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

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

A White Horse and an Open Book

'Peaks, Passes and Glaciers'
Veronica Bailey, 'Hours of Devotion' series (2007).
With kind permission from Veronica Bailey and Giles Baker Smith
  One of the highlights of late January every year – ever since I accidentally ended up with a free ticket as a graduate student – is the London Art Fair. It is one of the biggest such shows/sales in the UK, with dozens of top galleries and dealers exhibiting works from Lowry to Damien Hirst in the glassy, multi-tiered space of the Business Design Centre in Islington. This year, amidst the hundreds of photos, collages, sculptures and paintings on display, two images struck a chord with me as a historian, as works of art which captured something of the experience of researching the past.

The first was History Painting by the Australian-based artist Giles Alexander (on the website, it’s the last picture in the scroll-through gallery). In oil and resin, it’s an oval image showing an Uccello-like scene from a late medieval battlefield, all handsome horses and men in fancy hats. The painting is in the shape of an eye, and the central pupil-section shows a fragment of the scene perfectly in focus, homing in on what looks like the slaying of a commander on a white mount. Beyond the pupil, however, the entire image is foggy and out of focus. This reminded me somewhat of writing a historical monograph –  you try to hold assemble a great panorama of evidence and arguments in your mind’s eye, but for much of the process it all feels a bit out of focus and vague. It’s only when you’ve hit upon your central argument, which can make sense of the evidence, that (ideally) the moment of clarity descends and you feel you can really see the historical landscape.

The second image which stood out for me as a historian was a photograph by Veronica Bailey, entitled Peaks, Passes and Glaciers. It is part of a 2007 series called Hours of Devotion, for which the artist photographed Victorian books from the reading room of Coutts Bank. Her image, of the work standing upright and partially open, its fanned pages facing the viewer, conveys not just the materiality of the old volumes historians consult in research libraries, but their sculptural, architectural and tactile quality as objects. Giles Baker Smith (an Oxford history alumnus himself) has written that Bailey’s images stand ‘as a bold visual testament to the enduring power of the book as a resource of learning, as a cultural mirror and as an aesthetic entity in its own right’. Looking at these photos, I could almost smell their pages and feel their dust on my fingertips. Sometimes artists can tell us things we only half-realised about our own work, its tools and processes.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

The Reference Chain

Lorenzo de'Medici: would he write your M.Phil. reference?
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Photo by Jim Forest.
This Friday is the deadline for applications to graduate courses at Oxford, and like a lot of tutors I have been receiving emails from current and recent students asking if I wouldn’t mind writing them a reference for a Masters or D.Phil. programme. I’ve thus been spending a fair bit of time writing these, and then battling to upload them on the on-line system shared by many UK universities. I’m also writing recommendations every week or so for doctoral students, who are competing to win scholarships or Junior Research Fellowships. I don’t mind doing this (not just because it is my job to do so...!), but because I have painful memories of what it was like being a finalist or graduate student, sheepishly writing carefully crafted emails to tutors and supervisors, trying to persuade them to send off just one more letter to persuade some higher power that research on 15C Poland was worthwhile. What’s striking about academic reference writing is not just the inter-generational debts and obligations you accrue along the way, but the ways in which it is an on-going feature of our careers – even as my students email me, I’ve been emailing colleagues and trying to coax them into writing references for the various grant applications I’ve been putting together this year. References can feel like an academic feeding chain.

If I ever do flag in writing my 1-2 page accounts of students’ strengths and potential, I could console myself by thinking about Lorenzo de’ Medici, de facto ruler of late 15C Florence in that city’s Golden Age (according to his supporters). In our Renaissance Special Subject class, we discuss with the Finalists research which suggests that the Medici’s highly ambiguous but pervasive power in Florence, where they held no official ruling office, was based on networks of patronage, which manifested themselves above all in letter writing. Lorenzo de’ Medici wrote literally thousands of letters of recommendation for his fellow citizens, for patricians and humble customs-collectors alike – no favour was too trivial - thereby creating a huge, socially diverse clientage base. I’ve come across some of these letters in my own research – minor Polish clergy passing through Florence, who acquired references from Lorenzo to help expedite their business in papal Rome. Lorenzo’s letters were often just one or two lines long, because the political weight of his name on the bottom of page alone carried massive persuasive force. Academic referees can’t really rely on similar tactics, but then in our humble letters we are merely trying to cultivate those students who will become the new generation of leading historians, rather than attempting to orchestrate European power politics.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Adventures with Gutenberg

Missal printed for the diocese of Turku, Finland, 1488, commissioned by the local bishop
Free press photo by University of Jyväskylä, Finland.
   One of my best friends from undergraduate days, and long suffering former tutorial partner, now makes his living writing historical novels/thrillers, under the name Tom Harper. About four years ago, Tom and I by coincidence became interested at the same time in the early printing industry in fifteenth-century Europe, in contemporary perceptions of what printing might be useful for, and how people thought it would change their world. It’s been interesting to see where those shared questions have led us, in our respective professional ways of doing history.

   Tom’s Book of Secrets was published in 2009. It has a split narrative - a modern-day story line in which the New Yorker Nick Ash hunts for his missing ex-girlfriend, with a picture of a 15C playing card as his only clue, and a mid 15C thread which follows a Mainz entrepreneur as he struggles with debt and technical mishap to develop a functioning moving type press. I hope it’s not giving too much away to say that my favourite part of the novel is the haunting description of the “Devil’s Library”, a library full of heterodox and dangerous texts thought to have been lost, but which have in fact been spirited away. Tom’s account of the building in which the Devil’s Library was housed reminded me a bit of the Codrington Library in All Souls College, a series of grand vaulted rooms where you have a sense of being almost outside time. Its twisting stairwells look Escher-like to anyone crossing Radcliffe Square on a dark night. I'm not sure in the Devil's Library is a comforting thought or not to those, like me, who regularly find that early printed books they desperately want to see have been declared lost, the last known copies vanished without trace. Tom's book was about a dark side to early printing and the church's fear of the new technology.
  Gutenberg and early printing have taken me in a different direction, meanwhile, and I ended up writing an article, ‘From Strassburg to Trent: Bishops, Printing and Liturgical Reform in the Fifteenth Century’, which was published just before Christmas in the journal Past and Present. My article argues that we have overlooked the significant and inventive ways in which the top clergy of the Roman church used the early printing industry well before the Reformation. It explores how and why bishops all over Europe commissioned official liturgical (or church service) books from printers, and the intriguing ways in which these prelates thought a manuscript differed from a printed book. I had a lot of fun poring over dozens of incunabula in London, Oxford, Cracow and the Vatican – from tiny breviaries printed in Augsburg or Nuremberg before 1500 which would fit in your pocket, to a vellum Toledo missal in the British Library so monstrously large and heavy that I needed a special trolley to manoeuvre it to my desk. Unlike Nick Ash, I didn’t come across evidence of any terrible conspiracies around early printing, only of the more mundane ways in which historians and societies can forget whole episodes from the past. Nonetheless, following a trail of documents and incunabula from the 1470s, with their crisp pages and crumbling leather spines, at times felt every bit as exciting as (if a whole lot less dangerous than) being in a historical thriller.