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Entretien avec Lyndal Roper

Christopher Fletcher

Editor's notes

Cet entretien a été enregistré le 19 mars 2019, à Oriel College, Oxford. Il a duré un peu plus de deux heures, en deux séances.

Full text

  • 1 A senior professorship, established and funded by royal grant.

1Lyndal Roper est Regius Professor1 d’Histoire à l’université d’Oxford, la première femme qui occupe ce poste depuis sa fondation en 1724. Historienne revendiquant depuis longtemps son attachement au mouvement des femmes, elle s’intéresse à l’histoire sociale de l’Allemagne à l’époque de la Réforme et de la Contre-Réforme, à l’histoire du genre et de la subjectivité. Elle a notamment publié The Holy Household: Women and morals in Reformation Augsburg (1989); Oedipus and the Devil: Witchcraft, sexuality and religion in early modern Europe (1992); Witch Craze: Terror and fantasy in baroque Germany (2004); et Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (2016). Elle travaille actuellement sur la Guerre des Paysans allemands (1524-26).

Christopher Fletcher: Tell us a little about your early life, your education and schooling.

Lyndal Roper: I was lucky enough to have German at school. I was taught by Ursula Gottschalk who was a Jewish refugee from Berlin, an amazing person. So when I went to the university of Melbourne, I wanted to do English and German and work on Berthold Brecht. (laughs) But at the end of the first year, because Melbourne runs on the Scottish system, and you don’t have to decide what you want to do before you start university, I ended up switching course completely and doing History and Philosophy. I think what I wanted to do then was to work on the Nazis, just like everybody else. At that time there was a wonderful and charismatic person who worked on modern German history, John Foster, who died tragically, later, of AIDS. He was also an Anglican lay monk. But he was on leave in the particular year when I would have done modern German history and I didn’t know what to do. Then I heard that there was a new person coming to the department called Charles Zika, who worked on the German Reformation, and there was going to be a new course on that. So for lack of Nazis I took this course. He was just fantastic. It was a great course. It was really inspiring. Then the next year I continued on to write a thesis on sixteenth-century German history and to do my final honours course in that field as well. I was the only person who took that course! And yet it ran. Which when you look back now is amazing. I basically had one-to-one tuition for that final year.

We didn’t have the books. There was no complete Weimar edition of Luther’s works. The only one in Australia was in Adelaide and because it’s 120 volumes you can’t order the whole thing. And of course it wasn’t digitized then. Melbourne only had the earlier edition, the nineteenth-century Erlangen edition. That and a dreadful translation. To do the thesis that I did, which was on Nuremberg and on the works of Andreas Osiander, a friend of Charles’s stood in the library in Tübingen and photocopied the entire book of Nuremberg Council Minutes during the Reformation, which had just appeared; I still remember his hand appearing on some of the photocopies and thinking – this is the person who has done this for me. So I had that and I had the works of Andreas Osiander which were still being published. Out of that I wrote my undergraduate thesis. We did though have all the works of the Quellen zur Geschichte der Täufer, the sources and the history of Anabaptism. So for the main subject I did I was able to work on Anabaptism and in particular on all the sources to do with Anabaptism in Strasbourg. I could work out quantitatively which Anabaptists there were in Strasbourg, and where they lived. So that I was able to do. But I remember the librarian saying, ‘Why are all these books being ordered? No one will read them. If you want to do this, go to Germany. The library should not be acquiring these books.’ And she was herself European.

C.F.: She wasn’t thinking that you might start a school of study…

L.R.: Well, in time that is exactly what Charles did. There is now a massive school of people who have been trained by Charles. It’s a really extraordinary story. There was no Reformation history before he got there apart from George Yule in the Faculty of Divinity who worked on Luther. But there wasn’t an existing tradition in the history department. What there was was Italian Renaissance, which Australia has a very long-standing reputation for.

C.F.: Have you always been interested in Germany and German?

L.R.: In a way, yes. It’s hard to explain really. My father was in Germany after the war, and had German. So I grew up hearing about the period of the late 1940s and early 1950s, about the time of the end of Denazification and the beginning of the Cold War. I knew that German was really important to him and so that’s why I learnt German.

C.F.: You’ve already said about your links between your father and Germany. But you also say he was a Presbyterian minister…

L.R.: Yes, he was a Presbyterian minister for a short period. It was just a period of about five years.

C.F.: Well, that’s quite something isn’t it, five years?

L.R.: Well, it was a very important period in my life. But it was a shock. Because for three years he was a student. He went from a well-paid senior job in South Australia where we were very well off. We lived in posh suburb and all that. And then we moved back to Melbourne and we had no money at all because my dad was training for the ministry. The training took three years, during which time he did have a parish. Then two years after he qualified he left the church.

C.F.: You mention your brother Mike Roper, the historian of twentieth-century Britain, who shared your interest in gender and psychoanalysis. Is he the only brother or do you have sisters as well?

L.R.: I have a sister. She’s seven years younger and she’s incredible. (laughs) She’s the first mental health service-user academic. She’s certainly the first in Australia and she’s maybe the first in the world.

C.F.: We’ve been talking about why you started being interested in Germany. Was there already a link to Tübingen at this stage?

L.R.: Yes, indirectly, in that my dad was interested in theology and there were a whole group of people at Ormond College in the University of Melbourne which trained all the Presbyterian ministers and they had quite a link to Germany. Many of them went to Tübingen for study. Hans Küng, the radical Swiss Catholic theologian, was teaching there at that time. Just a couple of years after I was there, recognition as a teacher of the church was taken away from him. There was also Jürgen Moltmann. Rudolf Bultmann at Marburg was the one my dad was interested in. There was a lot of radical theology going on which was all about demythologisation and trying to create an understanding of theology which would be completely non-literal about the Bible, a religion that would work for people who were interested in questions about the meaning of life but for whom belief in an afterlife and much of Christian doctrine was just not credible. My dad was also not very religious in any conventional sense. My mum was absolutely gobsmacked when he said, ‘Now I’m going to train for the ministry’. (laughs)

C.F.: Not entirely pleased? or…?

L.R.: Erm… She just did what he said. In some ways it was a relief for her, because she just wasn’t happy in this life of cocktail parties and social elites. She didn’t come from that background, and didn’t like it.

C.F.: Just to situate this a bit. How old were you then?

L.R.: When we left, and he became a student I would have been about ten. In 1966, I think.

C.F.: I’m trying to imagine the world of cocktail parties in South Australia at that time…

L.R.: Yes, a very conservative society which my parents didn’t know because they’d grown up in Melbourne. South Australia is quite different. It has a small German migrant population. I remember going there in the 1980s and hearing German spoken. But it was deeply conservative at that time.

C.F.: Conservative in what way?

L.R.: Oh, politically, socially, in every way you can think of.

C.F.: I was thinking about your mother as well, following around your father. In terms of gendered social organisation that could be middle-class Britain in 1965. Was it particularly intense or different in Melbourne? Was it not like that in Melbourne?

L.R.: Melbourne was a bigger place. That was where they had both grown up. Their families were there. It was not so socially or politically conservative. It was just a more cosmopolitan place.

C.F.: Can I take you back to when you’re doing your undergraduate thesis? not a Master’s thesis? It sounds huge for an undergraduate thesis!

L.R.: Yes. Looking back the Melbourne History School was really quite something. They just had this idea that anyone could be an historian and from day one, when you rolled up, you had to read the sources in the original. It was all about that. It was completely different from the Oxford degree. The downside of it was you didn’t have a broad grasp of History. I did almost no History. I did the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and then I did nothing else. Apart from Reformation Germany. Oh, I did the year on nineteenth-century Germany but that was it! So when I first came to teach at King’s College London I couldn’t even understand the exam paper. (laughs)

In the first year I remember I happened to work on Rabaut Saint-Étienne who was one of the members of the French revolutionary Constituent Assembly. There I was with a microfilm reader in the dark trying to read his speeches in French. I mean it was just totally mad. But that was the Melbourne thing. Everybody else was doing exactly the same.

