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

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Nativity Scenes

At this time of year, I usually receive through my door a collective Christmas card from my area’s local churches, which typically takes the form of a series of nativity scenes executed in felt-tip pen and crayon by school children. What strikes me about this card – coming as it does after 8 weeks of teaching an intensive course on the Italian Renaissance – is how the imagery, composition and basic colours of these drawings by children in 21st-century, officially Protestant England are in their essentials identical to the Nativity scenes painted in 15th century Tuscany by Botticelli, or Piero della Francesca, or Ghirlandaio or even the reliably unconventional Leonardo. There is a stable, a woman in blue and a small infant in the middle of the image; there may be any combination of animals, shepherds, monarchs and angels around the margins of the scene.

It might seem self-evident to us that a Nativity scene should look like this, but that in itself is testament to how powerful and embedded this iconography is. What interests me is how the pictorial conventions of the medieval and Renaissance church, which set out for artists how depictions of the Nativity should look, have been transmitted to modern English classrooms, across the centuries and across the confessional divides created by the Reformation. Presumably these children, in drawing their Christmas card, did not have reproductions of Florentine Old Masters propped up in front of them. I imagine they have picked up the archetypal Nativity composition from children’s books, Christmas cards and decorations, cribs or even theatre (an important form of religious education in Renaissance Italy, as it happens), i.e. the Nativity play, but I’m only guessing. I’ve been reading Dana Arnold’s Very Short Introduction to Art History, an excellent digest of the core conceptual problems and current controversies in that discipline, in preparation for a new course I’m teaching next term.  She poses the question: when we see a painting of a woman holding a baby, how do we know it’s a representation of the Madonna and Child, and not just ‘any’ woman holding ‘any’ baby? The school-children’s Nativity drawings show, in apparently secularised 21st century Britain, how resilient, deep-seated and widely diffused the imagery of western Christianity still is; how  iconography is apparently set to outlast mass adherence to traditional doctrinal belief.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Historiography - the boring bits?

At Freshers’ drinks this year, a first-year who had been savvy enough to acquaint himself with his future tutors’ publications greeted me by saying: “You’re the specialist in historiography.” My heart sank slightly, because a few months earlier another undergraduate had declared in a tutorial that he hated reading historiographical surveys (i.e. histories of how historians have treated a particular topic) above all, because these were the most boring bits of the entire degree, and ‘not real history and not real research’, because it was insiders writing about insiders.

Working on Jagiellonian Poland, an area which is still fighting its way into the consciousness of many early modernists, I have indeed written my fair share of historiographical essays, as part of an on-going act of translation (and academic persuasion) – trying to explain to ‘western’ readers why Polish history has become so invisible to us, and why Polish scholarship often appears so jarringly alien at first glance. Explaining all that is often a necessary prelude to talking about your own research.

The Polish Reformation according to the ever so slightly
nationalist German historian T. Wotschke (1911).
At the moment, I’m finishing another historiographical article, this time on the early Polish Reformation – on how historians, from courtiers in 1520s’ Cracow, to 19C Prussian school-masters, to Polish Marxists writing in the 1980s, have understood and conceptualised the first, Lutheran phase of the Polish Reformation (roughly 1518-1550s). It’s not that hard to write a straightforward (worthy but possibly very dull) historiographical survey – just summarise what people wrote, going through chronologically from start to finish. But trying to eek an overall argument out of such material – in this case, a mass of c. 30 monographs and 50 articles in 4 languages - is much more challenging, and feels a lot like ‘real research’. It’s tricky because once you’ve waded through the historical works themselves, you have to find out who the authors were, and what socio-political context they were each writing in, in their various countries, over a 500 year period. If you do identify a correlation between a particular historical period and a particular interpretation of the past, that’s usually all it remains – a hypothesis, a correlation. Silences are tricky too – if scholars for a generation or two simply stop writing about an event altogether, how can we possibly prove satisfactorily, or definitively, why this was? Historiography feels important, but also unhappily speculative.

