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

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Christmas Books

In the past few weeks, as posters advertising Christmas gifts have started to appear at railway stations in and near Oxford, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see how many of them feature books, and history books in particular. On one windswept platform, the publisher Dorling Kinderslee set out their Christmas wares – glossy books on motor racing, puzzle books for children, and in pride of place History Year by Year: The Ultimate Visual Guide to the Events that Shaped the World. The cover, gleaming out at commuters, shows some thirty images of people and objects of global historical significance, from Gandhi to the astrolabe. Next to one particularly gloomy set of lifts, meanwhile, there is a large poster urging you to buy Simon Jenkins’ Short History of England. The names of Elizabeth I and Churchill feature in large font, but the poster then asks “How much do you know?”, listing underneath the Gordon Riots, the Barebones Parliaments and other less celebrated or edifying episodes of the English past. The idea that you could market a mass history book specifically by flagging up its revisionism, suggesting that the past you have been taught at school or on television might be read in a completely different way, is I’m sure pleasing to many academic historians – so much of what we write is revisionist and iconoclastic, rewriting narratives, that it’s good to know a wider public is comfortable with, and enjoys, that as an approach to history. In some countries on the European continent, books which celebrate the national past fly off the shelves, but it’s hard to imagine works which seriously challenge accepted national history doing particularly well, far less being robustly marketed as such.

            Great though both these books sound, if I were able to buy up advertising space at British railway stations this Christmas, there are two history-related books which I’d like to encourage people to buy for their friends. Neither of them are brand new, but both are imaginative, unusual and exciting books that I keep going back to, months or years after reading them. The first is Chris Lavers’ Natural History of Unicorns (Granta Books, 2009) a highly original journey through zoology, medieval iconography, Victorian travel literature and ancient Hebrew texts, as Lavers pieces together the different myths, sightings, traditions and animals which came together to create the unicorn. The second is a historical novel which won the Whitbread Prize for Best Novel back in 1999, Rose Tremain’s Music and Silence. The story of an English musician who is employed by the seventeenth-century Danish monarch Christian IV, this book for me at least prefigures Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall in many ways – in its persistent use of the present tense, its lyricism, and its haunting evocation of an early modern European court. Happy Christmas - whatever books you find in your stocking next week…

Friday, 2 December 2011

Knives in the Library

Historic paperknife, photo by Milgesch
     In this age of technological transformation, when I receive emails daily telling me about fancy new historical resources on-line, I’ve been reacquainting myself with a much older and more basic research tool – the knife. In the past two weeks, I have ordered up 5 1000-page volumes of 16C documents from the Bodleian, only to find that these squat pale books had uncut pages. When you point this out to the staff of the Upper Reading Room, they obligingly hand you a paper knife, although it’s blunt and rounded, and looks more like an early surgical implement or a metal shoe horn. Standing at the reserve counter for 20 minutes at a time, slicing at pages, is time-consuming and unexpectedly stressful. These books were mostly printed in 1950s’ Poland, when resources were rather scarce, and the paper is thin and low-grade, and easy to tear. You feel very exposed standing under the full glare of professional librarians, as your fellow readers and eminent colleagues come and go, hacking away, worried that at any moment in full view your hand will slip and you’ll slice right through a page, publically defacing an irreplaceable part of the Bodleian’s collections. It also feels illicit, in the near-silence of the library standing there quite noisily slashing through paper; usually, even tearing sheets out of my A4 pad in the Bod makes me nervous, because it sounds as if you’re vandalising the collections at your desk.

     It’s also rather sad that no-body has looked at these books since they were shipped from Poland in 1914, or 1956. You read the editors’ prefaces, in which they explain that they have painstakingly prepared these documents for publication, travelling to archives throughout Central Europe, interrupted by world wars, but pressing on regardless – for 10, 20 years. In light of all that effort, it’s rather melancholic to be the first person making use of these volumes, after almost a century lying dormant in the stacks. There is also, alongside that, a slight frisson when wielding the knife to be the first person to ever see the fresh pages of that particular copy, like cutting open a fruit.

     Perhaps the most curious thing about this whole exercise is that strictly speaking I don’t have to do it, because this entire 16C source collection is available on-line, courtesy of the Wielkopolska Digital Library. So it’s either a comment on my own stubborn ludditism, or on the shortcomings of electronic books, that I choose to take up my paper knife (so that I can access tangible physical pages to peruse at my desk), rather that sitting at my computer in college, scanning thousands of pages of sixteenth-century Latin on a screen for weeks on end. In the meantime, the staff have taken pity on me and sent my volumes to the Bodleian bindery at Osney Mead, where there is a magic machine which, they tell me, can cut the pages of a book in 30 seconds.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Tuning In

Alan Hollinghurst - recreating historical disorientation?
Photo by Nick Lansley

I’ve recently been reminded of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, the Booker-longlisted novel which I read over summer. The novel consists of 4 parts, set in different decades spanning from 1914 to the present-day. It’s a memorable read because Hollinghurst rather mercilessly drops his reader straight into a suburban drawing room (1914?), say, or a country house weekend party (the 1920s?) and into his characters’ conversations – about music, Cabinet politicians, minor public figures, or the latest trends in interior design. Because Hollinghurst doesn’t actually give us dates, the reader is left to flounder around like a time-traveller, guessing from the small-talk which year or century they have landed in. And unsurprisingly, a lot of the initial conversation in those scenes makes no sense at all at first, because it concerns the minutiae of a particular historical moment, and you have no reference points to hold onto.

I’m on research leave this term, and spending a lot of time in the Bodleian reading a massive collection of Polish 16C political correspondence called the Acta Tomiciana. Reading The Stranger’s Child is, in many ways, like forging your way through new source material as a historian. When you’re first dropped in with the documents, up close with the fine grain of the evidence and beyond the reach of existing textbooks or earlier published research, you’re swimming in an alien world where a lot of things are totally baffling. I found this as a graduate student first dipping my toes into late medieval Polish letter collections, like the Akta Aleksandra. Who are the Nohalsky Tartars the Polish elites keep talking about, and how do they relate to the Crimean Tartars also mentioned? If a letter is written on the octave of the feast of St. Cyril, what exactly does that mean? With the Acta Tomiciana, there are now new questions: who is the humble Mr. R in Rome, and why do Polish bishops write to him so often? Who is the Cardinal of the Four Saints? Who exactly is encompassed by the troubling enigmatic but commonplace phrase ‘the enemies of Christ’? But gradually, as with Hollinghurst’s novel, you tune in. You work out who the dramatis personae are, their concerns of the moment, and roughly where the story is going. Both Hollinghurst and the Acta Tomiciana have been a sobering reminder to me that before you can say insightful or new things about the past, you first have to work out what an earth is going on at ground level. But what Hollinghurst has done very effectively, and what we as historians sometimes struggle to do because we have tuned into our sources too well, is to convey the disconcerting alienness and bracing otherness of (even the recent) past.