C.F.: It was very focused on the sources?

L.R.: Yes.

C.F.: You were looking very concentratedly at one person in the French Revolution, but were you expected to read around about the French Revolution? or not? or did they not have the resources to do that?

L.R.: Yes. They had good holdings on that because, again, an amazing story, the woman who taught that was a woman called Alison Patrick. She was an amazing historian, but it had taken her years to get a job in the Melbourne department. She became internationally famous for her work on the French Revolution. She wrote this book, The Men of the First French Republic. But her entire life she felt really grateful to have any sort of job. She didn’t feel that she was a proper historian and never really understood the impact that she’d had. And yet, socially, she was incredibly well connected. Her brother was Premier of Victoria. She came from quite an upper-bourgeois privileged background and yet she had no confidence in her right to be an historian.

C.F.: Because she was a woman?

L.R.: Yes, because she was a woman and because she was married. Because when they all first started married women couldn’t work. So, she was very supportive to me.

I would never have left Australia for as long as I did had it not been for her. She made me apply for a scholarship. It was called the Caltex Woman Graduate of the Year. It was funded by an oil company. It was the first time it had ever been offered and it was invented because women were not allowed then to apply to the Rhodes Scholarships. And so Alison Patrick got me to apply for that. It allowed you to study anywhere in the world.

C.F.: When was that?

L.R.: That would have been in 1977. This was the first year, I think, that the Rhodes opened to women. But I got this other thing.

C.F.: And that took you too… Germany?

L.R.: No, I went to Germany on the German Academic Exchange [DAAD].

C.F.: So where did the Caltex scholarship take you?

L.R.: Well, the original plan was to go to the US, after Germany, to study with Natalie Zemon Davis. But then for personal reasons… I had this boyfriend who was a philosopher and said ‘I can only study in the UK’. I then changed to move to the UK to study whereas he in fact got a scholarship in the US! (laughs)

This was after spending nearly two years in Germany. That was actually quite bizarre because at that time no one was doing social or cultural history in Germany. That was because it was still all connected with the Volk and völkisch ideas, and was seen as… it was all tainted by Nazism. So, the person I worked with was Heiko Oberman. He was a Dutchman, who had really been formed in the US. But he was very much an historian of Humanism. He never worked in an archive. He had also been the supervisor of Charles Zika. Goodness only knows what he made of a crazy Australian turning up and saying ‘I want to work on women in the Reformation’. (laughs)

C.F.: And that’s what you said?

L.R.: Yes. I’d already written my proposal. You had to do that to get the scholarship. So he sent me to the person at Tübingen who was responsible for local history, which isn’t just ‘local history’ in the British sense. It is more like regional history. Hans-Martin Decker Hauff. He used to give his lectures in dialect. He always got people to work on their home town. And I didn’t have a home town. So he said, well, you could work on Tübingen. Or, you could work on Reutlingen. Because Reutlingen was an imperial city, and I thought imperial cities were the way to go and it was just down the road. So, I went to Reutlingen, worked there for a long period of time, and… err… (laughs) There’s nothing in Reutlingen! They had one book of laws, but they only had a sort of photocopy of it: the original is in Stuttgart! So I spent ages looking at this thing and the archivist said, ‘This is a law book. Some of the laws are dated. But if they are dated that’s usually wrong.’ So I said ‘How do you know?’. So he said, ‘You know by the handwriting.’ And I couldn’t read the handwriting! I had absolutely no training. I had no training in palaeography whatsoever. But I just had to teach myself. So I bought a quill pen and some ink and I practised after a day in the archive.

Well, I realised that this was not going to get anywhere. They had nothing. All I knew was that there were all these American dissertations that had Council minutes. So then I went to Ulm, and they had lots of Council minutes, and they had a volume for every year. Thick volumes on this thick wonderful paper. There were lots of mentions of women in these sources, but what I didn’t know was that these are the worst written sources in South Germany! (laughs) So I spent ages trying to read them. There was some material on prostitutes and that was easier to read. I was able to work on that. After spending months working in Ulm, I finally learnt how to read this stuff. But only then did I realise that in fact these Council minutes were the notes. They weren’t the written-up minutes.

C.F.: Okay. Isn’t that good?

L.R.: Yes… In a way, yes. But in a way no. Because they never got around to writing up the minutes. So the minutes are not formal. And they’re incomprehensible. Because you have names… I had this whole card series where I had a card for every name. But even if I could recognise it as the same name, I didn’t know what the issue was, and I didn’t know what the decision was. So it was entirely impenetrable.

C.F.: How did this first period in Germany work. Was it a doctoral scholarship?

L.R.: It was the German Academic Exchange Service that gave you initially a year in Germany, and then I extended it, giving me a further nine months. So I spent nearly two years in Germany.

C.F.: And how far did you get? Did it just you get from Reutlingen to Ulm?

L.R.: Then I realised this wasn’t working and so I went to Augsburg. That was just completely different. There they had really great sources. And then, in Ulm and then in Augsburg, I met Bob Scribner, who was driving around in a camper van. He would park outside the archives. In the camper van were all his books for review and then he would spend all day in the archives. And that was the first time I met someone who understood what I was doing, and who knew about archives. He was at Portsmouth Poly, at that point. So I went to Portsmouth, met him there, and shortly after he got a job at King’s College London. I used the Caltex thing to go to King’s College London. And I could do that because it was completely flexible.

There was just one little problem. And that was that the government put up international student fees and separated them out, so it was a huge fee increase. And the scholarship I had was a fixed sum which was originally a lot of money. But once the fees went up it was worthless. It did little more than cover the fees. So I managed to get an Australian Federation of University Women Scholarship, which wasn’t enough, but it just tided me over. Then I worked in Germany in the summers, on people’s research projects. I transcribed documents for them, in computer readable script! That was one of the first computerised projects that I was researching on.

C.F.: You were doing that all the time you were doing your doctoral thesis?

L.R.: I’d do that in the summer. I’d work for them in the vacations, and during that time I’d work as well. So I’d do that at night and work in the archives during the day. I think that’s how I did it. I can’t exactly remember! (laughs)

C.F.: At that time, were you spending most of your time in Germany? or in London?

L.R.: Looking back it was probably about half and half. So I would be in London during the term, but then because I couldn’t really support myself in London, I would spend as much time in Germany as I could. And I could usually get scholarships to do that. That was really important.

C.F.: You say that the experience of being an Australian is that of being part of an emigrant culture, always between two places, and that you’ve felt similarly working between an English-speaking audience and a German-speaking audience. Do you think that feeds into the content of your work as well?

L.R.: Oh very much so, yes. I’d say for the first few years in Germany, that was a total immersion experience. I’d never been outside Australia. And I think that I just tried to be German for two years. I spoke hardly any English in that time. I’m sure you must have had the same experience in France. You know how you feel completely disoriented. And very ignorant. You’re just overwhelmed by another culture. And imagine: you came from Britain and I came from Australia. So I was totally disoriented. I would look at a church and I wouldn’t understand which bits were old. I remember going to Ulm and seeing the choir stalls there. It’s a masterpiece, a set of carvings of ancient Greek philosophers and Sybils and it is just gorgeous. And I looked at it and I thought this must be nineteenth century. It’s fifteenth century. So things like that I had to learn. I just had no idea.

C.F.: Yes. So it’s a sense of radical disorientation. You were speaking German all the time. You couldn’t even phone anybody…

L.R.: Because you couldn’t phone. You could, but it was very very difficult to phone home.