As it is, the historiography of the early Polish Reformation has turned out to be quite exciting. There is evidence of apparent Communist censorship, very recent tampering with 16C manuscripts, and of the early modern Polish past being systematically remoulded to serve stark nationalist agendas - deliberate attempts to ‘forget’ a distant and unwanted Lutheran past.

In our admissions interviews last week, we asked candidates to read an article by a British historian about an aspect of Spanish history. He was witheringly critical of Spanish scholars, of their myopia, myth-making and nationalism. “What makes him think that he, as a foreigner, can write their national history so much better than they can?” I asked. Good question.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Lecturing for High Stakes

William Stubbs, Oxford Regius Professor of History (d.1901)
Photograph by Hubert von Herkomer.

Over the past two weeks, the Oxford History Faculty has been busy choosing its new Regius Professor of Modern History, someone to follow in the (all male) footsteps of William Stubbs, Maurice Powicke, Hugh Trevor Roper, J.H. Elliott and our current much esteemed Robert Evans. In a democratic innovation, this time round all the postholders (i.e. tenured members) of the Faculty were invited to spend a long afternoon on very hard seats in our George Street lecture theatre, listening to each of the shortlisted candidates deliver a lecture. The candidates’ brief was to talk for 30 minutes about their vision for the Regius Chair, and how their research related to it (although that description makes it sound a bit like a Radio 4 game show….). Our brief was to fill out forms explaining what we thought of each performance (which makes it sound like an exercise in market research).

The mock-lecture has been part of the process of selecting candidates for academic jobs in Oxford for some time, and it was curious (and something of a leveller) to see it applied to even this most coveted and prestigious of history posts. Many a time I’ve turned up at a college for interview, to be promptly shown into a large lecture room, with a sparse audience consisting of the appointing panel and a handful of history undergraduates rounded up for the occasion. A lot can go wrong in that scenario. At my first mock lecture, at Lincoln College, I trotted up onto the stage they had prepared, turned on the stunningly bright overhead projector, and blinded myself for a good 30 seconds. If you get through the talk itself, keep going despite the rows of stony faces, and manage to deliver a coherent argument in 10 very compressed minutes, the undergraduate audience get to test their erudition by publicly grilling their hopeful would-be tutors.

With the Regius presentations, it felt as if this process had been transposed up a level. The people in the back row asking daring/cheeky questions were not 19 year old undergraduates, but long-standing Oxford dons. The subject in hand was not just the importance of an applicant’s latest piece of research, but the significance of history itself. The prize on offer was not a fixed term lectureship, but one of the most famous history posts in the world. From my vantage point, somewhere in row 9, the Regius mock-lectures were an unexpectedly uplifting experience. In what we are so often told are gloomy times, it was energising to hear heavyweight academics from an international shortlist talk passionately and eloquently about why history, as an academic discipline, matters and why Oxford is a good place to pursue it. Certainly the most momentous, high-stakes, high-wire lecturing act many of us will get to hear. As for the result, we’ll all have to wait a bit longer for that… look out for a University press release, I think.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

The Somerville Landscape

When our new Principal, Alice Prochaska, arrived in August to take up her post, I decided it might be a suitable juncture at which to read to the history of Somerville, Somerville for Women: An Oxford College 1879-1993 (1996) by our emeritus librarian Pauline Adams. All new Fellows are presented with copies of the book when they arrive, which I think is a nice touch.

The book has (among many other things) changed my sense of the college itself as a historical/geographical space. Somerville has at first glance always seemed an architectural hotchpotch (I think our current architect at one point politely called it ‘episodic’). It was never clear to me why 1970s buildings abutted late 19C brick halls, or why the 1930s stone-roofed Darbishire quad has a fantastically ugly 1950s structure alongside it. I didn’t understand why our enormous, green main quad has paths crossing it at such peculiar, slightly un-functional angles.

