Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Beyond El Dorado, Beyond History?

Lost in time?
Jaguar  lime flask, Calima-Malagena, 200 BC- AD 1300. 
One of the British Museum’s big exhibitions this spring was Beyond El Dorado: Power and Gold in Ancient Columbia. Jointly organised with Bogota’s Museo del Oro, it showcased gold artefacts produced by the indigenous peoples of the mountains and coastal plains of modern-day Columbia – from Zenu, Tairona, Quimbaya, Tolima, Muisca, Calima-Malagana, Tierradentro and San Augustin. The exhibition took its title from a legend which haunted the sixteenth-century Spanish conquistadores, the story of ‘El Dorado’, a king whose body was permanently coated in gold-dust, and whose people would throw pure gold offerings into Lake Guatavita.

For a historian – even one who teaches a specialist course on the Spanish conquest of the Americas – Beyond El Dorado was strangely disorientating. Peering into the display cases of tiny gold jaguars, earrings and nose-plates, the dating labels were disconcerting: AD 200-900, AD 900-1600, 200 BC-AD 1300. Gold is apparently impossible to carbon date, hence the extreme range of possible dates in which a given object might have been made. As a historian, there is a limited amount one can do with an object made in one corner of South America, at some point between the collapse of the Carolingian Empire and the death of Elizabeth I of England. In these terms, even the exhibition title ‘ancient Columbia’ seems a bit of a guess, an approximation.

In the absence of a clear chronological framework on which to hang the exhibits, Beyond El Dorado presented them, firstly, as abstract beautiful objects which 21C visitors could respond to on a purely aesthetic level – admiring their craftsmanship, for example. In the main, however, the curators took the problematic ‘datelessness’ of these pieces and turned it into an attractive timelessness. This was a heavily anthropological picture of the Colombian societies which produced these gold masks, nose-rings and dipping sticks. We were invited into a timeless present: in the very dark exhibition rooms, giant and shadowy images of jaguars, bats and other South American fauna hung on the walls, to create the impression of being in the Columbian jungle. The information boards talked of rituals, shamans and burials, painting a colourful but static picture of 1,800 years of local history. Beyond El Dorado was atmospheric, but sometimes it is important to be able to admit that an object remains mysterious - who made it and why, exactly how it was used or what it meant to that society. There is a scholarly virtue in saying, simply and honestly, 'we do not know'. Historical imagination can start with that admission, and does not need to be deployed discreetly as a substitute for fact.

Chest ornament, Tairona, AD 900-1600

Monday, 10 March 2014

Borderland Stories?

Ukraine: which narrative?
How do current events in Ukraine look to historians? Historians are often reluctant to commenting on fast-moving crises, because we are trained to sit back, ponder, cogitate and reach conclusions slowly and carefully; it’s not a natural reflex to offer instant verdicts. So far, Timothy Snyder – author of the seminal Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania and Belarus, 1569-1999 – has appeared on BBC’s Newsnight, and he’ll be talking in Oxford next week on ‘Poland, Ukraine and the Politics of History’. Tarik Cyril Amar, from Columbia’s History Department, has written a column on the crisis in the Guardian.

How do events in Ukraine and Crimea look to a historian of early modern Central Europe? If you want to tell a story of Ukraine as a long-standing, contested borderland, there is plenty of material at your disposal. At the end of the 14C, Poland’s last Piast monarch, Kazimierz the Great, conquered (annexed) the Orthodox principality of Halych (a chunk of present-day Ukraine) and made it part of the Polish kingdom. In the 15C, when Ottoman janissaries and Tartar forces molested Poland with increasing regularity, it was this area which felt the full force of their raids – Polish nobles saw what we call western Ukraine as a useful buffer, which might absorb the military shocks coming from the south-east, and keep raiders far from Cracow and Poznań. In 1494, Grand Duke Ivan III of Muscovy invaded the Grand Duchy of Lithuania without warning, and he gave as his reason the alleged mistreatment of Orthodox believers in that polity, presenting himself as their protector and saviour.

