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

Friday, 26 July 2019

The First ‘Love Island’ (1838)

George Sand,
painted by
August Charpentier (1838)
Fryderyk Chopin, c. 1849, by Bisson



               On British television, the reality dating show and pop-culture phenomenon ‘Love Island’ is nearing its finale this weekend. With over 6 million viewers, the programme places 20-somethings on the Balearic Island of Mallorca, in a converted farmhouse-villa decked out with neon signs and gaudy summer accessories. Yet perhaps few of the contestants or viewers know that tourism on Mallorca was kick-started almost two centuries ago by an earlier pair of celebrity, star-crossed lovers, in a remote lodging just a few miles away from the ITV villa.

            In 1838, the ‘most famous woman in France’, the avant-garde, aristocratic, cross-dressing, best-selling novelist George Sand (Amantine Dupin) travelled to Mallorca with the Polish composer, pianist and political refugee Fryderyk Chopin. She was 34, a divorced mother of two, he 28. Sand claimed they were seeking solitude, where she could write and Chopin compose; they were likely also fleeing from the scandal their love affair had caused in Paris. Mallorca in the 1830s was heavily agricultural, with limited infrastructure for foreign visitors – the couple could not find a functioning hotel in Palma, and ended up renting a cell in an abandoned monastery, in the mountain village of Valldemossa. The lovers’ Mallorcan tryst was bitter-sweet. Chopin’s letters praised the natural beauty, calm and ‘poetic feeling’ of the island. Sand, however, grew disillusioned, and angry at the locals who disapproved of the unmarried lovers. She later vented her feelings in her famously acerbic
memoire A Winter in Mallorca.  

            Sand’s book put Mallorca on the literary map. She joked that she had ‘discovered’ the island, and predicted that once international travel connections improved ‘Mallorca would soon prove a formidable rival to the Alps’, a new destination for the North European traveller. That prophecy was realised with the opening of an international airport at Palma in 1960, and the advent of mass tourism. Today, ‘Love Island’ producers distil Mallorca into its essential modern tourist image – turquoise waters, limestone coves, endless sunshine, endless swimming pools. Yet, as the 2019 contestants chat, court and argue on our screens, this social-media television spectacle still evokes the unquiet ghosts of Mallorca’s original, nineteenth-century ‘Love Island’ couple.

            In their villa, the current ‘Love Island’ contestants are cut off from the outside world, kept well away from the locals. They can only imagine what is being written and tweeted about them in the outside world, or what fame or infamy will greet them on their return. They come to find love, or fame, or the £50K cash prize. Chopin and Sand, too, in their damp monastery sought total privacy, but wondered what the Paris papers were saying. And they too found that that a Mallorcan hideaway holiday had an ambiguous effect on their relationship. Chopin was in 1838 already ill with bronchitis or tuberculosis, and his love affair with Sand would break down in terrible, very public recriminations a few years later. The Polish pianist died in Paris in 1849; Sand did not attend his funeral. The Mallorcan interlude had proved productive for both their careers: Sand wrote her novel Spiridion in the monastery, and Chopin composed a number of pieces at Valldemossa. But the romantic happily-ever-after which the most gossiped-about couple of 19th-century Europe had sought in the Balearic sun had proved, ultimately, far more elusive.

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

History on the March...