But from Pauline’s book I now understand that the entire site grew out of an early 19C north Oxford villa and its grounds, and things make much more sense. ‘House’, our core and original building, was indeed just that: Walton House, built in 1826 and the home of Captain Mostyn Owen, Chief Constable of Oxfordshire. Pauline’s maps reveal that our modern tarmac paths still follow the line of the original pathways which once led through Captain Owen’s orchard, lawns and vegetable gardens. So, as I have been criss-crossing the snow sprinkled quad this November (the one shown in the blog signature photo), I have begun to feel the presence of that early 19C north Oxford house and estate, like a ghost. The library, hall and accommodation blocks which transformed this semi-rural Victorian garden into a busy Oxford college can sometimes be imagined away; one of the trees in our quad might, I think, have been part of that original domestic parkscape.

My favourite museum in Rome, the Crypta Balbi, takes as its subject the historical geography of one block of the city, near the Capitoline hill – visitors are shown how the recently excavated Roman theatre several metres underground in late antiquity morphed into residential quarters, which in turn had medieval churches built on top of them. Somerville hasn’t of course accumulated such dense and thick archaeological layers, but even an Oxford college founded in the 1870s is itself, on one level, simply a historical landscape.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Peter Carey and Making Plans

Inbetween marking HAT tests, doing admissions administration and teaching, I’m reading Parrot and Olivier in America, the new novel by the Australian master-novelist Peter Carey, which narrowly failed to win this year’s Man Booker Prize. All names have been changed, but it’s basically a fictional account of the French aristocrat Alexis de Toqueville’s journey to the USA, which inspired him to write the seminal Democracy in America (1835 & 1840).

Reading Parrot and Oliver has reminded me of something my friends who write/publish fiction talk about, and which the novelist Zadie Smith even lectured on last year – the fact that novelists construct their books in two radically different ways. Some plan everything out (plot etc.) meticulously beforehand; others (like Smith) literally just sit down and write and see what happens. I have a very strong hunch that Peter Carey falls into this latter category – the opening scenes in a Normandy post-revolutionary chateau, and in a radical printers’ workshop in the wilds of Dartmoor, are gripping, but I increasingly have the uncomfortable sense that Carey is improvising as he goes along, and losing momentum. It feels at the moment as if he and the reader are stuck in a lacklustre, early 19C New York, waiting for a plot to present itself.

The notion that one can just sit down and write a book, without planning, is absolutely horrifying to a history tutor. When undergraduates sheepishly admit that they didn’t write a detailed plan for their weekly 2,000 word essay, we given them solemn homilies on why this is a terribly Bad Idea. A historical monograph which had no plan would literally disintegrate somewhere after page 5, under the sheer weight of unstructured information, unconnected analyses, and the absence of a big picture. When writing my book (Church, State and Dynasty in Renaissance Poland, on a Polish royal cardinal who died in 1503), not only did every chapter have long typed-up plans & crammed A4 sheets of source references I was going to use, but there was even a pencil diagram showing how the argument of the book as a whole would interconnect. I mention that not as a good model (it's probably not!), but as an example of how meticulous/obsessive historians can be about planning. Evidently some writers find that Calliope and Erato, the wild muses of poetry, will carry you along headlong in creative inspiration; Clio, the muse of history, clearly needs a bit more help and mundane props like Plans.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Hold onto your HATs

My undergraduate and colleagues haven’t seen much of me this week, because I’ve been locked away in my room marking the History Admission Test (the HAT), which applicants sat in their schools at the start of the month.

Mi'kmaq woman, Nova Scotia, 1859
Photo by Paul-Emile Miot

This year the test paper had an eighteenth-century theme. The first question was (as usual) a comprehension exercise, in which candidates were presented with an extract from a historical monograph – a discussion of how social policy was made in Hanoverian England, through the interaction of Parliament, local officials and an emerging public sphere. This text, as it happens, was taken from a new book, Inferior Politics, written by my Somerville colleague Joanna Innes, so this year’s HAT has a distinctly Somervillian flavour. The second passage – where applicants must appraise a source – was an 18C French missionary’s account of a ceremony he witnessed among the Mi’kmaq Indians of eastern Canada. Its centrepiece is an arresting, bloodthirsty speech by an elder female of the tribe. Same period, but a world away from Jo’s polite, provincial lawmakers. (The HAT paper with mark scheme will in due course be published here: http://www.history.ox.ac.uk/prosundergrad/applying/hat_introduction.htm).

