Dr Catherine Arnold, Past & Present Fellow

Affairs of Humanity: Human Rights before the Nation-State

I am a historian of early modern Britain and Europe with a particular interest in the histories of human rights, humanitarian intervention, and state sovereignty. I received my Ph.D. with distinction from Yale University in May 2017. 

I am currently at work on a book manuscript, entitled Affairs of Humanity: Human Rights before the Nation-State. The book explores the origins of humanitarian intervention and human rights in early eighteenth-century Britain and Europe. Scholars have contended that, during the 18th century, states like Britain and France intervened in each other’s domestic affairs for religious reasons—specifically, to safeguard the rights and privileges of their co-religionists. By contrast, Affairs of Humanity argues that between 1690 and 1748 British diplomats and politicians began to undertake humanitarian interventions. Based on manuscript and print sources from Britain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, and Portugal, the book shows that British officials protected not only foreign Protestants, but also Catholics and Jews in other states. Moreover, it demonstrates that British diplomats and politicians justified such negotiations with human-rights arguments. State persecution, they claimed, violated natural law and the norms of acceptable behaviour in human society, obligating other rulers to protect the victims of persecution from further abuse, irrespective of their religion. By reconstructing British diplomacy to aid five groups—including Protestant prisoners in France; Protestant communities in the duchy of Savoy; Sephardic Jews in Portugal; Jansenist theologians in France; and Ashkenazi Jews in the Habsburg lands—Affairs of Humanity concludes that, in Britain and western Europe, the politics of religious toleration and the pressures of religious diversity, not the rise of democratic nation-states, led to the emergence of human rights politics. 

As a 2017-18 Past & Present Fellow, I will complete work on my book manuscript. I plan to carry out new archival research for Affairs of Humanity in the Netherlands, Portugal, and Austria, while at the same time engaging more deeply with the growing interdisciplinary literature on contemporary human rights and humanitarian intervention.


Selected articles

  • “Affairs of Humanity: Sociability, Sovereignty, and Arguments for Humanitarian Diplomacy, 1698-1715,” English Historical Review (provisionally accepted).