Professor Chris Woolgar, Fellow of the British Academy

In this year of pandemic and distancing, the Southampton history department is united in pleasure and appreciation at the election of our colleague, Professor Chris Woolgar, as a Fellow of the British Academy. This is a rare and high honour, which is given to a few of the most influential, original and admired academics internationally across the fields of the humanities and social sciences each year. It recognises how each fellow has contributed to a subject or subjects through published work of the highest quality, through creative and innovative scholarship, and through consistent service. These attributes can be seen throughout Chris’s career.

Professor Woolgar enjoying a sunny day during a trip to Kyoto, Japan.

Chris is a Southampton graduate, and holds a BA in History and Archaeology. On graduating, he chose to train as an archivist, and worked for a few years cataloguing the archives of some of the Oxford colleges. While there, he catalogued large quantities of rolls surviving from the middle ages—estate account rolls, manorial court rolls, and so forth. Some, however, did not fit into the usual categories, and so were hard to catalogue; it was not clear how they were made, who made them, or what they were for. Chris continued working on these after his return to Southampton and a post in the university archives, and his study eventually turned into his doctoral thesis. He was able to identify and categorise these documents as household rolls—records of the daily expenditure of the servant and others who supported the aristocratic élite—and show their wider importance for social, economic and cultural histories. This was a breakthrough of the first importance; it provided a key to open a new set of sources for study. The rolls illuminated the lives of the servants and tradespersons who served the aristocracy of medieval England, and they showed how the household worked as an essential element of the infrastructure of politics; they also indicated what great lords spent their money on, and so were essential sources for thinking about consumption of all kinds, economic and social networks, food and cooking, and prices, among other matters. This gave rise to two volumes of edited Household Accounts from Medieval England (British Academy and Oxford University Press, 1992–3), as well as the monograph The Great Household in Medieval England (Yale University Press, 1999), along with an edited collection and essays and chapters in journals and books.

Chris’s work developed along lines arising from these achievements. He wrote on food and cooking, starting with the evidence of the household rolls but ending up far beyond it, thinking through the place of food and consumption in society and culture. This gave rise to another major monograph, The Culture of Food in England, 12001500 (Yale University Press, 2016), as well as an edited collection and essays. In this, he was a pioneer, for the history of food and cooking is a relatively new focus for research. Food inevitably involves consideration of taste and perception in their many dimensions, and led to a history of The Senses in Late Medieval England (Yale University Press, 2006). This considers both the theoretical approaches to sense and perception that circulated in late medieval England, as well as how the world was experienced and understood within that particular culture. It covers themes such as speech and holiness, and is a major overview of the theme that has tied together Chris’s work; the experience of daily life and the culture that shaped it.

At the University of Southampton, as curator of important archival collections of key figures including the papers of the Duke of Wellington, Lord Palmerston and Lord Mountbatten, Chris developed considerable expertise in modern British history, publishing important essays on the first Duke of Wellington, and editing five volumes of Wellington Studies (Hartley Institute, 1996-2013).  That the internationally important Broadlands collection (comprising especially the papers of the Temple (Palmerston), Ashley, Cassel and Mountbatten families) is at Southampton owes a great deal to the extraordinary efforts of Chris, and his colleagues, to secure them formally for the University in 2010.

Beyond his publications, Chris has contributed massively to history as a subject, through his editorship of the Journal of Medieval History for some years, through the catalogues arising from his archival interests, through his engagement with public authorities on legal and financial issues relating to archive collections, and through examining PhD theses, among many activities. He has also contributed considerably to the educational mission of the department over the years, most notably through the reshaping of the MA recently. Chris’s election is a major personal accolade, but also underlines the strength of History at Southampton, and in medieval history in particular.

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