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

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.

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