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

Thursday, 19 December 2013

An Evening with Thomas Wyatt

Thomas Wyatt, by Hans Holbein the Younger
Wikipedia Commons
One of the most interesting events I attended last term was a slightly belated book launch (viewable here) for the Wolfson Prize-winning Thomas Wyatt: The Heart’s Forest, by my former undergraduate tutor Susan Brigden. It was organised by a new institution which has rather burst upon the scene here – TORCH, or The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities, an interdisciplinary enterprise based in the refurbished 18C Radcliffe Infirmary.

Events relating to new books normally take one of two forms in Oxford – seminar or party. At a seminar, the author presents a précis of the work in a formal academic setting in the form of a paper, and is then politely grilled by an audience of peers and students. At a party, plenty of wine and nibbles are served in some smart college room, discounted copies of the book made available, and brief speeches made by a bashful author and an eager publisher.

TORCH has however been pioneering a new kind of book event, which steers a middle way between these two models. At the Heart’s Forest evening, in a rare assembly of historical talent, a panel consisting of Diarmaid MacCulloch, Chris Stamatakis, David Starkey and Susan Brigden herself sat on the stage in St. Anne’s auditorium. The panellists each gave a speech – something in between an encomium and a personal reflection on the nature of 16C England. Susan, in her response, talked frankly about the intimacy with which a biographer lives with their subject (his loves, spiritual crises and felonies), and reflected on what she might change in the book, having finally achieved ‘closure’ on Wyatt. The panel – three of them once fellow doctoral students under the legendary G.R. Elton – then launched into an informal but eye-opening discussion about why Tudor England mattered, and how strong our grasp of that period is. Starkey saw in Henry’s court the heroic origins of a modern English identity; McCullough insisted that Tudor England was still entirely on the margins of Europe; they argued about the role of Reformation theology and of loyalty to the Tudor dynasty. And then we all had a glass of wine.

It is hard to entice academics into a space where they can address the big questions in their field, speak about the personalities who have moulded their own careers, articulate something of the emotional rollercoaster of writing a big book, and reflect on cutting-edge interdisciplinary methodology – let alone all at once. Perhaps by innovating with the form and shape of academic meetings, organisations like TORCH can also encourage new patterns of thought, and provide new templates for scholarly conversations… without losing the celebratory conviviality of the traditional launch party.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Ghost Books

The news today is of course full of JFK commemorations, memories and ‘what if’ analyses. As the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy has been creeping up on us, I’ve been reminded during my teaching this term – somewhat depressingly - of professional historians who have also died young, before achieving what it was anticipated they would achieve.

When I was an undergraduate at Lincoln College, Oxford, one of the very first books we were set was The English Face of Machiavelli, by Felix Raab (1962). The foreword, by Hugh Trevor Roper, explained that Raab had been a brilliant graduate student, set to transform an entire field, before he fell to his death in the Alps just before his doctoral viva. This cast something of a pall over the Machiavelli essay we had to write; among my undergraduate history friends at Lincoln, ‘Felix Raab’ became a short-hand for ‘doomed golden youth’. That haunting preface remained fresh in our minds, long after we had forgotten Raab’s actual argument.

One of the most useful books I came across when writing my doctoral thesis was Medieval Ecclesiastical Courts in the Diocese of Canterbury by Brian L. Woodcock (1952). This was a strikingly clear-headed, intelligent reconstruction of church courts in late medieval England, posthumously published – Woodcock had fallen ill while writing up his research, and the work was completed by his wife as a tribute to her husband. This term, when teaching early modern witchcraft, my students’ faces fell when I told them that the author of a landmark, feisty study of Scottish witch trials, Christina Larner (Enemies of God, 1981), had died in an accident shortly after the publication of this classic work.

Historians are obviously as mortal, as subject to accidents and illness, as anybody else, but as with politicians and celebrities who die young, it is hard to separate this fact from their work  - an air of tragedy seeps into these monographs. As with JFK, even those born many years after the deaths of these scholars are left wondering what more might have been. However, as David Rundle has argued in the case of Felix Raab, in such cases an author’s life-story can overshadow their work, or make its frank critical appraisal difficult. The books written by these lost historians, which live on in the academic landscape, make for unquiet ghosts.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

History by Design

One of the many tasks on my to-do list back on October 1st, the official start-date of my new European Research Council (ERC) grant, was to procure a logo for the project, called The Jagiellonians: Dynasty, Identity and Memory in Central Europe. After some rather wobbly back-of-the-envelope sketches, it became clear I would need professional help, so I ran a small competition among the fine art students at Oxford’s Ruskin School to design the project logo.

