What brought you to Manchester and what were you doing just prior?
Before Manchester, I was in a trans-cultural studies research group at the University of Heidelberg. Our focus was on trading diasporas in the Eastern Mediterranean and Northern Europe, which has informed some of my current research. I was drawn to Manchester because of a greater flexibility regarding teaching periods – the medieval and early modern are often not connected in Germany. Manchester is also a very large University and my colleagues specialise in a wide range of research, which drew me here. There are also many opportunities to collaborate with those in different departments, such as Religion and Theology, Languages and Middle Eastern Studies. Additionally, the UK has a high profile in academic circles and this was naturally a positive.
What would you say, based on your experiences, are the biggest differences between the UK University system and that in Germany?
One of the biggest differences regarding teaching is there tends to be more flexibility on the Continent. There is a greater focus on administration in the UK and reaching a higher standard. However, there is far less choice on the Continent and the techniques are far more innovative in the UK – I never witnessed team teaching in Germany for example. As the career of professors go, the UK is certainly kinder to younger academics as in Germany they are not easily able to obtain permanent work contracts!
What is your current research on?
Currently I am looking at trade embargoes in the fourteenth century in the Eastern Mediterranean and Northern Europe. In particular, I am comparing and contrasting these embargoes so for example how the Northern European embargoes tended to be more pragmatic and secular. Additionally, within this, I am examining embargoes as a political tool of war and the often unsuccessful nature of embargoes, particularly during times of famine. The Eastern Mediterranean presents a particularly interesting region to examine due to the entanglement of two religions and the concepts of legal history that were exchanged between them. Perhaps of more interest to students would be a current journal I am working on, which is why the English began drinking port instead of Greek wines, which has a fascinating trading background to it!
You worked for the UN in military intelligence; can you tell us a bit more about that?
I grew up in Basel, Switzerland and there it is compulsory to complete military service, which is where I first became interested in this field. Eventually I became a military observer for the UN and after my PhD, I went to the Middle East and worked for the UN Truce Supervision Organization at the Golan Heights border. I also spent some times in the UN HQ in Jerusalem where I was the Deputy Commander of the Military Information Office. Here my background as a Historian proved to be incredibly useful.
You said in an interview on the History department’s blog that one should never underestimate the importance of languages when studying History. What advice can you give to undergraduates to aid this process?
The first piece of advice would be the obvious, which is not to start too late. As for learning while you are an undergraduate, many students seem concerned that it will cause their marks to drop, but the benefits of knowing a language and getting a 2.1 instead of a 1st is often worth the risk. Languages will open up much wider possibilities for research should the student want to go into postgraduate study or even for a dissertation, such as the undeniable importance of Latin when studying the early modern period and the Middle Ages in Europe. The merging of two schools to form the SALC shows the co-existence of History and languages and provides a wonderful opportunity for students to get involved. I’d encourage everyone to talk to staff to explore their options from an early stage. I didn’t stop bad marks in French at school from preventing me from studying it further!