ANZSECS at ISECS: Report from Jean McBain

At its recent meeting, ISECS (the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies) unanimously approved ANZSECS as a constitutive member of the Society. Our webmaster Jean McBain reports on the conference:


In the last week of July I had the pleasure to join around one thousand (that’s right, 1000!) other scholars of the eighteenth century for ISECS 2015 in Rotterdam. We came from 53 countries, from diverse fields, with interests in all aspects of the eighteenth century. The conference ran for five days, with up to 20 parallel panels at any given moment, alongside a rich cultural and social program. Any one report on such a huge congress must necessarily be particular, but ANZSECS members may be interested to hear of some of the highlights for me.

The conference opened with a keynote from Margaret Jacobs on Space Expanded and Filled Anew: Early Modern Europe. Jacobs began with the observation that between 1500 and 1700 Europeans encountered two new worlds: the one in the heavens, and the other in the new world. From astronomy to Free Masonry, print culture and frontier encounters, Jacobs wove every thread of the conference theme together. No mean feat given the diversity of papers on offer over the following days. It was a splendid opening, followed with further panache by the welcome reception on Monday evening. This took place in the Rotterdam Laurenskerk, a 15th–16th Century late-Gothic church in the centre of the city. We entered the church to the sounds of its 19th Century pipe organ, and were welcomed formally by the Mayor of Rotterdam and the chair of ISECS (along with finger food and wine).

welcome reception

Day two began with another stimulating keynote from Daniel Brewer, on a day with 82 separate panels! My highlight was a round table on Digital Humanities, featuring a strong contingent from Australia. Paul Arthur, from UWS, chaired the session, while Simon Burrows and Jason Ensor presented on the acclaimed AHRC-funded ‘French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe’ (FBTEE) database project. Glenn Roe, now based at ANU, spoke on his digital humanities work with the University of Chicago’s ARTFL Project (American and French Research on the Treasury of the French Language). The session really highlighted the rich digital humanities work being done on eighteenth century studies projects, along with the significant contributions being made by Australian scholars (or honorary ones).

The third day was similarly packed, but I particularly enjoyed a panel on the history of tea. The panellists, Markman Ellis, Richard Coulton and Matthew Mauger, have recently published a book called Empire of Tea, and their papers at ISECS tackled the commercial, scientific and cultural histories of tea in the British 18th–19th centuries. This seems like a particularly useful ‘commodity history’, and I look forward to reading the book.

Wednesday night was the dinner, which set sail at 7.30pm sharp on the Spido boat. We really did float up and down Rotterdam’s port system through the event, in a memorable and unusual take on the conference dinner format. I was very pleased to catch up with Michael McKeon from Rutgers University over dinner, after his wonderful keynote at DNS XV in Sydney last year. Conversations on the boat were many, cheerful and varied, but members of ANZSECS will be pleased to know that there was good general awareness of our new society amongst those present.


 (With Michael McKeon on the Spido Boat)

The fourth day of the congress was the standout for me in terms of panels, with two excellent sessions on satire and an illuminating panel on the history of the free press in Sweden. That session, entitled Sweden’s Ordinance Relating to Freedom of Writing and of the Press, 1766 – 2016: History, Context and Significance offered a fascinating account of the political, ideological and practical circumstances surrounding the first legislation protecting free expression in the West. Plans are afoot to celebrate the 250th anniversary of that legislation next year, and I look forward to seeing the program. My own presentation was in the following panel and considered the topic: Could press controls be evaded through literary technique? The case of the early eighteenth century London periodical press reconsidered.

On the final day of the conference I sadly had to depart early for onward travel, but I did manage to catch an interesting session on biographical issues in Jonathan Swift. This came at the cost of seeing Shef Rogers’ paper (in a simultaneous panel) on Aesop’s fables as represented on luxury goods in the eighteenth century. It was great, nevertheless, to catch up with Shef (of the University of Otago) on earlier days of the conference, along with other friends old and new, Antipodean and otherwise. ISECS 2015 was an enormous success, and was itself certainly enormous. My congratulations to the conference organisers, and I look forward to the next gathering at ISECS2019 in Edinburgh!

Jean McBain attended ISECS 2015 as the 2015 Norman Macgeorge Scholar, with generous support from the Macgeorge Bequest at the University of Melbourne, and a registration fee grant from ISECS 2015.

Follow Jean McBain at @jeanmcbain, at the @anzsecs twitter account, or email