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Sixteenth-century historian explores legal landmarks amid religious conflicts

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Dr Tom Hamilton is an Associate Professor (Early Modern European History) in our Department of History.

Tom works on the social and cultural history of early modern Europe, especially France in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the history of crime and criminal justice.

Dialogue caught up with Tom to find out more about his research.

Tell us about yourself and your research…

I’m a historian of France and Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially the conflicts known as the Wars of Religion (1562–1598) and their aftermath. These wars between Catholics and Protestants (or Huguenots) caused outbreaks of sometimes extreme violence and pushed society to the brink of collapse. But they also generated novel experiments in building peace through justice.

I arrived in Durham in 2018, and before then I was a research fellow in Cambridge and Frankfurt am Main. Durham is a wonderful place to research and teach the Wars of Religion, not least because Bishop Cosin’s Library on Palace Green contains his vast collection of French books, which he acquired in Paris when he fled the civil wars in mid-seventeenth-century England.

Can you tell us more about your recent book A Widow’s Vengeance after the Wars of Religion?

It’s a book about a trial for war crimes in late sixteenth-century France, prosecuted by an exceptional widow named Renée Chevalier (1552–1641). She lived to the age of 89, married five times, and in 1600 secured the prosecution of the military captain Mathurin Delacanche, who committed appalling crimes of rape and pillage when he occupied her chateau of Chaumot in central France ten years earlier.

These events took place in the depths of the Wars of Religion. I was researching the role of criminal justice in building peace after the religious wars, and once I came across this trial and discovered the people involved, I knew it had to be a book.

We tend to think of justice in the sixteenth-century as costly, slow, and distant from most people’s lives. But this trial shows how people at that time could find justice, even after crimes of sexual violence committed in war, so long as they had the resources and political will to secure a prosecution.

Where did your interest for the social and cultural history of early modern Europe stem from?

As a social and cultural historian, I want to understand what life was like for ordinary people in the past. How were their lives shaped by major events such as the Wars of Religion? And how did ordinary people in turn shape the course of the religious wars?

My book shows that these conflicts did not only involve the high aristocracy, the kinds of people in Renée Chevalier’s circles; they also transformed the lives of villagers and citizens throughout the French kingdom, people like the villagers who travelled to Paris to testify against Delacanche and secure his conviction for war crimes.

It strikes me as significant that the testimony of labourers from a small village in central France could not only secure Delacanche’s conviction, but also set a case precedent that soldiers’ sexual violence would not be tolerated.

This is not how we tend to think about the more distant past. But if people in the sixteenth-century could prosecute wartime sexual violence, perhaps national and international courts could challenge themselves to do so with greater success in the twenty-first century.

What other projects have you got planned?

For now, I’m continuing to work on criminal archives from the period of the Wars of Religion and collaborating with friends and colleagues at Sorbonne Université and the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris.

I love criminal archives because they give historians access to the kinds of people who are otherwise so difficult to study, in an era when most people were illiterate. Villagers like the witnesses from Chaumot tend only to turn up in the records when someone is asking them a question, and I’m always fascinated to see their answers.

Who inspires you, personally and professionally?

I think it’s important for historians to dig deep into the surviving records from whatever period they study, but also to tackle major questions that matter today. How can societies put an end to violence? What makes a functioning justice system? Who is best placed to protect civilians from the devastating impact of war? Historians can’t give direct answers to these questions, but they can show how people in the past grappled with similar problems that we face now. Clearly, we haven’t solved these problems in the twenty-first century either. Historians can put issues in a critical perspective and help us to imagine alternate possibilities.

What do you like to do outside of work?

Durham is a great place to go running, not only because of the trails and fells around the North East, but also because of the exceptional running culture in the region. I’m a member of the Elvet Striders and they take me on all sorts of adventures.



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