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

Monday, 17 December 2012

Two Renaissance Europes



Last month, I travelled to Warsaw to see one of Central Europe’s international blockbuster exhibitions of 2012/13 – Europa Jagiellonica 1386-157: Art and Culture in Central Europe under the Jagiellonians. The show grew out of an art historical research project at the University of Leipzig in the early 2000s, and opened in Kutna Hora in the Czech Republic last spring. From there, a convoy of trucks packed with Renaissance art took the exhibition to Warsaw, and in January it will move onto Potsdam in Germany.

The aim of the exhibition is to showcase the depth of artistic talent, and extent of elite artistic patronage of Renaissance forms, in Central Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. The first few galleries focus on the Jagiellonian dynasty themselves, who by 1500 ruled Lithuania, Poland, Bohemia and Hungary. They are represented through their portraits, pearl necklaces, initials carved in red marble, the vestments of a dynastic cardinal. The second part of the exhibition (in Warsaw, rather confusingly, housed in a completely different venue) is a great treasure chest of gilded gothic altarpieces, illuminated manuscripts, monstrances and jewelled reliquaries from Prague, Zagreb, Cracow, Bratislava and Buda. As a curatorial and diplomatic feat, bringing all these objects together is an epic achievement. The lack of any narrative about Jagiellonian Europe and its culture/s does, however, feel like a missed opportunity.

What most struck me about Europa Jagiellonica, however, was just how starkly our histories of Renaissance Europe are still stubbornly split into two – in the English-speaking world, research and teaching focus overwhelmingly on France, Italy, the British Isles, Iberia and the Holy Roman Empire. In Central European museums and textbooks, however, there is a completely different narrative focused on dynasties like the Jagiellonians. I spend a lot of my professional life explaining (and perhaps apologising for) this state of affairs – saying it is due to linguistic barriers; to a traditionally inward-looking focus among Central European historians, and to an anti Central-Europe prejudice among many western historians who assume the region is by definition marginal. But sometimes, when I stand in front of the maps like those in Europa Jagiellonica, which show that the Jagiellonians, who are regularly omitted from English Renaissance textbooks, ruled over a third of continental Europe, c. 30% of today's EU, my patience does rather give way to exasperation. It is over 20 years, a whole generation, since the end of the Cold War. You wonder, for all the talk of European integration since 1945, how long we will have to wait for a joined-up, unified account of Europe’s early modern past. And in the meantime, the Jagiellonians and their lands and peoples linger on the margins of our historic consciousness, alien, exotic and fairy-tale like, less like the flesh-and-blood Tudors than like royalty from a medieval fantasy epic, such as Game of Thrones.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Can You Feast on Books?

Food magnets in Little Italy, New York.
Photo by su-lin

There was a photo from this year’s Hay-on-Wye literary festival, which showed a banner strung across the street saying ‘Kindle free zone’. I know that some 15C observers had anxieties about the arrival of the printed book (the fate of scribes and scriptoria, the perceived non-durability of printed pages), but I wonder if the products of the early printing industry were ever actively boycotted, on ideological grounds, by manuscript lovers in quite the same way that e-readers are now.

All this talk about the printed ink-and-paper book as seriously endangered has made me increasingly sensitive to the sensory experience of dealing with ‘real’ (‘traditional’?) books. This week, I received a number of publishers’ catalogues in the post and it was like ripping open envelopes to look at catalogues of toys – they have evocative and idiosyncratic historical pictures on their covers (an early modern fleet in a mountainous harbour, a golden city). Inside, dozens and dozens of goodies are set out, colourful miniature book covers, hundreds of little windows on the past. The experience of browsing a catalogue, or the contents page of a book you’ve long wanted to read, reminds me of perusing a restaurant menu – the extent of choice and possibility is exciting, there is lots of anticipation, and you half-scan for things you already know you like (pineapple, sesame seeds… early modern zoology, woodcuts, Jagiellonians). With books, there is the certainty that you can’t order, read or remember everything; that you can only select prize pickings from this cornucopia of knowledge. I recently decided to bring myself up to date with the most recent Reformation historiography by ordering a big box of books from Amazon. Opening them was like breaking open a hamper of gourmet goodies, but the real enjoyment came from then spreading them out, like a mosaic, on the coffee table in my Somerville room, from the way the light catches on their glossy covers, and the heady smell of fresh ink.

In a new book, Stephen Poole claims that we fetishise food too much; perhaps we are guilty of the same with printed books. But if they do end up going the way of medieval illuminated manuscripts, becoming a tiny luxury market for the moneyed connoisseur, we may as well enjoy the colours, smells and comforting feel of shiny paper under our fingers while we still can.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Nostalgia & Central Europe

Iasi, Romania
Photo by Valyt

A little while ago, a Lithuanian reader of this blog commented on a post I’d written about Vilnius. He suggested that historians (including, I think, me) should be wary of nostalgia for the Central European past. That comment came back to me this spring in Poznań, when I was eating dinner in a ‘Jewish’ restaurant (Jewish recipes, non-kosher, apparently cooked by non-Jewish Poles), which advertised itself as offering fine food and ‘nostalgia’. This week, I finished reading Georgina Harding’s Orange Prize short-listed novel The Painter of Silence, set in Romania in the 1930s to 1950s. It is about an aristocratic girl and her deaf childhood companion, as they make the transition from rural pre-war idyll, to a country devastated by war and totalitarianism. The most memorable sections of this deeply humane novel describe the estate at Poiana. I was struck by how well this British writer has captured the way in which Central Europeans from privileged pre-war backgrounds talk about their family homes – the modest but perfectly formed manor house, orchards with an impossible abundance of fruit, enchanted lakes, the warm and devoted servants. Painter of Silence deals very much in the currency of nostalgia, that of the protagonist Safta and her class, and our own romanticised image of a timeless, Chekovian Central European countryside.

Nostalgia, for individuals and societies, is surely a (superficial?) way of processing profound loss; loss of family pasts and houses, of entire peoples and cultures. Nonetheless, I can see my Lithuanian reader’s point, that some of its manifestations are intellectually problematic and morally uncomfortable. It can lead to a saccharine reading of Central Europe’s extraordinarily violent 20C past, casting it (especially pre 1939) as a innocent land of fairy tale. The Poznań restaurant’s whistful recreation of spiced Jewish pancakes, the idealisation of pre-war Romanian aristocratic life, and perhaps even my grandmother’s magical realist stories about 1920s Vilnius are a way of keeping real history at bay – perhaps to make it easier to cope with, but also perhaps to avoid engaging with the dark reality of what lies beneath. So nostalgia is probably a gremlin that historians – not least historians of Central Europe - should keep a keen eye on.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Chimeras and Cats

Etruscan Chimera of Arezzo, in the Archaeological Museum of Florence.
Photo by Eric Parker

One of my favourite history-book opening lines is found in Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s Millenium, where he imagines a future inter-galactic museum, in which the display case labelled ‘Earth’ contains only a piece of medieval chain mail and a Coca Cola can.