It has been a stimulating challenge to distil the project and its mammoth 16-page research proposal into a single snappy image. The design brief given to the Ruskin students had to explain the ideas and questions behind the project to artists and designers, rather than academic historians – to tell the story of the Jagiellonians not with reference to historiographies and grand narratives, but through images, of tombs, heraldry, castles and sixteenth-century printed family trees, their tendrils packed with kings and queens.

In the end, I chose a design by Evie Kitt. Evie’s logo sets out the project key word ‘Jagiellonians’ clearly and elegantly - important as it is a long word, a Polish-Lithuanian-Anglicised hybrid, a term unfamiliar even to many scholars working on the early modern period. The key feature of Evie’s logo is the initial ‘J’. This ‘J’ resembles a letter from a Renaissance illuminated manuscript in Central Europe, circa 1500, when the high gothic illumination style was reaching its zenith, and floral, botanical motifs were a key leitmotif. The Jagiellonians were important patrons of this style, as shown in their splendid gilded, floral prayer books and missals. Evie’s J is however not a painted initial, but appears as if it has been carved out of red marble. Red ‘marble’ (hard limestone), excavated from mines near Esztergom in Hungary, was a prestige artistic material in early modern Central Europe, used in Renaissance palaces and tombs by Jagiellonian monarchs in both Buda and Cracow. Hungarian red marble is also a reminder that Jagiellonian history is not just about Poland and Lithuania, but a wider regional phenomenon.

The crown topping the J is a fairly self-explanatory reference to the Jagiellonians as a major royal dynasty, but also arguably one of the only symbols the project can safely use. The symbols employed by the dynasty themselves, from the 14th to 16th centuries – a mounted rider (pogon, pahonia), double cross, white eagle – have enjoyed a complex afterlife in Central Europe. The ‘pogon’, for example, which features prominently in many Renaissance depictions of the dynasty, is today one of the official symbols of the very politically different states of Lithuania and Belarus. You can buy ties and cushions with the Belarussian patriotic ‘pahonia’ online. The ERC project is intended as a new international study of the dynasty, which transcends local, national and nationalist perspectives, so these traditional, heavily resonant, politicised images present a problem, even if they were originally owned (or appropriated) by the Jagiellonians. That is why the Jagiellonians logo had to reinvent the dynasty’s visual foot-print from scratch, to re-imagine and reconfigure it. I think Evie has done a great job of this; now we have to wait and see what colleagues, and wider audiences, in Central Europe make of this visual digest of the project, and of what it is hoping to achieve.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Natural States

Step into the 19C century...
Photo by Nick Garrod
This weekend, for the first time in over 15 years, I visited the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. I used to spend a lot of time there as a child, (when I had serious plans to become a zoologist), peering at stuffed quaggas, hummingbirds and bison in glass cases. Although the lay-out of this vast collection hasn’t changed very much in the intervening decades, it all looked rather different viewed through a historian’s eyes.

The Natural History Museum was split off from the main collections of the British Museum in the late nineteenth century. The first architect assigned to the project, Captain Francis Fowke, promptly died, and the successful Liverpool-born, Quaker-raised Alfred Waterhouse took over and made the design his own. With its metal and glass roof, idiosyncratic neo-Romanesque façade, terracotta cladding and sweeping staircases reminiscent of a vast railway station, the Museum feels like a Victorian fantasia – built as a temple where the complexity of creation could be venerated, and where the working man could go (after work, by the aid of gas lamps) for self-improvement. The buildings Victorian-ness is etched completely into its fabric: everywhere you look, on every column or patch of ceiling, there are 19C frescos of ferns, reliefs of dodos, fish or rams’ heads. Even empty of any collections, this building would feel as if it were creeping and crawling with natural life, as imagined over a century ago. 
Stuffed slow loris in the museum
Photo by Peter Taylor

The Museum’s collections, however, are a strange mix of the archaic and cutting edge. There is a Darwin Centre in a new wing which showcases zoological research, and a modern dinosaur exhibit with a colossal animated tyrannosaurus rex. Most of the building nonetheless still consists of long galleries of glass cases, filled with intriguing but badly faded stuffed mammals, birds and sea life, displays from another age.

