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

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Research & Anthropology

Are we talking the same language?
Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Tower of Babel (1563).
           The Jagiellonians Project which I lead has an anthropological strand: asking how anthropologists’ work on kinship, family and ritual can help us better understand this 15th and 16th century royal house. Just last week, I found myself talking over lunch at Somerville College with Dr. Jane Dyson, comparing notes on marriage practice in remote 21stC Himalayan villages and among Renaissance princes.

Eighteen months in, however, the project is also having to engage with anthropology in a broader, more immediate sense. The lands once ruled by the Jagiellonians today make up some 13 different countries and national scholarships on the dynasty. The project itself operates in a British environment, with an international team. This means that the project is talking to a range of audiences, and operating within and across a number of quite different academic cultures.

            Universities and scholarship may look superficially similar across the world, and we might use the same terminologies, but these often conceal important differences. ‘Project’ is one such term, which can imply different things in different places. In the UK, a research project is typically a team of scholars employed to work full-time on a topic in a co-ordinated way, recruited through open competition; in other places, ‘project’ is a network, an umbrella which should properly group together all the leading experts in a given field. ‘Conference’ in some academic cultures is an event at which you speak, and pay a fee in order to cover the organisers’ costs; elsewhere, ‘conference’ is an event to which scholars, as a mark of honour, are invited to speak, all their expenses generously paid, and fine meals lavished upon them.

‘Scholarship’ itself can mean different things, depending on where in the modern world you are. In some places, a particular mark of scholarly excellence is the successful identification of new sources: new archival documents or visual artefacts. In other places, scholarly excellence instead lies in fresh interpretations and analyses of evidence, either old or new. This important difference reflects, I think, the different functions which history plays within different cultures today. My sense is that in some places the basic shape and themes of national history (and its place in national identity) are already widely agreed upon, and research simply fleshes these trajectories out further. By contrast, in places where a canonical narrative of the past (for whatever reason) is less central to present-day national identity, revisionism and the rewriting of old stories by historians is applauded.

To openly acknowledge these differences is not to make judgements about the relative merits of different academic cultures. An international project such as the Jagiellonians therefore needs to be attuned to anthropology, willing to decode cultural difference – ready to accept that some, or indeed much, of what we do will (inadvertently) be baffling or annoying to scholars elsewhere; and that, vice versa, there are reactions which we will struggle to understand. The important thing is to start talking more frankly about our different experiences and expectations; and to keep talking.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Dolphins in the Bodleian

After a long, busy autumn term of teaching and running a research project (hence the gap in blog posts, apologies), last week I finally ventured back into the Bodleian Library, and found a new exhibition in the entrance hall. Aldus Manutius:The Struggle and the Dream marks the 500th anniversary of the death of the pioneering Venetian Renaissance printer (c. 1450-1515), who created distinctive editions of classical texts treasured by humanist scholars across Europe, and in the process set a new standard in the printing of learned books. The exhibition is curated by my Somerville History colleague, Dr. Oren Margolis, with assistance from current Somerville History undergraduates Jennifer Allan, Anna Clark and Qaleeda Talib, whose own work on Aldus will be showcased at an event at the Bodleian in February.

At a time when academic publishing is again going through a major metamorphosis, and experiencing another technological revolution, it seems apt to reflect on the printer Aldus and his legacy. The Bodleian exhibition stresses that Aldus’ Venetian workshop gave the world the italic font: the display includes the first printed books in which it was seen. Probably few of us, when pressing Control I on our computers, know or think of the great copyright squabble which the discovery of printed italic triggered between Aldus and his punch-cutter, Francesco Griffo. The exhibition includes too a Roman denarius from 80AD, showing a dolphin and anchor, which Aldus adopted as his own device. Modern academic publishers must surely remain envious of the little surge of delight, the flash of excitement, the joy of possession, which the sight of Aldus’ dolphin logo seems to have instantly provoked in the learned 16C reader.