Monday, 7 November 2011


It is very sad to write for a second time in less than six months about the premature death of a member of the Oxford community. I was working in the Bodleian’s Upper Reading Room (URR) this week, when I saw a notice announcing that one of the URR’s long-standing staff, Vera Ryhajlo, had died after a short battle with cancer.

I’ve been reading history books in the genteel surroundings of the URR – with its high ceilings, seventeenth-century friezes, walls lined with history journals – since I was an undergraduate, in the mid 1990s. As long as I can remember, Vera was there behind the Reserve Counter, jolly, larger than life, and always totally helpful and professional. If I had a complex photocopying order, involving dozens of forms and hundreds of pages of a nineteenth-century book, Vera would go patiently through the paperwork with me for half an hour, to ensure that the order was correct. Her laughter would carry through the reading room.

Historical research – as I’m being reminded this term, on sabbatical leave – is often a pretty lonely business, even in an apparently well peopled place like the URR. It’s just you, a stack of books and a clock, for months on end. For over 15 years, I’ve gone up the Reserve Counter, watched Vera hand over my books, and maybe come to her with a query if something went wrong with the electronic catalogue OLIS. It wasn’t until this week that I realised that, although my interactions with her were entirely about history books and often wordless, I find it hard to imagine the URR, my main research base throughout my career, without Vera. It reminded me, perhaps too late, that librarians humanise libraries (or dehumanise them in parts of the former Eastern bloc, but that’s another matter). I’ve sometimes written about communities here, but I had not realised until now that the URR is a community too – a community of people sitting silently at their desks, who by dint of the fact of being in a library don’t talk to each other, but a community nonetheless. It was a community which was made visible today, at Vera’s funeral at Saint Aloysius church in Oxford: academics, librarians, readers side by side in the pews. If you Google Vera’s name, you can see how many eminent historians and academics have fulsomely thanked her, and her colleagues David and Helen, in the prefaces to their books. In a community where books, and not speech, are the main method of interaction and communication, I hope that is an apt tribute.

Monday, 31 October 2011


1508 woodcut of witches
Photo by FrauBucher
I recently found myself in conversation with a small child in the run-up to Halloween. “What is a witch?” the child asked, “and where do they live?” As a history tutor who teaches the European witch-hunt for at least four separate Oxford undergraduate papers, I knew what the scholarly answer might be. A witch is early modern (and late medieval) Europe’s projection of its own ultimate imagined Other, the inversion of all the values that society most appreciated – a witch worshipped the Devil instead of God, engaged in sexual orgies in lieu of continence, killed cattle, made people sick and messed with the weather, rather than living as a useful member of the community. The witch was the infertile, jealous woman who poisoned infants, instead of the nurturing Christian mother. A witch was the parody of all that early modern Europeans believed held their fragile world together. (You can read about all this, for example, in Witch Craze, by Oxford's new Regius Professor, Lyndal Roper).

Instead of saying that, I said: “A witch is a woman who rides through the sky on a broomstick.” And because of the Polish elements in my upbringing, on the question of place of abode I went on to say: “She lives on Lysa Góra (Bald Mountain), with her friends.” There is a popular Polish nursery rhyme that goes: ‘There once was a witch who lived in a hut made of butter, and that hut was full of wonders…’ I was a bit surprised that, put on the spot, I gave this 21C child a 16C definition of witchcraft, which could have been straight from the pages of a demonological treatise (albeit with the more graphic details excised). Was it because I thought the 16C answer would be more comprehensible to a three-year old than the 21C answer? (I did add that witches could be men too, and that they are not real, as concessions to modernity). But this conversation did bring home to me this Halloween that, however much historians analyse and research and deconstruct, certain elements of early modern culture do live on, stubbornly and surprisingly, in our own, and we too transmit and preserve and hand down that culture, if only in our oral and story-telling traditions. And interestingly, when the child then pointed and said: “I can see a witch walking on the roof of your house” I was, half a millennium after the European witch-hunt and after decades of brilliant modern witchcraft scholarship, a little bit spooked.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Urban Dislocation

This week I finished reading The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness, who as well as being a poet and (with this novel) Booker long-listed author is also Professor of French Literature at Oxford. This possibly partially autobiographical book is about a drifting young Brit who finds himself in Ceausescu’s Romania during what transpires to be the regime’s endgame in 1989. The Last Hundred Days is probably the best evocation of life under Communism I’ve read since Marian Brandys’ memoir Moje Przygody z Historią (‘My Adventures with/in History’), which I read, I have to admit, for my Polish A-Level.

McGuinness wonderfully evokes a Bucharest in which the boundaries between space and time have become strangely fluid, as the regime tears down belle époque villas and medieval monasteries in order to erect in their place an ‘Stalinist legoland’. At its centre point is the Palace of the People – as the character Leo declares, “When they’ve finished building it, the whole of communism will climb in there, shut the doors, and die.” The pace of urban vandalism is so fast that the characters are regularly lost. As they wander around 1980s’ Bucharest at night armed with 1920s’ maps, they stumble upon people dancing to accordion and fiddler music by lamplight, or deserted nineteenth-century palazzos, unsure if they have accidentally crossed over into an earlier century, or an eternal Bucharest living in the gaps between past and present.

I was thinking about The Last Hundred Days during the Long Vacation, when I turned into Saint Giles and had my own experience of stunning urban dislocation. That long thoroughfare of buses, trees and college buildings had become a kilometre long traffic-free fairground, packed with people pushing buggies, kids holding bags of cotton candie, and the most extraordinary rides – a 3 storey high ghost train erected right against the façade of the Humanities Division, a twister which sent screaming teenagers hurtling within feet of the dour face of Saint John’s college, and a ride which shot people up into the sky higher over the spire of the Martyrs' Memorial. This subversive spectacle reminded me of early modern carnivals, when authorities and dominant institutions were mocked and riotous fun ruled the streets – the world turned (literally for the riders) upside down. It felt like crossing into an alternative Oxford.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Seeing Double

This week, after years of work on the part of many people, the Kraków publishing house Societas Vistulana has published the Polish edition of my first book, which appeared in English in 2007. Translated by my Oxford colleague Tomasz Gromelski, Church, State and Dynasty in Renaissance Poland: The Career of Cardinal Fryderyk Jagiellon (1468-1503) has now become Królewski Kardynał. Studium Kariery Fryderyka Jagiellończyka (1468-1503).