In Reading, in Berkshire, there used to be a rather dilapidated green space called Forbury Gardens in the middle of the town. Using a National Lottery grant, the council transformed the park to look as it would have done in its Victorian hey-day: using plants from 19C catalogues, and flowerbed shapes from the period. As a historian, I’d quite like to see the Natural History Museum do just that – continue doing its cutting edge science in the labs which are out of bounds to the public, but recreate within Waterhouse’s extraordinary building the collections as they would have looked in the 1870s, to give us again the Victorian Natural History Museum. A Natural History Museum which brought to life Victorian England (its ideals, aesthetics, beliefs), could teach us a lesson in British social and cultural history, the history of science, and the history of museums, while keeping all that intriguing taxidermy centre-stage. That might be a novel and stimulating way of utilising, and honouring, this unique building. But as a historian, and a thwarted zoologist, I’m bound to say that.

Photo by Alh1

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Posing for the Camera

Smile for the camera...
Erasmus, by Holbein the Younger (1523)
In years past, an Oxford academic might have had just one ‘official’ photo of themselves, stuck in an album, tucked away in the Senior Common Room, which college colleagues could consult if they had forgotten your name. Nowadays, photographs of academics are ubiquitous - on Departmental webpages, academic network sites like academia.edu, blogs and Twitter icons. Somerville this summer prepared a new undergraduate prospectus, for which I had to be photographed because I had no suitable image in a sufficiently high resolution – this involved standing in front of a hedge in the Fellows’ Garden, on a very warm day, facing an editor armed with a huge lens.

Producing, or choosing, an ‘official’ visual image of yourself as an academic is tricky, because it’s not entirely clear what an academic is meant to look like. I think this is true of both men and women, although with women (as Mary Beard, for example, has found in the UK) other issues quickly come into play. Doctors, lawyers and politicians have unofficial codes regarding what they wear, and what kind of demeanour they might adopt on camera. But, as the sheer heterogeneity of images of historians on academia.edu shows, the scope which academics have to depict themselves is much broader, and the messages conveyed more varied. A holiday shot might say: ‘I am a calm and relaxed person with a life outside the library, a family and dog’, or ‘I’m so committed to my subject, I visit historical sites all over the world’. Quite a few photos, of both men and women, are so glamorous, in their lighting and pose, that they look as if they have come straight from a modelling agency portfolio. Others chose images which catch them in the act of doing history – speaking at a conference, standing outside an archive, holding their newly published book. I make do with two images which I keep telling myself are temporary, until something better emerges – a photo taken by Somerville College porters for my security pass on the day I arrived in college in 2007, looking slightly alarmed & wrapped up in a very large scarf, and, yes, a holiday shot in a 16C chateau garden, in which I may actually have my eyes closed.

In the Renaissance, scholars might have had a narrower range of image-producing technologies at their disposal (the woodcut, the painted portrait, the ink sketch), but they did at least operate in a world which had a clearly established, homogenous iconography of scholarship – they knew what scholars looked like, as Dora Thornton demonstrated in in her book The Scholar in His Study(1997). A scholar, in the Renaissance, was a grave man who sat eternally at a desk surrounded by books, and he didn’t smile for the camera. Our 21C scholarly self-fashioning, for better or worse, lacks such easy orthodoxies.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Splitting Down the Middle

Sliced in half... Photo by Anan Zeevy
        Over summer, while sitting in a 19C cognac-estate manager’s house on holiday, I casually checked my email and found that a major research project on the Jagiellonian dynasty which I had proposed to the European Research Council had been selected for funding. This happy news stunned me even more than the French sunshine, and the local liqueur, Pineau des Charentes.

            The grant agreement paperwork is still being prepared in Brussels, but the most immediate effect of the ERC grant offer is that I need to calculate how to chop my Oxford History tutor & lecturer job in half, right down the middle. It is a condition of ERC Starting Grants that Principal Investigators (i.e. project leaders) spend at least 50% of their working time conducting research towards and leading the project. This means that the college and university will appoint a historian to a 0.5 post, and that – for the next 3 years - I will be sharing the job I’ve done for the past 6 years with somebody else.

            An Oxford tutorial fellowship is a strangely diffuse thing, once you start to look at it closely. Beyond the formal duties – tutorial teaching, lecturing, examining, pastoral work, sitting on committees, research – there is a penumbra of activity which builds up slowly and organically around the postholder, some of which shades into the voluntary… meeting with school groups of prospective undergraduates, talking with alumnae when they return to Somerville, attending development events in London. It’s been useful to step back and appreciate how diverse, multi-faceted and constantly surprising academic life in a college environment can be; how hard it is to write down a complete list of what we do.