Aldus printed for the republic of letters, for those anywhere in Christendom who, at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries, were serious about scholarly and beautiful books. So it was a particular pleasure for me to see in The Struggle and the Dream an Oxford copy of Aldus’ Erotemata, by Constantine Lascaris, a key text for those learning ancient Greek. I’ve been working for some years on Piotr Tomicki (d.1535), bishop of Kraków and a key advisor to the Polish Crown. In Kraków’s Jagiellonian Library, I have examined Tomicki’s own diligently, neatly annotated copy of Aldus’ Erotomata, which he had purchased as a student in Italy, very far from home, and kept throughout his life, even once he was a great statesman. Aldus’ volumes – whether in Venice, Kraków or Oxford - still have the ability to make people, now as in the sixteenth-century, feel they are holding in their hands very special books.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Oświęcim or Auschwitz?

Oswiecim castle

Earlier this month, I attended a conference in Poland on the Jagiellonians, a favourite national dynasty representing a lost golden age. The conference, jointly organised by the Universities of Warsaw and Katowice, was held in the medium-sized, southern town of Oświęcim – in the 15th century, the capital of a small Upper Silesian duchy on the tempestuous border between the Kingdoms of Poland and Hungary.

The conference took place in Oświęcim because the event was generously sponsored and hosted by the town council and mayor. It took place in the newly opened Oświęcim Museum, housed in a fine little castle above a river. The local authorities greeted this gathering of historians enthusiastically. The conference is part of their wider endeavour to reshape the image of their town, because Oświęcim is better known across by the world by its German name, Auschwitz.

Coming from the UK, with its strong tradition of national Holocaust education, the very idea of softening the image of a place called Auschwitz can sit very uncomfortably indeed: this network of camps, one of them right outside my hotel, is arguably the defining traumatic memory of the modern west. This is a place which can seem irredeemably bleak, historically radioactive, drowning out everything else around it for miles and miles; with its genocidal past, quite simply the darkest spot in all of Europe.

Town square
People who live in the town, most of whom were born long after the war, perhaps in order to be able to live here at all, have a different perspective. Oświęcim is simply their town: it has medieval churches, shops, schools, Italian restaurants, bars. They wish visitors would come not just to the camp, but also get a flavour of local history by visiting the castle museum, or perhaps the town synagogue mueum. The camp itself has simply become a fact of life: the town archives, for example, are housed in one of the blocks in Auschwitz 1.

Oświęcim’s attempt to rebrand itself, with EU funding for its new museum, will seem heretical and deeply disrespectful to many outside Poland, an implied minimisation of the Holocaust. For local Poles, for the energetic mayor, it’s an attempt to ask the world to see this 21C community on its own terms, in a broader context. It comes down to one question – to whom does Oświęcim- Auschwitz belong? To the world, to the 1,100,000 people who were murdered in this small place, or to the Polish population who call this pretty but scarred town their home? Is it, and should it always be, 1944 in this pocket of Europe? Are the locals allowed to move on, or is the existence of normal life here some kind of affront in itself? As a British citizen from the Polish diaspora, I can hear what is said in both languages and narratives, and I can hear that they are not hearing each other at all. And that is why there is no agreement - in guidebooks, on maps - on what to even call this place, (Polish) Oświęcim or (German) Auschwitz.

Town sign: two identities, Oswiecim castle & Auschwitz camp

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Composite Monarchies

A composite monarch? James VI and I, by Daniel Mytens
In 1992, John Elliott, Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, published a seminal article which I ask all my students of early modern Europe read – ‘A Europe of Composite Monarchies’ (Past and Present, paywall). Perhaps, at this juncture, British politicians should read it too.

Elliott pointed out that late medieval Europe consisted of dozens of small states and statelets – e.g. the Duchy of Savoy, or Milan – but that in the sixteenth century there was a trend for political entities to coalesce into bigger units. The marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1469 forged a union between the Iberian kingdoms of Castile and Aragon (‘Spain’). The French monarchy came to absorb the duchy of Brittany. Further east, the marriage of Grand Duke Jogaila of Lithuania to Queen Jadwiga of Poland in 1386 created a dynastic union between the two polities, which was cemented into a legal union in 1569. And, in 1603, with the extinction of the Tudor line, a Scottish monarch travelled south to claim his English throne, creating an enduring dynastic union in the British Isles. Elliott’s point was that such unions, or ‘composite states’ were a quintessential feature of European political life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a way of reconciling, as he so eloquently put it, ‘the competing aspirations towards diversity and unity that have remained a constant of European history’. Composite states were, he pointed out, both highly fruitful arrangements and inherently challenging to govern.

