Professor Peter Burke

I usually describe myself as a ‘cultural’ historian, an adjective that raised eyebrows when I joined the History Faculty in Cambridge in 1979, but became normal and even fashionable by the 1990s.

I began by attempting to write a social history of ‘high’ culture, especially the Italian Renaissance, moved on to a study of popular culture in Europe (from Galway to the Urals) from 1500 to 1800, and then to studies of culture in a more anthropological sense, in other words studies of attitudes and values expressed or embodied in artefacts and practices.  I was appointed to teach European history from 1500 to 1700 and until my retirement in 2004 my research concentrated on that period, but then, somewhat afraid that after forty years in the field I would end up simply repeating myself, I decided to try something different.

Since that time I have been working on the history of knowledge – or more exactly, knowledges in the plural – in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: official and unofficial knowledges, theoretical and practical, professional and lay, implicit and explicit, orthodox and heretical and so on.  My latest book, published in 2012, runs from the great French Encyclopédie of the 18th century to Wikipedia today.  Putting the word ‘Wikipedia’ in the title turned out to be both a good and a bad idea.  Journalists wanted to interview me, but their questions were almost entirely about Wikipedia, leaving out the previous 250 years also discussed in the book. In case anyone wants to know how I answered their questions, I’ll just say that I don’t trust what I read in Wikipedia any more than I trust the Encyclopaedia Britannica or the newspapers, but welcome the intellectual ‘health warnings’ like ‘this article is biased’.

I still focus on Europe, but have also published (together with my Brazilian wife, Maria Lúcia Pallares-Burke), a study of a Brazilian historian and sociologist, Gilberto Freyre (1900-87). Moving from the sixteenth century to the twentieth presents problems as well as opportunities. When we studied Freyre, we were welcomed by his family, spoke to his friends and followers and worked in his house (now the Gilberto Freyre Foundation), reading his letters and looking for the comments that he regularly scribbled in the margins of the books he was studying. When we were writing our book we wanted to criticize as well as to celebrate Freyre’s work and we began to ask ourselves ‘What will his son or his daughter or his grandchildren think of this?’. We made the criticisms anyway, but I could not help thinking how much simpler it was to work on the 16th century, since everyone concerned is safely dead.

My approach to history has long been interdisciplinary, and I have learned a great deal from anthropologists, art historians, geographers, sociologists, linguists and students of literature. For this reason, among others, I have always found Emmanuel College to be not only a friendly but also a stimulating environment, where neighbours at lunch or dinner can answer one’s questions about their subject. It is also, especially for Life Fellows, one of the best places in the world to retire, since the college continues to support one’s research as well as providing an agreeable environment in which to pursue it. For this reason my most recent book, Exiles and Expatriates in the History of Knowledge (2017), is dedicated ‘to Emmanuel College’.