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

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

A Birthday Party...

     On a wonderfully sunny afternoon this March, there was a party in Corpus Christi College to celebrate the 10th birthday of the European Research Council (ERC). In case it has passed you by in all the noise about the Brexit vote, the ERC is the EU’s pioneering research funding agency. In the past decade, it has disbursed E12 billion and created jobs for 50,000 researchers, with a distinctive focus on blue-skies, excellence-driven research questions – the UK has been the most successful of all EU member states in winning these fiercely competitive grants, and the single institution which has won the most ERC funding is Oxford University.

            So it is no surprise that, as we gathered to toast the ERC’s next decade (or century!) the UK’s Brexit vote was the ghost at the feast. We watched a video birthday message recorded by Oxford University for the ERC: somewhat bitter-sweet. Grant-holders, post-docs and senior university staff enjoyed canapes and drinks beneath the portrait of Corpus’ founder, Bishop Richard Foxe (d.1528), fittingly enough a patron of the international scholarship of the European Renaissance. Presiding over the event was Professor Alistair Buchan, Oxford’s Brexit Strategy tsar. One of the key demands put to the UK government by British universities is that it preserve our access to the EU’s world-leading research funding programme: the current success of the UK’s top universities has been built with international talent and, in no small measure, with pooled European funds. This is a shared British and European achievement, across science, social science and humanities alike.

            The fears at the party were in part, of course, about money: we heard from heads of departments whose budgets risk (to use a current phrase) falling off a cliff if ongoing access to the ERC is denied. But it is about much more than money, as speakers at the party so passionately conveyed. ERC funding brings to Oxford and the UK a vibrant population of postdocs from all over the world; it enables us to ask cutting-edge questions without being forced to shoe-horn these into the often politicised agendas set out by national funding bodies; its grants are so large that their impact on a field, or in creating a field, can be transformative; in setting such high standards for new ideas, it raises standards everywhere, with a ‘halo effect’. 
        Research funding on this scale, of this ambition, is an obvious good in itself, generating knowledge, discoveries and international dialogue at an accelerated rate, to the benefit of very many people across the globe – there are ERC-funded British-led projects in the Amazon and Antarctica. But, to speak in different terms, the dozens of ERC grants which have come to Oxford have also poured millions in the local economy – creating jobs for researchers and administrators, creating business for local hotels, caterers and conference facilities, with all the people whom they in turn employ. I think of the voter I met on the streets of Oxford on June 23rd, who was open mouthed to hear that the EU awarded so much money to the university, or that the UK won more money out of this scheme than we paid in.

            So at Corpus we thanked the ERC, and over drinks crossed our fingers that this door was not about to be slammed in our face – that this community of British, European and international talent in that medieval hall, in a small city near the middle of England, would find a way forward, would not dissipate or disperse, not allow the impoverishment of its intellectual vision and international horizons, not resign itself to an externally-imposed decline. One-to-one, we had conversations about managing uncertainty, contingency planning – and about speaking truth to power, whether loudly or sotto voce. Because if we do not, who will?

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Arriving at Somerville: Ten Years On

Somerville: you can walk on the grass, but please don't drive across the quad.
          Yesterday marked ten years since the day in January 2007 when my husband and I loaded all my books into a car, and drove it illegally (unwittingly) across the paths of Somerville quad to my new office and job, pursued by shouting porters. In Oxford terms, a decade is a mere blink of an eye. Nonetheless, here are a handful of tentative reflections, from just one college tutor and university lecturer’s perspective, on how life at Somerville and the Oxford History Faculty has evolved in this past decade.

            The college itself, graced with award-winning new buildings, with more designs by the same architect in the pipeline, and major academic initiatives in the form of the Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development and Margaret Thatcher ScholarshipsTrust, feels shinier, more confidently outward-looking, with an ever clearer sense of a shared college purpose among the Fellows – all of these years in the making. Watching this academic community coalesce more fully has been educational in itself, and timely as Governing Body at the start of this New Year embarks on the election of a new Principal. For our undergraduates, who seem cleverer every year, the world after Somerville is however seemingly getting tougher: compared to 2007, more of those graduating in History choose to do a Masters, often to maximise their employment chances, and always at great financial cost. It is now rarer for students to take Finals in Trinity and start a secure ‘milk-round’ job with the civil service or in the City three months later. Instead, since the 2008 financial crisis, we tend to hear about periods of unpaid internships, more opaque pathways into careers, and longer waits for a permanent contract.