The HAT has quickly become something of an Oxford institution. Our current undergraduates remember the HAT papers they sat with a mixture of apparent affection and terror, and can still recall the fine details of the passages years later. It certainly seems a more imaginative, challenging and useful exercise than the old Oxford entrance exam which I sat in the 1990s, which was basically a mock (and surrogate) A-Level.

I’ve been marking the HAT for some six years now, and I’m always impressed by the rigour of the marking operation. The process is very much akin to the way we mark History Finals papers – dozens of Oxford tutors beavering away at their desks, working to strict deadlines with papers piled up in front of them, meticulous double-marking, and couriers on bicycles shipping batches of scripts between college lodges and the Faculty building (this week, in freezing fog). The candidates invest a huge amount of intellectual effort, time and emotional energy in sitting the HAT; it is only fair that we, as Oxford tutors, do the same when reading what they have written.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Humanities and the Prince

This week, I’ve been thinking (or maybe brooding) about the historical fortunes of the humanities. On Monday, I gave a lecture to Finalists on humanism in late 15th century Venice and Florence, on the intellectual movement which lay at the heart of the Renaissance. When talking about humanism, I’m always struck by the humanists’ audacious and massive success in convincing Europe’s ruling elites - princes, monarchs, popes and republicans – that the studia humanitatis, i.e. the study of ancient languages and literature, history, poetry, was the highest calling of mankind, one of the most useful things anyone could do with their lives and, above all, fantastically useful to the state. Princes rushed to employ humanists as ambassadors (because they were top notch public speakers) and in their chancelleries/government bureaucracy (because they wrote nicely). A humanist education very quickly became a mark of social prestige, a must-have career asset for any aspiring member of the European political or cultural elite; humanism took the world by storm.

The UK, in the autumn of 2010, presents a rather sad contrast to that glorious Renaissance moment, for anyone with any interest in the humanities. Although the details of the Comprehensive Spending Review’s 40% cut to the Higher Education teaching budget are still being thrashed out, government ministers have been saying for months that arts subjects are ‘non-priority’, and degrees in humanities possibly not worthy of any state support whatsoever. That’s quite a historical turn-about: the Medici in Renaissance Florence patronising humanism lavishly, Cameron-Clegg today publically washing their hands of the studia humanitatis altogether.

Obviously, somewhere along the line British humanities scholars have palpably failed to capture the imagination of government. I’ve recently had invitations to a lecture in Oxford and a conference at Birkbeck College, which have both explored the case for the public worth of studying literature, history, philosophy and languages (you can read about the London conference here: http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2010/11/defending-the-humanities). As a community, we seem to be mobilising rather late. Renaissance scholars and politicians alike would be deeply perplexed at the notion that the studia humanitatis were of no value – they teach eloquence, critical thinking, and give a sense of perspective on human society, across time and space. But humanism was loved above all in Renaissance Italy by the liberty-loving, self-governing elites of republican city-states – because they believed that the ultimate point of a humanities education was to create active, reflective, intelligent citizens. They knew that democracy needed the humanities; our present masters think, instead, that the economy needs science.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Breughel for the People?

This week I was pleasantly surprised to receive in the post an A3 colour reproduction of The Road to Calvary (1602) by Peter Breughel the Younger (but just possibly by his much more famous dad). The Art Fund sent it as part of their current campaign to raise £2.7M, in order to keep the Brueghel on display in Nostell Priory in Yorkshire, and save it from auction and possible export. (You can see the picture here: www.artfund.org/procession).

The poster is arresting and rich in detail, if not exactly cheerful – there is an intricate seventeenth-century cityscape, a distant windmill, mounted soldiers with Habsburg standards marching Christ up to a very hilly Calvary, and scores of figures milling about. The accompanying letter from the director of the Art Fund points out that the precise meaning of much of this detail is controversial and slightly mysterious. Is it a commentary on the tensions in 17C Dutch society? An allegory of the Dutch Revolt against Habsburg rule? The letter then invites the reader/potential donor ‘to form your own [historical?] interpretation of the painting.’

