John Rogister, historian of the political elite in 18th-century France – obituary
He was lauded across the Channel for his work examining the intricacies of the ancien régime
By Telegraph Obituaries 6 October 2022 • 11:53am
John Rogister, who has died aged 81, was a historian of 18th-century France whose long career as teacher and researcher at the University of Durham was interspersed with numerous visiting chairs in French and Italian universities.
His focus was on history studied, as he put it, “from the inside”, seeking to reconstruct the thinking and actions of political elites in their own terms and using their own frames of political reference. This inevitably jarred with contemporary fashion for a more censorious, present-centred focus on the past, and led to accusations that he was an apologist for the ancien régime.
Yet his focus on archival research, and his fascination with private correspondence often still in the possession of the descendants of his protagonists, provided a distinct and valuable perspective on pre-Revolutionary France. His book on the relationship between king and government, Louis XV and the Parlement of Paris, 1737-1755 (1995), offers an impressive instance of this fine-grained historical approach in action.
Perhaps the publication that best shows his close engagement with his subjects was his meticulous editing of the correspondence between Charles de Brosses and the abbé Antonio Niccolini (2016), where the focus of the letters was less politics, more a mid-18th century literary and artistic cosmopolitanism.
Rogister, it is fair to say, identified more than a little with this type of cultivated, old-world érudit, and his bearing, dress and expansive, wide-ranging conversation pursued over leisurely meals, could seem greatly at odds with the hurried world of university committees, research deadlines and bureaucratic paper trails.
His scholarly preoccupations filtered into his teaching at Durham, where select bands of students were attracted to his courses on subjects such as “Life, Art and Culture of the Elites”, and the opportunity to study the intricacies of ancien régime high politics. To those who sought his advice he was generous with his time and expertise: many French students were surprised and delighted to find a “prof” who was willing to engage academically and socially with them beyond the confines of the lecture room.
Jean Marie Julien Rogister, always known as John, was born in Solihull on March 24 1941 to Belgian parents. His father came to England in 1924 to set up an engineering firm and remained for the rest of his life, serving as Belgian consul in Birmingham for more than 40 years.
After Solihull School, John went up to Keble College, Oxford, but after a misspent first year he was sent down and spent his remaining undergraduate years at Birmingham University. He always said that it was the best thing that ever happened to him: the teachers were excellent, the course was rigorous, and after completing his degree at Birmingham he returned to Oxford to work on a DPhil in French History at Worcester College.
Rogister’s work was more readily appreciated and celebrated on the Continent than in Britain, and his various visiting professorships bear testimony to that, as do his three invitations to the Collège de France. In 2003 he was elected a Corresponding Member of the Institut de France in the Académie des sciences morales et politiques, and was an assiduous visitor and contributor to its sessions until Covid intervened.
Not all his activities were in France. He was a very active member of the International Commission for the History of Representative and Parliamentary Institutions, and founded its journal, Parliaments, Estates and Representation.
He served as president of the Commission from 1990 to 1999. He also served on the Franco-British Council and was involved in many other ways in fostering good relations between Britain and France. He was one of the guests for the state dinner at the Elysée Palace which was the culmination of the last visit of Queen Elizabeth to France in 2014.
In recognition of his contribution to history and his work for Anglo-French relations, in 2012 he was awarded the honour of Grand officier de l’ordre national du mérite.
He will be remembered and greatly missed by his many friends in Britain and Europe as a lively and generous host, and a splendid raconteur, whose remarkable memory for names, biographical details and gossip linked the 18th-century to contemporary families in French high society with Legitimist monarchical leanings, among whom he had been a frequent and welcome guest.
John Rogister is survived by his wife Margaret, whom he married on September 5 1972, 50 years before his death. There were no children.
John Rogister, born March 24 1941, died September 7 2022