Brian Cowan

Canada Research Chair in Early Modern British History

Tier 2 - 2005-04-01
Renewed: 2010-04-01
McGill University
Social Sciences and Humanities


Coming to Canada from

Yale University, USA

Research involves

Studying the relationship between media venues and political culture in early modern Britain.

Research relevance

The research is producing a new understanding of the political uses of public opinion in early modernity, one which will establish Canada as a centre of excellence in historical scholarship.

Learning to Agree to Disagree: Media Politics and the State Trials of Early Modern Britain

Modern Canadian politics is based on peaceful contention between various political parties. This system of party politics first emerged in Britain over three centuries ago, but it took time before it was accepted as it is today.

Professor Brian Cowan is re-examining our understanding of the development of "liberal" politics in Britain by looking at certain decisive moments when some of the most fundamental questions about the nature of the political, religious, and social order were being asked in increasingly public ways. He starts with a detailed study of the frenzied controversy and media politics surrounding the trial of a firebrand Tory preacher named Doctor Henry Sacheverell before the House of Lords in 1710. Contemporary debates raised important questions: Was the toleration of religious diversity "constitutional," as Sacheverell's enemies would have it, or was it revocable and debatable, as Sacheverell and his Tory supporters maintained?

These debates touch on two of the fundamental aspects of what is often considered to be a liberal political order: respect for religious diversity and toleration of freedom of expression. We can better understand the conditions that ultimately allowed for these differences to be negotiated peacefully by understanding the means by which people understood and argued about how to manage their diverse religious and political beliefs in a pre-liberal age.

Professor Cowan's research program offers a broadened historical conception of "the media" that includes not only books and newspapers but also manuscripts, images, music, performance, rumours, riots, and fashion as conveyors of political concepts.

Early modern Britain produced one of the first modern liberal societies in the world. Dr. Cowan's efforts to understand the political role of the media in that process will help us appreciate the nature of liberal society in Canada today.