I baulked slightly at this line, just as I was a rather thrown to be asked, in the Battle of Bosworth museum, for my personal opinion/judgement on the meaning of key archaeological artefacts recovered from the site. I myself have no killer insight into the Brueghel painting, but I did at first worry that the Art Fund invitation was a little silly – is the opinion of ‘everyman/woman’ really by implication as valid, or as useful, as that of an art historian who specialises in early modern Dutch art and has a formidable grasp of the context, genre and painterly oeuvre? But then I remembered what I say to the Somerville History Freshers when they arrive in Oxford (but not this year, because I’d lost my voice!) – don’t be afraid to challenge the historical experts you read, because as non-specialists you (potentially) bring a panoramic and fresh perspective, and can see things that a specialist who has spent 20 years immersed in their chosen field can perhaps no longer see. So, let’s wait and see if any of the Art Fund’s members come up with an iconoclastic, radical interpretation of Brueghel’s lively but gloomy panorama. In the meantime, I’m going to pin up the poster on the notice board outside my tutor room.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Good tutorial? Bad tutorial?

Socrates - the best tutor ever?
National Archaeological Museum Naples
Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen
Between March and October this year, I did not teach a single tutorial because I was on research leave. A seven month gap is enough to make you worry you’ve forgotten how to do it, but also gives you a refreshed perspective. The tutorial system – a weekly one-hour academic discussion between a tutor and 1-3 students – is always held up as the jewel in Oxford University’s crown. It’s not a lecture, it’s not simply extended and pedantic feedback on a piece of written work, but (in theory) a Socratic conversation, whereby through a skilfully chaired discussion students question their assumptions and gain brilliant new insights into the topic in hand, and maybe the world in general.

The principal thing I’d forgotten was how hard it is to know – in any given tutorial – whether it is going well or not. Although we get plenty of formal feedback from students about their experience of a term's teaching, or their degree in general, these are feedback overviews. From the tutor’s perspective – sitting back in an armchair, a discreet sheet of notes to hand, maybe a comforting cup of herbal tea nearby – it is pretty difficult  to tell whether a specific tutorial is living up to the Socratic ideal, or turning into a purgatorial experience for everyone concerned.

There are some obvious signs that light bulbs are turning on – a palpable rise in the energy level in the room; people sitting up or moving towards the edge of their seats; the  articulation of challenging and vociferous questions; students debating with each other in an animated manner as if the tutor wasn’t there at all. There are also obvious signs that a tutorial is not going well at all – if a student is staring glumly out of the window at people playing Frisbee on the quad, or picking dead skin off the soles of their feet while their tutorial partner talks about early modern Spanish armies. And then there is – much more commonly – the grey inbetween. If students are giving brief, faltering answers to your questions, with extended silences before they speak, does that mean they are ruminating on the issues at a deep and still level? Or that they are revealing a terrible lack of reading? Or that the point you just elucidated has gone right over their heads? Or, alternatively, that it was so blindingly obvious that no-one understands why you bothered to mention it at all?

So that is one of the reasons why tutorial teaching requires you to keep your wits about you. While one part of the tutor’s brain is neurotically concerned with reading body language, glances and silences for evidence of total bafflement or intellectual elation, the rest of it is trying hard to conduct a sensible conversation about the intricacies of Elizabethan court portraiture, or the economy of late 15th century Florence, or pedagogical practice in the Renaissance. But maybe that’s just me.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Zoological Nomenclature

Last week, I had to go to the Radcliffe Science Library (RSL) to consult a book about the Italian Renaissance, which had temporarily been rehoused in the RSL basement. Wandering around the RSL reminded me a wonderful journal I once came across on its shelves, The Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature. In this publication, history, antiquarianism and the natural sciences meet. In the Bulletin, zoologists deliberate, rule on and clarify the correct Latin names for the world’s species, with reference to old documents. Over the centuries, naturalists have sometimes christened the same creature many times over by different names, in error or in ignorance of each other’s work. What is apparently the same genus of termite, for example, might be called by one name in 1813, and by quite another in a paper published in a different country in 1856. The Bulletin thus consists in large part of historical research, as modern zoologists pick through the writings, plates and papers of their eighteenth-, nineteenth- and twentieth-century forebears, tracing the history of human study of the animal kingdom.

