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

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.