There are many competing narratives on offer about current events in Ukraine. A narrative of democracy versus autocracy; narratives of a greater Russia, or of a greater EU. In these grand narratives, Ukraine itself tends to be portrayed as a passive subject – as a borderland, a buffer zone, a geopolitical frontier, a place to be rescued, a place characterised above all by the very fact that it is endlessly contested, and thereby endlessly destabilising. Anna Reid, for example, gives her history of Ukraine the title 'Borderland'. Perhaps that is just a reflection of historical reality itself since the 14C. There is, however, a risk that at this juncture we look back into Central European history and find the stories we expect to find – that the persistent tropes of Ukraine as a doomed, fought-over borderland risk becoming self-fulfilling. There is nothing inevitable about what happens next in Ukraine, bordered by EU Poland and Putin’s Russia: there is everything to play for. If European history tells us anything, it is surely not that the same pre-ordained stories will play themselves out time after time, but that anything can happen.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Teaching-led research?

Not just the students who are learning...
This term, I’ve been teaching courses and giving lectures which I’ve not offered for a couple of years – a lecture series on ‘Renaissance and Reformation in Central Europe’, and first-year introductory papers on art history and historical anthropology. After even a brief interval, it is always disorientating how unfamiliar once familiar material can seem; and also how different it can start to look, in light of one’s own on-going reading and research.

I’m coming to realise how deeply courses which I’ve taught in the past have shaped my current thinking and research – especially those which were not in my own core areas of expertise, and (it must be said) those which I least enjoyed teaching when I first came to Somerville. These papers have powerfully insinuated themselves into something like an intellectual subconscious, and exerted a real influence even while seemingly lying dormant.

In particular, I’m now aware of just how deeply indebted my new European Research Council Research project is to the courses I teach in a typical Oxford Hilary term. In the ‘Renaissance and Reformation’ lectures, I’ve found very early versions of the questions which frame the project, about Renaissance dynasticism, elective monarchy, etc. – reading the original lecture notes is a form of intellectual archaeology. The ‘Approaches to History’ course, which is meant to showcase interdisciplinary ways of studying the past, has shaped the ERC project just as much. Many colleges make ‘Approaches’ compulsory for first years, so that students get a panoramic sense of how art history, anthropology, gender studies and sociology have influenced historical research. The project applies these all at once to an early modern dynasty, to see what emerges.

At Oxford, as the University continues to defend its tutorial teaching model, one often hears of the virtues of ‘research-led teaching’: the idea that students benefit from being taught by scholars at the cutting edge of their fields. However, the reverse is also surely true – that the experience of teaching a broad range of Oxford undergraduate courses can inform and shape our research agendas in surprising and fruitful ways. It forces you to look for the bigger picture. When I first started (with a certain trepidation) to teach historical anthropology, the then Regius Professor Robert Evans said: ‘It will be good for you’. More recently, I heard an eminent Oxford historian say that nothing you do in your career – no task, no matter how frustrating or seemingly fruitless at the time - is ever wasted. This term has been about realising how right they were.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014


A field that is forever England?
Photo by Charlotte90t, under Creative Commons Licence

As usual at Christmas, I received a gratifying pile of historical novels. Top of the pile, with its blazing yellow cover, was Jim Crace’s Harvest, short-listed for last year’s Man Booker Prize. Reviewers have had mixed feelings: some heaped lavish praise in Harvest, while others grumbled at its lumpy plot. I will nonetheless be strongly recommending Harvest to my early modern British History students because it is such a bold – though problematic - act of historical imagination.

Harvest tells the story of the last barley harvest in an English village about to be obliterated by enclosure – the controversial practice whereby landowners converted arable land into sheep pasture, displacing people from the land, because there was far more money to be made in wool than in wheat and barley. Throughout the 20C historians tried to recover the experiences of pre-modern English villagers (the ‘common man and woman’), using anthropology, folkore, archaeology and through fresh readings of sources produced by social elites. For me, none of these academic publications has conjured up early modern English village life as vividly as Crace does in Harvest. He shows us Walter Thirsk, the narrator, and his fellow villagers weaving baskets and mending tools on winter nights, making mischief with ale and magic mushrooms, electing their Gleaning Queen, living in fear constantly that the land might fail to provide. Crace gives us a community which is self-policing, supportive, claustrophobic and deeply suspicious of the world beyond the parish bounds.