C.F.: One thing which comes out later in your work is a refusal of an over-radical otherness. By the time we get to the early 1990s, something that is very attractive, in Oedipus and the Devil for example, is your refusal to accept that early modern people were so different we could never understand them. Do you think that’s fair?

L.R.: Yes, I think that is fair. I come from a society which was full of people from different cultures, and that is planted on top of a local indigenous culture. So that cultural difference was just always part of how you grew up. But space was also available and plentiful in ways that it wasn’t in Europe.

C.F.: Tell me about that a bit.

L.R.: Australia was in some ways a rougher society. I remember seeing in Germany vegetables and fruit left outside a shop overnight. You would never do that in Australia. They just wouldn’t be there next day. And the window would be smashed because people would have thrown the fruit at the window. Everything about the culture was different. There was much more to learn. It was a much more elaborated historical culture. But it was also one where people live much more closely together, and where, I think, there was less space, intellectually, less space, physically. Whereas I think that the advantage that I had of coming from Australia was that you were always told, ‘You have to be critical. You have to have your own independent line.’ That was what intellectual work was all about. There were all sorts of downsides of that way of having an intellectual life but it did mean that you were expected to have your own ideas.

C.F.: Whereas that wasn’t the case in South Germany?

L.R.: No. No. It was in many ways a more conformist society. Where you are always aware that people are looking at you. And that’s got great sides because elderly people are always looked out for. People live in these big blocks of flats where they know all their neighbours, and they’re always aware what they’re up to.

C.F.: There are ‘eyes on the street’?

L.R.: Yes. So I would live in rented rooms where the owner would come into my room and look around at what I was doing. And if I had anybody visiting I would have to check that all out in advance.

C.F.: Did you go often to North Germany at that point?

L.R.: No, not at that point. No, that came later.

C.F.: Were you already involved in the women’s movement in Melbourne, or was that something that came later?

L.R.: No, I wasn’t, but I remember that one of the reasons that I wanted to do the topic was that in this course on Reformation Germany – it was called Reform and Reformation or something like that – and there was a week on witchcraft. I remember feeling very impatient with this, thinking there must be more to women than just witchcraft. So that was why I wanted to do the topic.

I wasn’t involved in the Women’s Movement in Australia at that point. And I wasn’t involved in Germany. But when I came to London, I did get involved. First of all, with the London Feminist History Group. That was very important to me.

C.F.: Was that as soon as you arrived, in the late 1970s?

L.R.: I got here in the autumn of 1979, so it would have been in the early 1980s.

C.F.: It is quite striking that you begin your first book, The Holy Household: Women and Morals in Reformation Augsburg (1989), by thanking the Women’s Movement ‘without which this book could not have been written’.

L.R.: Yes. I was very lacking in confidence partly because of these two years in Germany. You know what that is like, and what that does to your sense of self. Then I had arrived in the UK which was another very different world. I found it hard to ask questions in seminars, or understand how things worked. Being in a group of women outside the institutions was hugely important. It used to meet in all these funny places. It used to meet above Sisterwrite bookshop in Islington. There was another point where it met somewhere behind King’s Cross. At another point there was a squat at 9 Poland Street, which had the Greens, CND and a whole series of organisations, and we met there for a while. Looking back, I think there was only one person who had a university job. But in the end many of them did have university jobs. One of the people who used to go was Leonore Davidoff, then Professor at Essex. Which is quite extraordinary, looking back. There were other people who went too. Sally Alexander went and that point she didn’t have a university job. So all these women who now look like very established gender historians were then outside the institution. And it didn’t look as if they would ever get in.

C.F.: How did it work then? What did you do in the meetings?

L.R.: I think somebody usually presented their work. I think there was quite a lot of free form discussion as well. A lot of it was political discussion. It wasn’t necessarily about the nuts and bolts of historical research. It was about how you should conceptualise sexuality. And it was a women only space.

C.F.: I was wondering which came first: were you interested in psychoanalysis because you were interested in Germany, or in Germany because you were interested in psychoanalysis?

L.R.: That’s an interesting question. I don’t know quite exactly how to answer that. In a sense an interest in psychoanalysis was something I had grown up with. Because one of the things which my parents did, which was quite remarkable looking back, was that they twinned the parish with a local mental hospital ward. I remember taking the patients out and spending time with them. And my mother pioneered psychodrama. At this point she was very much a minister’s wife, being someone who had started on an academic career and had given it up when I was born. So I had a bit of a burden there. She then became a drama teacher and trained to teach English and Drama and had quite an influence on what was taught in schools in Victoria for a while. But, initially, she just did psychodrama with a local psychiatrist who was also interested in psychoanalysis. And my dad was interested in that. So there was this interest which I had grown up with in this period.

Then I went through a difficult period myself. But I probably was interested in psychoanalysis anyway. Many feminists were. A good friend of mine was Barbara Taylor, who later wrote The Last Asylum (2015), about her experiences as a patient in Friern Barnet [formerly Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, in London]. When I was living for a year in Berlin, I started therapy which I originally did in German. That was a strange experience.

C.F.: When was that? Was it quite close to when you were in Germany a lot?

L.R.: That would have been in 1991-2. So this is after I had an established job, and all of that, so that came quite late.

C.F.: So your interest in psychoanalysis comes from lots of places.

L.R.: Yes, yes it does. I was interested in Freud intellectually. I had friends who were interested in Freud in Germany so it did come from both sides.

C.F.: I’ve been asking why Germany? why psychoanalysis? I was going to ask why Augsburg, but I think you’ve answered the last question really…

L.R.: Yes, I went around until I had the sources. I remember the very first time I opened criminal trial records, and no one had used them. I remember having the box, opening the thing and seeing that for the first time I had the words of ordinary people. All the months I had spent in the archives and never had it. And suddenly there they were. It was just completely transformative. And I remember putting them back, and saying, ‘But I can’t work on those, because they’re criminals, they’re not normal people.’

C.F.: Really!

L.R.: Yes. Then when I went back to the UK, I thought about it again, and I thought, yes, I can use those records. So then I went back and started using them. The really interesting thing is that when I looked at them, they had been untouched, but I think in fact three others in the same year were using these sources. One of them was Wolfgang Behringer who did work on witchcraft and was in Augsburg in the archives. The other was Rainer Beck who wrote a magnificent history of a village called Unterfinning [Unterfinning: ländliche Welt vor Anbruch der Moderne (1993)] but he started out also looking at Augsburg and wrote some wonderful stuff. Often you think that you’re the only one doing something, but actually something changes in the culture.

C.F.: So your first book was on Augsburg. But then in your second book, Oedipus and the Devil: Witchcraft, sexuality and religion in early modern Europe (1992), and even more so in your third, Witch Craze: Terror and fantasy in baroque Germany (2004), you came back to witches. Why was that? Given that when you came across witches at university you had thought, ‘Well is that all there is to women?!’.

L.R.: It was an accident. It took me a very long time to do the doctorate. I had a long period of writing block, partly because I got a JRF [Junior Research Fellowship] at Oxford, having never been to Oxford. I was the only woman in the Senior Common Room in my College. I found that extremely difficult, and I wasn’t very good at coping with it. That was in 1983-86. Nothing in my background had prepared me for it. There just weren’t things like that in Australia. Anyone can be a Londoner, but being English is quite another matter! (laughs) I had never been to Oxford. Bob Scribner by this time had moved to Cambridge, so I had been there, but I wasn’t a student at Cambridge or Oxford. I was really living between Germany and London. So that was a huge shock coming here. It took me seven years to write the doctorate, I think. I left Australia in January 1978, and I didn’t finish the doctorate until 1985.