            The History Faculty, in its recent reforms to the BA syllabus, research strategy and appointments, has also become even more outward looking with its embrace of global history. In 2007, to work on Poland was still regarded as weirdly exotic by some colleagues; today, there is an expectation that historians in their overall intellectual panorama will look further afield, beyond Britain’s Atlantic shores, beyond Europe. Another significant change in how we conduct historical research has been the growing importance – intellectually and financially – of the major external research grant, from British, private or (most generously) EU funding bodies. In 2007, entire funded teams of history researchers working on funded projects (such as Robert Gildea’s 1968 project) were rare as hens’ teeth; today, the Faculty hosts at least 5 European grants each with a value of over £1 million, employing clusters of top postdocs from around the world. This kind of collaborative research (long of course the norm in science and social science) is thus becoming a more common experience for Oxford historians. This change is, in turn, further complicating the rapidly evolving role of the traditional college tutor, a role which even since 2007 has grown more variegated, accumulating competing demands.

Perhaps it is no surprise that, from the particular vantage point of January 2017, one can look back on that grey and nervous January day in Somerville quad a decade ago, and detect in both college and the Faculty the trends which dominate public discourse and global politics today: the ongoing legacies of the 2008 financial crisis, but in particular the paradoxical twins of growing uncertainty, and growing international inter-connectedness.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Academia and the End of Polite Neutrality?

The Scholar in their Study...
St. Jerome, Antonello da Massina, National Gallery.
It transpires, then, that you can spend quite a lot of time teaching and writing about History, and it can still turn around and bite you on the nose. Politics (read: history) has swept into Oxford, into our cafes, venerable college halls, our committee meetings and strategic planning. As I explained to a visiting colleague from Prague, until six months ago, at Somerville College lunches or with one’s students at Fresher’s Dinner, one might well discuss UK Higher Education policy, or immigration policy as it affected universities…. but rarely actual party politics. Perhaps a traditional British reserve, politeness and sense of good taste prevented it being otherwise (I was once told: no religion, sex or politics at high table). That set of mores was swept away overnight with the June 23rd UK referendum on membership of the European Union, and again with the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. After the first result, the atmosphere in college was one of palpable collective grief, and after the second a stunned, sheer funereal silence.

            These events are rapidly redefining what it means, for an intellectual community, to be political. Before June 2016, a handful of historians in the university were openly active in party politics (addressing party meetings, leafleting for one party or another in city council elections). Yet with the sudden advent of xenophobic, anti-liberal democratic, anti-intellectual and populist politics, as if with the flick of a wand, the most basic things we do in this (or any) university have suddenly become highly political and partisan – catapulting us into the frontline of a culture war. When in tutorials we school young people in questioning and critical thought; when we lecture on how nationalism was constructed / invented in the 19th century; when we speak up for continued access to the EU’s mould-breaking research programmes; when we defend the legal rights of our non-British-passport-holding colleagues, all of them top international scholars – all this, improbably, has now become politics with a capital P, setting us sharply at odds with the UK Government and its rhetorics, and liable to bring a torrent of online insults down on any academic publicly defending these things.

            The rules of engagement have shifted under our feet, with a bracing lurch. Academics are trained to deal in nuance, complexity, uncertainty, slow reflection and precision – skills which famously do not automatically translate into punchy public policy positions, or rhetorics. For academics – particularly those active in the publicly-visible world of social media – there are personal risks in speaking out on Brexit, xenophobia or Trump: of outright abusive messages online, or of being seen to use a university post to proclaim private political views. Yet not to speak out arguably carries a greater risk for us all, and what threatens the essential liberal values of universities is not a private matter for those employed to serve, staff and run these major national institutions. Earlier this year, Simon Schama spoke to a packed lecture theatre in Oxford’s Natural History Museum about ‘public history’: he urged Humanities scholars to be bold, and intervene in public debate to defend our values. Simon Schama gave that talk, prophetically, well before the June referendum.

            The (hostile) politicisation of our university life by external forces is unfamiliar to this generation of UK academics, but none of it is new. Down the centuries, scholars and writers have found again and again that, against all their wishes and private inclinations, they get pulled personally into big and dangerous political struggles: one need only look at the life of Niccolo Machiavelli, or Erasmus of Rotterdam. Our sources have been telling us all along how painful, frightening, and disorientating this situation is. Perhaps we have not been listening to those early modern voices as well as we thought we were; perhaps we did not, after all, entirely hear or recognise until now what they were saying. That intellectual freedom, although practised from within the quiet space of the Academy, cannot be quietly defended.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Postcard from Salento

