Coming from Sciences Po, Jordan Girardin joined St Andrews in 2012 for an MLitt in
Modern History (including a good dash of transnational history exposure – since 2015 the ITHS offers a free-standing postgraduate Master in Transnational History) and went on to stay for a PhD. He has recently, in just under three years, submitted his thesis entitled Travel in the Alps: the construction of a transnational space through digital and mental mapping (1750 – 1830). So, let us ask a few questions – and of course, warm congratulations on this great leap forward.
- How did your project on the Alps around 1800 evolve and develop?
I started my PhD in 2013 and my main objective back then was to show how the Alps became a transnational space between the 1750s and 1830s. I was convinced that I would find enough sources to state that the Alps went from being a huge obstacle to a very interconnected space. The reality was of course not so clear, and more importantly I realised that the terms I used applied to the twenty-first century but were not always so adequate for the period I studied. It was very hard to argue that local Alpine populations saw themselves as ‘transnational actors’ interacting with different valleys across political borders, even though their action could be described as such. However, I was still fascinated by the creation of a consistent Alpine space across national territories and therefore decided to focus on travellers’ perception of that region. As they were not familiar with the Alps, their interpretation of space certainly was going to be more subjective – even ‘wrong’ or exaggerated at times – and therefore allowed me to focus on mental mapping and representations of space. Travel became the main aspect of my topic in the end and this is something I wish to continue doing in my future research!
- What are the major trends and arguments of your work?
My thesis is an investigation of how the Alps rose as a clear concept in the minds of European elites from the 1750s to the 1830s. Up until the 1750s, the term ‘alps’
was hardly capitalised and mostly referred to the peaks themselves. The works of the Enlightenment and the growing number of travellers made the Alps more popular and more clearly defined in travel literature. My thesis attempts to break down that process between the facts – travel itineraries changing, scientific and socio-economic networks evolving – and their impact on mental representations of that space, using travel accounts, political discourse, and maps. My final chapter explained how the Alps even became a myth, a mountainous space par excellence. It addresses that not all the Alps were seen as quintessentially Alpine in the eyes of travellers: instead, the north-western region of the Alps (around Lake Geneva) featured all elements that eventually made up the Alpine myth and their reputation then applied on behalf of the entire Alpine space. The end of the period I studied (around the 1830s) sees the end of that transition: at that point, all conditions made it possible for the Alps to become a cultural object clearly defined in public representations, and for tourism to genuinely flourish in the shape of a proper economic market.
- What did you learn about the practice of transnational and / or spatial history?
I very much looked forward to apply transnational/spatial theories and practices in my PhD, after having chosen transnational history as my main specialisation at MLitt level. Over these three years I learned how to moderately use these theories and their terminology. Indeed, there is always a risk to over-conceptualise a rather empirical example; my first drafts did so, and at times I ended up losing track of my own narrative. Transnational history is a subtler mix of key concepts and terms (space, networks, hubs, interactions) in order to better serve a concrete example (through everyday life history, small scale analysis, or prosopographical approaches for instance). I believe my topic allowed me to find the right balance; through it I realised that spatial approaches can enhance anyone’s research and open doors to new research perspectives. Over the course of this PhD I spent some time building a database of travellers and trying to render their itineraries through digital mapping: this practice – which I believe is part of spatial and transnational history – also allowed me to find out results that words and concepts simply could not materialise. I am convinced transnational/spatial history still has a lot of potential and I look forward to exploring it even more in my future research.
- Having finished a PhD thesis in three years, what secret would you share with other PhDs?
It may sound quite paradoxical, but I would say ‘keep busy!’. Having more projects to look forward to will force you to be organised, to structure your day, and to get your PhD work done once you have properly allocated some time for it. My least productive moments happened when my PhD was my only daily task. Once I started teaching, presenting conference papers, taking up small internships or taking part in the life of the School and Institute, I became better at planning my work and getting it done. Leave some free time for yourself, keep healthy, keep moving, and your thesis will become a pleasant part of your daily life. Although life can sometimes get in the way, I would also recommend that you establish early on an approximate date of submission, and try to stick to it. The run-up to submission may be exciting, but do not forget that it is not over until you have actually submitted it: I spent a few weeks believing I was done, but my Word document was sitting comfortably on my hard drive. If you and your supervisor have established that your thesis can be submitted, then do everything to actually submit it: the moment you bring your copies to Registry is the real finish line, and it will feel amazing!
Afterwords of “Thanks”: And lastly, on behalf of the ITSH, we would like to thank the University of St Andrews for generously funding Jordan’s work with a 600th Anniversary PhD Scholarship. We would also like to thank the Fritz Thyssen Foundation and the Forschungszentrum Gotha as well as our GRAINES friends and colleagues in Basel for hosting Jordan for a semester (a bit closer to the Alpine space than St Andrews). Thank you everyone.