C.F.: Which was in the middle of your JRF…

L.R.: I knew that the only reason I got the job was because I could say that I had an article that was coming out in [the journal] Past and Present. But I had never submitted it to Past and Present. I would never have dared! (laughs) It was just that I had given it as a paper as part of a seminar series that was run by Michael Hunter and Bob Scribner. They tried to publish the whole lot. They were turned down by every publisher they tried. Finally they tried Past and Present who also turned it down but who wrote to all the contributors saying would you like to submit your article to Past and Present! And that was how I could say I had an article coming out in Past and Present.

  • 2 Lyndal Roper, ‘“Going to church and street”: Weddings in Reformation Augsburg’, Past and Present, 1 (...)

I knew it needed revision because it was ‘functionalist’. And I didn’t really know what functionalist was, but I knew it wasn’t a good thing to be! I had to fix it and I couldn’t work out how. So I was living in Summertown [in North Oxford], really miserable, and I had to walk past the offices of Past and Present every day, knowing that sometime soon somebody would rumble me and realise that this article wasn’t coming out in Past and Present! Because I couldn’t work out how to make it non-functionalist. In the end I worked on it and worked on it, and so it became a sort of non-functionalist article. It was on weddings. It appeared and a friend of mine came and said, ‘Oh, congratulations on your article in Past and Present… I couldn’t work out what the argument was!’ (laughs) I think by that point the argument had been completely drained out of it. But it did in the end come out. The whole experience was not great.2

C.F.: When did you get your first post then?

L.R.: The first job I got after the JRF was in 1986. That was at King’s College London. It was a three-year lectureship. It was funded out of departmental savings. And it was paid at below the lecturing minimum. It was a great thing they did because they just used departmental savings to do that. At that point it was part of the Thatcher freeze [on public spending]. That’s why there’s no one in my generation. Because there weren’t any jobs.

C.F.: So what were you teaching then?

L.R.: I think [H.G.] Koenigsberger had retired, so I was his replacement. I think that’s what I was. I was teaching British and European history. Neither of which I knew.

C.F.: And were you familiar with what was being asked of students at that time, or not really?

L.R.: No, I remember the best piece of advice I got was from a friend of mine Judith Herrin. She said, ‘Well, you do the Reformation. So that is going to come up in week 1 or week 2. And you’ll be alright in that week. So keep a week ahead.’ So I did. I sat in the British Library doing the next week.

C.F.: I think we’ve lost the question about ‘why witches?’...

L.R.: That was because I was contracted to write a history of sexuality. I’d been paid £500 for that. I think I got that contract before my doctorate was finished, or certainly before the book came out. I couldn’t work out how to even begin it. Because I had no idea what ‘sexuality’ was. Partly through the feminist groups, I knew there was no simple answer to what sexuality is. So I had a block about it. I never wrote a word of it. But I was writing other essays at the same time. I realised that I had enough to put them together as a book. I thought, well, I know there are records in Augsburg. I know I love the criminal interrogations. I could just do a quick piece on witchcraft. I thought, I know what I will argue, because it will be because of repression, because of the Reformation and Counter Reformation, and that then producing fantasies about sexuality. I thought that wouldn’t take me long to do. So I got a scholarship to spend three months in Augsburg… And the records weren’t what I thought at all! So then I had to write a completely different piece. That produced two essays in Oedipus and the Devil, and that was the bridge onto the next project on the history of witchcraft.

C.F.: You quite often cite in your works three influences: social history, psychoanalysis and feminism. I wondered how the influence of the three change over time, particularly between the different books, between The Holy Household, Oedipus and the Devil, Witch Craze and Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (2016). It seems that by Witch Craze and Martin Luther you draw on psychoanalysis to disrupt extreme historicism, but as a source of insights, rather than using psychoanalysis as an authority. Is that fair?

L.R.: Yes. I agree with that. Because I think that if you apply theory, and you’re not in critical dialogue with it, it’s not interesting. What is interesting isn’t so much the theory as what you can do with it. And how the source material looks different when you ask different questions.

I would say that my first book quite clearly came out of the feminist movement. The feminist movement has of course shifted hugely over the period of my life. It has gone through various cycles. There was a period in my life when I could see that it was counterproductive to say I was a feminist to people I taught, because then I couldn’t get anywhere with them. It just alienated them. And sometimes for good reasons, because if you are a young woman starting out and someone is telling you, ‘The world is stacked against you. This is a patriarchal society you are living in. And when you have children you are not going to be able to continue in the way that you are.’ That’s not a good message to give young women. It’s not good to send them out with that idea.

What I find really exciting now is that I think that this generation is coming back, and don’t know what it is like in France, but here there’s a real mood shift. People are interested, not in discourse analysis any more. Thank God! They are interested in sexuality in a very different way. They don’t see gender as a binary category any more. I am learning from them. I still can’t fully get my head around it. But their challenge has made me think about sixteenth-century Germany differently, and about Luther differently. Because I can see that Luther is somebody who is trying to impose binary categories. What he is totally freaked out about is gender crossing, for example in the case of the pope, which he finds just dreadful. Luther finds deeply horrifying the idea of the pope as both female and male. In his last work he goes on about the pope being Pope Paula, he talks about being stuck in the anus of the papacy. I think he works with a binary categorisation of male and female which doesn’t fit his own society even descriptively. Because women are working, they are not in the home. So it is my students who are making me think that, instead of this being about being straight or gay, it is about all of those categories being much more fluid, probably even then, than we allow. That has been very interesting.

C.F.: You say in Oedipus and the Devil that the history of the body had tended to be the history of discourses about the body. Is that still the case?

L.R.: No, I think that has shifted. Not as far as I would like, but there are many historians who really do think about motherhood not just as being constructed but as being a physical experience. Sarah Knott has just published a very powerful original book [Mother Is A Verb: An Unconventional History (2019)] which moves between her experiences as a mother now and the experience of motherhood in the past. I wish that book had existed when I became a mother. I think people who work on chivalry and knights have got to think about horses and horse-riding and what that does to the body. There is a lot more work on what you might call disability or wounds and what that does to people. There is more work that takes reproduction seriously and what it means when women give birth basically every other year over a long period of their life cycle, as compared to now when we cram it into a few years. There is much more than there was. That has changed.

C.F.: So to persist in the question of why you were interested in witches…

L.R.: It was an accident. The sources were just not like what I thought. Once they turned out to be about lying in [before being reintroduced into the community, in the six-weeks after childbirth] I was just completely hooked. I wasn’t interested in the history of witchcraft per se, but more about the history of fantasies and how can we get at this. But I had terrible trouble in writing that book, Witch Craze. That took me a long time. That is partly because I had my son in the middle. If you write something over a long period of time, it is very difficult to pull it into shape at the end. I had changed hugely over that period. The way I wrote had changed.

C.F.: You say in that book that you’re a lot less interested in discourses and a lot more inclined to take the body seriously as an experience than when you started…

  • 3 Ndlr: Institute of advanced studies in Berlin founded in 1981.

L.R.: That move was a result of spending a year in Berlin in 1991-2, which was a very important year for me. That was the Wissenschaftskolleg3. It was great.

C.F.: One powerful thing in that book is when you talk about the dialogue between demonologists and the women they were torturing. That book came out in 2004, at a time when the effect that torture has on people, what they say and how we understand that must have been very present…

L.R.: Actually, I think all that stuff about torture and Guantanamo Bay came after.

C.F.: Ah, of course, it wouldn’t fit the chronology of when you were writing it.