Do fish need historians?
18C Engraving of an Atlantic Salmon by M. E. Bloch
Historical research and contemporary science seem to meet in all sorts of unlikely places. The British Antarctic Survey literally drills into the past by extracting ‘ice cores’, and maps the ice’s gas content against human history, correlating changes in the gas composition with the start of the industrial revolution in ‘the early 1800s’. To make the arguments they make, they need to have an accurate grasp of human chronology. A recent BBC programme on the new Marine Census featured a New England professor who uses the logbooks of mid-19th century American fishing vessels to calculate (the apparently Biblically vast) fish stocks in the western Atlantic 150 years ago, and juxtapose them with the depleted populations in the same waters today. This kind of hybrid scientific-historical research requires archival and palaeographic (decoding old handwriting) skills, and sensitivity to the functions (and thus likely accuracy) of a 19th century maritime log book. In as similar vein, Oxford University climate scientists last week announced a new project to work through the logbooks kept by Royal Navy Battleships during World War I, which contain plenty of human observations on the weather c.1914. (If you want to have a go at this research, see www.oldweather.org/). Climate change itself is of course a historical concept through and through – the environment changing over time, through the actions of human beings – and so this kind of marriage of historical and scientific research is set to be a growing trend.

Much is made of the fundamental, allegedly unbridgeable divide between scholarship in the sciences and humanities. But concepts like time and the past obviously sit in the consciousness of all these disciplines. All scholars need to have some grasp of the history of their subject, to give their own research a meaningful context. So apparently radically different intellectual pursuits (like history and science) can turn out to have surprisingly porous boundaries, shared problems and rich interfaces.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Doctor Copernicus and Q

The Death of Copernicus, A. Lesser (d.1884)

A couple of weeks ago, the History Faculty put online the new undergraduate reading lists which tutors had valiantly revised and updated over the long vacation. My own contribution was an overhauled bibliography for the European history course ‘General VIII’, which covers the action-packed years 1517-1618. At the end, in an experimental flourish, I added a new appendix – a list of fairly high-brow historical novels set in Europe, Asia and the Americas in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. To my surprise, none of the colleagues who have seen the document have yet remarked, or protested, or thrown their hands up in dismay at this unorthodox fictional ending to an Oxford reading list otherwise consisting of heavy-weight research publications.

The list includes one of my favourite twentieth-century novels, Doctor Copernicus (1976) by John Banville. Banville – in his trademark luminous prose - offers a poignant rendition of the master astronomer, with perceptive and I think unmatched descriptions of the splendid seediness of papal Rome in 1500, the backwater life led by Copernicus and his fellow cathedral canons in Frombork/Frauenburg on the Baltic lagoon in Polish Prussia, of dangerous odysseys across the continent. The only other novel I know which treats sixteenth-century Europe with quite the same panoramic sweep is Q (1999), by an Italian collective writing under the name of Luther Blissett. Q is an epic imagining of the Reformation, told as a cat and mouse story of a papal agent pursuing a reformer across Christendom over four decades – there are wonderfully memorable descriptions of the ‘court’ of King Jan of Munster during the apocalyptic siege of that Anabaptist city in 1534-5, of the cosmopolitan chaos of Renaissance Venice, of heretical books smuggled through reed beds on the Italian coast.