Seeing the handsome blue-white-red cover of the Polish edition, initially in proofs and now on the Societas Vistulana website, has been exciting but also unexpectedly unsettling. When you’re writing a monograph, for months and months it exists just as a series of messy Word files on your computer (usually pock-marked with comments to yourself in bold typeface: ‘check this fact!’ ‘Where did I find this quote?’), but you think of it as a material object in waiting. The great moment, the moment when you know it really is finished, is when you tear open a brown cardboard package from your publishers and hold the gleaming book in your own hands. (Kindle et al may yet change this moment of epiphany, but I’m not so sure).

It’s therefore slightly strange when that same book, i.e. the text and its arguments, metamorphose and take on a second, alternative physical form – transposed into a different language, in the process becoming a different object, with a different physical appearance. Seeing the Polish edition has undermined my own (perhaps naïve) sense of the materiality of my book, perhaps betraying a Platonic assumption that it can have only one ultimate form. I’m going to put both covers on my college webpage – the appropriately Somervillian red and black of the Ashgate edition, with a woodcut of Fryderyk kneeling before Saint Stanisław, and the more abstract Polish cover, showing half of Fryderyk’s carved coat of arms bathed in an electric blue light. Now that the book exists in two parallel forms, it suddenly feels like a slippery, intangible thing again, as it was when it was just a series of Word documents on my computer. The artist Grayson Perry said in a television interview this week that there is, even in this digital age, a basic human need for the object, for its 'tangible, visceral experience'. Even when seeing double, with two books where once there was one, I think he's right.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Treasures of Heaven

Missing Relic?
The Crown of Saint Stephen of Hungary

This weekend, I went to the British Museum's exhibition Treasures of Heaven: Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe (which closes this week, on Oct 9th). The exhibition has been very positively reviewed in the British and American press (it showed in the US earlier in the year). The sheer array and number of reliquaries on display is certainly impressive - if you like peering into display cases in a darkened hall with atmospheric 13C music playing in background, admiring the aesthetics of medieval goldsmithery, enamel, ivory-carving and wood polychrome, this is certainly an exhibition for you. On the whole, though, I wasn’t sure it amounted to much more than the sum of its parts – it felt a like an attempt to amass a huge collection of relics under one roof for its own sake, not unlike a modern museum version of the
relic-collecting medieval rulers featured in the show.

What particularly troubled me as a historian about this exhibition, however, was the ‘Medieval Europe’ claim in the title. The exhibition catalogue opens with a glossy but shocking map of ‘Medieval Europe’, a map which labels key places in Western Europe and the Byzantine world, leaving Catholic Eastern Europe totally blank, as if it were one big tract of uninhabited forest. It’s a map straight out of the Cold War. Were there no relics in medieval Budapest, Cracow or Vilna? What about Hungary’s most precious relic, the Crown of Saint Stephen, or the head of Poland’s Saint Stanislaw in its fabulous 1504 gold casket, or the celebrated 1388 ‘Elbląg’ diptych reliquary made for the Teutonic Knights in Prussia? The reliquaries on display in Treasures of Heaven come chiefly from the collections of the British Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore – if those collections, for historic reasons, feature overwhelmingly west European and Byzantine artefacts, it’s important to explain that as such they are not necessarily representative of medieval Christianity as a whole. In the catalogue, the curators thank international colleagues and museums who had assisted the exhibition – institutions in France, Germany, Italy and (one South-East European example) Bulgaria. One wonders if curators in Hungary, Poland and the Baltic states simply didn’t pick up the phone, or whether they were not asked, because it’s still – in spite of all we know – ok to view medieval Europe through a twentieth-century geopolitical lens.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

The Writing on the Wall

The college was in high celebratory mood last weekend, as we marked the opening of Somerville’s gleaming new ROQ buildings, which will provide accommodation for 68 second-year undergraduates from October. Niall McLaughlin Architects told the Fellows right from their opening pitch for this project that their practice was to work closely with potential users to create the best possible, people-friendly buildings. It is now clear how true to their word they were – the ROQ buildings have textured interior walls which look like a modern art installation, glass towers to shine light into the corridors, kitchens in the trendiest brightest colours, and very tempting desks in window alcoves, with views onto the developing Radcliffe Observatory Quarter (as it takes shape under a forest of cranes…)

What most impressed me about the buildings, however, were not their aesthetic or eco-friendly credentials, but the way in which the two structures embody memory. Memory is a concept (or a social phenomenon) which historians have become increasingly interested in the past decade. At the University of Leiden, for example, Professor Judith Pollmann is leading a project on local memories of the 16C Dutch Revolt in the 17C, while Janet Watson’s 2007 monograph studied memories of the First World War in Britain. The corridors of the ROQ buildings are full of plaques. These don’t give just the name of the donor who sponsored an individual student room, kitchen, or entire floor, but carry messages from those donors to future student-inhabitants. Whole year groups (e.g. year of 1960) have sponsored rooms, to celebrate the formative 3 years they spent together at Somerville. Certain rooms have been dedicated in memory of late Somervillians, by their friends and contemporaries. A recent JCR President sponsored a kitchen - his plaque gives a favourite quote from Lucretius, and urges students to enjoy their time here. On another plaque, two major benefactors celebrate the fact that they met as Oxford undergraduates, and remember their subsequent marriage in a church close to the college. The ROQ buildings, in a very-past conscious way, transmit and store memory. They are an eloquent and moving reminder that an Oxford college is not just a collection of smart buildings, but a dynamic inter-generational community.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Landscape, Memory and the Mercury

Last night (don’t ask how) I ended up with a ticket to the sort of event Oxford dons don’t find themselves at all that often, the Barclaycard Mercury Music Awards. This is a big annual shin-dig for the UK music industry, where the best album of the year is announced in the massively crowded Great Room of the Grosvenor House hotel on Park Lane. It made even Christ Church hall at full capacity look rather small.