L.R.: No. When I was writing it people were saying, ‘You can’t use these sources, because they are produced under conditions of torture. Therefore they’re historically worthless.’ A lot of my energy was devoted to explaining how you could, and why you should. Because at that point people were doing statistical studies, primarily. They weren’t interested in what witches said, because those sources were thought to be tainted. When Guantanamo Bay happened we had the totally bizarre situation of it being argued on precisely the same grounds as the early modern interrogators that torture was justifiable. The reasons that were given were, ‘People come up with the same story, different people. So how could it be that torture produced the same story? Therefore it must be true.’ That was exactly what early modern interrogators said. They also argued only torture can overcome that resistance to telling the truth. They argued torture is justified because the risk that these people pose, if you don’t get them to confess, was so enormous.

C.F.: But on the other hand, what you do stress is what doesn’t come from the interrogators. When you talk about the mythos which witchcraft develops it is not in terms of deep folk memory, for example, but in terms of women’s experiences in the sixteenth century.

L.R.: Yes, I think so.

C.F.: One of the attractive things about your work is its rejection of an extreme historicism, which would say, people are so ‘other’, we can’t understand them at all. Is there a turning point in your thinking on that, or is that something you found as your worked progressed? Have you always felt that the people you were investigating needed to be understood?

L.R.: Ah! Always. Yes, that’s the reason I do history. I think it’s also to do with imagination. I spent a lot of time reading the sources and trying to imagine the situation that these people are in, and what kinds of people these people are. And that depends on there being a bridgeable gap as it were.

C.F.: Yes, that comes out more strongly from Witch Craze and Martin Luther than it did from your earlier work.

L.R.: You think so?

C.F.: Well, when you analyse a case in the last essay in Oedipus and the Devil, for example, the structure that you use is very Freudian. Would you still accept the same kind of interpretation? The devil as a ‘bad father’, for example.

L.R.: Oh that one! Yes, that’s a little bit of a one off. The method I was using at that point was to read each case and immerse myself in it completely, and spend hours trying to reconstruct it, and work through everything that was said, so it took a long time to do each one. That one I just did that way to see whether it made sense of that case. But I was much more influenced by [Melanie] Klein in the overall understanding. But you see, if you use psychoanalysis it does depend on there being quite a lot of commonality, on the human psyche not having changed that much, over, well, what’s not that long really. Five hundred years! (laughs)

C.F.: So, when you talk about the stress in witchcraft confessions on sex with the devil, that is something that exists in a psychic world, in a demographic world, in a sexual world which is specific to that period of history, a particular demographic regime. When interrogators propose to these women a pact with the devil, the way they think of it is in terms of a bad marriage pact.

L.R.: With that material, I was also dealing with a lot of very different sources. I was trying to consider what was going on psychically, what was going on materially, and what was specific to that historical time, and how one comes up with an overall explanation. But I was also dealing with the problem that I had source material of very variable quality. For Augsburg, for example, you can really find out a lot about the individual, because you have maybe 200 or 300 pages. You can reconstruct where the person lived, because you’ve got tax records. You can reconstruct who the questioners are, what their social and cultural situation is. You have witness statements. You’ve got enough to reconstruct someone’s... (hesitates) person, I suppose. Because it’s more than personality. Their subjectivity. Whereas for somewhere like Würzburg, you’ve just got fragments. You’ve got a lot because there are many more people who get killed, but you only ever have little bits. You can’t reconstruct any of that.

C.F.: You don’t know as much about each individual at all?

L.R.: No. You don’t even have a complete interrogation. Sometimes you don’t have the questions. Many of them seem to be copies, not documents made at the time. In some of them, not for Würzburg but for Sigmaringen, the ones in the archive at Sigmaringen are just scraps. There could be two interrogations on one piece of paper. You can only talk about patterns, rather than what people say. Whereas in Nördlingen you can really reconstruct quite a lot.

C.F.: Why’s that?

L.R.: Not as much as in Augsburg, but partly because that’s a very concentrated pattern of panic in a small space, and you have the records. The records are written pretty contemporaneously. You can tell from the handwriting what is going on, a bit. That’s 1589-1598. A short-ish period. And then really during the early 1590s.

C.F.: The Holy Household seems to start with a puzzle, which is, how something that started out so creatively as Lutheranism could end so conservatively. You seem to have more sympathy, perhaps, with movements like the Anabaptists.

L.R.: Well, Reformation history in Germany is very much dominated by conservative Lutheranism. But if you come from Australia of course it’s not. When I started out it looked like Anabaptist historiography was going to take off. But it didn’t. The generation before mine, which taught me, raised lots of questions to do with revolution, and with 1968, so I was interested in that context in how you can incorporate Anabaptism into religious history. I think you can’t have an account of the Reformation if you leave out Spiritualists and Anabaptists, because it’s a very heterogeneous movement. I think it’s really important not to be fixated on confessionalisation and let those drop out of your purview. But that’s to do with the way I was formed, in that it was Anabaptism that I worked on first, not mainstream Lutheranism. Although Nuremberg was mainstream Lutheranism.

C.F.: Even now, do you think there is an explanation for the witch crazes, put simply?

L.R.: (Laughs) I suppose my answer would be that witch crazes are of various kinds. Because if they’re all of the same kind, it would have ceased to be convincing. There is always more to learn about the devil, and about the witch, and that’s partly what keeps the whole thing going. So there is always a variety of different stories. But within that I still think that there is a pattern which explains a lot of them, and that is to do with anxieties about fertility, and particularly in stuff that comes out in some way that related to what goes on in the lying-in room after delivery. When you give birth and then there are those weird six weeks. I had the extraordinary experience myself of, having written that essay, and then when I gave birth it was when the check happened: at six weeks. So it is still quite culturally and physically important.

C.F.: I was just thinking about different kinds of understanding. You also want to understand Martin Luther. Do you?

L.R.: Well, yes, that was really why I wanted to write on Luther, after the witches. After a while, working on witchcraft is incredibly depressing. Really horrible! I thought there was nothing more I had to say about criminal records. But I was still interested in subjectivity. And if there is one person who has left the best records for the sixteenth century that is Martin Luther. So, again, I thought it would only take me about five years to do. (laughs)

C.F.: I like there that you have a citation from Lucien Febvre who says, ‘A Freudian Luther, we can imagine what he would like,’ and if somebody wrote a psychoanalytically-inspired history of Luther, then we couldn’t really be bothered to read it. But what does he think a psychoanalytically-inspired history of Luther would look like?!

  • 4 Publié la même année en allemand sous le titre Der junge Mann Luther. Eine psychoanalytische und hi (...)

L.R.: (Laughs) Well, in a sense it happened with Erik Erikson [Young Man Luther: A study in psychoanalysis and history (19584)]. Yes.

C.F.: So he’d written the review before the book came out! But that’s not at all what you’re doing, is it?

L.R.: I hope not. One of the problems is that if you address Luther’s relationship to his father at all, you will get reviews that just reduce it to that. I hadn’t thought through how much that would be the case, and that’s been annoying. But I think his relationship with his friends is just as interesting. I wanted to tell it as a tragedy. Of someone with immense gifts. Incredibly charismatic. Huge courage. Huge originality. Someone who really thinks with his body. Who doesn’t make this division between flesh and spirit as much as most people do. Who ends up falling out with his friends and splitting the movement. You can see how it was necessary, from his point of view. Maybe it was unavoidable. But it is tragic. It happens with the first friendship with [Andreas] Karlstadt. And no one at that time thought about Karlstadt. Now his letters are being edited and they were in fact being edited at the time. I wanted to present that as the tragedy of someone.

C.F.: The book is focused on understanding Luther, but what comes out very powerfully is the networks that were around him: Karlstadt, von Staupitz, Melanchthon, Spalatin… You say it’s a tragedy but for me it’s a miracle story as well. I don’t see how he managed to walk out alive from the Diet of Worms.