Santa Maria de Finibus Terrae, Leuca, Salento
Photo N Nowakowska
           Salento is one of Europe’s many evocative ‘finis terrae’ – places where the land just runs into the sea, like Portugal’s Sagres, Brittany’s Finisterre, England’s Land’s End. Salento is the far tip of Puglia, the stiletto point on the heel of Italy, and its Cape Leuca overlooks the spot where the postcard-blue Adriatic meets the darker Ionian Sea. Even on a hazy August day, at Leuca you can see Albania to the east, like a mirage. With its ancient Greek heritage and Greek-speaking villages, olive groves with clumps of prickly pear, and ruins of the local Messapian civilisation, Salento has often claimed itself to be a distinct region of Italy, historically separate even from Puglia, whose regional capital lies 200km north in Bari.
            Whatever I had expected as a historian to find in Salento – a traditionally agricultural and poor part of Europe, ‘Maldive-like’ beaches which attract Italian holidaymakers in their thousands, local black widow spiders – wasn’t quite what we saw. Over Salento’s rural emptiness, there is a strong veneer of design chic. Baking hot Otranto, famous for being sacked by the Ottomans in 1480, has medieval alleys bursting with high-end boutiques:  designer bikinis, designer lights. It was clear from fabulous coffee-table books widely on sale that there is a trendy Salento style… white wash, white linen, ironwork furniture, the essential rustic farmhouse vibe. The cover story of one of Italy’s national interior design magazines, this summer, was the Salento look.
            It was also striking how strong a narrative of its own identity Salento can project. I picked up a little book by Pierfranceso Pacoda about the Night of Tarantella, the hugely successful folk festival centred around Salento’s dionsyian, dervish-like ‘tarantella’ dance: the dance you danced if bitten by venomous local arachnids. Pacoda, and other local intellectuals, argue that international interest in the dance and its pizzica music has sparked pride in popular Salento culture, given its populace back a firm sense of place and identity. If Salento could not have actual automony of government, they wrote, it could at least create its own ‘autonomy of imagination’. These writers spoke of Salento as typifying the Mediterranean dilemma: for so long the centre of the world, over slow centuries coming to terms with becoming a backwater. Salento, they write, can renew itself by reclaiming its own distinctive cultural outputs.    
        This lively debating of past and present is manifest in Salento’s impressive local museums. In Ugento, the town museum (pointed out with great pride by locals, who approached us in the street full of civic enthusiasm) is an imaginative museum-within-a-museum: an early modern monastic house, with many frescoed side-chapels in tact, in which Messapian artefacts are carefully displayed. The Ugento museum tells its ancient, and 17C, histories together, cleverly interweaving them. And in the Greek-founded port of Gallipoli, the medieval castle, jutting into the harbour, has been restored as both heritage site, architectural academy and contemporary art space. Walking through its dim corridors, you are greeting with glass-and-LED tortoises and installations made from the lifejackets of Mediterranean refugees, while in the courtyard Anthony-Gormley-style humanoid sculptures peer down from the ramparts. Gallipoli castle’s bookshop was a treasure trove of publications on Salento: everything from colouring books to collections of late medieval documents. Salento has a lot of problems, but it has a tangible energy and self-assertion too, presenting itself not as periphery, but one of Europe’s historic cultural crossroads. Finisterrae: where the land ends, and the story begins.

Gallipoli Castle
Photo N Nowakowska

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Poland, the UK and the Brexit Vote

A great Polish Anglophile: King Stanislaw August Poniatowski
       In 2008, Richard Unger edited a volume entitled Britain & Poland-Lithuania: Contact and Comparison from the Middle Ages to 1795. In light of the UK’s vote for Brexit, it is worth going back to books like these, to ask where Polish-British relations have come from and where they might be heading. There are many narrative threads within the Brexit vote, but this is certainly one of them.

This is a story of intensifying contact, convergence and progressive entanglement between two European polities, one thousand miles apart. Throughout the Middle Ages and sixteenth century, contacts between these isles and the Polish kingdom were ongoing, albeit in a piecemeal, low-key way. Readers of Unger’s collection can pick up interesting morsels: the long shoes fashionable in England in the 1360s were called ‘crakows’, in the 1590s Cracow boasted its own Scottish pub. The monarchs of England and Poland exchanged infrequent, polite letters, mostly on crusading (and were often unclear even of one other’s names). It was in the 18C that mutual interest between the two countries picked up: the last king of Poland, Stanisław August Poniatowski, and his court were Anglophiles, with a strong interest in British literary and political culture. In 19C London, exiles from partitioned Poland were a high-profile cause celebre to many. In 1939, it was of course Hitler’s invasion of Poland which triggered the United Kingdom’s declaration of war; famously, Polish citizens played a role in the Allied war effort at RAF Northolt, Bletchley Park, Monte Cassino. It was as a result of this conflict that the first large-ish Polish diaspora settled in the UK, numbering some 200,000 people. The end of the Cold War, and Poland’s much celebrated joining of the EU in 2004, saw Polish citizens coming to the UK in astonishingly high numbers, attracted in part by the presence of an established Polish community in the country. Tabloid papers began to run stories alleging Polish vagrants roasted swans in English parks. And now we have this: a Brexit vote in June 2016, in which Leave campaigners voiced open displeasure about the presence of Polish shops on their streets, of Polish-speaking children in the school playground. Post June 23rd, there are repeated reports of verbal abuse of Poles, and a nasty graffiti attack on the long-standing Polish Cultural Centre in west London – a place for international film, artists and theatre. A notable WWII alliance has given way to rancour and fear.

