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

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

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.