Wolfson Prize Shortlist
Wolfson Prize Shortlist

Three Oxford academics shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize 2023

Three Oxford humanities academics have been announced on the shortlist for UK's most prestigious history writing prize.

Professor Emma Smith (Faculty of English), Professor Henrietta Harrison (Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies) and Professor James Belich (Faculty of History) are among only six nominees for their outstanding books.

The books, which were informed by research and written for a general audience, are:

  • The World the Plague Made: The Black Death and the Rise of Europe by James Belich (Princeton University Press
  • The Perils of Interpreting: The Extraordinary Lives of Two Translators between Qing China and the British Empire by Henrietta Harrison (Princeton University Press)
  • Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers by Emma Smith (Allen Lane)

First awarded by the Wolfson Foundation in 1972, the Wolfson History Prize remains a beacon of the best historical writing being produced in the UK. The Prize rewards books which are judged to be "reflecting qualities of both readability for a general audience and excellence in writing and research". The overall winner will be announced on 13 November.

Three Oxford academicsFrom left: Emma Smith, Professor of Shakespeare Studies, James Belich, Beit Professor of Global and Imperial History and Henrietta Harrison, Professor of Chinese History

Emma Smith, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of Hertford College said: ‘I’m delighted and humbled to be shortlisted (and, as someone trained in English Literature, a bit imposter-syndrome-y about claiming to be an historian!). Over the last months, I’ve loved discussing my book with readers, especially the ways it draws on and reflects back their own bookish experiences, so the shortlist feels a wonderful opportunity to have more of those conversations. I’ve seen the rest of the shortlist, so I don’t need to worry about winning!’ 

James Belich, Beit Professor of Global and Imperial History at the University of Oxford and Fellow of Balliol College said: ‘I am delighted to be in the company of the many fine historians that the Wolfson Prize has shortlisted in the past. Big histories of broad topics risk trespass onto the turf of specialists, and also risk falling between stools – booksellers do not know which shelf to put them on. It is very affirming to find that the judges have picked my book up and put it on the very select shelf of the Wolfson short-list.’ 

Henrietta Harrison, Professor of Chinese History and Stanley Ho Tutorial Fellow of Pembroke College said: ‘I’m very excited to be shortlisted for the prize!  China is a massive issue right now, and I think that it is really important that people understand the history that lies behind our relationship with it. For The Perils of Interpreting to be shortlisted will tell people that this is a book they can read and enjoy … Language learning is in sad decline in the UK and it would be great if the book inspired young people to learn Chinese, but also French, Italian and even Latin, all languages I used for the research.’

Professor Dan Grimley, Head of the Humanities Division at Oxford University, said: ‘I am delighted that Professors Henrietta Harrison, Emma Smith and James Belich have been shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize. Not only is this the UK's most prestigious history writing prize, it also honours academics who have made their excellent research accessible to a wide audience. This is at the core of the mission of Oxford's Humanities Division, so I am thrilled that three of our scholars have received this recognition.’

The Wolfson History Prize is run and awarded by the Wolfson Foundation, an independent charity that awards grants in the fields of science, health, heritage, humanities, and the arts.