Robert Priest


  • TW20 0EX

If you made any changes in Pure these will be visible here soon.

Personal profile

Personal profile

I joined Royal Holloway in 2014. Before that I studied at UCL, did a doctorate at Oxford, and was a Research Fellow at Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge. I am a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and of the Higher Education Academy.

In London I am one of the organisers of the Modern French History seminar at the Institute of Historical Research and collaborate with the British Library in supervising an AHRC-funded project exploring caricatures of the Franco-Prussian War and Paris Commune. I am on the Editorial Collective of History Workshop Journal and am the Region Editor for Nineteenth-Century France at the Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of PhilosophersElsewhere I have enjoyed various collaborations and exchanges with our colleagues in Europe, most recently as Visiting Lecturer at the University of Regensburg. 

Research interests

My research focuses on the cultural and intellectual history of nineteenth-century Europe. While my first projects centred on France, I now try to approach the period through a wider geographical lens.

I am currently writing a book for Oxford University Press on the politics of the Passion Play at Oberammergau in Germany and the wider world from the 1770s to the 1930s. The village of Oberammergau has performed a mass re-enactment of the last days of Christ's life regularly since 1634, and their performance exploded from a regional tradition into an international phenomenon during the nineteenth century. As the passion play attracted the attention of everybody from package tourists to political leaders, it became the focus of a vigorous international discussion. My research looks at the play from the perspective of the Bavarian villagers who performed on stage, the international tourists and pilgrims who visited, and the artists, writers and intellectuals for whom the event provoked interventions in a range of cultural debates. I recently published an article on an American rabbi who was the first major critic of the play's antisemitism.

The Gospel According to Renan Reading, Writing, and Religion in Nineteenth-Century France

My first book, The Gospel According to Renan: Reading, Writing, and Religion in Nineteenth-Century France, offered a new interpretation of the remarkable controversy surrounding the publication of Ernest Renan’s Life of Jesus (1863). Hardly read today, Renan’s was one of the best-selling and most controversial books of its time. It argued that the Bible was fallible and that Jesus was only human. These claims were somewhat unoriginal but highly provocative. My research used an eclectic range of sources to explore how people understood Renan’s ideas, from leading politicians and academics in Paris to unknown readers in the French provinces. 

Along the way I published shorter pieces on the political significance and popular reception of Renan's work, and an essay on the long and multifaceted debate over Renan's racial thinking. You can hear me talk about the book in this interview with the New Books in French Studies podcast.

In tandem with these bigger projects on religion, the culture of the sciences in fin-de-siècle France remains a research interest. I have published a study of Jules Soury's attempt to diagnose Jesus with dementia, using this to explore the relationship between psychology and religious history in the early Third Republic. My most recent article explores the lives and afterlives two boys from rural France who were the first people to be successfully vaccinated against rabies by Louis Pasteur in 1885.


Some short blog posts that draw on or discuss my research:



I am responsible for various specialist options on European history and also contribute to a variety of team-taught courses in the department. In recent years I have run the following undergraduate options:

  • The Death of God, from Enlightenment to Psychoanalysis (Special Subject)
  • Europe 1900: Cultures of Conflict and the Shock of the New (Special Subject)
  • Children of the Revolution? France from 1789 to the Great War (Further Subject)
  • The Shock of the New: European Culture and Society, 1789-1905 (Survey)
  • French Intellectuals and Politics, 1898-1989 (Independent Essay)
  • Joan W. Scott: Gender, Feminism and French History (Historiography Workshop)
  • Alain Corbin and the History of the Senses (Historiography Workshop)

I welcome correspondence from applicants looking to pursue postgraduate or doctoral study in modern European history, especially but not exclusively those interested in topics related to: France; the long nineteenth century; religion and secularisation.

Recently completed students include Gareth Oakland, 'Resisting the Republic: The Politics of Commemoration in the Vendée, 1870-1918'; his 'Royalist Memorials of the Civil War in the Vendée During the Early Third Republic' is forthcoming in French History (2024).

Expertise related to UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This person’s work contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-being
  • SDG 5 - Gender Equality
  • SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions