Dr Joanne Paul, a lecturer in early modern history at the University of Sussex, discusses her research on 16th and 17th-century political culture and ideas, and unpicks Theresa May’s election announcement.
Tell us about yourself
I’m primarily an intellectual and cultural historian interested in the ‘frameworks of ideas’ that shape (mainly political) action and events. For instance, as I’m writing this Theresa May, the UK’s prime minister, has announced a general election for summer 2017. If I were to look at this event as a historian, I might analyse the transcript of her speech, thinking about the rhetoric she used and how it made reference to existing ideas about a united Britain from the recent Scottish referendum, the rhetoric of sovereignty from the previous year’s EU referendum and the fear of financial collapse remaining from the financial crisis a decade before. I would probably also think about how changing concepts provide legitimacy or illegitimacy to certain political actions. For instance, by emphasising the need for a ‘united Westminster’, I might suggest that the prime minister seeks to delegitimise political opposition, despite a history by which that was the purpose of the institution. Intellectual history seeks to uncover the way in which ideas interact with events, shaping and being shaped by them.
My work has always been at the intersection of politics and history, though I certainly consider myself first and foremost a historian. I did a joint degree at Queen’s University Belfast before a MA in Political Science at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, where I worked with James Tully. I then went on to a PhD in History with Quentin Skinner at Queen Mary University of London. Having worked in both politics and history departments, I am now in the Department of History at the University of Sussex, where there is a vibrant Centre for Intellectual History.
What is the area of your research?
At the moment, I am looking at how political counsel was thought about and communicated in the 16th and 17th centuries, primarily in England. Although we might now associate political writing with ideas such as sovereignty or justice, in the 16th century the hot topic was political counsel – how to gain the ear of the monarch, who should have it, and what sort of advice should be communicated to them.
It’s not something we think much about any more, and that is part of what I’m investigating in my research: how did this central topic become relegated ‘to the shadows’? Why don’t we think about political advice as much anymore? In some ways, the answer has to do with the rise of parliament in the 17th century, and the way in which participation in elections dominate our role as citizens. As a result, we pay less attention to those outside the ‘official’ political sphere who have influence on our leaders (advisers), and overlook the way other unofficial pressure can shape politics, such as political satire or information leaks (though this is changing). Both these techniques were alive and well in the 16th century.
What is the importance of this research?
Historians are often criticised for the line that there is ‘nothing new under the sun’. However, noting those parallels is only a very small part of the job and just gets us thinking about what those parallels, and the differences that they reveal, might tell us about the past, and our situation today. In particular, it might tell us about what frameworks of ideas we operate within – how concepts create legitimacy or illegitimacy to a given action or event – and how we might in turn challenge them. It was something that my 16th-century writers thought about – how to influence those in power – and something we could do with thinking about a little bit more. History, I think, is a good place to start.
Dr Joanne Paul (@Joanne_Paul_)is a lecturer in early modern history at the University of Sussex working on 16th and 17th-century political culture and ideas. She recently published a book on Thomas More with Polity, and is currently finalising a study of political counsel in early modern England for Cambridge. She is one of the ten 2017 New Generation Thinkers whose research will be made into radio and television programmes for the BBC, in collaboration with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).