The 12 albums nominated for the award were very varied – from the Fife folk singers King Creosote and Jon Hopkins, to the hiphop singer Ghostpoet, to the jazz pianist Gwilym Simcock. I was very much struck by how many of them took as their themes the British landscape and, indeed, British history. My Somerville English colleague, Professor Fiona Stafford, has recently written a prize-winning study of the sense of place in English poetry, Local Attachments: the Province of Poetry. There was an acute sense of place in these music albums too – in Metronomy’s electro-pop hymn of praise to Devon (The English Riviera), King Creosote and Jon Hopkins quite meditations on coastal villages of Fife in Diamond Mine, in Elbow’s recollections of their Manchester childhoods in Build a Rocket Boys!

But these songs aren’t just about an English or Scottish physical landscape, but also about nostalgia and a British sense of past. Diamond Mine includes field recordings of Fife oral history as part of the album, and the most historically-conscious album of all, PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, was in fact the winner. Harvey’s bold album is a meditation on English identity as expressed (this is my reading, at least!) through the experience of English military interventions abroad – it’s about WWI as much as it’s about present-day Afghanistan. Harvey recorded the album in a 19C Dorset church, but apparently spent months researching British military history, reading up on the Gallipoli campaign of 1915… So it was fantastic to see such careful readings of history married to cutting edge, and indeed prize-winning, forms of cultural expression.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Historians and Riots

Mousehold Heath, site of 1549 Norwich camp
Photo by Evelyn Simak

On the morning after the worst of the English riots this month, I was rather unimpressed to hear the BBC newsreader announce in the 7am headlines that the UK had woken up ‘to the aftermath of the worst rioting seen in Britain for years.’ Well, how many years? The worst riots since Brixton in 1981? Or since the 18C London Gordon riots? Or the 16C London Apprentice riots? It’s hard to understand events around you if you lack any comparative perspective at all.

At times of national crisis or alarm, there is a certain expectation of historians to use their expertise to speak intelligently about present events. Most historians are, however, wary of making comparisons between past and present phenomena (e.g. riots) which might come across as glib or banal, like a bad undergraduate 'Comparative History' essay. The most prominent historian’s intervention in the riots debate so far, that of Dr. David Starkey, wasn’t a happy one – his comments about underclass culture on the BBC’s Newsnight have caused a storm of controversy. (David Starkey on the riots)

Unlike many of my Oxford colleagues, or indeed Dr. Starkey,  I’m not a research expert on Tudor England, but for what it’s worth during the August Riots I kept walking around my house muttering ‘it’s just like 1549’. 1549 not only saw major rebellions in the West Country and East Anglia, but also – as Amanda Jones demonstrates in her forthcoming book 'Commotion Time' -- witnessed protest/rebel camps springing up all over England, in 25 different counties, from Cornwall to the Pennines. For contemporary elites, it was a terrifying and totally novel experience of popular disorder, which spread like a virus. The camps of 1549, like the August 2011 riots, were so geographically widespread, numerous and piecemeal that it was (and is) difficult to synthesise them into a single narrative. Historians, you might not be surprised to know, have always been massively divided about the causes of the 1549 ‘commotion time’ – culprits include enclosure of common land (causing economic hardship), violent support for or dissent from the Reformation, the break-down of local feudal relationships, the rise of new economic groups, or alienation caused by government centralisation, etc. But at the time, of course, contemporaries blamed simple human greed and wickedness - they talked of a moral crisis.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Fifth Cellar

Paris Opera House, by Scarlet Green

I’ve come back to Oxford from North America to find the Bodleian Library strangely changed. While I was away, the Bodleian finally replaced the old Telnet catalogue which I’d used since 1995 with a more 21st century interface, which has made the fruits of the digital revolution more accessible. But in particular, a space called the Gladstone Link has been created. As an undergraduate, one heard rumours of a subterranean tunnel which ran under cobbled Radcliffe Square, linking the Bodleian's different buildings, and of five layers of underground book stacks, peopled only by silent librarians pushing books on little creaking trolleys, like pit ponies.

Some of this quasi-legendary, unseen world has now been opened up to readers. In the Radcliffe Camera, a stairwell lit with strange blue-white lights opens up at your feet, and you can follow it down into the stacks, into low-ceilinged levels with early twentieth-century wheeled book stacks, and climb up a wrought iron Edwardian staircase, follow a very narrow corridor which invokes the older stations of the London Underground, and emerge in the main Bodleian, as if by magic. The Gladstone Link has not only transformed my sense of the Bodleian Library as a great, labyrinthine connected network of reading rooms, tunnels and deep underground spaces, but has also put me in mind of the Phantom of the Opera. I recently reread Gaston Leroux’s 1911 gothic thriller, with its descriptions of people bravely descending down through the five layers of cellars underneath the massive neo-baroque edifice of Charles Garnier’s Opèra de Paris. So the revamp of the Bodleian, as well as making life more efficient and exciting for researchers, has also added a touch of the literary Gothic to the Oxford landscape.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Seeing is believing

The Enola Gay. Photo by Bernt Rostad.
After Bermuda, I ended up in Washington DC at the peak of a heat wave. One of the new museums, in that city of museums, to have opened up since I was last there is an extension of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, in a giant museum-hangar near Dulles Airport. This is where the aeronautical exhibits too big to fit in a regular city-centre museum are displayed – objects such as Concorde, for example, or the space shuttle Enterprise.

One of the most celebrated exhibits in the Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Centre, however, is the Enola Gay. This huge silvery-shiny, gleaming machine is the aircraft which dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945, causing the deaths of between 118,000 and 140,000 people. As I hovered uncomfortably by the modest information board in front of the Enola Gay, three elderly Americans were clustered in front of it. The lady said: ‘You read about it, and that’s one thing, but to actually see it…’.

I initially thought this was quite a glib comment, but now I’m not so sure. It’s striking how journalists can report on major world events, and historians can make films and write books about them, but it’s only when presented with the physical evidence that they somehow become truly credible to a wider public. It’s as if we’re all semi-consciously suspending disbelief about the past events we read and write about, until they prove themselves to have had some material existence outside the text.

I don’t think professional researchers are immune from this kind of instinct. When I finished writing my doctorate, my husband bought me as a present two tiny coins minted in 15C Poland during the lifetime (and indeed the regency) of Cardinal Fryderyk Jagiellon, the churchman on whom I’d written my thesis. Once I had seen these little artefacts, I believed a little bit more in the existence of the late medieval world I had spent 3 years trying to reconstruct and recreate; and I hadn’t really been aware of not fully believing in it. Perhaps this is why historians are so resistant to the idea of being denied access to original sources in libraries, and directed to digitalised versions instead – the text shimmering on the screen, just like the text in printed reproduction, doesn’t feel as real as the cool leather and crisp, dry pages of a 15C early printed book. We seem to need the authentic, old material thing itself to fend away an involuntary suspension of disbelief about the past – even the well documented recent past of WWII. ‘You read about it but…’

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Books on Bermuda

This dispatch comes not from Oxford, but from Paget parish in Bermuda - England's oldest self-governing colony, a speck of land in the mid-Atlantic, a chain of islands formed by the peaks of ancient submarine volcanos. When travelling, it's always a treat to go equipped with historical novels set in the place I'm visiting - I remember how memorable it was reading Tim Willock's flamboyant epic romance, "The Religion", about the 16C seige of Malta, in a hotel built into the ramparts of the very fort where much of the action is set.