Historians are often assumed to look down on historical fiction as something cheap, trashy, populist and misleading. It is certainly annoying when novels misrepresent the past in a cavalier fashion, or when they treat their human subjects in a glib, trivial or voyeuristic way. But there are plenty of serious, seriously thoughtful, novels about the early modern period which I know my colleagues read, and which I wholeheartedly feel our students should read too. Novelists like Banville and Blissett show that the events we study can inspire highly talented people other than students and professional historians to engage passionately and provocatively with the past; it does not belong exclusively to us as historians, but enjoys a broader cultural ownership. These novels also let us see a period we thought we knew well in a different way – they are not textbooks, which have to follow a more or less prescribed path through the sixteenth century, but freewheeling and left-field (sometimes radical) reinterpretations of the period. In Luther Blissett’s aptly zeitgeist reading, for example, the principal historical force in sixteenth century Europe is not princely power, or the ideas of great intellectuals, or the bubbling anger of lower social orders, but the schemes of clever bankers. Serious historical fiction and serious historical scholarship share many of the same questions, methods and ambitions; we’re all trying to say something perceptive, and new, about the period. Renaissance scholars themselves would, I think, have found the current frequent handwringing about the proper boundaries of historical fact/fiction bemusing – they knew there was a truth in poetry, and a truth in rhetoric.

Friday, 8 October 2010


So this is Freshers’ Week, and it’s always a real pleasure as a tutor to see again the students who shone at interview in those frenetic few days in December last year, to welcome them to the college and academic life in Oxford, and to begin a 3-year journey with them.

This year’s History Freshers have rightly commented on how much information they have to assimilate in just a few days – so many new terminologies to learn, pieces of paper to file away, computer systems/catalogues to master, a new city geography to become familiar with. I don’t know if the History Freshers would feel more or less daunted if they knew, after 15 years in Oxford, how much I still don’t know about how things in the University function, where they are, and why they happen. I don’t know where the Oriental Studies Institute is; I don’t know how to use the Bodleian’s new photocopying system; I don’t know where all the useful reference books on the medieval church which used to be on the shelves of the Duke Humphreys Library have suddenly gone. I don’t really know what a Proctor does in their 12 month term of office. I am a member of Congregation, the ‘dons’ parliament’, but I have not yet attended a meeting because I don’t know where these are advertised, or what to wear if I did go, or if I would have a right to speak. At my Oxford graduation ceremony in the Sheldonian Theatre in 2000, I did not know where to stand if you were claiming both a BA and an M.St., and ended up embarrassing myself in front of several hundred people. I know the Somerville gardens have rare botanical specimens growing in them, but I don’t know where or what they are. I know the University’s top executive Committee is the Council (and I receive pleasant email updates from them), but I don’t know who sits on it, or how they got there.

In Tobias Jones’ brilliant book about the rise of Silvio Berlusconi, The Dark Heart of Italy, he explains that one of the great post-war myths in that country is of the grande vecchio – a grand old man, in some secret location, who alone knows how the apparent chaos of post-1945 Italy fits together, the prime mover who behind the scenes understands and orchestrates everything. It is surprising that an institution/community as multilayered, kaleidoscopic and confusing (not to say confused?) as Oxford has not yet generated a similar myth.

Monday, 4 October 2010

The Crane

The College has gained a magnificent and striking new feature in recent weeks, which is set to remain with us for many months – a giant construction crane. Even with the panoramic view of the main quad I have from my room, the crane is too high to see directly from my desk. But every so often, when its main arm swings around suddenly, it is reflected in my glass coffee table in a rather ethereal way, a hint of activity in the sky. The crane dominates, and dwarfs, what had always seemed a spacious north Oxford college site and holds great blocks of concrete suspended over the library roof. It is there to construct the Somerville ROQ building – an abbreviation of ‘Radcliffe Observatory Quarter’, rather than a reference to the mythical giant bird in the Tales of Sinbad.

Renaissance writers were very excited by construction sites, a sentiment I am finally beginning to understand. The Florentine apothecary Luca Landucci, who lived at the height of Medicean rule in the late 15th-century and wrote a meticulous diary, kept a careful note of new building projects. When the banker Filippo Strozzi started a multi-decade palace construction project on Landucci’s doorstep, the apothecary was sometimes put out by the dust and noise, but he was more often than not gripped by crane-enthusiasm. “Princely things!”, he wrote, “Men were crazy for building at this time.” For Landucci, the rash of palace-building by bankers was a source of immense civic pride, proof positive that his city was experiencing a golden age, and that he lived in a historically and culturally significant place. In Poland, the chronicler Maciej of Miechów had similar assumptions. Summarising the reign of King Aleksander Jagiellon (d.1506) in his Chronica Polonorum, Maciej listed the monarch’s political achievements and personal virtues, but concluded his eulogy with an observation which rings with disappointment: “But because his treasury was empty, he did not build anything.” Construction projects – as fantastically expensive in the Renaissance as now – were a game for princes, but they also brought glory to the wider community.