Pilgrimage of Grace banner, 1536

           Last weekend, along with a million other people, I attended the Peoples’ Vote March in central London. We arrived in Park Lane, super-luxury hotels looming over us, and stood for over two hours in a tightly packed crowd. The two-mile column of humanity ahead of us was so dense, that there was no room to actually march. We eventually shuffled through London, hemmed in by hundreds of people on all sides for 5 whole hours.
Photo by @JesseJJWS
            As well as the in-the-present-moment sense of insurrectionary urgency which infused the march, the day was full of curious historic echoes, like a magic lantern show. The tallest flags, on enormous home-made flagpoles, were from the regions. High above the crowd, there fluttered Yorkshire white Roses, Lancashire red roses, the yellow Dorset cross, and the black flag of Cornwall - all held proudly aloft by protestors who had travelled by coach to London, setting out in the early hours of the morning. The Cornish flags marching on Parliament put me in mind of their most famous antecedent, the Cornish rebellion of 1497 against Henry VII, in which armed Cornish miners made it all the way to London, and the Battle of Blackheath. The roses from northern England, meanwhile, in their own distant way evoked the 1536 Pilgrimage of Grace, that great early modern rising of the north, which marched under its own banner of the Five Wounds of Christ, with matching badges for the Pilgrims: begging Henry VIII to reconsider his legal breach with Rome, and save the English monasteries.
            As this great anti-Brexit carnival shuffle-marched past Green Park, a man stood on the metal railings, blowing kisses and calling out to the crowd like a preacher: ‘All you need is love! I love you all! You are looooved!’. Someone in my party said: ‘Do you think that’s how the Levellers started?’, imagining the most radical sects of the English Civil War originating as yelling mystics on the edge of a 17C political crowd. On the march, people were talking excitedly about the on-line petition to Parliament to revoke Article 50: as fellow historians have pointed out, petitions are not trivial gestures, but a tradition deeply embedded in British political culture. When James VI & I processed from Scotland to take up his new English crown in 1603, he was met outside London by a delegation of Puritan ministers who handed him the Millenary Petition, which they claimed had 1,000 clerical signatories.
Past the Ritz, and down Saint James, into London’s club-land. In the window of a cigar boutique, three tanned men smoked insouciantly, watching the noisy crowd pass by. On a balcony on Pall Mall, a family sipped champagne, as a million shouting, singing people filed past. Approaching Trafalgar Square, we spotted signs in the crowd in Polish: a bilingual placard saying ‘The Duchy of Cieszyn rejects Brexit’ – Central European regionalism here – and, more bracingly, an unfurled red-white ‘Solidarność’ banner, bringing Poland's anti-Communist resistance symbol par excellence to Britain’s anti-Brexit march. And, of course, in the crowd demanding a second referendum, there were hundreds and hundreds of blue-yellow EU flags: worn as capes, as face-paints, as antennae on children’s heads, wrapped around dogs, serving as blankets for protesters in wheelchairs. Here, a flag – the 19C medium of national identity par excellence – was repurposed for a very 21C anti-nationalist, transnational message.
This is the trouble with historians: they see deep layers of meaning, century upon century, wherever they look, as if deep time were all around them. Most commentators referred to the march as ‘historic’, by which they meant that it would be remembered, shape events, feature in future textbooks. But historian-marchers keep one eye behind them too: the People’s Vote March was also historic, because it drew together, in a carnival of protest, so many rich threads from the past of both these islands and of their European neighbours.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Three Days in Budapest

Isabella (1519-1559), Queen of Hungary, attributed to workshop of Lucas Cranach

        This month, I attended a
conference in Budapest, to mark the 500th anniversary of the birth of Isabella (1519-59), a Polish-Italian princess and Queen of Hungary. In spite of the tsunami of books and novels on Renaissance queens in recent years, Isabella’s dramatic life is still surprisingly little-known outside Hungary itself. Raised at the Cracow court at the height of the Polish Renaissance, Isabella travelled south in 1539 to marry King John of Hungary: only to find herself, just 18 months later, widowed, with a new-born son, and an Ottoman army led by Sultan Suleiman I surrounding her capital of Buda. Via many twists and turns, she came to rule the new principality of Transylvania for her son, as the Sultan’s vassal.
            Isabella was a highly international 16th-century figure, continually crossing borders, and this conference, organised by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, also involved much border crossing, with speakers from Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Finland and the UK. Isabella has fallen between the cracks of different national scholarships, but an international conference like this can start to put the pieces back together. Attending the conference programme put together by Dr. Terez Oborni and Dr. Agnes Mate was like watching a new biography of Isabella write itself in real time – as chapter after chapter of her life unfolded before us, reconstructed by experts from sources and archives all over Europe. In the ornate halls of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences headquarters, a 19C academic palace on the banks of the Danube, we spent two days conjuring up Isabella’s Hungary, where great geopolitical and cultural forces clashed in the mid-16C – surrounded by paintings of medieval castles, and listening to a performance of 16C Central European music on period instruments by the Musica Historia group.

It was hard, during this wonderful conference, not to notice also the modern-day political forces at work around us. The conference coincided with an international dispute over a new poster-campaign by the Hungarian government: the posters in question, showing George Soros with Jean-Claude Juncker, were prominent all over Budapest during our stay. The conference also took place during a serious crisis for the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, our hosts – the Hungarian government is poised to close or take direct control of its network of excellent research institutes, a move which has drawn international protest, including from the UK’s British Academy, as an assault on the fundamental principle of academic freedom. Staff of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences have appealed for international support. Hungarian historian colleagues and friends now find themselves on the front line of this dispute, their research projects, jobs and careers suddenly uncertain. Historians are a tellingly early focus for populist regimes – as we see in clashes over the Poland’s Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk, the Polish Jewish Museum (Polin) in Warsaw, and now in Hungary.