I felt a similar, but less nihilistic, frisson at the Royal Academy’s current Bronze exhibition. I was expecting not to like it, because some reviews (in common with reviews for the National Gallery’s blockbuster Leonardo last year) had remarked on the ahistorical style of the curating. Rather than arranging objects by time and place, we were warned, the Royal Academy has anarchically mixed then up by theme, placing works by Anish Kapoor alongside ancient Greek statues dredged up off Sicily.

In the event, I found the exhibition, with its disregard for time and space, to have  a huge dose of historical sensibility, in a mind-broadening, paradoxical and strangely moving way. A life-size Renaissance bronze boar on a bed of flowers did indeed share a room with a Picasso monkey, made from toy cars, and a fine cat from 7th century BC Spain. There were bronzes from societies which I admit to never having heard of, such as the Hallstadt and Nuragic cultures. This radical juxtaposition of objects forces the viewer to read the apparently familiar in new contexts – a 17C Christ statue, for example, looking identical to its neighbour, a bronze Bacchus. By putting medieval Sri Lankan, Renaissance Italian, ancient Greek and 20C American sculpture alongside one another in this egalitarian way, Bronze shows up how Eurocentric and West-focused our history syllabi still are – the exhibition is a very good prospectus for the ever-more trendy discipline of global history. In particular, however, it was humbling to be reminded of the vastness, depth and heterogeneity of the human past. Bronze was like stepping into a glittering, celebratory version of Fernandez-Armesto’s display case at the end of the universe, and a painful reminder of how very little of that past any one individual, or even any given History Faculty, can really hope to master.

Monday, 29 October 2012

A Noisy Room


Disco party in the Hague, photo by David Domingo
It’s no secret that one of the big stories in the careers of historians of my generation is going to be the impact of new technologies on our professional activities, as researchers, authors and teachers. Over the past couple of weeks, in the spirit of exploration and discovery, I’ve tentatively dipped my toes into two forms of social media which are new to me.

The first is academia.edu, best described as 'Linked In' for academics, which I recently became aware of by accident, although some of my Oxford colleagues have been using it for a while. Academia.edu is a global database on which academics register themselves, and it enables you to search for specialists in specific research areas, e.g. ‘Polish history’, ‘Crusades’. You can opt to ‘follow’ the work of people whose research or careers interest you (e.g. receive updates), and they can opt to follow you. Within 3 hours of creating my page on academia.edu, dozens of late medievalists, early modernists and historians of the book had registered as ‘followers’ – early career and senior scholars from Uruguay to Russia, via western Europe and North America. I was initially bemused, then amazed, and finally slightly panic-stricken. Here was a cluster of historians whose work I had in 90% of cases not previously been aware of, but which was directly relevant to my own past, present and future research. After just a few hours on academic.edu, my already daunting mental ‘to read’ list grew three-fold.

A few days ago, I attended an Oxford University training session on ‘Twitter for Academia’, after which I signing up incognito (for now!) to follow university presses, major libraries, museums and leading history departments on Twitter. Within 90 minutes of doing so, my screen had been flooded with c. 60 tweets, a blizzard of incoming messages, some 40% of which consisted of nuggets of genuinely valuable information – about new history books, exhibitions, publishing technologies. It was like briefly popping your head, unsuspecting, into a room where an incredibly loud party is taking place.

In the past - or, in my professional past, until last week – academics learnt about relevant events, or publications, or about scholars working on similar areas in different cities or countries, through email mailing lists or by word of mouth. Word of mouth is a highly haphazard communication system, but at least it limits the stream of information; it is like listening for occasional echoes from afar. But academia.edu and Twitter amplify and accelerate word of mouth in the academic community, in a way which is hugely energising, sometimes inspiring, but which also threatens to be unmanageable. We’ll all have to develop sophisticated listening strategies, and a finely-tuned sense of judgement about which leads to follow, if we’re not going to just flounder pleasantly but helplessly in a sea of stimulating, psychedelic noise. 

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Take Your Seats

The canons' favourite house - the Erazm Ciolek Palace, Cracow
Photo by Ansomia

As the new academic year gets under way, and Somerville welcomes a number of new Fellows and lecturers, members of the Senior Common Room (i.e. academic staff of the college) have been sent an email explaining the etiquette of seating at lunchtimes, when we eat together in our 19C, high-ceilinged, wood-panelled hall. SCR seating conventions vary between colleges, but at Somerville good manners consist of early lunchers taking a seat on the left-hand side of High Table, and of later arrivals sitting in the next free place thereafter. If you’re reserving places for guests or colleagues with whom you’re having a working lunch, you normally head for the ‘lower high’ tables (i.e. the overflow area).

When I first worked in the archives of the Cracow diocese, as a graduate student, I spent several weeks reading the minutes of the Cracow cathedral chapter from the late 15th-century (in an archive located in a gatehouse on the Wawel hill, which scores of tourists passed beneath every hour). I was surprised, and slightly disappointed, to find that these very senior and educated clergymen – who assisted the bishop in the running of the cathedral and diocese – did not spend much time at their meetings discussing what we would think of as religion. Instead, they were much preoccupied with regulating and organising their collective collegiate life. They argued about which canon got to occupy the best houses in Canons’ Street, at the foot of the castle, about who should be excluded from their common table/shared meal-times for bad behaviour, and in particular who should sit and stand where… in cathedral chapter meetings, in public processions, and during church services. Behind the finely tuned conventions, the oft-reiterated rules and the occasional squabbles, one could detect a clear vision of how the shared, communal life of a late medieval cathedral chapter should look, and a strong belief in that ideal.

Somerville may be a 19C foundation, but like all Oxford colleges it has inherited certain medieval social conventions. It is a secular institution, with a high percentage of female academics, with scholars working on everything from the influenza virus to 19C discourses about democracy. In all this, Somerville as a collegiate body would have been scarcely imaginable to the 15C canons of Cracow, except perhaps in some apocalyptic vision of their late medieval world turned anarchically upside down. But the SCR email about high table seating is something they would instantly have understood. 