Composite states are a hallmark of early modern Europe, and yet, four centuries later, what is the United Kingdom, if not a composite state? With its union of three kingdoms (England, Scotland, and Ireland) and Wales, the Stuart composite monarchy was one of the more ambitious, or crowded, in Europe. Alongside Spain (a fusion of Aragon, Castile, Navarre), the UK is one of the great surviving composite monarchies of the Renaissance age. Others, such as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, broke down into competing nation-states long ago – as Timothy Snyder has traced so well, into modern Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine. Today, we are still dealing with some of the long-term consequences of that failed composite state. If the Scots vote yes tomorrow, we will be leaving early modern Europe a little further behind us, shaking off one of its powerful legacies.

And regardless of the referendum result, British politicians would also do well to read Conrad Russell’s The Fall of the British Monarchies, 1637-42 (1991). In this classic work, Russell demonstrated how the English civil war was sparked by riots in Edinburgh – he charted how quickly different parts of a union can destabilise each other, and how bad policy in Scotland triggered a spiral of local reactions and events across the British Isles, which a London government proved quite unable to control. History can’t predict the future, but it can give us insightful and salutary models to think with – scholars, voters and politicians alike. Composite states are relatively easy to forge, messy to maintain, and messy to dismantle.

Sigismund Augustus, King of Poland & Grand Duke of Lithuania (d. 1572).

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Two Men From Gdansk

Donald Tusk
Photo by Alina Zienowicz.
Johannes Dantiscus (1485-1548)

Although it may not have made much of a splash in the British or US press, the selection of Donald Tusk as the new president of the European Council last night momentarily paralysed Polish media, commentators and political elites, as they tried to take in the significance of the moment. In domestic terms, it is a shock: Tusk has been Poland’s most electorally successful prime minister since the fall of Communism, in power since 2007. In Poland, it is now unclear whether Tusk’s sudden departure for Brussels will make it harder for his Citizens’ Platform party (PO) to defeat the right-wing Truth & Justice Party (PiS) at the 2015 parliamentary elections. If the price of Tusk’s recruitment is a victory for the highly nationalist PiS, the EU might yet find its eastern policy even more complicated, and the region more volatile.

But what of the historical significance? Last night, Polish journalists and academics wrote that ‘Poland has now returned to Europe’, that Tusk’s appointment amounted to ‘the recognition of Poland’, ‘proof, that Europe does not end at the Oder river’. The choice of Tusk by the EU’s leaders is seen domestically as a vindication of Poland’s journey since 1989. The historical novelty of a Polish politician taking a key role in European politics, and presiding over traditionally West European institutions in Brussels does seem striking. Yet in the Renaissance period, under the Jagiellonian kings, the Polish monarchy did produce diplomats of international calibre. Erazm Ciołek, the son of a Kraków tavern-keeper, rose to become the Crown’s top diplomat in the years circa 1500 – his fine Latin orations before the papal curia made a tremendous impression in Rome, to the extent that the Habsburg emperors engaged Ciołek to promote their own affairs in the city. Another celebrity diplomat of the Polish Crown (born, like Tusk, in Gdańsk), Johannes Dantiscus, in the 1520s and 1530s enjoyed the respect of statesmen in Spain, the Low Countries and Germany, building an important network around himself. And, in a less happy example, in the 18C, the exiled Polish king Stanisław Leszczyński was relocated to France to rule the duchy of Lorraine.

In the past two centuries, the Polish state has been a supplicant, military target, or very junior ally of Europe’s more westerly states – Tusk’s high profile international role in the EU is a major symbolic step in a different direction, where Central European politicians might exercise real agency in wider European politics, from the centre itself. The Economist recently carried a feature asking if Poland, with her geopolitical weight and economic successes, was entering ‘a new Jagiellonian [golden] age’. Exactly what the Jagiellonian age stood for in Europe (1386-1572) remains a subject of real debate: but it seems as if, in an echo of the sixteenth century, Poland is again creating politicians of international calibre. 