            The idea of acquiring a professional partner in this job, a surrogate, is strange but appealing. Academic posts are in some ways pretty solitary, and come with a lot of de facto autonomy, so doing the job collaboratively will surely offer fresh perspectives; watching someone else do parts of this role, articulating what it involves, discussing its parameters and the execution of tasks, hearing someone else’s perspective day to day, will I suspect teach me a lot I didn’t know, or hadn’t thought of, about teaching and administration in Oxford.  Job shares are common in many other professions (and indeed in academic administration), but still very rare among Oxford humanities academics, so we will all have to learn as we go along. Innovations like this can, I suspect and hope, bring all sorts of unanticipated benefits to individuals and institutions. So, if you are a historian of early modern Europe or Britain, and would be interested in sharing my job for the next three years (entering the world behind the blog, like Alice through the Looking Glass!) do get in touch... 

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Holiday Reading

Sintra - a 15C Portuguese castle, a 19C Portuguese myth?
Photo by Antonio Garcia
            Another holiday-related blog for high summer. The very first lecture I attended as an undergraduate was given by the Regius Professor, J.H.Elliot, on ‘Studying history at Oxford’. His main message, as he stood in his gown in front of an audience of 300 nervous teenagers, was that a historian simply had to travel, and see as much as possible.

        Nearly 20 years on, that advice seems ever more sensible. And one of the reasons why those interested in history should travel is not just because of all the out-of-the-way, below-the-radar, off-the-beaten-track historic sites waiting to be found, but also because of the bookshops usually attached to them. Behind the postcards and nick-knacks in the shops of very minor French chateaux, or Maltese Roman villas, or Polish archdiocesan museums, there are usually obscure local history books for sale – some dusty, some glossy – which, as my husband has impressed on me, you will probably never see again. 

            I buy these books because it’s useful to read about a place after you’ve visited it (enhancing the experience retrospectively), and because they are packed with pictures of unusual Renaissance sites and sights which I might use in teaching and lecturing. However, some of them are works of inspirational scholarship by local historians, illuminating the history of a wider region, or period, in brilliant microcosm. If you happen to be near Lisbon this summer, I’d recommend the official guide to the late medieval royal palace at Sintra by Jose Custodio Viera da Silva – a thoughtful, evocative essay on the methodological difficulties of working out the form of the original castle, and the changing popular perceptions of Sintra, as it inspired Portuguese myth-making in the 19C. And if you’re in Frejus, in Provence, and read French, a must-read is the little book L’imagier de Frejus by Georges Puchal and Colette Dumas. A study of the 14C paintings in the city’s cathedral cloister, it is a marvellous piece of detective work, a case-study in how visual and literary motifs could be transmitted across Europe, to produce such striking, peculiar works of art in a given locality. These are portable, worthy holiday souvenirs which score high on historical imagination. And you'll also get a big smile from the gift-shop staff if you buy them.

Frejus - how did those monsters get on the ceiling?
Cathedral cloister, photo by Guido Agostini

Monday, 15 July 2013

Old Rope?

The Corderie Royale, Rochefort.
Photo courtesy of Charente-Maritime Tourisme
I’ve just got back from two weeks in western France, in the Cognac region, with its fields full of vines and gardens full of hollyhocks. It’s an area packed with 11th-century Romanesque churches, medieval keeps and, along the coast, Napoleonic fortifications. The most historically stimulating site of the trip for me, however, was the Corderie Royale in the 17th-century planned military town of Rochefort.

When an outing was proposed to the Corderie, a museum dedicated to 17th-century rope-making, some members of our party were less than convinced that this would make for an entertaining day out. The Corderie, rebuilt after World War II, is a stark, slim building constructed in the 1660s on former marshland on the banks of the Charente river– over  300 metres long, with an endless façade of windows. An early attempt to produce military supplies on an industrial scale, it supplied Louis XIV’s navy with its entire supply of rope, over three tonnes of it for every man of war, in dozens of different lengths, thicknesses and finishes.

The Corderie museum today displays different types of naval rope, the wooden machines & accessories used to manufacture it, 17C etchings of the process, and samples of the hemp and other dried vegetable matter which provided the basic raw materials. A historian gave a demonstration of how production worked in the Corderie, using original tools (and a volunteer from the audience). The emphasis was very much on the technical, technological history of rope-making, and – judging by the faces of the French and foreign visitors – it was strangely riveting.