Friday, 5 October 2012

Short Histories, or 500 Words

Blank pages , and a word limit...
Photo by  Bobby Dimitrov

The conventional wisdom in our current academic culture is that your published work is what matters – that printed output will determine one’s chancing of securing a university post (permanent or otherwise), and is where one’s contribution to knowledge is ultimately made, and most publically, formally stated.

Having spent a lot of time this autumn writing a large grant application for a putative future project, I’ve begun to wonder, however, whether some of the most important bits of prose historians write might in fact be the unpublished, private ones, which circulate very narrowly behind closed doors. Applications for academic jobs, for a graduate place, a post-doctoral research fellowship or a big research grant/award all require the supplicant to explain their professional life to date, and the importance of their actual and/or proposed historical research. Arguably the UCAS form personal statement (part of the UK’s national higher education entrance scheme) is the simply first of these exercises.

These bits of application writing typically have alarmingly low word limits. In a world where a humanities academic journal article usually runs to 8000-10000 words, and a monograph to c.100,000 words, on job/grant applications the limit is usually 500 words, 2000 characters, perhaps 2 pages of A4. An awful lot rests on those few paragraphs, in which you try to explain what you do as a historian, and why you do it – they can be life-changing if you get them right, or wrong. And, unlike published academic work, these crystallised, distilled prose articulations of who we are as historians rarely see the light of day. An appointment committee or grant board will scrutinise them for a few weeks only, and then discard them; at most a snippet from a successful application might appear on a funding body’s website. I’d take a guess and say some of the clearest (and best?) thinking and writing which historians have to produce takes place in the context of such applications. At my first medieval history lecture as an Oxford undergraduate, the celebrated Professor Maurice Keen, who died last month, quoted (anonymously) from a recent application he had seen for a Chair in Medieval History – the applicant had written that the Middle Ages were worth studying “because it is easier to navigate by a more distant star.” That line has stuck with me, perhaps more than any other from my undergraduate lectures. The super-focused, fine-tuned, lucid bits of prose which applications require and inspire may go on to influence and inform the supplicant’s wider work as a historian, but these crucial texts are themselves semi-confidential, and strangely ephemeral.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Castles and Dragons

Dover Castle
Photo by Karen Roe, reproduced under Creative Commons Licence

In the middle of the once-in-a-decade September storm which rocked the UK this weekend, I visited Dover Castle, high on a windy and very wet hill looking out towards the French coast. There were the usual English Heritage features: handy castle plans, on-site museum with artefacts, and animated films about the Angevins playing on large screens. Inside the main keep, however, the keepers and curators had prepared something more unusual – a mock-up of how the main rooms might have looked in the time of Henry II (1154-89).

Wandering through them was a rather peculiar experience. The throne room, with its giant banners of dragon-shaped lions, scarlet hangings and rather psychedelic royal chair looked more like a scene from The Last Emperor, than anything you might see in a standard textbook on medieval England. In Henry’s bedroom, a fire illuminated a painted wooden bed, with a squirrel-pelt, silk-lined bedspread, and a very solid wardrobe, brightly painted with Old Testament kings. The colour scheme was mainly cobalt-blue, poppy-red, and yellow-orange. “Lots of visitors say the furniture reminds them of Ikea,” said one of English Heritage experts on hand. This Henry-II look was painstakingly recreated, in a £2m project executed by 140 craftsmen, by copying surviving 12C furniture in southern Scandinavia, and depictions of medieval interiors in illuminated manuscripts.

English Heritage have written that their aim is to allow the 21C visitor vividly to ‘experience’ the medieval past (a kind of medieval virtual tourism). Perhaps the purpose of that experience is to make the 13C more tangible, a place we can relate to with its cosy beds and large wardrobes. For me, at least, the strange and beautiful rooms of the Henry II Tower had the opposite effect, and I found them unsettling because they rendered the local past and its material culture so very unfamiliar – rather as the HBO series Rome made the ancient city memorably more eastern, garish and dark than the clean marble metropolis of popular imagination. The rooms had a fairytale, slightly unworldly look to them, as if a dragon were about to creep out from under the bed. This slightly trippy recreation of Henry II’s Dover seemed to make it less real, less tangible, and to cast a pall of myth over it. Here, the line between the recorded past, the re-imagined past and a medieval dream world seemed very blurry indeed. It made me wonder what we want the medieval past to be – a sober story of the origins of English laws and institutions (Magna Carta, Parliament, etc.), or raw material for ‘medieval’ fantasy epics, such as Game of Thrones.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Conference Talk

Durham: occupied by Reformation historians for 3 days...
Photo by Glen Bowman

If political parties in the UK have their conference season in October, academics (at least in the Humanities) enjoy their own conference season right now, in the weeks before the formal academic year begins. I’ve just come back from 5 days in Durham, at the Reformation Studies Colloquium; went straight into a Global Middle Ages workshop at Oxford, and will next week drop into a big Oxford conference on early modern letters.

A lot of talking goes on at history conferences – the formal kind of talking (20 minute presentations by speakers, & 1-hour keynote lectures by the invited big names), and a much less formal kind, in the long coffee breaks which are schedule precisely to enable chatting, and at the end of a conference dinner, after the mass consumption of wine.

What no-one ever seems to talk about, however, is what conferences are for – that is left entirely implicit, and it’s interesting that it’s not publicly articulated, not least in light of the huge effort required, by organisers and attendees alike, to assemble, feed and shelter 20-100 historians from all over the world on one site for 2-3 days. So, for what it’s worth, it seems to me that the purpose of conferences is as follows….

