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Dr Luke O'Sullivan

BA MA York, PhD Durh


My research focuses on the intellectual and literary cultures of sixteenth and seventeenth century France. After undergraduate and master’s degrees at the University of York, I completed a PhD at Durham on Seneca, Plutarch, and ‘doubtful writing’ in Montaigne’s Essais. In 2018, I was awarded a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship, held at King’s College London. I joined St Hilda’s in 2020 as a Career Development Fellow.

I teach across the first year course in French literature and teach sixteenth and seventeenth century literature for FHS (Papers VII and X). I also teach translation into English.

My research investigates literary and philosophical responses to freedom, uncertainty, and precarity, addressing these concerns through the study of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century French culture. My first book, Writing Doubt in Montaigne’s Essais: Thinking Relationally with Seneca and Plutarch, argues for a major re-evaluation of philosophical uncertainty and its relationship with frank communication in one of the early modern period’s foremost doubters. The first major study to take Montaigne’s favourite authors as a pair, this book examines the paradoxical association of these two ancient dogmatists with a ‘doubtful way of writing’, uncovering their place at the heart of a communicative project that avoids the tongue-tied aphasia of the ancient Sceptics.

A second research project, funded by a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship (King’s College London, 2018-2020), examined the slippery notion of ‘franchise’ in early modern France – a term that describes ethical and political freedom as much as discursive freedom of speech; a term that was defined by one seventeenth-century lexicographer as ‘sincere, honest’, ‘bold, courageous’, but also ‘tame, natural, kindlie’. From anxieties about stage fright to accounts of dining companions putting their foot in it, I explore an early modern conception of free speech cut through with insecurity, conditionality, and insincerity.

More recently, my work has shown how the language of precarity – précaire, précairement – emerged in early modern France first as a bit of technical jurist’s jargon to become a key but largely unrecognised conceptual tool with diverse application across a range of early modern arguments about authority, sovereignty, tyranny, and legitimate rule. Grappling with the political, constitutional, and religious crises of the sixteenth century, French authors thought analogically with précaire, a recent coinage translating precarium, a type of loan in which goods (land, offices) or power can be recalled at will. These terms were highly contested in early modern France, subject not only to appropriation and redescription but correction, censure, and erasure. When Dr Johnson said that ‘no word is more unskilfully used’ than ‘precarious’, he was echoing two centuries of heated arguments in France, where Catholics and Protestants, monarchical absolutists and seditious resistance theorists, staked competing claims to précaire that turned most often on the question of princely precarity. Tracing these arguments and asking how early moderns thought with this ‘loan word’ reveals a history of precarity radically unlike that with which we are familiar today.

Research monograph:

Writing Doubt in Montaigne’s Essais: Thinking Relationally with Seneca and Plutarch, under contract, Edinburgh University Press.

Articles and book chapters:

‘On Being Tongue-Tied: Franchise, Fluency, and Precarity in Montaigne’s “De la vanité”’, Forum for Modern Language Studies, accepted/in press.

‘Moving Pictures of the French Wars of Religion: Articulating Attachment in Guillaume Bouchet’s “Des peintres et peintures” Les Serées (1584-1598)’, French Studies, 77.4 (2023), 375-90.

‘“Feuilletant ces petits brevets descousus”: consolations fausses et l’écriture de la vérité’, Bulletin de la société internationale des amies et amis de Montaigne, 74 (2022), 187-205.

‘“Un traict à la comparaison de ces couples”: Seneca’s Poets and Epicurean Senecanisms in Montaigne’s Essais, I.39’, Imitative Series and Clusters in Classical to Early Modern Literature, ed. by Colin Burrow, Stephen Harrison, Martin McLaughlin, and Elisabetta Tarantino (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2020), pp. 223-42.

‘“Des responses et rencontres”: Frank Speech and Self-Knowledge in Guillaume Bouchet’s Serées’, Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et réforme, 43, 3 (2020), 167-94.

‘In-Between Authorship in Montaigne’s Essais’, Early Modern French Studies, 41, 2 (2019), 106-125.

‘“Double et divers”: Writing Doubly in Montaigne’s Essais’, Modern Language Review, 112, 2 (2017), 320-40.


  • Career Development Fellow in French


  • French
  • Modern Languages