The Somerville crane is not, I think, there to stake a claim to political power through princely splendour or to impress our neighbours with our unlimited wealth (as Strozzi’s was!). But it might well become a source of pride for the college community and, in a rather unlikely way, it’s a symbol of optimism and hope. With the UK government’s imminent Comprehensive Spending Review hanging over all British universities like a Damoclean sword, the crane says that we look forward to welcoming many generations of students to study and live in the new building, that we plan boldly for future teaching and research, and above all that we have faith in what we do as an Oxford college.

Thursday, 23 September 2010


Historical narrative tends to get a bad press. In their comments on student essays, tutors often imply that too much narrative is a bad thing – we don’t like to see copious detail about ‘what happened’, who did what, where, when, with whom, but prefer to get to the heart of the matter, the lively analysis and argument. In monographs and articles, too much narrative is also seen as old-fashioned, dull, a bit self-indulgent. Assembling the minute bits and pieces of ‘what happened’ is what antiquarians did before we knew any better.

And narrative has also, of course, become one of the most contested concepts in the humanities in recent decades. I’ve been reading Beverley Southgate’s new book History Meets Fiction, which sums up the post-modern attacks on historians and their attempts to write narrative accounts of ‘what happened’ in the past. A prose account of a historical event, Southgate says, is doing nothing more than taking lots of questionable contemporary narratives, and threading them into one bigger, questionable modern narrative which isn’t necessarily any ‘truer’ than the original sources – chronicles, letters, decrees etc. - which the poor historian poured over. The implication: that writing history is a glorious and misguided waste of time.

I’ve been thinking about all these different assaults on historical narratives in recent weeks, as I try to draft a chapter of my new book. The book is about the early Polish Reformation, and the chapter is on how King Zygmunt I’s regime reacted to a Lutheran uprising in Danzig in 1525.  If I were writing a book about the Reformation in England, say, I wouldn’t have to construct the basic chronological story (the who, what, when?) from scratch. But writing on Poland as I do, there are great uncharted expanses of early modern history of which no narrative has yet been written. So I have been sitting at my computer with lots of paper - a giant folder of Polish royal documents, notes on various interesting but bitty articles on the Danzig Reformation, and my own typed out chronologies and plans - simply trying to work out what happened in the tempestuous years of 1525-6. And it’s extraordinarily difficult. Important pieces of the jigsaw –  furious royal letters to Danzig – have no date, so you put them to one side, unsure where they slot in. Sixteenth-century chronicles and modern historians contradict one another again and again – the court case in which the mayor of Danzig sued the council which had expelled him ended in summer 1523, or was it summer 1526? Then there are problematic silences – who an earth were the radical ‘four men’ from Danzig who came to Cracow to convert Zygmunt I to Lutheranism, armed with beautiful humanist Latin orations?

So, historical narrative is very easy to attack – stylistically, conceptually, philosophically – but it is also very indeed difficult to write, particularly if the story you are telling is new. The most basic thing we do as historians – piecing together stories – remains one of the hardest. I’m developing a new respect for the immense skill of nineteenth-century historians who wrote a lot of the basic narratives that we, as teachers and students of history, have inherited and rely upon. Narrative is worthwhile because we all need a basic sense of what happened, roughly in what order, before we can analyse any event. My narrative of royal reactions to the Danzig Reformation of 1525 obviously won’t, as Southgate says, capture every dimension and moment of human experience during those events. It will indeed stitch together unsatisfactory fragments of contemporary documents. But, like casting out a fishing net into deep waters, it will capture something, however slim and slippery, of what happened. And capturing something of the human past is, I think, (morally, intellectually) better than capturing nothing.