  1. To get a sense of the direction in which your field is moving, by seeing what the people at the top are working on, and also learning what topics the new, rising generation of doctoral students have chosen to spend 3 years of their lives on.
  1. To try out your own latest ideas on a gathering of specialists, and see whether they warmly clap, visibly wince, or smile in polite incomprehension.
  1. To provide a stimulating mental space to think about your subject, from new perspectives.
  1. If you’re looking for a job, it’s a place to network and try to impress your elders.
  1. Socially, it’s an opportunity to see ex-colleagues and friends who might work in far-flung parts of the UK, or in North America, and to gossip.
  1. Maybe it’s recreational – an attractive annual city-break, a chance to escape domestic life and enjoy nice dinners with intelligent people.
  1.  In anthropological terms, behind all the camaraderie and tea and biscuits, I wonder if it’s all an elaborate performance of hierarchy, letting people work out where they stand in the pecking order in their field.
At one of the conferences I’ve just attended, an eminent historian of China said to me, “This is what it is all about. Just talking.” Published pieces, he said, were like individual voices in the wind; research and understanding were ultimately only advanced by an active, face-to-face exchange of views. As someone who much prefers writing about my research to talking about it, I’m resistant to the idea that the conference is the ultimate intellectual consummation of the historical profession. But I concede that it is much more convivial, and perhaps comes more easily to humans, than sitting alone in front of a computer screen all day.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Bring Up the Bodies



Hampton Court Palace, Anne Boleyn's Gateway
Photograph  © John S. Turner & licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence.
I’ve recently finished reading Bring Up the Bodies, the second novel in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s ‘Master Secretary’. As you’d hope for a work long-listed for this year’s Booker Prize, Bring up the Bodies is an accomplished literary novel. Mantel has an excellent eye for the poetic and poignant in historical events - there are haunting passages here, for example, about Catherine of Aragon remembering her Spanish childhood, or holding onto keepsakes of her marriage.

As in Wolf Hall, Mantel engages closely, subtly and artfully with the leading academic research on the Tudor court. She tells the reader that she is offering an interpretation ("a proposal, an offer") of the fall of Anne Boleyn, one of the most closely-researched and hotly contested issues in Henrician studies. Like a very good undergraduate, she has read the literature, knitted it together, taken what she judges to be the most plausible bits of each account (Ives, Starkey, Warnicke etc.) and put them together into her own analytical narrative.

One of the criteria for Oxford undergraduate entry is ‘historical imagination’, the ability to think creatively about the past. Bring up the Bodies and Wolf Hall are indeed wonderful ‘imaginings’ of the court of the Henry VIII. Mantel has spun a layer of fine literary prose, like gilt, over the corpus of academic literature on Anne Boleyn, Cromwell and the king. Beautiful though these novels are, however, they are not, I think, telling us anything very new historically. And this is why I find them technically impressive, but also strangely unsatisfying. Arguably, the very best historical fiction offers not just a meticulous imagining of specific historical events, but a bold, original and wholesale re-imagining of a period – as Andrea Barrett’s Voyage of the Narwhal does for 19C exploration, and Andrew Miller’s Pure (creepily!) for the French ancien regime. Mantel’s novels shed unexpected, poetic light on the fine-grained details of 16C court life (Jane Seymour’s skin, Anne Boleyn’s hand gestures, Catherine of Aragon’s silk roses), but I’m not sure that the trilogy has yet offered a panoramic, dynamic new vision of Tudor England and its meanings.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

The Taxi



Is there a historian at the wheel?
Photo by Zygia

This weekend, I was at London Paddington Station’s gleaming new taxi rank (completed just in time for the Olympics), where I was directed to an old green cab. Stuck to the glass partition inside the taxi was a laminated sheet showing the covers of at least 5 books, all by a certain Alf Townsend. These, it transpired, were written by the driver himself, and they were largely history books. There was London Taxis at War (2011), an account of the Second World War in the capital based on interviews with old cabbies, the autobiographical Blitz Boy: A Evacuee’s Story (2008), and Heathrow Cabbie (2010), a mixture of driver recollections/stories, set in the context of the airport site’s history, right back to the Iron Age.

As we tried to negotiate the traffic around Regent’s Park, Alf told us about his media work, interviews and TV programmes, many of which draw deeply on the oral history of the London cabbie community. It seemed that we had jumped into the car not only of a bona fide taxi-driver celebrity, but also of a historian. It was a reminder that history-writing is a vocation and a passion which of course flourishes outside traditional institutional or professional contexts. And a London taxi, it transpires, is a pretty good platform for publishing history – Alf Townsend said he had sold over 5000 autographed copies of his books in the black cab itself, to his passengers. There is a gutsy sales approach which academics, whose historical monographs typically enjoy a humble print-run of 200, might well mull over.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Republic on the Isis?



Palace for committees?
Photo by ell brown
Over the past couple of weeks, Somerville has been conducting interviews for a new Treasurer, to oversee the college's finances and physical fabric. As with interviews for academic jobs, the candidates’ timetables include plenty of time to have coffee and lunch with current members of Governing Body (i.e. the committee of Tutorial Fellows and top college officers which is the sovereign decision-making body of any Oxford college). Over Greek salad, quiche and chocolate tart we’ve had the chance to chat about our work, about the everyday life of the college, and the character of Somerville. In particular, I’ve found myself trying to explain how the college’s governance functions. I sometimes think the best analogy is an early modern European one – that Oxford colleges, and indeed the University itself, are best understood as a Renaissance republican city state, perhaps 15C Venice.

When I started teaching the Renaissance Special Subject some 5 years ago, I gained a slightly better understanding of how Oxford's hugely complex governance works, at college and university level. In Renaissance Venice and Florence, the republican liberty of citizens (academics) was of paramount importance - freedom from external domination/occupation (government) and freedom from internal tyranny (powerful administrators?). This liberty was embodied in the Grand Council, or Venetian assembly, a body perhaps akin to Congregation, Oxford's famous 'parliament of dons'. The Venetians tried to defend their liberty by creating a fabulously complex structure of overlapping committees - a system designed to be so baffling that few could grasp it (let alone dominate it), where some committees were genuinely powerful and other only appeared to be so. To prevent chaos or statis, there was a Doge - officially only a ceremonial figurehead with strictly limited authority, but in practice often the only person who understood the system, and who was able to provide leadership. In this kind of republic, power was everywhere and also nowhere. I don't know what last week's candidates, with their diverse career backgrounds, made of our explanations of Governing Body. Living in a republic, in a consensus- and committee-driven system, can certainly have its frustrations. But, like 15C Venetian patricians, I've come to agree (on most days!) that these are ultimately a price worth paying for liberty.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Going for Gold


Will she make it?
Photo from Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games

Earlier in the week, BBC 3 broadcast a programme called Girl Power: Going forGold, which over 9 months followed three athletes as they fought to get selected for Team GB’s Olympic Women’s Weightlifting squad. Weightlifting is not a world I’m particularly familiar with, but it was compelling watching Zoe from London, Helen from Devon and Hannah from Birmingham settling into life at the national training camp in Leeds. It was interestingly difficult to predict who would win those coveted Team GB places – whether natural talent, ability to perform under pressure, single-mindedness or simple number of hours spent in the gym would win out. But what I kept muttering to myself as I sat in front of the TV was: “why an earth are you doing this?” Why would you sacrifice everything else (e.g. your A-levels), move far from home, devote 3/5/10 years of your life and train 6-10 hours a day, when the odds of getting an Olympic team place are poor? Six contenders, two places.

