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

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?