On the Spot: Ruth Scurr

‘Timing is everything.’

Coronation of Napoleon in Notre-Dame de Paris, December 2, 1804. Louvre/Wiki Commons.

Why are you a historian of the early modern period?

I am an early modernist when the French Revolution is included in that period.

What’s the most important lesson history has taught you? 

That timing is everything. 

Which history book has had greatest influence on you?

Robert Roswell Palmer’s Twelve Who Ruled: the Year of Terror in the French Revolution (1941). 

What book in your field should everyone read?

Rebecca Spang’s Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution (2015).

Which moment would you most like to go back to?

Napoleon’s coronation as emperor at Notre-Dame de Paris, 2 December 1804.

Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?

Plutarch, because he was also a biographer.

Which person in history would you most like to have met? 

Napoleon Bonaparte, of course.

How many languages do you have?

Too few.

What historical topic have you changed your mind on?

The Battle of Waterloo, 18 June 1815. 

Which genre of history do you like least?

I don’t like ideologically driven history. 

What’s the most exciting field in history today?

Environmental history.

Is there an important historical text you have not read?

They are legion. 

What is the most common misconception about your field?

That the French Revolution was inevitable.

What’s your favourite archive? 

Archives nationales, Paris.

What’s the best museum?

The Louvre is the best, but my current favourite is the Musée napoléonien de l’île d’Aix near La Rochelle, where Napoleon spent three nights before he was sent into exile.

What technology has changed the world the most?

The printing press.

The Mediterranean or the Indian Ocean?

The Mediterranean.

Historical drama or documentary?

Drama, especially the Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s Danton (1983), a film about the French revolutionary leader, and Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927). 

The Parthenon or Machu Picchu?

The Parthenon.

What will future generations judge us most harshly for?

Allowing the extinction of so many species in the plant and animal kingdoms.


Ruth Scurr is a Lecturer and Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. Her latest book is Napoleon: a Life in Gardens and Shadows (Chatto & Windus, 2021).