaborated with the print industry, the contexts behind his publications, and the decline of his posthumous reputation.

Alongside his PhD, Jacob is an associate of the Universal Short Title Catalogue. Jacob first began working with the project in June 2019, when he attended their summer programme. He has helped to augment the USTC’s coverage of the Dutch Republic and Hungary, and he also edits the Preserving the World’s Rarest Books Blog. Jacob also works part time as a bookseller at Topping and Company St Andrews. He often finds that his experiences in the book trade today regularly shape and inform his work.

When he is not studying or selling books, Jacob can usually be found on the tennis court. Ironically enough, William Temple, whilst he was at Cambridge University, allegedly spent more time on playing tennis than he did studying, an example that Jacob is not trying to follow. Jacob also enjoys playing the violin and watching football. Before coming to St Andrews, he was a season ticket holder at Sunderland AFC for ten years. He still considers the first 60 minutes of the 2014 League Cup final, when he watched Sunderland take the lead against Manchester City at Wembley, to be one of the best hours of his life (Sunderland ended up losing the match 3-1). Sadly, whilst Jacob has been working his way up through university education, Sunderland have gone in the opposite direction, falling from the Premier League to the third tier of English football in just over two years. He hopes that this divergence in fortune will soon end with both parties heading upward.