Robert Priest


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Personal profile

Personal profile

I joined Royal Holloway in 2014 after studying at UCL and Oxford and a Research Fellowship at Gonville and Caius College, 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

I research the cultural and intellectual history of nineteenth-century Europe. I am currently finishing a book that explores the politics of the passion play at Oberammergau in Germany and the wider world from the Enlightenment to the 1930s. 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, this attempt to write a historical biography of Jesus was one of the best-selling and most controversial books of its time.

My research generally tries to contribute to one or more of the following three areas:

  1. Culture wars over religion. My research on Ernest Renan tried to unpick the stereotype of a conflict between secular republicans and devout Catholics in nineteenth-century France, while my work on Oberammergau argues that its appeal to a religiously mixed audience calls into question narratives of confessional conflict in Germany and beyond. My study of Jules Soury's attempt to diagnose Jesus with dementia tried to outline some of the limits to a ‘scientific’ approach to religion in the late nineteenth century.

  2. The popular reception of ideas. How do people make sense of the ideas and images they consume? My research on Renan used an eclectic range of documents to explore how both ordinary people and intellectuals read his radical retelling of Jesus’s life, while my work on Oberammergau has used a wide range of international sources to explore how diverse audiences deployed their experiences at the passion play in wider debates. I am also interested the cultural reception of scientific ideas: most recently, in an article which traces 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.

  3. Race and antisemitism. Each of my major projects has treated phenomena understood to have contributed to modern antisemitism: Renan help popularise the Aryan-Semite distinction, while the Oberammergau passion play became intensely controversial for its representation of the first-century Jews. In each case I have tried to push beyond assertions of influence and instead trace precisely how people understood and rearticulated what they read and saw. Shorter treatments of these issues include an essay on the long debate over Renan’s racial thinking and an article on an American rabbi who was the first major critic of Oberammergau’s antisemitism.


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)
  • Concepts in History: Revolution (Concepts)

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.

Completed students include Gareth Oakland, 'Resisting the Republic: The Politics of Commemoration in the Vendée, 1870-1918'; he recently published part of this research in French History.

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