Oxford Alumni Meeting Minds 2019: The Ertegun Lecture - Writing a New History of the World

This year’s Ertegun Lecturer was Professor Peter Frankopan, distinguished historian of the Byzantine Empire and author of the global best-seller The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. During the course of an hour-long conversation with Professor Bryan Ward-Perkins, his longtime colleague and founding Director of the Ertegun House, Frankopan spoke in detail about his experience of writing his phenomenally popular book and the broader lessons that he intended to convey in writing such a wide-ranging piece of historical scholarship. He began by speaking about how daunting it initially seemed to even conceive of writing such a book. Though his training in Byzantine history had prepared him well to think on a grand scale, writing a history that went well beyond his areas of specialisation proved challenging but that, Frankopan remarked, was part of the joy of writing the book. For the various Ertegun scholars, both former and current, who attended the event, hearing an eminent historian discuss the various difficulties that younger scholars encounter in their own work on a daily basis was certainly very encouraging.


Though Professor Frankopan made several interesting arguments over the course of the conversation, there were two that stood out to me. First, I was impressed with his emphasis on moving beyond only studying the recent past to taking a long-term perspective on various issues that interest both scholars and members of the public alike. As a historian of early modern Europe, I am extremely sympathetic to this position. While it is critical to have a strong grasp of world history over the last two centuries, it is a mistake to only stop there. We run the risk of misunderstanding events since 1800 or so if we do not have a proper understanding of what happened before. Second, Frankopan described his book as a concerted effort to move away from the eurocentrism of historical scholarship in Britain. He noted that approximately 93% of historians at UK universities work on some aspect of British or European history. Moving beyond Eurocentric frameworks, he argued, was crucial to understanding Britain’s position within the world today.


Following the lecture which was also well-received by the many non-Ertegun affiliates, who attended it, the Ertegun alumni moved back to the Ertegun House for a tea reception and a more informal conversation with Professor Frankopan. During the reception, it was possible for several of us alumni to hold individual Skype conversations with Mrs Ertegun and Mrs Wachner in New York. The tea was followed by dinner for the alumni at Trinity College, hosted by Bryan Ward-Perkins and our current director, Ed Herzig, which, at least for me, was the highlight of the evening as it displayed much of what the Ertegun community stands for.


The dinner was attended by a sizeable number of alumni who returned to Oxford from various parts of the UK and also from Germany and, in one case, the US. Apart from alumni, we were also joined by the wonderful Jill Walker, who until last year, was the administrator and much more of the Ertegun House. The attendees ranged from alumni who were in the very first class of scholars to those who had graduated only last year. Regardless, the spirit of conviviality and camaraderie which has always been the hallmark of the Ertegun community was present from the very beginning and only grew in strength as the evening proceeded. The occasion began with a brief reception in one of Trinity’s many wonderful gardens. At dinner, I appreciated the chance to catch up with the several scholars that I had not seen since leaving Oxford over two years ago. It was great to hear about what they have been up to and reminisce about the almost magical time we all spent together at the Ertegun House. Halfway-through, Bryan Ward-Perkins, who recently retired from his tutorial fellowship at Trinity after nurturing several generations of Oxford historians, thanked the many alumni who had returned to Oxford in a characteristically witty and heartwarming speech. We also drank a toast to our extraordinary fellow scholar, Michele Bianconi, who successfully defended his DPhil thesis that afternoon.

The dinner was followed by dessert in the parlour upstairs, including a brief trip to the Trinity tower, which offers extraordinary views of the city of dreaming spires. Eventually, as all good things do, the evening came to an end. However, I think I speak on behalf of everyone who attended, it was an occasion that we will all remember for a long time. I am deeply grateful to both Bryan and Ed for inviting us all back to Oxford. A huge thank you as well to the current administrator, Maria Kouroumali, for pulling it all together, and, of course, to Mrs Ertegun, without whose vision none of this would have happened.

Pranav Kumar Jain

The Ertegun Lecture 2019: Writing a New History of the World

To view a recording of the Ertegun Lecture 2019, please click here