But, of course, academia is exactly the same, and in some respects worse. You invest 4-5 years of your life doing a Masters and a Phd/D.Phil, possibly struggling to find the money to pay for this, working long hours, often abroad and far from home… and when the thesis is done, you hope to be selected for a postdoctoral position. The classic, coveted Oxbridge post-doc is the JRF (Junior Research Fellowship), and these can easily attract 300 applicants for each advertised post. For even a one-year temporary History lectureship, you’re typically looking at 1 winner out of 60+ applicants. Like trying to break into top-level international sport, academia is high risk and high reward. Up-and-coming weightlifters and historians alike do it because they are passionate about their work, and believe (rightly or wrongly) they are talented enough, or lucky enough, to get the chance to compete at London 2012, or to join the Senior Common Room of an Oxford college. Winner takes all – it’s a great system if you’re one of the winners, a pitiless one if you’re not.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Class List


Ready for your results?
Photo by aprilskiver

Today, we’re expecting the results of the Oxford first-year History exams, Prelims, to be published; Finals results came out at the end of June. The publishing of the so-called class lists is a major Oxford ritual (and rite of passage), but one which has changed substantially in the past five years or so.

For generations, it was the case that results were printed out on a stark white sheet and one master copy pinned up in the Examination Schools, looking much like a legal notice in a UK polling station. To find out how you had done, you had to make a trip to the cavernous entrance hall of the Schools, and identify which of the scores of giant sheets on the walls related to History. This was all very well if you were still in Oxford when your results came out (which most students were not). I received my Prelims results over a pay phone on a cross-channel ferry, desperately trying to hear what the man in the Exam Schools was saying, over the din of engines, slot machines and the duty free shop. I learnt my Finals results standing in my future mother-in-law’s kitchen in Scotland, calling the JCR President of Magdalen on his mobile, the only person I knew still with a college room in Oxford, who had nipped across the road to look at the lists for me.

That ritual has now gone – for a while the class lists were published on-line in PDF form, so you could scan the grainy image on your screen to see how your students had fared. Now, as a tutor, I don’t see a class list at all. Instead, I log onto the university’s massive student database, OSS, and search for results by individual student’s surname – it may be less glamorous, traditional and heart-stopping than standing in front of an A3 sheet of paper in a Victorian lobby, but I can at least see for the first time what all students (including those I taught from other colleges) scored on individual papers, without having to ask their college tutors. I do nonetheless miss my annual pilgrimage to the Exam Schools, which added a sense of occasion and solemnity to the whole process. But the thrill, satisfaction, pride (and, sometimes, relief) you feel when students whom you taught get Firsts or Distinctions is still the same. 

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Francis Xavier’s Giant Seaweed


Fit for a saint? Kelp off the Californian coast.
Photo by richard ling.

I’ve just returned from a two-week holiday in Portugal, spent mostly in Sagres, a small town on the extreme south-western tip of Europe, a windswept area of wild heathland and dramatic sea views. One of the most intriguing documents I saw on holiday was a menu left out on the kitchen worktop of our villa, listing the treatments available at the resort’s Finisterra spa. Spa menus often contain a lot of Asian treatments and references – I’m never sure how far these massages etc. genuinely originate in Thailand or India, and how much spas simply are adding an orientalising flavour to draw people in.

The Finisterra brochure rather took me aback, because its core ‘rituals’ (2 hour treatments, costing 160 Euros) are inspired not by ancient Siamese healing practices, but by fifteenth and early sixteenth century Portuguese history. There is a Henry the Navigator ritual, a ‘relaxing and calming treatment’ which involves a lavender body scrub, a seaweed wrap and a compress of chamomile. There are rituals inspired by Gil Eanes, the Portuguese mariner who first rounded the western bulge of Africa, Cape Bojador, and a Vasco da Gama ritual, which uses aromatic oils, heated jasper and semi-precious stones in reference to his discovery of a sea passage to India. When I saw this, I laughed (of course), but I wasn’t really quite sure what to make of the fact that the great modern scholarship on the Age of Discovery which I read with my General VII (15C European history) students has here been reduced to a very expensive set of massages.

On the one hand, it’s rather encouraging that a spa in the western Algarve, catering almost exclusively to British tourists, is keen to share its national and local history, and takes pride in it – Henry the Navigator’s fort in Sagres is a (heated) stone’s throw from Finisterra. In a way, as a late medievalist I find it flattering that 15C history is seen as relevant, exotic and marketable enough to use in this way. Then again, the rituals do seem to trivialise Iberia’s dramatic late medieval history just a little bit. It wasn’t all brave men in caravels – what about the attempted invasions of North Africa, or Portuguese explorers’ role in the West African slave trade? And some of the rituals might simply be in bad taste. The ‘Japan Francisco Xavier’ ritual, for example (a body wrap in a giant seaweed) is inspired by the priests who travelled across the sea to spread Catholicism  –  but a lot of Xavier’s fellow missionaries to Japan, and their local converts (such as the Martyrs of Nagasaki), came to horribly grisly ends. A giant seaweed wrap doesn’t quite seem an appropriate response to that. I’m unlikely ever again to be offered spa rituals based on topics I teach in tutorial, but I didn’t try them. If someone lends me 160 Euros, maybe next time…

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Cashing in?




I was at the British Library earlier this week, and found sheets of official paper neatly laid out on each desk in the Humanities I Reading room. This sight makes me slightly nervous, as it can indicate an announcement of imminent industrial action, or a broken book-retrieving machine in the stacks, but in this case the papers turned out to be a questionnaire, an exercise by the private research consultancy Oxford Economics. As the Chief Executive of the BL explains in her covering letter, the aim of this research is to ‘quantify the impact of the Library on the UK economy’, with a view to lobbying the government more effectively.

Some of the questions were simple enough, to capture economic activity associated with coming to the BL – how much do you spend on public transport to get here, how much do you spend on food in our cafe? But the two questions which gave me most food for thought were ones which conjured up an alternative world, in which access to a research library becomes (just?) a commodity, which can be purchased for the right price. What would be the maximum amount you would be willing to pay per month as a donation or subscription…? – how much would you fork out for the right to sit in these beautiful spaces and read Władysław Pociecha’s account of the 1519-21 Polish-Prussian war? Rather sheepishly, I wrote in pencil £25, because that’s slightly more than the sum you might pay for membership of a big scholarly association, like the Renaissance Society of America. Then, a question which made my eyes widen at my desk: Imagine the BL… allowed existing Readers to sell their Pass. What is the minimum amount you would be willing to accept? What is that piece of green plastic worth to you?