Polish shop, Oxford, 2013

But Poland is not just the Polish delicatessens on streets up and down the United Kingdom. Poland ‘over there’ is a NATO member, an EU ally, its nationalist Law & Order (PiS) ruling party currently engaged in its serious own stand-off with the EU over the rule of law. In meeting as a group of 6 self-styled ‘EU founder members’ the day after the Brexit vote, the EU west European states caused anger and dismay in Poland. Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of PiS, has quickly urged the EU to consider again a 2 speed Europe, with a new European treaty; Polish liberals fear Brexit might galvanise PiS towards a ‘Polexit’, allowing it to rule in populist style without sanction from Brussels. So the Polish government, and fraught Polish domestic politics, will play an important role in any forthcoming EU-UK negotiations on Brexit. The EU institutions in Brussels have a problem to the north with their British Brexit neighbour, and a problem to the east with openly nationalist regimes such as those of PiS (and Orban in Hungary).

Poland and Britain interacted for centuries in their very different forms: as medieval monarchies, early modern composite states, dynastic unions, and modern nation states. Now, with their very populations entangled in the 21C, Poland and the UK are interacting within a new globalised world and interconnected Europe, still speaking loudly of inviolable ‘sovereignty’, yet both in a strong mutual embrace they cannot easily escape. The Brexit vote is a British earthquake, but it is also a highly significant event in Central European history and politics. Poles, both in Lincolnshire and in the Belvedere Palace in Warsaw, are today actively shaping the UK’s history; just as the UK is shaping theirs. We shall see, to our relief or to our cost, whether in this decade the oscillating centripetal or centrifugal forces in European history will win out. 

Polish Cracower shoes - the height of 14C London fashion...
(From http://bit.ly/29o3x5E)

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Strangers in London

The Dutch Church, Austin Friars (photo by NN)
Academics are increasingly encouraged to engage the public in their research - via ‘impact’ initiatives or through active collaboration with non-scholars in what is termed ‘knowledge exchange’. It was therefore refreshing to participate in an academic conference on the Reformation which was entirely conceived, curated and organised by the Dutch Church in the City of London (and not by early modern historians). Last week, the conference ‘John a Lasco: I am A Stranger’ heard speakers from the United States, UK and the Netherlands. Johannes a Lasco (or Jan Łaski the Younger, 1499-1560), was the most significant Reformation figure produced by Poland: nephew of a powerful Polish archbishop, furnished with the best possible foreign education, Johannes a Lasco went on to play a leading role in Protestant communities northern Germany, England and his native Poland. Here in England, it was to Johannes a Lasco that Edward VI entrusted leadership of the ‘Strangers Church’ in 1550 – a place where London’s foreign refugees and immigrants could worship together.
            It was marvellous to hear papers about Lasco and the Strangers’ Church in the very place where that church once stood. Originally part of the enormous Austin (Augustinian) Friars monastery, the building was given to the Strangers, destroyed in the Blitz, and rebuilt by the Dutch community in London. It is an inspiring, beautiful and resonant space. Thomas Cromwell’s great mansion was built just across the road (as readers of Wolf Hall will know). The speakers delivered their lectures before an enormous stained glass window showing John a Lasco, bearded and in green robes, and the two children connected with this church, the boy-king Edward VI of England, and Princess Irene of the Netherlands who laid the foundation stone of the new building in 1950.
            We heard from Michael Springer about Lasco’s magnum opus, the Forma ac Ratio, an extended ‘how to’ guide on running a Calvinist congregation, from Andrew Spicer about the foreign residents of London in the 1550s, from David Gehring about a parallel life to that of Lasco, the Elizabethan Robert Beale. Silke Muylaert spoke on how the Stranger Church in London reacted when the Netherlands erupted in religious revolt, bringing traumatised and impassioned refugees to their corner of London. The Dutch Church had however also organised this conference to pose broader and contemporary questions about refugees, immigrants and toleration. We therefore heard how in 16C eastern Germany, or 17C Prague, or 16C Poland, very different religious communities could coexist in curious, unexpected and usually precarious ways. This conference was most timely, in light of the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, and the UK’s own referendum debate about identity and migration. It was sobering to hear that in late 16C London, the government had conducted a full census of foreign residents, quizzing them in depth about their reasons for coming to England; that other Londoners complained about immigrants driving up 16C house prices and taking jobs; that the Elizabethan government deeply feared that refugees from a savage European war would bring religious and political radicalism to these shores (Andrew Spicer, Michael Springer).

