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

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.

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