I couldn't find all that much by way of appealing historical fiction set in, or even history about, Bermuda before I left the UK, but it's been salutary to see how even in this age of three-click access to a wealth of published and antique books, and exhaustive on-line catalogues, the local on-the-ground bookshop can still offer treasure-troves of publications which internet trawls fail to pick up. I walked into the National Trust of Bermuda giftshop, for example, in a little alley off the Hamilton waterfront, and was directed to a book section. It was apparently modest, 20 titles or so, but they included detailed guides to the historical architecture of every parish on this small island, memoirs of colonial life, and a gleaming volume, 'Butler's History of the Bermudas', a new edition  (2007, by C.F.E Hollis Hallett) of a 1623 account of early colonial life in Bermuda, written by one of the archipelago's first governors.

So, instead of reading Bermudian historical novels while I'm here, I'm instead enjoying this 17C historical source, which is making for lively and funny reading. This is perhaps one of the penalties of being a historian. My old tutor at Lincoln College once expressed the wish that his teenage son would not become a historian like his father 'because it's a burden'. I've often wondered what exactly he meant by that remark, but maybe it was precisely this - the inability to just let things be their present selves, the need to locate everywhere you see in time as well as space, a sense that a place isn't at all comprehensible until you can clearly picture the early 17C settlers catching cahoo birds, watching their wooden watch-towers blown down in hurricanes, and anxiously scanning the blue horizon for Spanish galleons.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Remembering Jonny

There hasn’t been a blog for a little while, because we’ve been dealing with a tragic situation in Somerville over the past week – the death of one of our first year history students, Jonathan (or Jonny) Roberts, three days before he was due to sit his Prelims exams.

The college held a commemoration service last Thursday in Somerville Chapel, which was attended by over 200 people. I was Jonny’s personal tutor, and you can read the address which I gave at the service, remembering Jonny, by clicking here. I shall miss Jonny very much, and I extend my very deepest sympathy to his family and friends, in Somerville and beyond.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Remembering Vilnius

Vilnius. Photo by Philip Capper

For many years now, in the summer/Trinity term, I’ve been attending and latterly co-convening the Central European History seminar. One of our speakers this term was an Oxford graduate student who is writing his doctoral thesis on the interwar Vilnius dispute – that is, the diplomatic standoff created when in 1920 Polish troops seized the city claiming it was historically Polish, to the horror of the Lithuanians who claimed it as the capital of an independent Lithuania.

It was particularly interesting to hear Donatas talk about his research, because my grandmother grew up in Vilnius in the 1920s. Whereas Donatas talks about documents in
the British Foreign Office archives relating to the dispute, Lord Curzon’s bemused reactions and the frustrations of Lithuanian diplomats, my grandmother talks about the city’s festivals, street markets, the Jewish and Karaite communities, the divination rituals traditional on All Souls night and, indeed, sleigh-rides in the snow. Her stories make interwar Vilnius feel like the setting for a magical realist novel – back in 2002 the American novelist Jonathan Safran Foer did in fact write a prize-winning magical realist novel, Everything is Illuminated, based on his own grandmother’s recollections of her pre-war Ukrainian village.

I was struck by the distance between Donatas’ research in public archives on the diplomatic battles over interwar Vilnius, and the memories of a child growing up in that contested space, the private family oral archive, if you will. Those two narratives of 1920s’ Vilnius don’t contradict one another, but they are radically different in their textures and concerns. It’s this potentially difficult tension between a public/national history, and one’s own personal family histories, which is one of the reasons why I don’t work on 20C Poland/Lithuania, fascinating field though it is. I would find it hard to work in archives with my grandmother’s voice at my ear, hard to keep the sources at arm’s length, and hard, in fact, to stand back and (as a professional historian) study my own close relatives as historical actors.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Exams Past

They all wear a pink carnation...
Photo by Pink Sherbet Photography

            June means Finals season in Oxford, with the History finalists soon to sit the last of their exams. It’s an odd feeling as a tutor standing at your window, looking out over the quad, and seeing students all dressed up in black-and-white sub-fusc exam-uniform, complete with symbolic carnation, faces set in concentration, setting out to sit a Finals exam in a paper you taught them.

            When I arrived at Lincoln College as a Fresher in the 1990s, we had an initial meeting with the History tutors in the panelled Wesley room, where we sat literally at their feet on the carpet. We were told then, among other memorable things, that the horror of sitting Finals never quite leaves you. One of the tutors said cheerfully: ‘You’ll dream about it for the rest of your life.”

            Alumni I meet often assure me this is true, but I wonder if the post-finals condition is particularly bad among those who stay on at Oxford as tutors & Fellows, watching generations of students go through the same stimulating but slightly grim ritual every single summer. In fact, the Finals nightmares I have nowadays tend to involve my students’ performances rather than my own. I’ve had dreams where I was at a raucous dinner on High Table, and realised to my horror that as the dons sat, feasted, drank and caroused, the hall was full of students trying to sit a Finals paper. I’ve dreamt that I was invigilating as Somerville students sat the ‘Conquest and Colonisation of the Americas’ paper I teach, and leafing through the exam to see in shock that the questions were written not in English, but in the Amerindian languages of Nahuatl, Quechua and Mayan! So the responsibilities of teaching the Oxford degree weigh particularly heavily at the moment, and I too will be glad when it’s all over and the historians can put away their subfusc for another year, and I can stop dreaming about sitting at a tiny desk, with just a fountain pen, a paper booklet and a ticking clock.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The Library-Hospital

Somerville Library Loggia with convalescing officers
Somerville College, all rights reserved.

I’ve been lecturing in the Exam Schools again this term, and keep noticing a series of black-and-white photos displayed in one of the main corridors, which show the great Victorian halls of that building transformed into dormitories, with soldiers propped up in bed, ministered to by nurses in white headgear. They date from the First World War, when the Exam Schools were requisitioned for use as the Southern General Hospital. By chance, an almost identical photograph jumped out at me last week from the current Somerville Magazine. This showed our Somerville library loggia pressed into use as a ward of the same WWI military hospital, full of convalescing officers.

            These Oxford examples of academic buildings used as wartime hospitals brought back uncomfortable memories of my first visits to Warsaw archives some ten years ago. The national archive (AGAD) is housed in a grand Warsaw townhouse, which was used as a hospital during the Second World War. As you walk confidently towards the reading room with your laptop and research notes, a large plaque on the wall records the number of people killed when the Nazi occupying forces stormed the building and massacred its patients and staff.

            This transformation of libraries (or educational venues) into wartime hospitals is something I always find rather creepy, or troubling. There are of course practical reasons why it happens: airy halls make a perfect impromptu medical space. But I think it’s the unforgiving contrast between the calm, contemplative, hermetic air and essentially idealistic purposes of a library, and the noise and earthly grimness of a wartime or war-zone hospital, which makes the WWI Oxford photos and WWII Warsaw plaque so disturbing. The officers and civilians we see peeping out at us are a reminder of what happens when libraries and ideals fail; they are in a sense a reproach to the failure of learning.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Imperfect Answers

Over the past two weeks, I have spent a lot of time with pen in hand, marking the collections (i.e. mock exams) sat by first years and Finalists over the Royal Wedding weekend. This exercise brought home to me one of the glorious peculiarities of the Oxford humanities degree – you’re trained to think by writing weekly tutorial essays 3-5 typed A4 pages in length, but actually assessed on a rather a different genre, the 2-3 page handwritten (or scrawled) exam essay. Most students don’t get to see exam essays written by anyone other than themselves. Even though the Faculty produces careful explanations of the criteria for a First Class history exam answer, the majority of our students have never seen one – they are elusive and semi-mythical, unicorn-like.

Planning my exam answers...
So, perhaps unwisely, I've decided to have a go at writing a series of 5 sample exam answers myself, all in response to a single exam question on the European Reformation, and ranging in quality from low 2:2 to (I hope!) high first. The plan is to use these in our revision sessions with Somerville students, to show them (albeit in rather fictional form) the kind of material examiners are confronted with.

This rather tricky exercise (both technically & ethically) reminds me of Renaissance/humanist scholarly techniques. The great goal of the Renaissance, whether you were a writer, academic or artist, was to produce work which perfectly emulated the style of the ancient world. Schoolboys, for example, were taught to write letters in the ‘style’ of Cicero, or the elites of the Roman republic. There was a major debate, however, about whether one should slavishly copy, directly lift material from, or in some vaguer sense imbibe the spirit of ancient models. In a similar vein, I’m trying to write in the ‘style’ of an exam candidate producing low 2:1 or low First essays. I need to produce something authentic-sounding and accurate, which avoids becoming a pastiche or a patronising mimicry. The Somerville students can tell you well, or not, I passed this neo-humanist test.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Changing Gear

One of the very peculiar things about being an Oxford academic are the abrupt and often painful changes of gear which occur throughout the year, year in and year out. Oxford academics (at least in humanities) seem to have two modes of work. There is Term-time, a merciless frenzy of committee meetings, tutorials, essay marking, graduate examining, lecture writing, seminars, urgent emails, administrative tasks, pastoral issues, and walking at speed through Oxford between these different engagements. Then there is the seriously misnamed Vacation, when we enter a form of scholarly research retreat, with long unbroken spells in libraries, the chance to immerse oneself in 16C tracts and prints, follow threads of evidence, and write articles or (if you’re lucky) books.

The transitions between Term and Vacation – such as the one we are in at present - are always difficult. The end of Term is often a little bewildering, as the college empties literally overnight, as undergraduates go home, and colleagues fly off to international conferences, or return to their labs, or travel to research libraries beyond Oxford. Much worse, though, is the change-over from Vacation to Term, which is like innocently opening a door only to be hit full in the face by a blizzard. This change-over inevitably happens not at a natural break in your research, but at the worst possible moment, just as you are tantalisingly on the cusp of finishing an article, or have hit upon a big new idea you want to urgently explore & write down, or as you feel you’ve finally up-loaded all the threads in your research project into your brain, and are just about holding them there. The end of Vacation is like travelling very fast in a powerful car, and suddenly applying the breaks. Medieval and Renaissance elites often debated the relative merits of the vita activa and the vita contemplativa; none of them, I think, recommended switching between them every two months.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Royal Weddings: Puppets and Songs

Royal wedding memorabilia, Munich
Photo by Georgenell
For those who enjoyed the pageantry of the British royal wedding last week, those ceremonies put me in mind of some celebrated Renaissance matrimonial festivities. Supposedly the most lavish wedding of the 15C took place in 1475 in Landshut, Bavaria, when George of Bavaria married Princess Jadwiga of Poland. On that occasion, the crowned heads of Europe and their representatives were in attendance, 40,000 chickens were eaten at the wedding banquet, and there was allegedly a free bar in all the taverns of the town, underwritten by the duke. The event made such an impression on the locals that it is still re-enacted every 4-5 years in Landshut, in a major pageant with a cast of thousands (Landshut wedding). In Munich’s main Marienplatz, meanwhile, you can see the famous Rathaus Glockenspiel, an early 20C mechanical clock in which, 2-3 times a day, over thirty little coloured figures re-enact the marriage ceremonies and jousts of another celebrated Bavarian wedding, that of Duke Wilhelm V and Renata, in 1568. Let’s see if Kate/Catherine and William’s big day inspires similar cultural feats.

And for those of a more republican persuasion, a different thought – I was slightly surprised by the choice of William Blake’s Jerusalem as the final hymn of the wedding ceremony. Blake’s poem was printed in 1810/11, as the preface to his epic work Milton, but set to music by John Parry in 1916. On the face of it, Jerusalem provides a rousing vision of a better England, and as such has become a general patriotic favourite. Nonetheless, I always thought this was also a specifically socialist or radical anthem, providing the slogan for the Labour Party’s celebrated 1945 election campaign, regularly sung at Labour party conferences, and penned of course by Blake - poet, artist, mystic and keen admirer of the French Revolution, who was known to go about London wearing the revolutionary red cap. So, perhaps a moment of accidental subversion in Westminster Abbey?

Thursday, 21 April 2011


Bureaucratics: Reproduced with kind permission from Jan Banning
  While idly leafing through a UK national newspaper over my lunch this week, I saw a photograph which made me freeze in the middle of my bagel. It was from a project called Bureacratics, by the photographer Jan Banning, which is currently showing in a Dutch gallery, but which you can also see on-line or in book form (to see the full collection, click on Bureaucratics). To create Bureaucratics, Banning talked his way into hundreds of government offices across the world, from Yemen to Russia, and photographed bureaucrats at their desks.  He says that the project is “the product of an anarchist’s heart, a historian’s mind and an artist’s eye”.

The image which so struck me was a photograph of Sushama Prasad, assistant clerk at the Cabinet Secretary in Patna, India (above). This is a photo to induce a moment of horror in any historian. We see Ms. Prasad sat at a battered and bare desk, in front of large wooden cabinets. On top of these are piled hundreds upon hundreds of aged bundles of paper. They form a grey sea of unfiled, utterly chaotic, visibly decaying bureaucratic paperwork. This is precisely the sort of thing research historians see in bad dreams – sources there in tantalising abundance, yet virtually unusable, because they are utterly disordered and unsearchable. The sight of apparently rotting official papers, sources on the cusp of oblivion, is equally distressing – it reminded me of a Polish ecclesiastical archive in which I was handed 15C episcopal letters so damp, I had to wipe my hands after using them. Banning’s photograph brings home what historic documents look like in their ‘natural state’, if left to run wild like a garden. It makes stark too how much artifice and on-going human intervention there is behind an archive, where archivists have imposed (or maintained) an order on/in the paperwork. Ms. Prasad’s office, in this striking shot, is a kind of anti-archive, a dark place in the historian’s imagination.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

News and Rumour

While I was on holiday last week on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset, I noticed that the Guardian newspaper journalist Andrew Sparrow had been named Political Journalist of the Year for his political blog on the paper’s website. During big political moments – last year’s UK general election, government cuts announcements, and the Arab Spring – Sparrow and his Guardian colleagues post minute by minute updates of the latest speech in the House of Commons, the latest significant Tweets, and above all the latest rumours sweeping Westminster, Washington or Cairo.

News blogs like this, for all their technological wizardry and global connectedness, seem to me to be, paradoxically, taking us back towards an early modern way of thinking about the news. Among historians of Renaissance Europe, the question of how ‘news’ was spread and reported has been an increasingly popular one. My undergraduates always enjoy reading A. Fox’s article on rumour, news and popular political opinion in Elizabeth England (History Journal, 1997), and one of the Faculty’s doctoral students is currently writing a thesis on how news from Transylvania was transmitted and reported in 17C German newspapers. The striking thing about early modern news, if you look e.g. at the 16C diaries of the Florentine apothecary Lucca Landucci, or the Venetian notable Marino Sanudo, is how unverified, indirect and untrustworthy much of it was – somebody has received a letter from their cousin in Dubrovnik saying the Turks are coming, people in the city are saying that the pope is gravely ill, a merchant from Poland says the king is divorcing his queen…

Sparrow’s news blogs (addictively good read though they are) remind me a lot of Landucci, Sanudo et al in the extent to which they treat rumour as the basic fabric of news – so-and-so in Westminster has heard that Nick Clegg has been offered this, it’s being said in Tahrir Square that Mubarak will do this… I think we’ve come to expect the ‘news’, on national television or newspapers to consist of a cool, authoritative digest of events, to provide a coherent and verifiable narrative. News blogs, instead, like Landucci and Sanudo’s diaries, report a lot of rumour and leave it to the reader to decide what sounds plausible. Like early modern Europeans, those who read news blogs are learning to think of news as a grapeshot blast of gossip, half-fact and fact, without any clear narrative to hold it together. And that seems rather postmodern.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The Text on the Table

In spite of the many inspiring libraries Oxford has to offer, I have increasingly found myself working in the various cafes around Somerville, now that term has finished and I’ve again been let loose on my research. If you’re researching, hermit-like all on your own, for hours a day, sitting in a public space where living people talk, come and go and drink tea gives you a surrogate kind of company, and a vicarious energy – even if (or perhaps especially if) you are reading texts written by people who have been dead for 500 years.

The text on the table:
 Peter Risinius against Johannes Hess (Cracow, 1524) 
But it also produces strange juxtapositions. Earlier this week, for example, I was reading an anti-Reformation polemic printed in Cracow in 1524, written by a very young Polish humanist (i.e. classical scholar) called Piotr Rydziński. He was writing against the group of intellectuals who had led a successful Reformation movement in Wrocław-Breslau – condemning Lutheran belief in colourful and sarcastic terms, while showing off his fancy Latin. Thanks to the digitalisation project of Wrocław Polytechnic in Poland, I didn’t have to travel to Central Europe to consult the original in a Rare Books Reading Room, but could sit in a café on Saint Giles reading and annotating a print-out I had downloaded earlier.

If you read a 16C book in the rarefied air of a research library, it’s easier to suspend disbelief; it’s almost as if you’re working in a timeless scholarly bubble, in a silent hall full of books. But once you take Rydziński’s Petri Risinii adversus Johannes Hessi into a café, and place the facsimile of the 1524 text on a little round table, next to a mug of mint tea and a cookie, under bright lights illuminating cakes and Italian baguette fillings, with cars and buses roaring past down Saint Giles, with catchy hits playing in the background, and dozens of people coming and going, the clash of worlds becomes acute. You become dizzyingly aware of the massive distance between Rydziński’s Cracow, at the start of the Reformation, and 21C Oxford – there is a jarring that libraries perhaps serve to protect us from. The aspiring young scholar who wrote the text on the café table in 1524 was desperately doing his bit to stop the old medieval Christendom from falling apart; it is endlessly strange that an elite religious text from his world can be casually read in a café by a layperson (and a woman at that), in a Europe which not only has the unimaginable permanent splitting of the Christian church been a fait accompli for half a millennium, but which has become in effect secularised, post-church. So it worries me a bit that Rydziński could not possibly have imagined my world in the cafe on Saint Giles; it makes me wonder how confident I can be about re-imagining his.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Picturing History

Clio, in The Allegory of Painting,
by Johannes Vermeer
          I recently bought a copy of Tessa Morris-Suzuki’s book The Past Within Us: Media, Memory and History (2005), which explores how history is currently represented in school textbooks, novels and cartoons. What initially struck me about this book was its cover. Against a neutral beige background, there are a dozen photographs mounted on wooden sticks, as if they were placards at a protest march. Each photo shows an upraised arm with clenched fist – black arms, arms in uniform, arms in what look like Edwardian ladies’ sleeves. I find it interesting, in books which deal with ‘History’ in general, how publishers choose to depict history itself as an abstract. In this case, the publishing house Verso seems to have decided that history is about struggle and protest, about human limbs raised in anger, perhaps as a wider symbol of human agency.

