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

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.