L.R.: It is incredible. And the courage that he has is just phenomenal. To be able at one and the same time to put yourself in a psychological position where you are going to accept martyrdom and at the other hand to plan so that it’s not going to happen! (laughs) And so he manages to do both things.

C.F.: And he’s not disappointed when he’s not martyred?

L.R.: Part of him is disappointed, at this point, and I think that’s an ongoing problem that he has. He is fascinated by martyr stories. Early on when Heinrich von Zütphen is martyred, Luther does a martyrology. He is very aware of not having managed to be martyred. And it is a bit of a problem for the movement!

C.F.: After the Diet of Worms, when he is in the Wartburg for a year, things continue without him. Does he come back more conservative and controlling than he left?

L.R.: Yes, that’s a really good point. I think he does. It is part of the experience of having Karlstadt come to prominence in the movement which he has to get over. When he comes back he’s determined to wrest the movement back from him. And then I think you can see him becoming more and more conservative. I’ve been coming back to this because I am working on the Peasants’ War, now, so I am very interested in his anti-peasant position. Certainly, at that moment when he comes back to Wittenberg in cahoots with the Elector, it is clear what side he is on. Then when he puts all these brakes on the Reformation, and doesn’t let it go ahead, and when the rift with Karlstadt is absolute: that’s when you can see him becoming much more conservative, and allying with secular authority.

C.F.: He’s been taken out of the world of Wittenberg, he’s been dressed in the clothes of a knight. Does he ever admit that he’s been saved by the Elector? Does he think of it like that?

L.R.: That’s a good question. He tends to say things like, ‘I was first on the field of battle. This all began with me.’ It is not easily a narrative when the Elector then saves him. Because he wants to arrive at an Old Testament prophet style position where he can attack people in power, and criticize them, while at the same time being allied with them, and also saying the peasants have got some things right.

C.F.: It’s a book which is about understanding Luther, but one ends up with more sympathy for somebody like Karlstadt than for him.

L.R.: Well, I hope you would have sympathy for both of them. Karlstadt is also impossible. And deeply flawed. I mean he’s unable to get away from Luther. He can’t write very well. He has some lovely ideas. But he’s not really able to articulate them. And he’s certainly not able to set up independently of Luther.

C.F.: Yes. And somebody like Melanchthon doesn’t seem to want to put himself forward. Yes?

L.R.: Well, I think the relationship between Luther and Melanchthon is very strained, especially towards the end. I think it starts out easier. But it’s also tricky because Melanchthon is the better lecturer and gets more student adulation than Luther does. He’s a better Humanist. And towards the end it’s clear that people start routing things through Melanchthon because you can get more out of him than you can out of Luther. There is serious tension between the two of them after 1530. The set of letters which Luther writes to Melanchthon when Melanchthon is doing the negotiations over the peace of Augsburg are just terrible. They are all about masculinity. Luther would just say, ‘What are you doing weeping? I’ve been in more trouble than you ever have been.’ All this kind of stuff. Basically saying, ‘Pull yourself together’. Really awful!

C.F.: Because Melanchthon has stayed behind, he’s been lecturing, and he has not really put his life on the line at any point?

L.R.: Yes, and Luther is twitting him with that.

C.F.: Does he ever talk to somebody like Spalatin like that for example? After all, Spalatin is essential to Luther because he is in with the Elector, but he also has the position of a courtier. Does Luther ever insult him for that? I’m thinking of people who have a potentially effeminate position.

L.R.: He does tease him a bit. And there’s a really terrible story which is quite late on…. Spalatin is not a good preacher, but he ends up being a preacher in Altenburg, and having to fight against a very conservative set of canons there. He was probably illegitimate, so he’s got all that to deal with. He’s living with his mother-in-law, and he doesn’t get on with her, and the marriage is childless for six years. And tongues are wagging. And quite late on in his life he makes a decision about a marriage case which Luther thinks is wrong. It’s about whether someone is allowed to marry someone else and there’s a potential case of incest. Luther tells him off, for making that decision. And this plunges Spalatin into deep melancholy and shortly after that he dies.

C.F.: It’s a tragedy beyond Luther. The network of people in Wittenberg seems very lively. Luther is extracted from it after Worms and is protected by a higher power for a year. Then he comes back with the attitude of the boss, and then everything seems to fall apart. Is that right?

L.R.: Well, he keeps it together for a long period of time. He does keep it together through the negotiations over Augsburg. They do build the Wittenberg Church from 1527 on. So it is a huge achievement. It is just that he starts getting very edgy about what the right line is. Anyone who deviates from that in any way is out. There are a whole series of these stories. They are just heart-breaking. The big problem that you have as a biographer is that about 90% of the material is post 1525. For the earlier period you have very little to go on. But you can’t write according to the source material because you would have a completely unreadable account which would be immensely depressing. It would just be the story of one fight after another and the loss of friends.

C.F.: Particularly earlier in the book you get a real feeling of the friends of Luther. Friends and enemies. Thinking about what you say about the women’s movement, is this something you feel yourself? That one survives or one doesn’t because of friends and enemies? Is that something that comes from the Luther project, or was it important to you earlier?

L.R.: I don’t know what to say about that. With the witches, I couldn’t work out who their friends were. That was where the material just didn’t exist. You could work out indirectly what their friendships might have been from whom they’re testifying against. Because you only have people on the whole testifying against those women so you can’t see what the nature of the relationships actually are. Sometimes you can see that actually there must have been a close friendship there, because otherwise you wouldn’t entrust your child to someone to look after. But with this it’s different because you have both sides and you can really see the nature of the friendships. I’ve always been very interested in friendships and the nature of relationships. And I think that again is part of psychoanalysis because psychoanalysis is entirely about relationships of different kinds.

C.F.: That makes me think of Paul Hyam’s Rancor and Reconciliation in Medieval England (2003). For him, at least in that book, hatred seems far more enduring than friendship.

L.R.: Ah, no, I’d say personally friendship is really important to me. My friends are hugely important. They’ve really looked after me!

C.F.: Not your enemies though?!

L.R.: (Pause) I have real trouble with hostility, yes. I find it very difficult to deal with. I always want to appease and make things good. Yes, well spotted!

C.F.: There seem to me to be lots of people and networks in your work, although not so much in Witch Craze, as you say. Is it similar to heresy inquisitions when what one searches for the next contact? Or modern anti-insurgency tactics. What they are trying to do is to map and take apart the organisation.

L.R.: Yes, absolutely. You can see that early modern interrogators haven’t got the tools that they need… They need a computer to do the calculations. They have all these lists of denunciations and they have to work out how many denunciations each person has received but they can’t see how to make the map.

C.F.: That could lead us back to friendships which have been turned upside down in the process of interrogation.

L.R.: It could be, yes. It could be, but it is tricky, because the experience of torture means that it is also likely to include the people doing the questioning.

C.F.: We’ve talked about people, I wonder about the place of place in your work. When you present the narrative of Luther it is very focused on electoral Saxony and the north-east, whereas the witch trials are much more focused on South Germany, in places like Würzburg, Nördlingen, Augsburg… Is this just good social history choosing contrasting examples, or is there more to it than that?

L.R.: For Witch Craze that was very difficult. I needed good quality sources, and I needed some that weren’t panics because if they are not panics you get better sources. I needed some that were panics because otherwise I couldn’t understand the phenomenon. It was really the sources that dictated the area.

Moving to work on Luther was just fantastic. I have never enjoyed working on anything as much as on that. Partly because it meant encountering the former East. I never had. It meant living in Berlin which I loved. It meant spending a lot of time in Wittenberg and just getting to know a completely different Germany. I also spent a lot of time trying to understand. So I tried to go to every place. I went to Mansfeld, where he grew up and spent a lot of his childhood. I went round the castle and I was really struck by the difference between the castle and the valley below. At that time no one went to Mansfeld! (laughs) It didn’t have any of the Luther industry in it. That came later. And just thinking about the mining and how that worked. I had friends who took me on tours of mines. And then to work on it. The sources were actually in Wernigerode which is in the Harz mountains. Just going there was amazing. The places I ended up having to stay! It was just really interesting. Wittenberg itself is a quite interesting place which was being destroyed through renovation while I was there. By the end when it was open to the public, it just wasn’t...

C.F.: It’s now a Luther theme park?

L.R.: It’s more complicated than a Luther theme park. I can see why it was important to the people there to do it. But it’s now got a shopping mall, which you didn’t have before. It had no shops really. It had those coffee things like Tchibo that sell coffee but what they are really doing is selling merchandise. It had one of those. It had a big depot of that sort of past merchandise. And that was the biggest shop. It had things like bakeries that sold seaweed rolls and stuff that you just didn’t get in the rest of Germany. That all has gone, at least in Wittenberg.

C.F.: You say that you spent as much time as possible in the archives in Wittenberg. Why was that? Was it for the archives or for Wittenberg?

L.R.: Well, it wasn’t the sensible thing to do, in that you wouldn’t know that I’d spent a lot of time in the archives from reading the book, because it didn’t feed in straightforwardly into the story. But I wanted to understand how the city worked. I wanted to understand who was in political power. I wanted to understand how they made decisions. And the fact that they always have to get the Elector to give the go ahead.

C.F.: So, you did a social history of Wittenberg on the side, which you didn’t get much use out of?

L.R.: Yes. Although what’s really amazing is that the first social history of Wittenberg was done by a woman, Edith Eschenhagen, in 1927. Just incredible. All the work I did on the mines you also wouldn’t know! It doesn’t really get into the book.

C.F.: You argue that it’s important to understand that Luther comes from mining country. He’s neither a peasant nor a big city dweller. What does that change in him?

L.R.: Well, he comes out of a different social formation from most other intellectuals in the period. That comes out in a number of things. That comes out in his understanding of gender relations. If you grew up in a craft workshop you would see women involved in all the processes of selling and processes of production, and running the place, and organising apprentices and journeymen and servants. Whereas in these households, because the work place is separate, and because the work force is massive – it involves hundreds of people – you’re not feeding and clothing the work force. They’re living independently. That makes for entirely different gender relations, and goes some way to explaining why Luther has such an extraordinarily rigid and completely unreal understanding of men’s and women’s roles. We know that there were women working in the mines, but he wouldn’t necessarily have seen that.

C.F.: Is it a gender binary more characteristic of industrialisation?

L.R.: Yes, it’s like that. That’s one of the differences. The other is that it is a frontier society. People are coming in. It’s much rougher. There’s not the same sense of respect for law. They’ll just punch each other up. You have to do everything with contracts. You’ve got to defend your mine area. And there will be all these disputes. So they intermarry in a much closer way. There are probably about forty families that dominate the whole little area. All of Luther’s sisters and brother marry into that.

C.F.: So it’s more aggressive, it’s more based on a gender binary, it’s endogamous. More so than a peasant society?

L.R.: I think the gender binary is much bigger than in a peasant society. The endogamy would probably work in a peasant society, too, but not in urban ones, where many of these intellectuals come from. Also if you have grown up in mining you are confronted with uncertainty. Peasants are confronted with uncertainty too, but if the weather doesn’t work out, it might work out with something else. But with mines you could either make your fortune or you could lose the lot and go bankrupt. And they are going bankrupt all the time. So they’re living with huge financial risk, and they’re involved with these big international financial corporations.

C.F.: Doesn’t this push us towards an interpretation of Luther as the wave of modernity, which I thought you were trying to get away from?

L.R.: Well, I don’t believe in modernity! (laughs) But it is a very different economic world. In some ways it’s backward looking. Because it means that Luther is absolutely opposed to big capital, that his view of the economy is very conservative and primitive, and anti-usury and all the rest of it. He really doesn’t understand the economy. And he has all the prejudices of that group. He doesn’t see the advantages of long distance trade or globalisation or anything like that.

C.F.: So there again it’s a bit like Witch Craze. What’s important about the mining country is that it’s different, and we can’t make sweeping generalisations about all of Germany, or even areas which are Lutheran or Anabaptist or whatever. It has got that organic diversity to it. You say in the Luther book that it’s Rosi Bartlett who made you think about that?

L.R.: Yes, that’s Rosamund Bartlett, biographer of Chekhov and Tolstoy.

C.F.: Weren’t you interested in place already?

L.R.: I’ve always been interested in place partly because, before you could photograph things, you had to go and live somewhere. So I lived in Augsburg for a very long time. I can’t think how many years I spent there! Knowing what a place is like, and thinking about where things are.

C.F.: Isn’t there a risk of a Romantic leap, of imagining things that were not there?

L.R.: Yes. You have to try and work out what was there then. That’s very difficult. What you try to reconstruct imaginatively has to be constrained by the evidence. But then again it’s essential to do that.

C.F.: Just to return to your career. You’ve said that being in Oxford in the 1980s was not a good experience. Then you were in London for a long time. You were in Royal Holloway [University of London] weren’t you? Did you reconnect with the Feminist History Group you were in before? Was that continuous?

L.R.: Well, what had happened was that in the University of London a Women’s History seminar started. We established the first Masters programme in Women’s and Gender History at Royal Holloway. I did that with Amanda Vickery very early on at Royal Holloway. And gradually the London Feminist History Group died out. Partly as a result of the London Institute of Historical Research seminar, because it was at an academic venue. The two of them co-existed for a while, but then gradually didn’t any more. The Institute of Historical Research thing was founded before I got there. I think it was founded in 1985, maybe 1986. The Women’s Studies caucus in Oxford was very important for me. That was cross-disciplinary. It was made up of women from all over Oxford and it was really my intellectual home. I just couldn’t cope with colleges.

C.F.: Was that already there in the 1980s?

L.R.: Yes, that was in the 1980s. There was also an Oxford Women’s History group, too, which was inside and outside the university, although it met in the university. In London the Women’s History seminar was very important. It continued being very important and it is still going. After about ten years of the Master’s programme at Royal Holloway we had over a hundred historians of women in London. It was quite extraordinary. Many of them went on to do doctorates. Things just changed during that period. When I went to London, in 1986 or 1987, Laura Gowing asked me to supervise her, because there was no one in London she could work with. So I did, and that was fantastic. That was what London was like then. There weren’t any historians of women in post. I mean, there were some, but not for the early modern period. Then after about, I don’t know, ten or fifteen years they had sprung up. It wasn’t just Royal Holloway, but everywhere.

C.F.: Between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s?

L.R.: Yes. That was the beginning of the large scale movement of women into the universities and the historical profession as well. That has happened at a much greater speed in Germany in the same period. So when I first went to Germany there were three professors of History who were women. And I knew them all. Because…

C.F.: Because there were three of them?

L.R.: Yes, and because they were the kind of person that they were. They were very engaged and really wanted things to change. Then there was the introduction of someone who was tasked with looking at gender diversity in hirings in every German university. You can’t appoint without a gender diversity representative on the committee.

C.F.: When was that established?

L.R.: I’m not sure, in the 1990s, I think. But as a result, I don’t know what the current figures are, but it must be something like 40% of professors are women in History. It’s a huge change in a short period of time. To a much greater degree, now, than here [in Britain]. Some of those are junior professors so they aren’t there permanently, but still…

C.F.: And how do you feel about Britain? Did it get better and then stop, or…?

  • 5 In Germany, to obtain a Lehrstuhl, the first fixed academic position, the candidate must pass the H (...)

