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.

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