What's it worth to you?
In this hypothetical scenario, you can imagine BL cards traded furiously on e-bay, or exchanged for cash on seedy street corners behind King’s Cross station. I conjured up some fantastical sums in my head (£5K, £10K?), before putting my pen down because, cheesy though it sounds, to an academic a BL pass is probably priceless. Even scholars live in a material world, and function within a wider economy, whether they like it or not, so there’s no point in putting one’s head totally in the sand. The BL has to make a loud case for public funding, and it is of course regrettable that education and research (the pursuit of better understanding of the world) increasingly have to be justified in purely economic terms. But even in this climate, the hypothetical act of putting a price on an individual's lifetime access to ‘the world’s knowledge’ (to quote the BL’s slogan), to the national research collection, still has a rather dystopian chill to it. So I’m still carrying the questionnaire around in my bag, unsure whether to hand it over to Oxford Economics or not.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Peering into a black box?


A new experiment

This spring, a very exciting little email pinged into my inbox, informing me that my current project on the early Reformation in the kingdom of Poland (a rather under-studied and contentious field!) had been awarded a British Academy MidCareer Fellowship for the academic year 2011-12. This grant in effect pays for Somerville and the History Faculty to hire a replacement lecturer to cover my teaching, pastoral and administrative duties for a year, so that I can have a clear run at finishing the book.

While I’m on research leave here in Oxford (and occasionally Poland) for the next 16 months or so, this blog will continue in its usual way. As part of the British Academy award, however, I’ll be writing in parallel an on-line log (or diary) about progress on the book, called History Monograph. The aim of the History Monograph site is certainly not to bombard people with the minutiae of the early Polish Reformation as I unearth them. Rather, the purpose of the book log is to (take a risk!) and make visible the traditionally invisible process of how academics in the Humanities go about producing a 100,000 research monograph single-handedly. So for anyone writing, or who has ever written, a big chunk of non-fiction prose, this website aims to provide a space to share thoughts, experiences and tactics – not just about the hard-core intellectual problem of how best to structure an argument, or ways of maintaining some clarity of vision, but also about the everyday human challenges of spending months on a major writing exercise, with a looming deadline. I hope the website will come to function as a collective virtual workshop (or even self-help group!) on academic writing, and a further window into the world of a research historian.

The idea for the History Monograph log came in part following a conversation I had in Somerville SCR with Dr. Frank Prochaska – historian of 19C England, and husband of our Principal – about how he tackles the writing of a chapter, or a paragraph. As tutors, we continually give our students pointers on how to write a better introduction, essay or presentation. After speaking with Frank, however, it struck me that I had never had such a conversation with fellow academic. It is as if our personal approaches to academic/history writing are a private, closely-guarded and mysterious dark art – you lock an academic in a study for a year, and a book emerges, abracadabra! Book/article/thesis writing is surely an area where not only can our students learn from us, but where all writers can learn from each other. I have no idea how my personal approach to book-writing compares with that of colleagues, graduates or other professionals, but I look forward to finding out in the coming months...

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Over the Garden Wall


Yesterday, on a balmy Oxford evening, I spent an hour in the pretty gardens of the Rector’s Lodgings at Exeter College. Oxford is full of secret, semi-private and extremely private gardens hidden behind medieval walls, and I’d gained entry to this one because I was attending a reception organised by Andrew Hamilton, the Vice Chancellor, intended to bring together people from across the University who attempt to engage a wider community with their research.

Anthony Gormley sculpture, roof of Exeter College
Photo by failing angel
I think I was invited because of this blog, so the reception gave me an opportunity to raise a small and appreciative glass of white wine to its many loyal readers around the globe – thank you! It also gave me the chance to talk to people in this enormous and highly devolved (or fragmented, delete as appropriate) university whom I wouldn’t normally meet. There was a leading professor of psychiatry, whose podcasts for laypeople on the ‘New Psychology of Depression’ have attracted an astonishing number of hits. I heard about the Young Lives research project at the Department of International Development, which follows the childhood of 12,000 children in 4 developing countries, and makes its considerable body of data publically accessible via its website. And I got to chat to my History colleague Steve Gunn, whose project on Tudor accidents has unearthed all sorts of remarkable stories (e.g. a possible inspiration for Shakespeare’s Ophelia), which have been widely reported on the BBC and beyond.

Academics still party and celebrate behind high walls, in secret gardens (I remember the open-mouthed wonder of a Little Clarendon Street shopkeeper when he entered Somerville's garden quad, just behind his shop, for the very first time…). It’s become a truism that social media and the internet are transforming academic research. Last night’s gathering brought home to me, however, just how porous the walls of the university have become (and will yet become) as a result of new technologies – that brings great opportunities, considerable risks, and arguably a whole new arena of moral, professional and institutional responsibility.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

The Marriage Plot



I've just finished reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ new novel, The Marriage Plot. I haven’t read his earlier feted books, Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, and although this latest offering is less outlandish in its subject matter (to the disappointment of some reviewers), it will probably have strong resonances for anyone studying or teaching at Oxford.

The Marriage Plot is simply an exploration of the experiences of three undergraduates at the Ivy League Brown University, respectively majoring in English literature, Religious Studies and Biology. It covers two years of their lives – their final year at university, and the first year out in the big bad world in America, France and Calcutta in early 1980s. For me, one of book’s most impressive achievements is the way it explores (or: reminds you of) what is like to be in your final year at an elite university, in an environment which is both intellectually and emotionally intense. The protagonists Madeleine, Mitchell and Leonard are caught up in friendship networks which are at times hugely supportive, and at times claustrophobic and judgemental; they are making epic decisions about their personal relationships which may shape the rest of their lives, and they’re under enormous pressure to decide where to go after Brown, and to put those plans for future success in motion before they even write their final papers. And in the midst of all this, they are not only hugely intellectually engaged with their studies (carrying their Derrida and Foucault around with them like Bibles), but challenged by them, trying to apply the electrifying ideas they are exposed to in the classroom to their own lives, attempting to adjust as their intellectual sense of the wider world around them shifts day by day. If Donna Tartt’s thriller The Secret History evoked life in a small Liberal Arts college splendidly, Marriage Plot is in a different league.

