Dr Geraldine Vaughan, University of Rouen Normandy/Institut Universitaire de France
As a French academic (with Scoto-Irish origins), my first experience of an EHS conference in July 2017 – which was organised by Professor Stewart J. Brown in Edinburgh – was totally ‘exotic’. I flew to Scotland on the day during which the French priest Father Jacques Hamel, aged 86, was assassinated while celebrating a mid-week mass by two French terrorists. It happened a few miles away from where I live and lecture, that is in Rouen. The circumstances of his killing were particularly shocking. When I arrived at the Conference, seeing that my name badge mentioned my home university (Rouen), a few colleagues came to me and expressed their sorrow over this terrible event.
After a few hours, I started noticing a few clerical collars and the ‘Rev.’ titles on name badges, which you would never see in France unless you were attending a theological conference in a private Catholic university. The strict boundary drawn between clerical and educational affairs in France since the early Third Republic means we are all as French academics very “laïcs” and no mention of one’s religion is ever made in the workplace. Of course, as sons and daughters of the French Enlightenment, all colleagues are supposedly free-thinkers and naturally, anti-clerical! This is more of a caricature than an actual fact of course, yet there is a major difference between the French and British academic system in that – except for the eastern universities of Strasbourg and Lorraine which are located in the the provinces that have remained under the regime of the Concordat – State universities do not host Faculties of Theology or Divinity. Private Catholic universities are the academic institutions which offer theology courses, alongside with the professional training seminaries for Roman Catholic priests.
I was thus struck by the non-separation of clergy and academic staff, which is symbolised by the fact that many ministers were also academics and conversely. And, oddly enough, I felt immediately at ease in this un-French atmosphere.
As regards my own personal journey across the Channel, I started studying Irish and British late modern history nearly twenty years ago when I wrote an M.A. dissertation as an ERASMUS exchange student at Durham University – alas, what made Erasmus Erasmus is fast disappearing with Brexit ! A few years later, I wrote a Ph.D. on Irish immigration to the West of Scotland in the 19th century, which I published with Palgrave in 2013 (The ‘Local’ Irish in the West of Scotland, 1851-1921). Since then, my research area has shifted from migration studies to the wider study of religion in a social context, and to the broader geographical horizon of the British Empire.
In the past three years, I have been looking at ultra-Protestant societies and clubs which flourished within the British Diaspora in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I am particularly interested in their anti-Catholic rhetoric and their vision of a global and common Britishness (or Briton-ness). As an historian, I find it fascinating to study groups who defended a reactionary vision of the past. Pamphlets, speeches and various writings stemming from leaders and orators of those societies all exposed an ideal vision of the Reformation and analysed the passing of the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act as the start of a form of British decadence. Those militant Protestant clubs and societies were anti-modern in their stance and yet truly modern in their means of action – such as their use of global propaganda, and their encouragement of female networks. Their fundamentally reactionary vision goes against how I was taught history and historical writing. As the French theologian Joseph Moingt wrote, “Every [historical]narrative is a ‘history of salvation’ – in that it seeks to rescue the past from dying, it resuscitates the past to the life of a discourse, by offering a narrative of the past”(1993). By contrast, those ultra-Protestant actors’ vision of the past was a desire to return into a long-dead age of religious intolerance. My opinion is that these men and women who defended an imperial ultra-Protestant identity and never succeeded in their goals, deserve to be rescued from historical oblivion. They have something to tell us about fundamental British identity anxieties which pervaded in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Is it not therefore time, to paraphrase the great E. P. Thompson, to rescue the acrimonious writer, the unfortunate public preacher, the obsolete denouncer of the Pope as an Anti-Christ, ‘from the enormous condescension of posterity’?