Praise for PKP plenary lectures

by Rachel Smith

As usual, this year’s Pembroke-King’s Programme has featured an impressive range of guest speakers for the plenary lecture series.

These lectures are held in the Debating chamber at the Cambridge Union Society. This year the topics covered have included the Jewish Middle Ages, women in the First World War and mental health. Dr Juliet Foster, who spoke on the latter, says: ‘It was a real pleasure to contribute to this lecture series. The students were extremely engaged throughout, and the quality of the questions and discussion afterwards was particularly high, demonstrating not only that the students had really been listening to what I was saying, but had also been using their existing knowledge and understanding (from some very diverse backgrounds) to further their own thinking – which of course then has an effect on others too. It is always a pleasure as a lecturer to be accosted by a crowd of students eager to continue the discussion after the main lecture has finished.’

Another highlight was a lecture by Helen Castor on Joan of Arc. Several PKP students were particularly excited by the event. Susannah Morrison says: ‘I have enjoyed Dr Castor’s popular history books for years; her work caught my imagination and opened up the medieval period to me in a way that I never could have foreseen. In fact, it is in large part because of her books that I chose to specialize as a medieval English historian at my home university. It almost goes without saying, then, that meeting Dr Castor this summer was really a dream come true. The plenary lecture provided a brief but fascinating summary of her research on Joan of Arc, using only primary sources to conjure up a compelling image of both the life and the legend. The opportunity to meet Dr Castor afterwards and discuss the history more in-depth is not one I’ll soon forget. I came away from the evening excited and inspired, with a clear image of the kind of world-class academic I aspire to become.’


Ryan Blank adds: ‘Ever since I was a boy, medieval stories delighted me. Hearing about noble princes, fair maidens, and the struggles of knights, kings, and clergy was exhilarating because their world seemed to be so similar yet strikingly different from my own. Dr Helen Castor’s lecture brought Joan of Arc to life and, before our eyes, Joan’s cares, triumphs, and agonies became our own. Dr Castor is a wonderful story teller and she never revealed more of the story than Joan would have known before describing events. After the lecture, Dr Castor was friendly and sociable. Her willingness to give advice on the art of History, her knowledgeable answers to questions about medieval power politics, and her encouragement to achieve endeared her to me and my fellow students. She was, without question, my favourite guest lecturer.’

PKP plenary lectures are open to everyone in the community and a range of people attend. Pat Aske, the College Librarian, says: ‘Dr Helen Castor’s lecture on Joan of Arc was the best lecture I have ever heard.  Her research on written documentation of the trials, her knowledge of the period, and her confidence in answering all the questions put to her afterwards was very impressive. Dr Castor’s talk left me with a very vivid  impression of the bravery of this young woman who led an army against the English – a similar effect that Dr Castor herself felt when she encountered the story of Joan of Arc in a children’s book.’

Another member of staff adds: ‘I had a particular interest in the topic for two reasons: I am a French living in the UK so it is very much my history; and my old secondary school was dedicated to Jeanne d’Arc.  The talk was very engaging and it was great to see the “icon” challenged and put in a more realistic context. Brilliant speaker.’