I have no idea how far this story of the early 1980s, of bright graduates fleeing abroad to escape an American recession, would chime with our own students here. But I do think that for Oxford tutors, with all our pedagogic and pastoral responsibilities, this book should be highly recommended reading – a bracing fictional reminder not only of how big and deep our undergraduates' lives are outside the tutorial or classroom, but also of the enormous impact that the ideas we introduce students to can have after they have left the room, whether they agree with them or not.

Monday, 14 May 2012

The Archive Trip


At the coalface - the Archive of the Archdiocese of Poznan

On sabbatical leave and armed with a travel grant from the Oxford History Faculty, I spent last week in the western Polish city of Poznań, on a research trip for my current book project (ahead of the Euro 2012 football fans who will descend on the city en masse in June). I was there to look at 16C sources in the Archdiocesan Archive, which I could see clearly as my Ryanair flight swooped down over the city – a square, red-roofed building on Poznan’s impressive cathedral island, in the Warta River.

If a conference is the most socially exhausting experience in academic life (speaking to people almost non-stop from 8am to 11pm), the archive trip is the academic equivalent of solitary confinement – multiple days on your own in a foreign city where you know precisely nobody. It’s not like a business trip, because although sitting in remote archives is serious professional work for historians, there is no secretary organising your travel, no local office or clients responsible for looking after you, far less providing entertainment and welcome. The inhabitants of Poznań I’d come to see have been dead for 500 years, leaving only traces in 16C ecclesiastical records and the (heavily refurbished) buildings in which they lived.

Poznań at least has the advantage of being a major city with an attractive historic centre, so I was able to browse bookshops, peer at old churches, sit in cafes and conduct a tour of restaurants outside archive opening hours. The most psychologically testing archive trips I’ve had have been to pretty but very small Polish towns, like Gniezno or Włocławek, spending 7-15 days alone in a place which the Rough Guide suggests could be comprehensively toured in a couple of hours. Eating breakfast, lunch and dinner in the same hotel restaurant, watched by the same four silent waiters, reading the same novel at every meal for days or weeks at a stretch, quickly feels like Groundhog Day. After a short spell of this, with 16C clerical handwriting swimming before your eyes, speaking to nobody all day long apart from the archivist and the aforementioned waiters, you start to wonder if you’re going a little bit crazy. And even on archive trips to sunny and vibrant places like Poznań, no matter how well the research itself is going at the coalface of crumbling 16C papers, there are always two voices in my head - one saying ‘how exotic and exciting this is!’ and the another, slightly more persistent, saying ‘what an earth am I doing here?’.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Casting Spells


Florence in action...
Photo by Tangentical, reproduced under the
Creative Commons Licence.

Last week, I bought Ceremonials, the new album by Florence + the Machine. I find listening to this group slightly peculiar, ever since I discovered that Florence is the daughter of an eminent art historian of the Italian Renaissance, whose books we study for our Florence (spot the connection) & Venice Special Subject.

Ceremonials is probably the first time that a musical track has strongly evoked for me a manuscript I’ve worked with. One of the strangest songs on this highly melodic but slightly creepy album is Seven Devils. The Guardian music critic has written that part of the appeal of Florence Welsh’s first album lay in her air of witchery. As far as I can tell, Seven Devils is a song about necromancy and casting spells. ‘Seven devils all around me, seven devils in my house, holy water cannot help you now…’, with music that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror film.

When I listen to this in my kitchen, it instantly conjures up British Library MS Sloane 3854. This is a 14C Latin manuscript, possibly from Germany, which contains a rich collection of medieval spells. A while back, I did some research on divination at the Polish royal court, and ended up consulting this text to look at examples of the genre. MS Sloane 3854 contained diagrams and clear instructions (“kneel at this point”) showing how to draw chalk circles, invoke the names of devils, and conjure up spirits. I didn’t like it at all – not because I believed that the disconcertingly well-thumbed book in my hands had the power to summon dark supernatural forces, but because the manuscript had clearly been handled (possibly in medieval German forests!) by people who thought that it would, and who wished to do so. It was the human impulses behind it which made it a slightly alarming artefact. But I think the British Library could do worse than to have an atmospheric little corner of its Manuscript Reading Room reserved for scholars consulting texts of medieval magic, with Florence Welch’s Ceremonials gently piped in the background. 

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Living Above the Shop

Comfortable canons' houses, Kanonicza Street, Cracow
Photo by denvilles duo,  reproduced under the Creative Commons licence.

Although the impact of the recession is clear to see in Little Clarendon Street (Oxford’s boutique shopping street, next to Somerville), where there are plenty of empty shop-fronts, the impressive amount of building work taking place in and around the college suggests a more buoyant story. There is currently construction on all four sides of Somerville – to the north, as the Maths Institute goes up on the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter; to the east, where St. Aloysius’ church is putting up an extension; to the south, where a new Tesco is taking shape, and finally on the western perimeter, where college itself is renovating and extending its Grade II Listed Wolfson building.

All this has been so noisy, that I have fled my Wolfson room and taken refuge in a Fellows’ set, or flat, at the top of the Victorian Maitland building. Moving here has been a reminder of how much the lifestyle of Oxford dons has changed. Although there are still plenty of Fellows who live in accommodation provided by, or within, their college, it is increasingly a minority experience. Nonetheless, living in is, historically, how dons have lived – giving tutorials, writing books, receiving visitors and sleeping in the same connected set of rooms. In my borrowed Maitland set, for example, I have at my disposal an airy living room, study, fridge-freezer and two bathrooms, should I need them. Dwelling in college is still the classic, romanticised perception of how Oxford dons live and should live, celebrated in C.P Snow novels and Tom Sharpe's Porterhouse Blue. Every year, our Freshers look dimly disappointed when I tell them that I don’t live inside Somerville’s walls, but actually come into Oxford every day by train from a major town in the Thames Valley; the don as commuter seems incongruous and unglamorous.

Living on the college site is of course an ongoing legacy of Oxford’s medieval past, and the medieval conception of a university as a community, of celibate and ordained men, similar to a cathedral chapter or monastic house. When I read the 15C minutes of the Cracow cathedral chapter, a surprising portion of their deliberations consist of squabbles about who got to live in which of the chapter’s stunning houses on Kanonicza Street, at the foot of the royal castle. In the Loire Valley, in the hilltop town of Montreuil-Bellay, you can still see the luxurious 15C bath-house provided for the collegiate canons who lived on site. My Maitland set might have a washing machine instead of a steam room, but it is a keen reminder of the ways in which Oxford colleges have for centuries functioned, and still strive to function, as living communities of academics and students, even if the norms of that shared life are constantly evolving.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

The Borgias

Alexander VI goes to Hollywood...
Photo from Wikipedia Commons, Pinturicchio fresco.