In British museums and English Heritage sites, there is an attempt to make visitors feel connected to the history they are learning about, and to encourage imaginative empathy, by presenting the past through the eyes of the ‘ordinary’ people who lived in it – the humble sailors on the Mary Rose, or locals caught up in the Battle of Bosworth. The visitor audio guide at Whitby Abbey consists of an early medieval nun telling you about her life on that headland. Even though 20C French historians were so important in reinventing social and cultural history, there was nothing at the Corderie about the everyday life of the rope makers, or their experiences. They existed only as little male figures, in breeches and big hats, toiling away on 17C prints. But the museum was, nonetheless, no less exciting, or stimulating to the imagination, for that. It was good to see an institution telling its own slice of industrial, naval and French history with such passion, clarity, and confidence that the public would respond to a good story, clearly told, however recondite it might appear at first glance. I liked the fact that the Corderie made no apologies for being a museum dedicated to 17C rope making in western France, and pulled it off with such panache. 

Photo by akial

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

The Museum of Brave Questions

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews
Photo by Hans Kundnani
        When I was in Poland last month, I had a day to spare in Warsaw, which I spent visiting the city’s newest and long-awaited museum, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The museum opened, but only part-opened, in spring this year – visitors can tour the striking building, designed by Lahdelma & Mahlamaki architects, but the main exhibition will open in 2014.

            I stood in the main hall, which looks like a cave in the Judean desert, with an orange sticker on my coat, waiting for my tour to begin, and flicked through one of the glossy booklets distributed by museum staff. It was entitled ‘the museum of brave questions’, and opens with a thoughtful preface by Andrzej Cudak, the museum’s current director. “This museum tells a history which is important for us all. The Polish Jewish past not only shaped contemporary Poland and its inhabitants, but also the face of present-day Europe, and the wider world… Our museum does not have a monopoly on the truth. We don’t offer ready-made answers, we encourage independent thought, the posing of bold questions and the expression of different views. Let’s have the courage to ask, to debate…." (my translation from the Polish).

            A lot – indeed, the best of – modern historical scholarship has been about deconstructing histories, about pulling apart familiar narratives, exposing comforting myths, revising what we thought we knew, particularly what we thought we knew about the history of nations and their nationalisms. This is what we teach our students: to think iconoclastically. Such values, however, can be rather difficult to capture in a museum. It’s hard to tell a coherent story to your visitors, while also communicating how open to challenge, how contingent, how subject to multiple perspectives (almost?) any narrative about the human past is. It’s hard, in other words, to create a museum which embodies historical revisionism. But Andrzej Cudak’s brave preface made me think that this cutting-edge, imaginative Warsaw museum might well be able to pull off just that. Museums often simply reflect prevalent historical narratives and approaches, but this new institution might yet help to forge new ones – by providing a dynamic space, in the heart of the old Warsaw ghetto, where Jewish, Polish and Polish-Jewish history can be revisited, retold and debated afresh. The airport style security in the museum entrance shows how necessary, and how risky, this kind of frank history of the Polish lands is.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Educating for what?

The Oxford spires
Photo by Tejvan Pettinger 
 Last week, the academic Fellows at Somerville College were asked to think about the qualities they believe that we as an institution should be nurturing in our undergraduate students. With Finals season drawing to a close, and another generation of students about to graduate, this seemed an apt time to be asked.

            We are used to talking about the skills which students should possess – there is an official list of the skills we are looking for in potential History students at admissions stage, e.g. historical imagination, enthusiasm, originality of thought. When dons sit with big piles of exam scripts before them, there is also a Faculty mark scheme which lists the skills which a good script will show evidence of – precision, originality, analytical power, range of issues addressed etc. Skills and qualities overlap, but not completely. So what I jotted down in my response to the survey of college tutors, on a train whizzing through the Chilterns, was this… When my students graduate from Oxford, I would like them to have, or aspire to, these qualities:

·        -   imaginative & innovative thinking
questioning, iconoclastic mindset
·         -  ability to formulate new ideas, insights & visions.
·         -  ability to really hear & take on board alternative viewpoints
·         -  thoughtful about the wider implications of their ideas/actions on society, & thoughtful more generally about -      their engagement with society
·        -  committed to the pursuit of excellence
·         - ambitious to make the most of their talent
·         - thought leadership, seeing things other people don't see & explaining them in a compelling way
·         - clarity of thought & expression, as a way of inspiring others

Maybe that list is simply the Finals mark scheme rewritten in more general terms, or interpolated with implicit moral and social concerns. The question of what we are educating our young people for has always been a political one. In the Renaissance republics, which constantly looked to the ancient world, education was preparation for active, responsible citizenship; in Renaissance principalities, it was there to equip you to serve the prince and /or commonweal. Oxford humanities education is risky in so far as it doesn’t seek to teach specific values, loyalties or beliefs (which might helpfully hold a society together), but rather encourages their rigorous challenge – a society testing itself.