L.R.: I think there has been a massive increase in the total number of historians. That’s the most striking thing. There’s been a massive increase of women amongst that. So whereas I think it used to be something like 10% women – which was enough to mean that always was a woman in most departments – it’s now, I don’t know what the latest figures would be, but it would be well over 40% going up to 50%. But the number of professors is just 26%. Whereas in Germany of course it is much higher. Because you have to do the second book to get a chair. And there only are chairs. That’s the difference between the two systems. But that also means that women in the German system are, I would say, much more powerful than they are in the British one5.

C.F.: Because there are fewer professors?

L.R.: Because the proportion of women amongst the professoriate is greater. And because they’ve all done the second book. Whereas I think for women the problem is the second book. Partly for good reasons because we don’t have a Habilitation and because many of us have children after the first book. But I think that pattern is also shifting a bit. I think the problem is then how you come back to do the subsequent books.

C.F When did you come back to Oxford, to Balliol College?

L.R.: I came to Balliol in 2002.

C.F.: Was that a shock to go back to Oxford again, given your earlier experience?

L.R.: Yes, yes it was. (laughs) I went because the person I was married to took a job in Oxford, so I tried to commute- my son was very young- and then realised I couldn’t.

C.F.: Even London to Oxford?

L.R.: Well, yes, because, it wasn’t London, it was Royal Holloway [part of the University of London, but in Egham, 35km west of central London].

C.F.: So you got a job in Balliol, when one came up?

L.R.: Yes, I was very lucky. It was great that they took me and I had a really great nine years there. That was terrific. Amazing students. That was just excellent.

C.F.: Now you’re Regius Professor. Is that a change?

L.R.: Yes, that is a big change. It’s a wonderful job to have. You always feel you’re not doing it right. There is no job description. You can use it to bring about change and to really try to embed diversity in the institution. You can try to intervene publicly in some debates and discussions. I just think the Faculty of History at Oxford is amazing. An incredible bunch of people. There are a lot of early career people going through. It’s extraordinary. We have about as many early career people as we do established post holders. And they’re going to go all over the country. The chance to meet them, to see what they’re doing, where the subject is going, and to make sure that their experience at Oxford is a good one, is really worth doing.

C.F.: Could you tell us what is special about the Regius Professorship, a senior or statutory chair?

L.R.: There are twelve statutory chairs in the History Faculty. Whereas there are a hundred post holders. They all now have the title of professor. The twelve established chairs are accidental – each one of them arose in a different way, they’re not a plan – but they’re also quite important. I think I am the first woman statutory professor in History, here, as well as being the first woman Regius Professor anywhere in the UK in history. It’s appalling that it took until 2011 for a woman to be a Regius Professor of History. That’s just terrible! The Regius Chair at Oxford was founded in 1724!

C.F.: Is it worse in History than in other disciplines?

L.R.: I don’t understand why History doesn’t have higher proportions of women chairs. Because there are a lot of women doing History. But we’re only at the national average, I think, for all subjects combined. I don’t understand that. I think there’s a long way to go, but I think that change really is happening. Gender is now part of the Oxford curriculum. That certainly wasn’t the case in 1983. I think a third of the Faculty at the moment would list gender as being amongst their research interests. That’s a huge shift. That’s amongst the post holders. We now have three women statutory chairs. But it’s taken a long time.

C.F.: Do you find that gender still raises hackles, or not?

L.R.: What sort of answer do you want?!

C.F.: The reason I’m asking that question is because in France, for example, it definitely does, despite the support of institutions like the CNRS. To the extent that many people are tempted to do gender without saying that that is what they are doing. A bit like the experience you mentioned earlier about not saying to your students that you’re a feminist.

L.R.: No, I think here, it is more that eyebrows are raised if you don’t mention gender, and if you write something that only mentions men without some explanation, people are going to ask you about it. That has certainly shifted. I think that the coming generation really is interested in all these questions, but they’re interested in them as material history questions. They want to know about women’s wage rates. They want to know about household structures. They’re not interested in discourse and the construction of gender.

C.F.: Yes, wage rates and so forth is a relatively consensual topic to propose, isn’t it?

  • 6 See for example Jane Humphries and Carmen Sarasúa, ‘Off the Record: Reconstructing Women’s Labor Fo (...)

L.R.: Not if you’re looking at women’s wage rates over the longue durée. That’s what Jane Humphries has done6. She was told it would not be possible.

C.F.: That’s interesting, because you might say that’s the one thing in France you can talk about without anybody objecting! For example, it is now relatively widely accepted to say that women start working for free at a certain time each year, at 15h35 on 6 November, 2018, for example. But if you start talking about discourse, about sexuality, about gender binaries, even about why women are underrepresented in senior jobs, the reaction can be very guarded.

L.R.: Oh! No, not here. Those are completely acceptable topics. But I think that academic working patterns really need to change. This university now has really good maternity leave, and that is very important. But what we need, now, is for flexible working to be much more possible. If academics can’t do that, then who can?! It’s been possible in the civil service to make that possible and to make sure that women want to come back, by offering them proper paid leave and proper support when they return. The key thing is that you can come back part time. Whereas we aren’t good at offering women part-time work, or men.

C.F.: Well, part-time is hard for academics. It’s very difficult to stick to contracted hours. I think of many colleagues without a permanent post who accept a 7/8 or three-quarters contract, and end up working something like 2.5 their contracted hours! There’s always room to push beyond what is contracted.

L.R.: There is, but we have to make it possible. Not to be able to offer people with caring responsibilities a non-full-time post is just ridiculous. There’s no excuse for it. Because we don’t have fixed hours, it has got to be possible to have more flexible working. So I hope that will be the next thing that we make happen. Someone like Olwen Hufton had no maternity leave at all. She always had her children in the summer, and then was back at work in the autumn. She had to do it in the summer, and not lose any teaching time. How she did it, I just can’t imagine.

  • 7 Research Excellence Framework, the regular nationwide research evaluation exercise in the UK (ndlr)

So I think that seeing gender as socially constructed, although useful in many ways, has its limitations. I am torn, because part of me is still an old-fashioned binarist. I just think there are differences with women’s bodies. Okay, it’s great to have paternity leave, and it’s great to recognise caring responsibilities. But you also have to recognise that maternity has real physical consequences for women. The problem is how to recognise that when you’re doing something like the REF7 that full allowance is made for that.

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1 A senior professorship, established and funded by royal grant.

2 Lyndal Roper, ‘“Going to church and street”: Weddings in Reformation Augsburg’, Past and Present, 106-1 (Feb. 1985), p. 62-101.

3 Ndlr: Institute of advanced studies in Berlin founded in 1981.

4 Publié la même année en allemand sous le titre Der junge Mann Luther. Eine psychoanalytische und historische Studie.

5 In Germany, to obtain a Lehrstuhl, the first fixed academic position, the candidate must pass the Habilitation, one formal requirement of which is a second major monograph after the doctoral thesis. In Britain no such formal requirements are attached to a professorship, which are jobs like any other. The route to promotion to a professorship is thus less clearly defined, but in practice at least a second book is likely to be necessary to be considered an eligible candidate for a professorship (ndlr).

6 See for example Jane Humphries and Carmen Sarasúa, ‘Off the Record: Reconstructing Women’s Labor Force Participation in the European Past’, Feminist Economics, 18:4 (Oct. 2012), p. 39-67.

7 Research Excellence Framework, the regular nationwide research evaluation exercise in the UK (ndlr).

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Electronic reference

Christopher Fletcher, « Entretien avec Lyndal Roper », Genre & Histoire [Online], 23 | Printemps 2019, Online since 01 June 2019, connection on 07 December 2021. URL :

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About the author

Christopher Fletcher

Chargé de recherche CNRS – Université de Lille (IRHiS)

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