            When I dutifully read E.H. Carr’s What is History? (1961) as an A-Level student, I remember being slightly depressed by the cover, which showed a pile of books in a very dark and dusty library, possibly accompanied by a clock. The message seemed to be that history was very serious, sombre (and dry) stuff. The latest edition of Carr’s classic is snazzier, but more puzzling – a Magritte-style giant eye, with a cloud-scattered blue sky instead of an iris. What’s the message here? The historian as all-seeing? History as the story of human witness? Another standard book which students feel they should read before coming for an Oxford history admissions interview is Richard J. Evans’ In Defence of History (1997). An early edition of this showed a cheerful, colourful collage of Mao, Stalin etc., as if suggesting that ‘History’ is ultimately about the crazy men who make things happen on a colossal scale in big countries. More recent editions of Evans’ book simply have a photograph of what looks like a firework display over Berlin’s Brandenburg gate, presumably a snapshot of the German reunification celebrations in 1990. Here, ‘History’ is represented by a spine-tingling, tangible, self-consciously important moment of the recent past.

            Perhaps because of my Renaissance interests, I’m quite attracted to the classical and early modern tradition of representing History through the figure of Clio, the muse of History, who dwelt along with all the other muses with Apollo on Mount Parnassus. One of the main images on the Oxford History Faculty website (soon to be revamped) shows Clio as painted by the Dutch painter Vermeer (d.1675) in his Allegory of Painting: a young woman in a blue-grey dress, with a wreath on her head, and a book in her hands. A young woman with a book in her hands is as good, and provocative, a symbol as any for representing our study of the human past.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Forests, Coasts and Islands

During Hilary term, which is just coming to an end, with my colleagues John Watts and Hannah Skoda I run a seminar on Europe in the Later Middle Ages. The seminar met for years in the Breakfast Room of Merton College (which Charles I’s queen Henrietta Maria apparently used as her bedroom during the Civil War), and we’re now in a panelled room in Corpus Christi. Each year’s meetings are arranged around a theme – last year ‘Rome’, and this year ‘Historical Geography’.

The view from the coast...
Spinalonga fortress, photo by Bazylek
Over the past eight weeks, we’ve heard a fine array of papers on the historical geography of the later Middle Ages (14C & 15C). We had a sparkling opening lecture from Professor Bruce Campbell of Queen’s College Belfast, who used the very latest scientific  data on the history of world climate to draw a link between a huge ‘climate shift’ in the early 14C, and the outbreak of new epidemics in animals and humans, the most famous of which was the Black Death. Professor Petra van Dam from the University of Amsterdam flew in to talk about the ‘amphibious culture’ of the late medieval inhabitants of the Dutch coastline, arguing that they did not see the regular sea-floods of their land as calamities, but developed a range of pragmatic responses to these anticipated events. We heard papers on English medieval forests, which enjoyed a special legal status as the king’s private hunting grounds, bristling with forest police who protected trees and deer, and on ‘multiculturalism’ in the fragmented bays and islands of Venetian-ruled Dalmatia in the 15C. Professor David Abulafia, from Cambridge, gave us a preview of his forthcoming new history of the Mediterranean, depicting the sea as a vast human crossroads of pilgrims, merchants and slaves, a place characterised by its ‘super-conductivity’.

It was striking how far these speakers disagreed on what ‘Historical Geography’ was. For some, it meant taking an obvious unit of physical geography (e.g. a sea) and seeing how far one could use that as the framework for a historical narrative; what does European history look like if your focus is on ports, ships and coastlines, not princes and cities? For others, historical geography basically meant environmental history – exploring how humans have interacted with their environment, and how it has acted on them. One of the admissions criteria for the Oxford history degree is ‘historical imagination’, and historical geography scores highly there – the history of rivers, mountains, oceans and sunspots is certainly evocative. In last year’s Oxford History Finals, on the Disciplines (i.e. concepts and methodology) paper, there was a question on how historians have used geography, which drew disappointingly thin answers. The seminar series demonstrated, I think, that there is plenty of exciting research on historical geography that we can share with our students; whether we can all cast the physical environment in a leading role in our own research is quite another question.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

History in Translation

In recent weeks I’ve been forced to think about how well ideas, especially historians’ ideas, can be transposed from one language into another. A year ago, my book about a 15C Polish cardinal was translated into Polish by my colleague Tomasz Gromelski. I am now responding point by point to a tranche of questions and queries raised by the Cracow-based publisher. (For the book in English, see Church, State & Dynasty). I’ve been aware for over a decade now that British and Polish academic culture, and ways of doing history, are profoundly different. But it’s only since working on the Polish edition of the book that I have realised that those differences go even deeper than I had realised; that different countries’ very use of language, in discussing the past, can vary profoundly.

The courteous, meticulous Cracow copy-editor has pointed out, for example, that a number of basic nouns which recur throughout the book are problematic in Polish. These are words like ‘minister’ (minister) and ‘government’ (rząd), which English-speaking historians use routinely to describe late medieval politics. To a Polish-speaking reader, however, ‘minister’ and ‘government’ sound like very modern political terms, which are reserved for the use of those discussing modern government. (In English, I think these words are much more neutral: we would be happy to accept that ancient Rome, e.g., had something we would call a government). Other philological difficulties cut right to the heart of the book and its arguments: it is a study of a royal cardinal. In English, this phrase implies (I think) a cardinal related to, or intimately connected with, a king (in this case, a cardinal who was the biological son of the monarch). In Polish, that meaning can’t be rendered, because the literal translation, ‘królewski kardynał’, means a cardinal who in some absolute sense is the king’s property or material possession, a cardinal owned by the king. The closest you can get to ‘royal cardinal’ is ‘królewicz kardynał’, meaning a prince who is a cardinal. But that won’t do, because in Poland’s elective monarchy Fryderyk was not a ‘prince’ in any legal sense at all. The basic phenomenon explored in the book, the Renaissance royal cardinal, appears to be surprisingly untranslatable.

So it's been sobering to see how certain concepts and terminologies simply do not translate into other European languages. I still stand by the optimistic sentiments expressed in my preface to the Polish edition: that this book was written in part to forge a bridge between two different national traditions, and their divergent ways of thinking about the late 15C church and state/government. But now it seems that many of those differences, and consequent misunderstandings, seem to be deeply hardwired into the very languages themselves.