Brainstorming that list of qualities on the train, I wondered what kind of job it might be a description for. Strategy consultant, army officer, school teacher, politician, academic? Do Oxford dons themselves, as a professional group, live up to these same aspirations? I await with interest to learn what my Somerville colleagues put in their lists.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Postcard from Olsztyn

Olsztyn castle, May 2013

This past week, I’ve been in Olsztyn, a medium sized town in the north-east of Poland, doing archival work – shuttling between the contrasting worlds of a modern business hotel, and the archdiocesan archive across the road.

This is a town where a lot of people are looking for the past. Olsztyn – 4 hours north of Warsaw by train, 2 hours south of Gdańsk by car - was founded in the 14C as Allenstein, within the territory of the Teutonic Knights. In the mid 15C, the area revolted and came under the authority of the Polish Crown. Allenstein, with its pretty castle built over a winding stream, was within the prince-bishopric of Ermland, administered by cathedral canons including Nicholas Copernicus. From the 18C until 1945 Allenstein was part of the kingdom of Prussia, and subsequently of post-unification Germany. In those centuries it acquired grand, red-brick neo-gothic buildings, and witnessed difficult relations between the local German and Polish populations. By 1945, many of the local Polish population had been killed or displaced; the German inhabitants of Allenstein who had survived the arrival of the Red Army were deported en masse, and the area resettled with Poles from the eastern borderlands, from what are now Lithuania and Belarus.

In that sense, Olsztyn/Allenstein is a pretty typical East European town, with a past you can’t sum up in a single sentence, a history dense with the movement of peoples, armies and borders. That past remains very much in the air. The hotel and the attractive Old Town are, for example, full of coach parties from Germany, many of them here to see the place where they, or their parents, grew up. They come into the archive, people in their 70s, asking for the pre-war baptismal registers for the parishes where they were born; looking for grandparents, for connections. In Olsztyn Castle, meanwhile, regardless of the fact that Copernicus started his great work ‘De revolutionibus’ in that very building, the chief focus is an exhibition on the ‘Kresy’, the eastern areas which people left c.1945, as part of the great resettlement of Prussia with ethnic Poles. There were mock ups of Vilnius middle-class parlours c. 1939, school certificates from Vilnius schools, recorded interviews of people reminiscing about their ancestral lands in the east. What the people of Olsztyn want to remember, it seems, is not the history of this town, with which they have no genealogical connection, but lost places far away.

And I too came here in search of more than one kind of ghost – not just Copernicus’ bishop and fellow canons as they tried to fend off Lutheranism in the 1520s and 1530s, but my grandfather, a Polish writer born in Olsztyn in 1917, and my great-grandfather, a long-serving editor of the Gazeta Olsztyńska, a major Polish political newspaper of the early 20C. Their photos are prominent in the town museum; the 21C journalists from that same newspaper came to interview me, as the descendant of these local heroes; people came to reminisce about my grandfather’s anti-Communist broadcasts. So this research trip felt more personal than most. Sometimes the great volumes of 16C letters in the archive, with their crabbed brown handwriting, can be a welcome escape from the East European history which happened afterwards.

Allenstein, 1920

Friday, 26 April 2013

Twitter (II)

Inscription above the Bodleian entrance - a 21C Republic of Letters?
Photo by summonedbyfells

It is several months since I nervously ventured onto Twitter, and now’s as good a time as any to reflect on what it’s been like stepping inside that noisy room. So here are some interim observations on that strange new world.

1) As someone who’s published on the printing revolution of the 15C, one of the striking things about Twitter (or twitter, as it seems to be losing its T) is how self-referential and self-conscious a medium it is. You can, like the great historian of printing Elizabeth Eisenstein, scour the pages and prefaces of early printed books and struggle to find much comment on, or reference to, the new medium in which they were produced. That’s why historians have to work so hard to tease out the contemporary meanings of early printing. The voices on Twitter, however, very often seem to be talking about Twitter itself. 

2) Twitter has also refined and expanded my sense, at least, of who the audiences for academic history might be; of whom we can and should be talking to from the virtual ivory tower. It’s a place to talk directly with young artists interested in Renaissance images, documentary makers, or the wide range of people in the UK (and beyond) with an interest in Polish history. It reminds you what a curiosity there is about what we do; and how open it is to challenge.

