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

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…’