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

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.

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