However, like a lot of academic writing on early modern English rural life – books on ‘merrie Englande’ – Harvest heavily mythologies and idealises its subject matter. This book is not just an attempt to explore how ‘ordinary people’ (whoever they were) lived in the early modern period, but a novel which implies that barley-farming by a village-kingroup, tied to the land, is a particularly authentic form of human experience; humans in their ‘natural’ and prelapsarian state. Crace’s village is timeless. Whereas many historical novelists labour to convey minute period detail, Crace does not tell us where or when this enclosure novel is set, which could be at any point between the 16th and 19th centuries. Harvest is a historical novel which, with its picture of an ancient and timeless village culture, tries to keep history at the margins. This is also a pre-modern rural England as refracted through the prism of very modern concerns – the environment, national identity, refugees & immigration, and belonging. Villages like those of Jim Crace / Walter Thirsk seem to be a world we need to believe in – no coincidence, perhaps, that Harvest was published in the same year that the BBC broadcast its successful historical-reality TV series, Tudor Monastery Farm. As one of its presenters said ‘it’s a bit of fantasy, really’. Perhaps historical imagination alone (however vivid) is not enough to see the past; we also need highly self-reflective, self-aware, and critical forms of historical imagination.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

An Evening with Thomas Wyatt

Thomas Wyatt, by Hans Holbein the Younger
Wikipedia Commons
One of the most interesting events I attended last term was a slightly belated book launch (viewable here) for the Wolfson Prize-winning Thomas Wyatt: The Heart’s Forest, by my former undergraduate tutor Susan Brigden. It was organised by a new institution which has rather burst upon the scene here – TORCH, or The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities, an interdisciplinary enterprise based in the refurbished 18C Radcliffe Infirmary.

Events relating to new books normally take one of two forms in Oxford – seminar or party. At a seminar, the author presents a précis of the work in a formal academic setting in the form of a paper, and is then politely grilled by an audience of peers and students. At a party, plenty of wine and nibbles are served in some smart college room, discounted copies of the book made available, and brief speeches made by a bashful author and an eager publisher.

TORCH has however been pioneering a new kind of book event, which steers a middle way between these two models. At the Heart’s Forest evening, in a rare assembly of historical talent, a panel consisting of Diarmaid MacCulloch, Chris Stamatakis, David Starkey and Susan Brigden herself sat on the stage in St. Anne’s auditorium. The panellists each gave a speech – something in between an encomium and a personal reflection on the nature of 16C England. Susan, in her response, talked frankly about the intimacy with which a biographer lives with their subject (his loves, spiritual crises and felonies), and reflected on what she might change in the book, having finally achieved ‘closure’ on Wyatt. The panel – three of them once fellow doctoral students under the legendary G.R. Elton – then launched into an informal but eye-opening discussion about why Tudor England mattered, and how strong our grasp of that period is. Starkey saw in Henry’s court the heroic origins of a modern English identity; McCullough insisted that Tudor England was still entirely on the margins of Europe; they argued about the role of Reformation theology and of loyalty to the Tudor dynasty. And then we all had a glass of wine.

It is hard to entice academics into a space where they can address the big questions in their field, speak about the personalities who have moulded their own careers, articulate something of the emotional rollercoaster of writing a big book, and reflect on cutting-edge interdisciplinary methodology – let alone all at once. Perhaps by innovating with the form and shape of academic meetings, organisations like TORCH can also encourage new patterns of thought, and provide new templates for scholarly conversations… without losing the celebratory conviviality of the traditional launch party.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Ghost Books

The news today is of course full of JFK commemorations, memories and ‘what if’ analyses. As the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy has been creeping up on us, I’ve been reminded during my teaching this term – somewhat depressingly - of professional historians who have also died young, before achieving what it was anticipated they would achieve.

When I was an undergraduate at Lincoln College, Oxford, one of the very first books we were set was The English Face of Machiavelli, by Felix Raab (1962). The foreword, by Hugh Trevor Roper, explained that Raab had been a brilliant graduate student, set to transform an entire field, before he fell to his death in the Alps just before his doctoral viva. This cast something of a pall over the Machiavelli essay we had to write; among my undergraduate history friends at Lincoln, ‘Felix Raab’ became a short-hand for ‘doomed golden youth’. That haunting preface remained fresh in our minds, long after we had forgotten Raab’s actual argument.

