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Interview: Christopher Kissane

Christopher Kissane, in our latest New Generation Thinkers interview, reflects on innovative ways to engage new audiences and shows that food is more than just for eating.


Christopher is a historian working on the role of food in history. He explores what we can learn about societies and cultures through studying their diets, including what aubergines tell us about the changing tastes in food consumption. His book, which will be published later this year, examines food’s relationship with major issues of early modern society including the Spanish Inquisition and witchcraft.

AH: When you pitched to become one of the New Generation Thinkers you focused on food and identity. Can you explain more about the role that food can play in helping us to understand societies and cultures and why you decided to research more about it?

CK: I decided to work on food because for a long time it was an overlooked historical subject, and I wanted to help give it the attention it deserves: I’m very lucky to now be working in a very vibrant field with lots of exciting researchers. Food has always been about much more than just feeding ourselves. In the early modern world, it was intrinsically connected to identity, religion, and politics: what you ate could signify who you were. The Spanish Inquisition used evidence about food to persecute those of Jewish & Islamic heritage; food was a point of conflict between Catholics & Protestants in the Reformation; and food was a focus of witchcraft accusations and trials. Studying food can shed light on wider historical issues from domestic life to gender relations to everyday religious practice. Since it has so many aspects, food can provide a different way of looking at history.

AH: Was there a Eureka moment when you knew that you wanted to study history?

CK: I was always surrounded by history as a child: both of my parents worked in universities, and my dad is an art historian. Visiting historical sites with him and his students gave me a strong interest in studying history. I like that history encompasses every other subject, from art to science to economics: historians have to be able to learn about everything, because history is everything. When I was in third year at university in Dublin, I did a course on the German Reformation, and we got to work with original documents from the period. I found that really exciting and it convinced me that I wanted to go on and do my own research.

AH: Can you tell me about a key area of research that you’re working on at the moment that really excites you?

CK: Recently I have been working on the history of citizenship in Europe, charting the transition from early modern privileges and inequalities to modern citizenship. The migration crisis and Brexit have made citizenship a topical issue, and it has been exciting to examine how European societies have dealt with issues of immigration and legal rights across different periods. You can hear my thoughts about citizenship and Brexit on BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking.

AH: Do you have a favourite book that has inspired your passion for the role of food in history?

CK: Reay Tannahill’s 1973 book Food in History was a major inspiration for my work: it was a very ambitious book on a too-long overlooked subject. I also drew a lot of inspiration from Piero Camporesi’s Bread of Dreams (translated into English in 1989) because it is so provocative and challenging about how we think about food in the past. A lot of my work focuses on the everyday and community life of early modern women, and I have always loved Natalie Zemon Davis’ 1995 Women on the Margins, especially its prologue where the author imagines being confronted by the women who are the subjects of her book.

AH: Is there a historical figure that you particularly identify with?

CK: It’s exciting when reading a historical source to be able to identify with someone, but it is also exciting when you can’t: it shows how different their world was to ours. Reading the stories of people in Inquisition and witchcraft trial records, you have all sorts of emotions, from deep sympathy to angry disgust! When I was a doctoral student at Oxford, one of my supervisors, Lyndal Roper, was writing a great new biography of Martin Luther. It was fascinating to see the challenges of studying a historical figure in depth. I think I generally find historical figures more interesting than identifiable. When I was a teenager I was really interested in the American founding father Alexander Hamilton, and I am a huge fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s recent Broadway musical, which is based on a biography by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Ron Chernow. It’s a great example of how history can be innovative and engaging.

AH: What advice would you give to someone thinking of following an academic career path?

CK: It’s a difficult time to be a young academic: jobs are scarce, contracts are short, pay is stagnant, and the workload on early career teachers and researchers is very high. All of that can be disheartening so it’s important to remind yourself of how much you love your research subject, or how much you enjoy and value teaching. That can make dealing with the difficulties easier, and provide much-needed motivation. It’s also great to bond with other early career academics: solidarity, advice, and friendship amongst young scholars are really valuable in a profession that is often very hierarchical.

AH: What role do you see for academics in helping us to understand the lessons of history and meet the challenges of the future?

CK: Historians can provide long-term perspective, which is something public debate and media today really lacks. Current and future issues have long histories, and it is shortsighted to approach and analyse them only through the immediate present. News and policy seem to have very short memories! From Donald Trump to Brexit, climate change denial to online echo chambers, we are also seeing an increasing denigration of facts and expertise. It is more important than ever for academics of all types – historians, scientists, economists – to share their research and knowledge, both to prevent people being misled with myths and lies, and to provide sound evidence for policy. We have to engage with the public to prove that people haven’t ‘had enough of experts’.

AH: If you could travel back in time to a particular period of history, where would you go?

CK: President Obama often points out that if you could choose any period to be born, now would probably be the best time. If you look around, we are very lucky to be alive right now: despite many enormous problems, people are mostly healthier, freer, and safer than they have been in the past. Of course like any historian I find the idea of experiencing certain historical periods exciting, especially those which were alive with new ideas: ancient Rome, Islamic Spain, Renaissance Florence, Georgian London, revolutionary America, 1920s Paris or Berlin. But it is important not to mythologise the past.

AH: Do you have any top tips for early career researchers that want to get into radio and TV?

CK: The biggest challenges are making your subject understandable, and being able to communicate why it is interesting. Researchers are often too defensive about how interesting their own research is. Because we work so close to our subjects, we forget how fascinating they can be to wider audiences, especially when communicated by someone with a real passion for what they are sharing.

AH: How have your found finding your voice when talking and being interviewed on Radio 3?

CK: As academics, we’re used to speaking to live audiences in lectures and seminars, but speaking into a microphone in a recording studio is very different: you have a bigger listening audience but you can’t see them or gauge their reactions. For that reason I have found live recordings and interviews or discussions easiest, as you can engage with people. I have really benefited from the advice of producers at the BBC: their expertise has been very helpful. It’s also strange to hear your own recorded voice: I don’t sound like I do in my head!

If you have been inspired by the stories of our 2016 New Generation Thinkers and are an Early Career Researcher yourself, why not apply for the 2017 New Generation Thinkers scheme.

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