In the 30 years since 1989, we have made real progress in integrating the rich history of Central Europe into our wider histories of Europe, after decades of intellectual separation in the Cold War. Scholars working in Budapest have been key to this – both those at the Central European University (also now under sustained and grave governmental attack), and at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, who have written reams of excellent work, opening up their country’s past to international audiences. Back in Oxford tutorials, my students sat grim-faced as I explained how historians were under government pressure in Hungary, certain areas of teaching banned, and that we should seize in both hands the intellectual freedoms we have. EU expansion, migration and the Brexit crisis have, I hope, by now given the lie to Chamberlains’ infamous words of British indifference to Central Europe in 1939:  we can no longer say that this is ‘a faraway country of [whose people] we know nothing’. As Isabella, the half-Italian queen of Hungary shows, the history of Central Europe is the history of Western Europe, in the Renaissance, 20C, and today alike.

Friday, 9 November 2018

Between Two Novembers

This weekend, the world will face the bracing 100th anniversary of 11th November 1918 – a date with very a different meaning in the two traditions in which I grew up, British and Polish. In the UK, on their winter coats people are wearing not just red paper poppies, but elaborate enamelled flowers engraved with the dates 1918-2018. For the British, November 1918 is Armistice, a solemn national occasion of mourning and memory, in a military key. For Poland and its international diasporas, however, the 11th November 1918 is celebration – Independence, the day on which the European empires which had partitioned and gobbled up the old Polish kingdom, and ruled it for 129 years, fell away, leaving the way open for Poles to take up arms and create their country anew (or a remembered version of it).

            This 100th anniversary comes at a time when both these countries are debating their identities, and pasts, out aloud before the eyes of the world. In Britain, some look forward to a sharp break with the EU and a rekindled imperial trading future, while others wait for a UK-style en marche progressive wave to sweep those visions, and Brexit itself, clean away. In Poland, meanwhile, the ruling nationalist Law & Justice party, the liberal mayor of Warsaw, and ultra-far-right groups are caught in a three-way struggle over the annual Independence Day march, in a proxy fight for the meaning of the day.
     As a historian and British citizen, I’ve always been caught between, and within, these two national conversations, but the tensions of British-Polishness (or Polish Britishness, if you will), are in November 2018 more pronounced than ever. The rise in anti-East European xenophobia seen in the UK during and since the 2016 referendum has, and has not, caught me by surprise. In the 1990s, during an internship at the Foreign Office, a succession of top civil servants commented on my surname with disapproval, declaring: ‘we can’t have foreigners working here, can we?’ In the 2000s, habituating the riverside children’s playgrounds of Reading, I could see local parents and grandparents visibly stiffen when I spoke Polish in that public setting; and visibly relax when I took care to intersperse it with a few sentences in my impeccably middle-class English, as I have learnt to do ever since, on streets, trains and buses. After the Referendum, guests at Oxford high tables and shop workers alike felt free to announce that I was not British, à propos nothing at all. English white-on-white xenophobia is not universal, but it is a persistent daily undercurrent, encountered along the whole social spectrum - upper class, middle class and working class fellow citizens alike, in metropolises, provincial towns and rural pubs.

            And in Poland itself, people are equally quick to judge the name-accent-passport combination of their diaspora kin, in archives, hotel receptions, restaurants, conferences. Poles in these varied social situations quickly feel the need to tell the diaspora who they really are: ‘so you are not Polish’, ‘so you are Polish’, ‘so you are foreign’. This urgent need to categorise reflects a deeper set of anxieties about what, and who, ‘Polish’ is, 100 years on from independence. Whoever ends up marching, and in the name of what, in the streets of Warsaw on Sunday, the very equation ‘1918-2018’ is, historically speaking, a potentially uncomfortable sleight of hand. It tacitly equates the Poland created in 1918 by the Versailles Peace Treaty with the Poland created in 1945 by the WWII Allies. Yet, in their borders and peoples, these two countries were very different places. The Poland born on 11th November 1918 had a highly mixed population: the 1921 census found that 30% of its citizens were Ukrainian/Ruthenian, Jewish, German or from other minorities. The Poland of 2018 is one of the most ethnically and religiously homogenous states in Europe. The celebratory slogan ‘1918-2018’ does not seem to make much room for that absent 30%.

