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New professor of Medieval History Philippe Buc: 'I am just like a shepherd'

A shepherd, but also a comparativist and historian with very broad interests. That is how Professor Philippe Buc describes himself. As of 1 August 2021, he will hold the chair of professor of Medieval History at the university. In an introductory interview, Buc introduces himself, his research and his special educational philosophy.

Philippe Buc

Buc is happy with his new appointment in the Netherlands. ‘I have great respect for the tradition of medieval history represented at this university, from Huizinga to more recent figures of great standing,' he says. At his previous position in Austria, Buc used the textbook by emeritus professors Wim Blockmans and Peter Hoppenbrouwers, for example. 'I thus have a good idea of the tradition I am entering.'

A strong comparative history

He certainly does not think he is an outsider and he is looking forward to this new chapter in his academic career. 'I am an historian who likes long historical periods, so I study thousands of years and constantly refer back to the present,' he says. ' I study religious violence in the Middle Ages, for example, but there is also religious violence today. So students can expect that when I talk about Central and Western Europe, I will also be making comparisons with other parts of the world. This year, I will be teaching a lecture on crusades and I plan to discuss two special components: one on jihad and one on holy war in a Buddhist setting. I find it interesting to think about Europe in the context of other cultures and other societies.'

Buc has also already thought about what kind of research he would like to do at the university. ‘I want to bring history and area studies closer together. It would be nice to work more closely together and benefit from the enormous amount of resources that Leiden already has.'

A global career

His interest in other cultures does not come from an unexpected source: Buc is used to immersing himself in other societies. He is already familiar with the Netherlands and Leiden. ‘I already know the Netherlands a little bit. I was involved with the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study from 1997 to 1998,' he says. During his year in the Netherlands, Buc regularly visited Leiden. ‘It was a prosperous and distinguished student town,' he recalls.

Apart from his detour to the Netherlands, much of Buc's earlier career took place in the United States. 'My pedagogy has been strongly shaped by the United States because that is where I started my career.' He completed his bachelor's and master's degrees there. After obtaining his PhD in Paris, Buc went to work at Stanford University.

Great freedom of choice

From his years of experience in American higher education, Buc also wants to bring a number of other aspects to Leiden. He calls himself a shepherd, but one who offers students their freedom. Freedom of choice, for instance, is very important to him. Does a student absolutely want to write a paper on a certain subject? That is possible - as long as it is realistic. ‘Young Americans - rightly or wrongly - tend to believe that they can do whatever they want. That is how optimistic they are,' says Buc. 'The danger of that, of course, is people reinventing the wheel. But there is something to that atmosphere that gives energy. I get a lot out of the imagination of students.'

A teaching shepard

The American influence can also be seen in his teaching. 'The idea of teaching in the United States is that students should read, write and discuss a lot,' Buc explains. 'A good discussion is one that puts all sorts of ideas on the table, but that also produces some insights or answers. It is very permissive on my part, but I am also a shepherd. I let my students graze on the topics they find interesting, but always bring them back to the centre.'

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