Wednesday, 30 July 2014


             A member of our household recently received a new passport from Her Majesty’s Passport Office, just in time for summer vacations. On the front cover is the familiar coat of arms of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the lion and the unicorn. Inside the back cover, the bearer’s photo and a chip. But it’s the pages inbetween which caught my attention – on each page, empty for future visas, there are different images of the British Isles. There are picturesque beach huts looking very much as if they are from Southwold Beach. There is a Durdle Door, the famous sea arch of Dorset. There are pictures of moorland, and of rolling hills much like the South Downs.

            On this quintessential identity document – there to confirm individual identity, but also a statement of national identity and statehood –  Great Britain is presented therefore as a set of diverse, striking and unpopulated landscapes, mostly coastal. Checking my own older passport, I found that its pages are adorned with images of British birds: waders, eagles, herons. This is a striking way of representing British identity, to its own citizens/subjects and to foreign border officials the world over. It is reminiscent of the soft-focus images of the United Kingdom adopted by British Airways on its in-flight crockery, on the paper ties which adorn its plastic crockery, and on posters displayed in its planes… misty, blue depictions of the Oxford skyline, or Brighton pier. The British Airways images are at least of places of human habitation, references to a human heritage. But the Passport Office offers us just landscape.

            When the euro was being launched in 2001-2, there was much debate as to which symbols to put on coins and notes, national or European. Coins retained national symbols, but the notes carried famous bridges, as a neutral image, and a helpful metaphor perhaps for the European project. Bridges were clearly the compromise option. It’s a sign, then, of how contested British identity is today that the Passport Office judged that national identity was best expressed without any reference to, e.g., famous British individuals, or buildings, or cities, but to something as abstract and seemingly timeless as landscape. I once heard a folk singer in concert perform a song about British identity – the basic jist was that, no matter what your race, or place of origin, what united inhabitants of this island was ultimately (only?) the landscape itself, which we could all agree to love. For historians and nation-builders, nationalists and patriots in the 19th and 20th centuries, national identity was all about history. Now that we, in multicultural 21st century Britain can’t agree on a universally palatable narrative of British history, the Passport office at least has junked history altogether in exchange for geography, or even geology. As historians, on some level we are clearly failing to offer our fellow citizens a useable narrative of their past.

This is the United Kingdom...
Durdle Door, Wikipedia Commons

Thursday, 12 June 2014


Academic dress: your examiner might look like this...
Photo by Matthias Rosenkranz
This term, I’ve been invigilating Oxford History Finals for the first time. Invigilating isn’t perhaps the right word – the setting up, distribution of papers, handing out of booklets and general military-precision oversight is carried out by the Examination Schools staff. Academics attend in the role of ‘examiners’: if you sit on a Finals Exam Board for your subject, you have to don full academic dress and be present for the first half hour of an examination. Examiners stand at the front of the hall, and are there in order to answer any queries which might arise about the academic content of the papers. Half an hour in, they process out of the examination hall in semi-stately procession (clutching mortar boards, rucksacks, cycle helmets), and leave everyone else to it for another 2.5 hours.

I’ve found invigilating a deeply strange experience. This is in part because I haven’t witnessed a formal, large-scale University examination since I sat my own Finals, over 15 years ago. But it was also strange because the contrast between the Victorian world of the Exam Schools and the busy world outside seems to have become sharper; the dissonance has grown.

Oxford is famed for the formality of its exams. Students have to arrive in ‘sub fusc’ academic dress, or else they are ineligible to sit their papers. Tourists are keen to take photos of students in their gowns, black ribbons and carnations, or of examiners in their billowing red hoods. Exams here are highly ritualised, and perhaps fetishized. The papers the students sit are still a gold standard, in terms of academic rigour and challenge. The contents of the papers reflect the very latest trends in scholarship and research. Yet the external trappings of our exams culture are very obviously Victorian, and from another era: the vast 19C Examination Schools designed by Thomas Jackson (‘an exam palace’, as a Polish visitor once described it), the archaising dress, and 300 students sat writing by hand for 3 hours at a time. This scene feels rather weirder to me now than it did in the 1990s; in a world of digital, ubiquitous and increasingly socially penetrating technology, the frozen-in-time staging of Oxford exams risks looking anachronistic, and bizarre rather than quaintly traditional. I have a lot of affection for these Oxford traditions, but I do wonder if – when invigilating in, say, 2019 – I will, dressed in black gown and red hood, be surveying a room full of laptops, rather than pale students clutching fountain pens.