On Easter Sunday, with cheeky timing, the first episode of season 2 of The Borgias, a lavish Showtime series starring Jeremy Irons, was broadcast in North America. I received a box set of the first series/season 1 for Christmas, and have been watching my way through it in recent weeks.

The infamous pontificate of the chubby and jolly Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503), has long stood at the heart of my interests as a historian, ever since I studied the (now sadly defunct) Oxford final-year special subject on Renaissance Papal Rome. The questions about the 15C which most interested me when applying for graduate study are essentially the same ones which underpin my current research: what forces in the medieval church produced a pontificate of such celebrated seediness, sexual scandal and military brutality? How were the antics of the Borgia dynasty in Rome perceived further afield in Christendom, in kingdoms like Poland, and what effect did they have on the church and its development there?

For these reasons, I curl up on my sofa with a certain amount of curiosity, trepidation and relish to watch my Borgia DVDs. The series is of course sensationalised (but not much!), but I’ve not so far found it trashy, factually footloose or two-dimensional in the way that what little I could watch of The Tudors was. A lot of the characterisations, particularly of Alexander VI’s children, seem pretty spot-on. There is an earnest attempt to educate the audience in the intricate geopolitics of 15C Italy – whether it’s Rodrigo Borgia giving his youngest son a laboured geography lesson in front of a giant map, or the pope drawing a political diagram on his mistress’ thigh for her edification. In particular, the series’ writer Neil Jordan (The Crying Game), has stuck surprisingly close to the sources – a lot of the characters and events depicted in The Borgias seem to come straight from the pages of the diary of Johannes Burchard, our chief source for the court of Alexander VI, and Burchard himself is given various cameos. In the series’ presentation of the political and military history of Italy, there are various echoes of Francesco Guicciardini’s grand narrative of the period, the Storia d’Italia.

Watching the series has, perhaps because of its surprising historical fidelities, therefore felt slightly strange. Seeing on screen, with cinematic clarity, events which as a historian you have been visualising in your head for years feels like an act of necromancy – like watching spirits raised and speaking before your eyes. So much of what historians do is rooted in imagination (‘historical imagination’ is indeed one of the official criteria for Oxford undergraduate entry), that to have someone else do the imagining for you, on a multi-million dollar budget, is an unexpectedly unsettling experience.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Ships Past


Photo by omblod

Although I’m not particularly well versed in maritime history, I’ve noticed that there have been plenty of historic ships in the news this week. The new Titanic Belfast visitor centre has been heavily publicised ahead of its opening on March 31st. There is even a large poster at Oxford station, the startling building – evoking the doomed ship and its iceberg - looming over the passing trains. It’s interesting to see that Titanic Belfast has galleries about the city’s shipbuilding past and the vessel itself, but a good part of its focus seems to be on Titanic’s afterlife, on human interaction with the wreck and also ‘myths and legends’. In that sense, this new centre (which insists on calling itself an experience, rather than a museum) appears to take as one of its main subjects historical consciousness, popular and cinematic memory, and even (although they’d never call it that) historiography, the shifting interpretations and responses to the events of April 1912. It’s an arresting and rather postmodern approach – very different, say, to the fine but earnest Mary Rose visitor centre in Portsmouth. There the ghostly wreck itself, half-glimpsed in a hall dark with water-spray, is presented above all as a window onto Tudor social history, as a way of recovering the everyday life of the unjustly forgotten common man via his flutes and medicine pots… an approach which in itself reflects an earlier set of historians’ agendas.

This week, it was also announced that the good ship City of Adelaide is to return to Australia. This ship, which carried an estimated 250,000 visitors and settlers to Australia from its construction in 1864, now sits ignominiously rotting in Irvine in Scotland, having been rescued from the waters of the Clyde, in which it sank in 1991. The City of Adelaide is finally going back to Port Adelaide, for a projected new visitor centre, its preservation secured. It’s interesting to see the varied ways in which we treat the physical remains of ships (as relics, or junk), and to be reminded of how central ships are to national and urban stories, of how certain vessels become iconic, and of the very different ways in which we choose to remember them and decide what they represent about ourselves and our pasts.


'The City of Adelaide', Irvine
Photo copyright wfmillar, reproduced under Creative Commons license.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Spin the Wheel

Now that Hilary term is over, and the undergraduates (barring our revising Finalists) have gone home, it is time for tutors to head back to the library. In the Bodleian’s Upper Reading Room, I’ve been working on early Polish polemics against the Reformation. This has involved both reading about early modern practices of handling and producing books, while also handling a large quantity of printed books myself, as a 21C scholar. At my desk in the Bodleian, I’ve feel as I’ve been literally juggling books – trying to consult 3 volumes of the Jagiellonian Library catalogue simultaneously, while typing on my laptop at the same time. At the British Library, there are laminated A3 sheets on the desks which sternly warn readers of all the things they should not to do to books – such as weighing them down with a mobile phone, or a hefty dictionary, to keep their pages open. I sometimes feel as if I literally don’t have enough hands.

Handy? Ramelli's bookwheel
Image from Wikipedia Commons.
Medieval and Renaissance scholars had this problem too, and I think their solutions were a little more ingenious than the crumbling, green-grey foam book rests which are sometimes made available to researchers in British libraries. Looking at Dora Thornton’s The Scholar in His Study (1997) last week, the illustrations leapt out at me. There was a 14C illumination of an Italian cardinal sat at his desk, in a chair with a bookcase built into its back. Not very comfortable, perhaps, but handy. There were woodcuts showing men craned over giant book rests, which held 3-4 works open at the same time, in a nice straight line, so you could scan across them all. There were images of book wheels, which displayed volumes open at the requisite page, but on a little carousel like those you find today in greetings card shops. One of the most grandiose solutions to the simultaneous consultation of multiple books was Agostino Ramelli’s 1588 design – a contraption reminiscent of a giant hamster wheel, which the scholar at his (or, theoretically, her) desk could manually rotate, to see mounted books whizz past their face. (This design impressed the Princeton historian Anthony Grafton so much, he had one constructed for his office). In some ways, our 21C book technologies, with digitalisation and e-readers, are breathtakingly sophisticated; in others, when the only bookholder on sale in Blackwells on Broad Street is a 30cm strip of blue plastic, perhaps we lack a little imagination.