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

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.