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.