3) Twitter can enhance the sense of academia as a community. The inscription above the entrance to Oxford’s Bodleian library reads: 'to you, and the Republic of Letters’. The republic of letters, from the 15C to the 20C, was a physically disconnected, slightly virtual community of scholars and writers, but Twitter can knit it together in new ways. It lets historians from different universities around the world, with different research interests, converse together about how we write books, how we teach, and so on. This effect is perhaps particularly powerful locally, in Oxford’s famously fragmented institutional environment. The History Faculty here has over 100 postholders (or faculty), and there are simply no opportunities to meet collectively, far less debate, with the great majority of one’s departmental colleges, scattered as we are across our different colleges. But Twitter allows me, at last, to eavesdrop on what my fellow historians in St. John’s, or St. Catz, are thinking about. (@redhistorian, @katheder, @CraigClunas)

4) Finally, one of the more unexpected networks which Twitter seems to be creating is one of Somerville historians past and present – tutors, current students, and former students. This started to become clear this month, when my colleague Benjamin Thompson (@HistorianBenj) acquired a Twitter account. Twitter can, potentially, allow all these generations of Somerville historians, in Oxford and beyond it, to talk directly, regularly and spontaneously to one another for the first time. This communications revolution starts to dissolve the barriers between Fellows, those studying here now, and those who studied here 5 years ago. So, if you can block out the white noise of social media, this is what twitter at its best can achieve – to turn imagined communities (to cheekily borrow a famous phrase from the history of nationalism), into closer, more tangible communities.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Children of Tomorrow?

Art on the Berlin Wall,
Photo by Gonzo Carles

        As the UK recalls the 1979-90 years, in the week of Margaret Thatcher’s death, I did some parallel reminiscing of my own in an Oxford restaurant, when the music system began to play the Scorpions’ 1990 hit, ‘Winds of Change’, about Glasnot and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Take me to the magic of the moment on a glory night, when the children of tomorrow dream away in the wind of change. It captures that moment in 1989-90, when it was promised that Europe would be reunited, and believed that it had embarked on a new, happier historical course.

            Sitting in an empty Oxford restaurant 23 years on, in austerity Britain, with the EU in serious financial crisis, the gap between that Berlin Wall moment of hope for a new, historically more complete Europe and the current realities seemed rather stark. Yes, the countries of the former Soviet Bloc have mostly joined the European Union, made successful (if sometimes fragile) transitions to democracy, and their economies have long since moved from a control to capitalist model. Yet behind these seismic changes, I wonder as a historian if we have, somewhere along the way, suffered a failure of collective intellectual imagination. In English-language school textbooks, undergraduate survey texts, maps in exhibition catalogues, and even major works by academic historians, when we speak of European history, what we are teaching students, and what dominates our research agendas as academics, is still overwhelmingly west European history. We have, in the UK and beyond, collectively failed since 1989 to develop a convincing new narrative of pre-modern European history, which takes us beyond the Cold War model, retrospectively applied, of a thrusting west, and a distant, exotic, backward and peripheral east. We know that this is emphatically not how Europeans in, say, the Renaissance perceived their world and its geographies, but we don’t have anything to put in its place. If Chamberlain could declare the Czechoslovak crisis of 1938 to be a quarrel in ‘a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing’, one world war, a cold war and a revolution later, can even Oxbridge History students graduating today claim to be much better informed?

            This is a problem if we really want to understand the wider dynamics of European history (and I of course include British history within that category). But it is also a political problem for the European Union, as it tries to articulate its vision with reference chiefly to very recent history (since 1945). It’s a political problem too more locally here in the UK. Across the country, sitting at desks in British primary schools, there is a whole generation of children born in the UK to Polish, Slovak, Lithuanian parents. When the current painful debates about history in the national curriculum are over, what kind of story are we going to tell these particular ‘children of tomorrow’, the heirs to the revolutions of 1989, about themselves, and where they fit into Britain? How are they going to integrate the narratives they learn at school about west European history, with the national (or nationalist) narratives they will hear from their families about the history of Poland or Slovakia? Now, with major public funding cuts and media scare stories about an imminent invasion of semi-barbarian Romanians and Bulgarians, when Central Europe has such a bad image in the UK, is a very difficult time to try to tell a fuller, more integrated European history; but that is also precisely why now is such an important time to start doing just that.

