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Historian in focus: Alison Rowlands

  • Date

    Mon 29 Jan 18

Professor Alison Rowlands

Alison Rowlands is a Professor of European history at the University of Essex with specific interests in the early modern period, witchcraft and gender history.

She studied history at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford from 1984-87, obtaining a first class degree, and then undertook doctoral research in early modern German history at Clare College, Cambridge. After teaching at the University of Durham, Alison joined the Department of History at Essex in 1992, becoming a Professor in 2014. She was Head of Department from 2011-14.

Alison is the author of two books: Witchcraft Narratives in Germany: Rothenburg, 1561-1652 (Manchester, 2003) and Eine Reichsstadt ohne Hexenwahn. Hexenprozesse, Gerichtspraxis und Herrschaft im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert in Rothenburg ob der Tauber (An imperial city without a witch-craze. Witch-trials, the law and lordship in 16th and 17th-century Rothenburg ob der Tauber) (Rothenburg, 2013) and in November she celebrated her 25th year of teaching at the University of Essex.

Our History Frontrunner, Nanette Nathan-Wilson, talked to Alison to find out more about the history of her current teaching and research interests.

How do you find a balance between being a researcher and a teacher?

"During term time, I make fewer archival visits and produce fewer long pieces of writing due to lack of time. I tend to do most of my research in the vacation as it allows me to focus thoroughly on my chosen project.

"At Essex, we are encouraged to teach our specialised subjects, which for me is witchcraft in the early modern period. I teach a special subject to third-year students, called ‘Witches, Witchcraft, and Witch-Hunts in Early Modern Europe and New England’. I find this extremely helpful as it develops ideas that I can use later in my research. For example, not too long ago I was shown an image online from one of my students, something I have never seen before, which is surprising as I have been teaching for 25 years."

Would you say there was someone you looked up to during your studies?

"I have always been lucky to have had very inspiring history teachers from a very young age. I remember when I first decided to pursue history as a career. Prior to this, my parents had always taken me to historical sites, such as castles. I remember being taught about historical battles, especially the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and Harold Godwinson who was shot in the eye during the battle. Studying this subject was when I knew history definitely was the subject for me. 

"During secondary school, my teacher, Terry Kilburn, was strict but very inspiring and kept history interesting, excitable and relatable. After being taught by him, I started asking more questions about history, for example, what would have happened if Harold had not been shot in the eye at Hastings and how the Bayeux Tapestry has been used to formulate an understanding of what happened in the battle. 

"As an undergraduate, I remember Claire Holmes, my lecturer, who helped me deepen my knowledge with a sensitive approach to teaching that not only built my confidence but made me appreciate others who lead me through my history education. I found her method of teaching very interesting, as she used visual sources and had an emphasis on envisioning yourself in the period of study to understand a particular topic better. These valuable methods help me see why certain issues in history are important."

Professor Alison Rowlands
"In witchcraft I not only study something which I enjoy, but something which is also a path to many of the social aspects of early modern life."
Professor Alison Rowlands Professor in European History

What made you so passionate about the history of witchcraft beliefs and witch-persecution in the early modern period?

"I have always been interested in the early modern period, just through general study, however when it came to gender history, I became interested mostly whilst studying it at University. Many women (and some men) were persecuted for practising witchcraft, and this showed me that many beliefs and aspects of social history were revealed through witchcraft persecutions. This not only means I study something which I enjoy but something which is also a path to many of the social aspects of early modern life; the peasantry, the law, politics, and gender.

"I began my PhD research thinking about the enormous numbers of witchcraft persecutions in Germany. However, while studying in a place called Rothenberg, I found that there were only three people put to death for witchcraft, all of whom were women. I found this to be particularly interesting and it forced me to ask certain questions: why there were so few deaths of women who were accused of being witches in this particular area of Germany – a place that was the epicenter of ‘witchcraft’ trials? And why weren’t any men accused? 

"These kinds of questions have inspired my subsequent writings, forcing me to delve deeply into the sources, which has been great because Rothenberg has some of the best archives I’ve come across."

Can you give us more insight into current research project you are working on?

"I am currently writing an article about a seventeenth-century man who was accused of witchcraft but who fled. I find this to be a fascinating case, as it is a window not only to his life but also to different aspects of the early modern society, such as what was happening in Rothenberg, its businesses and its people. Because this case happened at the end of the Thirty Years War, it also has important things to say about masculinity, competition between men and the militarised German society of the time."

I find that a lot of history students do not know what to focus on after graduation and have not picked a career path. What would your advice be to them?

  1. DO NOT WORRY! 
  2. Use the employment advice provided by the Employability and Careers Centre.
  3. Although it may make choosing a career more confusing, the fact that studying history opens a variety of different doors is actually a really good thing. Try out different activities in the form of internships and volunteering as well as regular employment. Our students have gone into a wide variety of different professions including law, librarianship, and the charitable sector. 
  4. Find out what you love, and enjoy and build on it.