It is always a pleasant surprise when research on 16C Europe speaks so directly to communities in the UK today. A Lasco was in London only three years, forced to flee by ship along with his congregation of ‘Strangers’ in 1553, when the Catholic queen Mary I ascended the throne. The Dutch Church is soon to unveil a new plaque commemorating Johannes a Lasco and his time in London: it will mark how a unique life, and a unique building, connect England, Poland and the Netherlands and their respective histories. The plaque will also be a prompt to reflect on the different experiences which foreigners, immigrants and refugees have had in our capital city (welcome, warm coexistence, expulsion) over the centuries, as the United Kingdom again finds and articulates its place in the world.

Monday, 6 June 2016

The Tudors & the EU Referendum

The English Channel; the edge of history?
         Historians have been prominent in the EU referendum debate, with George Osborne hosting a reception with Remain academic supporters last week. The question of the British Isles’ relations with the wider European continent is, however, a problem which has long underpinned the popular Oxford undergraduate course ‘British History, 1500-1700’, quietly and subversively. In teaching the history of Tudor England, Europe is a well-established ghost at the feast.
            Teaching this paper to some of the UK’s brightest students, using books written by some of our brightest scholars, is to see how deeply ingrained the idea of a separate ‘England’ and ‘Europe’ is. Students from a range of ethnic and social backgrounds instinctively write of the Tudors and their subjects as ‘we’: ‘we had a Reformation’, ‘we invaded France’. Europeans become ‘they’. This is merely a crude echo of what history students find in many books about early modern England, which breezily sketch differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – England had a sensible, state-imposed Reformation, while those continentals had wild riots, image-breaking and wars. English witchcraft trials were calm local affairs and small scale; the Europeans (and Scots) had out-of-control paranoid panics. The English ‘we’ is civilised and law-abiding, the continental ‘they’ is slightly hysterical. This kind of seductively simple picture of the sixteenth-century is possible only if one employs a rhetorical sleight of hand – to pack the entire European landmass and its islands into one homogenous ‘they’, neatly contrasted with an English ‘us’. There was of course no single European experience of Reformation (and no Protestant Reformation at all in many places), or witch-hunts or, say, the evolution of parliaments. Tudor England might have been much like Denmark or Transylvania in certain respects, but more like France or Portugal in others. Europe was in the sixteenth century a collection of kingdoms, duchies and republics, just as it is today a collection of highly varied nation states. England was distinctive, but so was every polity in Europe. (And all those polities claim, when writing their national histories, that they were unique).
            This powerful idea of a pristine historical separation between Tudor England and a chaotic Continent is of course a myth. The events which rocked the kingdom, and these islands, in the sixteenth century were not purely indigenous in origin: ideas of Reformation, state power, witchcraft, history, art and many others came primarily from abroad. The religious reformer and Polish refugee, John a Lasco, was for example a prominent Protestant in Edward VI’s London, as a major conference next month in London will recall. Books, ideas, objects, images and people crossed (and criss-crossed) the sea. This is a history of dense, ongoing connections and exchange, which is no cause for embarrassment.

            This myth of a historic separation between the British Isles and an abstract place called ‘the Continent’, however historically questionable, is one which we unfortunately still perpetuate in our teaching. At Oxford, the History B.A. offers separate papers in British and ‘General’ (European) history. At post-graduate level, cutting-edge research is discussed in two separate groups – an Early Modern Britain seminar, and an Early Modern Europe/World seminar. It wasn’t true in the sixteenth century that the British Isles had a historic experience so unique that it set them totally apart from other societies in the geographical vicinity; it still wasn’t true in the twentieth century when so many of our classic Tudor England textbooks were written; and it is not true today. Britain, and England, have always been an integral part of a rich, difficult, mutually entangled European history: in the referendum, we risk breaking crucial twenty-first century alliances, on the basis of a historical myth to the contrary. The United Kingdom, with its constituent territories, is part of Western Eurasia; it can of course pretend that it is not, but to do so on June 23rd would be unwise.