Studying History at Trinity College
There are many intellectual justifications for the study of History. These include: the need for a society to understand its own past if it is to guide its future; the philosophically respectable argument that historical knowledge is the only possible type of knowledge; and the enrichment of human culture in the present. In practice most of those who choose History at university do so because they so greatly enjoy it. That is also why we teach it.
Although History is not exactly a vocational subject, nearly all employers of graduates are keen to recruit historians. Many areas of the law, government service, media, finance, and industry value good historians at least as highly than graduates who can claim an ‘expertise’. History provides an intellectual training and a stimulus to the imagination: it enables one to put expertise into its human context. It also teaches the practical skill of absorbing, organising and presenting large amounts of knowledge.
Trinity has a great historical tradition, as the names of T.B. Macaulay, Lord Acton, F.W. Maitland, G.M. Trevelyan, Jack Gallagher, E.H. Carr, Sir John Elliot, Norman Stone, Patrick Collinson, and Dominic Lieven all testify. In particular, Trinity historians have long been at the forefront of the study of imperialism and their aftermaths. From 2019, the College has five teaching Fellows in the subject: Peter Sarris, who works on Roman, medieval European, Byzantine, and Islamic history; Samita Sen, who works on global economic history and the history of modern South Asian; Richard Serjeantson, who studies European history between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment; Daniel Larsen, who works on international and intelligence history in the early twentieth century in the US and UK; and Damian Valdez, who is an intellectual and political historian of Germany in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Other historians in the College who may also teach you include Boyd Hilton (eighteenth- and ninteenth-century British history), Sachiko Kusukawa (sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European history and history of science), and Tessa Webber (medieval British history). The College is thus unrivalled in Cambridge in terms of the chronological span and geographical range covered by its historians. This makes for an exciting and diverse learning environment.
The History Tripos offers a very wide range of options and in spite of the range of expertise available at Trinity, no single college can provide specialist teaching in all its corners. Inevitably, therefore, most of our students will from time to time be sent outside Trinity for supervisions, but we have excellent reciprocal relationships with other colleges and can promise expert tuition in all fields. We are also keen to foster our students’ linguistic skills, and will arrange teaching for those wishing to improve their command of a foreign language or acquire a new one.
We expect our undergraduates to work hard. But we also think that History is fun, and don’t want our students to be solemn about it. With an undergraduate intake of about 12 a year, as well as several graduate students working for a PhD, historians are an important presence in the College. The Historical Society is one of the College’s most active academic societies and its meetings even attract students who are not themselves historians. Trinity’s library facilities are the best of any college in the University, and we actively encourage our undergraduates to help us develop the collection to meet the requirements of the papers they are taking.
Trinity also has a wide range of awards and grants available to its historians. There is the Lapsley Fund for Medieval Studies; the Crawford Travelling Scholarship; the Projects Fund; and a number of language bursaries. There are also exchange schemes to the Ecole Normale Superieur in Paris and to the Universities of Chicago and Rice in the United States. These generous funds provide unmatched opportunities for students to travel for pleasure, profit, and historical inquiry, whether to Byzantium, Bayeux, Bangladesh, or the local County Records Office. There are also a number of generous History Prizes. The Bowen, Greaves, and James Webb (History of Ideas) prizes are awarded on the basis of essays; the Earl of Derby and Louisa Oriel prizes are also awarded to historians who distinguish themselves in Tripos examinations. The Robson History Prize is intended to encourage ambitious and talented Year 12 or Lower Sixth students who may be considering applying to university to read History or a related discipline. At the same time students will, of course, be able to take advantage of the extraordinarily high quality of accommodation and general facilities that the College offers.
Applicants to Trinity have two interviews, with different members of the History teaching staff. The first will consist of a critical discussion – in the style of a college supervision – of two pieces of work you will have submitted in advance. If possible, we would like one of these to be written under timed conditions and the other to be a homework essay of some sort. For the second, candidates will be asked to discuss a set of documents that you will have had a chance to study beforehand and on the subject of which you will also have been asked to put down some thoughts in writing. The typical conditional offer is A*AA.
Further information about the History course at Cambridge and those who teach it can be found on the Faculty website. You can also obtain a course booklet by writing to the Faculty Office, Faculty of History, West Road, Cambridge CB3 9EF.
- Dr Daniel Larsen
- Professor Peter Sarris
- Professor Samita Sen
- Dr Richard Serjeantson
- Dr Damian Valdez