            So, for the British-Polish and Polish-British, this will be a strange weekend, watching stately processions to the cenotaph in London, and the noisy and possibly violent Independence march in Warsaw – red poppies, red and white flags. Many histories, communities and lives do not fit the clear national stories which these 1918 commemorations try to unite their respective societies around. Yet, in the wider run of European and global history, those who cross boundaries, inhabit margins, or live in zones of overlap make up a large part of the world’s story. Perhaps one day the solemn Polish and British Novembers will also find a way to make their peace with that.

Monday, 21 May 2018

Royal Wedding as Microcosm...

Two years ago, serendipitously, the Bodleian Library offered the Jagiellonians Project (which I lead) a spring 2018 slot for an exhibition about a Renaissance royal wedding. As the Bodleian staff, my co-curator Katarzyna Kosior and I hurried to write captions, secure an object loan, design flyers and pick 9 objects to mark the 500th anniversary of the 1518 wedding of King Sigismund I of Poland and the Italian princess Bona Sforza, the media grew steadily more excited about preparations for the British royal celebrations. As we held a conference on Renaissance Royal Weddings, from Paris to Constantinople, the imminent Windsor wedding moved higher and higher up the news agenda. And the parallels between 16C and contemporary royal nuptials are rich.

The British royal wedding this weekend boasted impeccably 21stcentury features: the digital clock on Windsor Council’s website, A-list celebrity culture, the tens of thousands of tweets generated. But, like royal weddings across time and space, the event was at heart a symbolic performance. It was thus in the Renaissance, when princes put on treasury-draining, eye-poppingly spectacular festivities for their nuptials. It was thus in imperial nineteenth-century Britain, when the royals invented a new traditional-looking pageantry to awe onlookers. Historians know that royal weddings perform identity because they are a chance for princes, and their subjects, to stage who think they are - or who they might like to be.

When the bride is a foreigner, from a distant land, this effect is heightened. Meghan Markle is the first foreign bride for a senior British royal since, whisper it, the abdicated Edward VIII took the American socialite Wallis Simpson as his wife. Historically, a royal marriage to an overseas bride was proof of a country’s essential cosmopolitanism – its diplomatic connections, its international power, and also of the prince’s good cultural taste and broad horizons. When, 500 years ago this spring, King Sigismund married Bona Sforza in Cracow, he was reinforcing his own reputation as a leading enthusiast for the Italian Renaissance and all its heady glamour. Prince Harry too was showing us a more global, forward-looking British monarchy, open to the future.
But a prince’s foreign spouse has also consistently been a touchstone for anxieties about national identity and belonging, galvanising local anger. In 1554, for example, the English noble Thomas Wyatt led a rebel army to London, to prevent Mary I from taking a foreigner, Philip II of Spain, as her husband. In Poland, the teenage Bona Sforza immediately became the subject of obscene verses, lambasted for bringing with her Italian ‘sodomites, patricides and epicureans’ who stole jobs from honest Poles. Meghan Markle, even before the wedding, became the target of hate mail. At a country house outside Reading this weekend, I heard visitors (racism alert) grumbling out loud, as they tucked into their picnic, about the inclusion of a Gospel choir in the royal wedding service because this ‘wasn’t British music’.

Foreign brides for princes have, for centuries, highlighted and even inflamed tensions between a country’s local and cosmopolitan identities. Royal weddings thus show us a society in microcosm. Royal nuptials hold up a mirror in which historians catch a glimpse of past identity crises; and in which we can today catch a bracing glimpse of Britain, with all its fissures, in 2018.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Beach / Museum

Edge of the Old World? San Sebastian, La Gomera
Summer is over and in Somerville Senior Common Room, academics are swapping tales of holidays. Many colleagues have holidayed in cultural-historic hotspots, such as Central Italy, and so I wonder if they will wince when I admit to spending a fortnight in Tenerife – an island associated, in the UK, with loud mega-resorts, high-rise hotels, beaches full of British tourists, and not much else. The lavish modern water parks and zoos built on the island, consistently rated as its top attractions, only reinforce the impression that there is nothing really to see on this remote Canarian isle. Bucket-and-spade tourism dominates, in an archipelago whose economy has a long track-record of dependence on just one industry (wine, cochineal, sunseekers).
            It is no real secret that there is more to the island – travel journalists regularly write features on ‘hidden Tenerife’, its live volcanos, pre-historic fauna, mountain villages. What interests me, however, is the way in which Tenerife and its tourism industry shrug off the past, an island refusing to wear its history on its sleeve. Yet historians of the late medieval and Renaissance worlds have long stressed how important the Canary Islands are – from John Merriman in the 1960s to Felipe Armandez Armesto in the 1980s, the archipelago has been described as a laboratory of empire, the place where Europeans learnt to colonise from the 14C, a stepping stone between medieval Christendom and global modernity. 
            Taking the ferry to the island of La Gomera, day-trippers from Tenerife dock in the tiny port of San Sebastian, cuboid houses perched on the mountainside. This is where Columbus provisioned his fleet, the port from which he set sail into the blue yonder in 1492. San Sebastian still feels remote, on the very edge of the Old World. When the Fred Olsen trimaran navigates the choppy channel between La Gomera and Tenerife, you can peer west through the salt-greased window and think of the Santa Maria sailing these same waters. All over the Canaries, you can eat papas arrugadas, rare ‘heritage’ varieties of potatoes, genetically important because these are potato strains first brought to Europe from the Americas in the 16C, preserved in their original form in this archipelago. In colonial towns in misty northern Tenerife, such as Oratava, you can visit the three-storied 17C town-houses of people who grew rich on trade, because the Canaries were an essential staging post for Spanish maritime traffic between Europe and the Americas in the early modern centuries.

