Dr Robert Priest

Personal profile

I joined Royal Holloway in 2014. Before that I studied at UCL, did a doctorate at Oxford, and then spent a few years in Cambridge as a Research Fellow at Gonville and Caius College. In London I am one of the organisers of the Modern French History seminar at the Institute of Historical Research. Elsewhere I collaborate with the Groupe Renan at the Institut des Textes et Manuscrits Modernes. In summer 2019 I will be Visiting Lecturer in European History at the University of RegensburgI am a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and of the Higher Education Academy.

Research interests

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


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, offers 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 work has 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 have 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.


My current major research project takes me beyond the French 'hexagon' to the Bavarian Alps: a history of the enormously successful Passion Play at Oberammergau. This village's mass re-enactment of the last days of Christ's life exploded from a regional tradition into an international phenomenon during the nineteenth century. Despite its small size, Oberammergau offers a springboard onto major historical and historiographical questions. My work brings together multiple scales of analysis - from the internal dynamics of the village, to the broader forces of Bavarian and German politics, to the transnational currents of aesthetics, scholarship and tourism - in order to tell the story of the evolution of this unique and controversial event. I recently published an article on an American rabbi who was the first major critic of the play's antisemitism.


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. I am also carrying out new research into the first recipients of Louis Pasteur’s rabies vaccinations in the 1880s.


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



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

  • The Death of God, from Enlightenment to Psychoanalysis (Special Subject)
  • Children of the Revolution? France from 1789 to the Great War (Further Subject)
  • Nineteenth-Century Europe: Culture and Society, 1789-1905 (Survey)
  • French Intellectuals and Politics, 1898-1968 (Independent Essay)
  • 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.


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