One of the most useful books I came across when writing my doctoral thesis was Medieval Ecclesiastical Courts in the Diocese of Canterbury by Brian L. Woodcock (1952). This was a strikingly clear-headed, intelligent reconstruction of church courts in late medieval England, posthumously published – Woodcock had fallen ill while writing up his research, and the work was completed by his wife as a tribute to her husband. This term, when teaching early modern witchcraft, my students’ faces fell when I told them that the author of a landmark, feisty study of Scottish witch trials, Christina Larner (Enemies of God, 1981), had died in an accident shortly after the publication of this classic work.

Historians are obviously as mortal, as subject to accidents and illness, as anybody else, but as with politicians and celebrities who die young, it is hard to separate this fact from their work  - an air of tragedy seeps into these monographs. As with JFK, even those born many years after the deaths of these scholars are left wondering what more might have been. However, as David Rundle has argued in the case of Felix Raab, in such cases an author’s life-story can overshadow their work, or make its frank critical appraisal difficult. The books written by these lost historians, which live on in the academic landscape, make for unquiet ghosts.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

History by Design

One of the many tasks on my to-do list back on October 1st, the official start-date of my new European Research Council (ERC) grant, was to procure a logo for the project, called The Jagiellonians: Dynasty, Identity and Memory in Central Europe. After some rather wobbly back-of-the-envelope sketches, it became clear I would need professional help, so I ran a small competition among the fine art students at Oxford’s Ruskin School to design the project logo.

It has been a stimulating challenge to distil the project and its mammoth 16-page research proposal into a single snappy image. The design brief given to the Ruskin students had to explain the ideas and questions behind the project to artists and designers, rather than academic historians – to tell the story of the Jagiellonians not with reference to historiographies and grand narratives, but through images, of tombs, heraldry, castles and sixteenth-century printed family trees, their tendrils packed with kings and queens.

In the end, I chose a design by Evie Kitt. Evie’s logo sets out the project key word ‘Jagiellonians’ clearly and elegantly - important as it is a long word, a Polish-Lithuanian-Anglicised hybrid, a term unfamiliar even to many scholars working on the early modern period. The key feature of Evie’s logo is the initial ‘J’. This ‘J’ resembles a letter from a Renaissance illuminated manuscript in Central Europe, circa 1500, when the high gothic illumination style was reaching its zenith, and floral, botanical motifs were a key leitmotif. The Jagiellonians were important patrons of this style, as shown in their splendid gilded, floral prayer books and missals. Evie’s J is however not a painted initial, but appears as if it has been carved out of red marble. Red ‘marble’ (hard limestone), excavated from mines near Esztergom in Hungary, was a prestige artistic material in early modern Central Europe, used in Renaissance palaces and tombs by Jagiellonian monarchs in both Buda and Cracow. Hungarian red marble is also a reminder that Jagiellonian history is not just about Poland and Lithuania, but a wider regional phenomenon.

The crown topping the J is a fairly self-explanatory reference to the Jagiellonians as a major royal dynasty, but also arguably one of the only symbols the project can safely use. The symbols employed by the dynasty themselves, from the 14th to 16th centuries – a mounted rider (pogon, pahonia), double cross, white eagle – have enjoyed a complex afterlife in Central Europe. The ‘pogon’, for example, which features prominently in many Renaissance depictions of the dynasty, is today one of the official symbols of the very politically different states of Lithuania and Belarus. You can buy ties and cushions with the Belarussian patriotic ‘pahonia’ online. The ERC project is intended as a new international study of the dynasty, which transcends local, national and nationalist perspectives, so these traditional, heavily resonant, politicised images present a problem, even if they were originally owned (or appropriated) by the Jagiellonians. That is why the Jagiellonians logo had to reinvent the dynasty’s visual foot-print from scratch, to re-imagine and reconfigure it. I think Evie has done a great job of this; now we have to wait and see what colleagues, and wider audiences, in Central Europe make of this visual digest of the project, and of what it is hoping to achieve.