            There is more than enough material, to build among the hotels of Tenerife, a magnificent Museum of the Canaries, of Atlantic History, or of the Americas, to address the richness, complexities, controversies and myths of Iberia’s global empires – launched from these very shores. So Tenerife is a useful reminder that however historically significant or evocative a place may seem to scholars, 15,000,000 people a year fly to the Canary Islands for quite different reasons. After all, who needs history, or a heritage industry, in order to prosper if you have a really hot beach? 

Friday, 28 July 2017

Back in the News...

The 15th century courtyard of the Jagiellonian University, Krakow:
still debating Jagiellonians...
  In this, the 4th year of the ERC-Oxford Jagiellonians project, this enigmatic and mighty Renaissance royal dynasty are suddenly making it back into the news. Between 1386 and 1572, the Jagiellonians (as we now call them) ruled a chunk of Europe – encompassing, at their height, present-day Lithuania, Belarus, western Ukraine, western Russia, Poland, Prussia, Hungary, Romania, Bohemia, parts of Serbia and Croatia. With a cv like that, it is no surprise that they cast a long historical shadow. Just as some British politicians invoke the Tudors, and Henry VIII’s 1534 break with Rome, as a precedent for Brexit, so in Poland’s own fraught domestic politics this year the Jagiellonians are back. For it is in Poland above all that the Jagiellonians, with their glittering court at Krakow, are most fondly remembered, and today most fiercely argued over.
            This month, for example, sees the launch of a new Polish research project, ‘Jagiellonian Ideals and Present-Day Challenges’, led by the Krakow University sociology professor Leszek Korporowicz. In a series of seminars to be held in Krakow, Oxford and Kiev, social scientists and historians will ask what social or policy lessons can today be drawn from the multi-ethnic, multi-religious societies found in Renaissance-era Central Europe. Also interested in what this Renaissance royal family can teach us in the 21st century are members of Poland’s Citizens’ Congress (Kongres Obywatelski), a civil society group which seeks to promote active citizenship and open policy debate. One of its members recently visited Somerville, where we drank tea in the SCR and he spoke passionately about the need to write new, provocative narratives of the Polish past (especially its Jagiellonian phase) in order to stimulate critical thinking about the country’s present, and its future. Earlier this month, in London, I had the opportunity to meet with a number of EU Ambassadors from the Baltic area, and was struck by how keen they too were to discuss this region’s 16th-century dynastic history. Meanwhile, there has been controversy in Poland over the ‘Three Seas’ (trójmorze) summit of Central European countries attended by Donald Trump, which for some Poles evokes a nostalgic vision of former Jagiellonian power stretching between the Baltic, Adriatic and Black Seas. Since the 1930s, the idea jagiellońska, ‘Jagiellonian vision’, has regularly functioned as a byword for Polish would-be hegemony in Eastern Europe.

            As our project’s first book (Remembering the Jagiellonians, due out in May 2018) shows, the Jagiellonians have been used to legitimate (or denigrate) a vast array of different political projects since their official extinction in 1572. And in the current political turbulence across Europe, it is interesting to see how this Renaissance dynasty is being redeployed in new 21st century contexts. For liberals, the vast territories ruled by this curious late medieval royal house offer a narrative of outward-facing internationalism, cosmopolitanism and tolerance; for populists and nationalists, a story of national ascendancy, achievement and empire. In Europe’s latent culture wars, great Renaissance dynasties are useful to have on one’s side. We shall see which of these narratives wins out, and in whose image the Jagiellonians are remoulded in this century.

Europe of the Three Seas:
graphic from biznes.onet.pl