            If anyone doubts that Central European history, identities and legacies do not stop at the UK’s well-manned borders, they need only read Deborah Levy’s ‘stealthily devastating’ (to quote one reviewer) Booker Prize short-listed novel, Swimming Home. On the surface, a social satire about a north London literary family holidaying in the Cote d’Azur, it is really about the challenges of surviving 20th century Polish history, and the devastating difficulty one man faces in holding together both a middle class British and Central European identity. Dissonance in identity, and in the basic stories we are told about the past, is bad for individuals, bad for societies, and bad for Europe; we need to tell our children better stories.  

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Feasting & Civil War

Spiced wine & war in the West Country
Glastonbury Tor at dawn, by oldbilluk

Over the Easter weekend, I finished the second of two historical novels which I’ve recently read set in seventeenth-century England. If Jeanette Winterson’s Daylight Gate offered us 17C Lancashire as horror, with talking corpses, torture chambers and witches, Lawrence Norfolk’s John Saturnall’s Feast gives us 17C Somerset as fairy tale. It traces the story of John Saturnall, from his childhood as the son of a rumoured village witch, to chief cook at Buckland Manor, where he develops a relationship with the Lady Lucretia, and tries to keep the household fed through the chaos of the English Civil War. Norfolk gives us religious radicals terrorising the Somerset Levels, boys plucking game birds in the cellars of an early modern house, a mother and son roaming abandoned orchards foraging for food. At the heart of the novel, however, is a local legend – or folk memory - about the coming of Christianity to the West Country, about the great Feast served by a sorceress or queen called Bellua, and its destruction by priests.

This is a colourful book, punctuated with outlandish recipes devised by John Saturnall, written in a 17C voice so arresting and original, that you wonder why Norfolk didn’t incorporate it more centrally into the work. The John Saturnall of the novel’s dialogue doesn’t sound nearly as mordant as John Saturnall the cookery writer. The book has a fairy-tale quality - beautiful aristocratic girls, lost magic books, ancient secrets - which works well enough for the 1630s, but by the time we reach the Civil War and interregnum, it arguably starts to sit uncomfortably with the subject matter. There are one or two scenes which perhaps capture the danger of the home front, in a way slightly reminiscent of the magnificent US Civil War novel & film Cold Mountain. Tim Willocks, in his novel about the 16C siege of Malta, The Religion, carried off the improbable feat of marrying a Hollywood-esque love story fairy tale, with a grittily realist account of military conflict. Norfolk’s English Civil War, however, is neither terrifying nor brutal, not the breakdown of the early modern English state that we know it to have been. John Saturnall’s Feast is a historically thoughtful book, with its early medieval stories echoed poignantly in 17C events, in a cycle of feast and destruction. However, as a novel it handles spiced wines and date trees far more surefootedly than it handles war on English soil.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Rome & Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires Cathedral
Photo by longhorndave
            In 1979, my grandfather wrote the first English-language biography of the new Polish pope, and he entitled it ‘The Man From Cracow’. The new pope of 2013 is, then, the man from Buenos Aires. “It seems my brother cardinals have gone to the ends of the earth” to find a pontiff, Pope Francis said on Rome’s most famous balcony last night. When I first flew into Buenos Aires, it did indeed look like that – a city on the far edge of the Atlantic, surrounded by a vast South American plain, lapped by the brown waters of the Rio de la Plata delta.
Those who write on South America’s troubled 20th century will have their own perspectives on what the election yesterday of the cardinal-archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (b.1936), as pope means. For a historian of the early modern church, however, this feels like a moment when two great legacies of the 16th century have finally struck home in Rome. The 16th century was of course the period in which the Roman church, after tentative beginnings with new dioceses in the Mid-Atlantic isles in the 15th century, went truly global. Throughout the brutal Spanish conquest of South America, the conquistadores were followed by Catholic missionaries, who baptised the subjects of the defeated Aztec, Inca and Maya rulers in their millions. Buenos Aires, on the southern, coastal fringes of that Spanish continental empire, was founded in the 1530s, and in 1620 Pedro Carranza was named the very first bishop of the diocese of Rio de la Plata.
The sixteenth century also saw the birth of what is perhaps the Catholic Church’s most famous religious order, the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits. Founded by the Spanish ex-solider Ignatius Loyola, and officially launched with a papal bull of 1540, the Jesuits specialised from the outset in mission work – in Protestant areas of Europe, in what they saw as the un-evangelised rural heartlands of Catholic Europe, in Japan, China, and of course the Americas. They were particularly active in the areas we now call Paraguay and Argentina, setting up networks of missions deep in the interior, founding the Jesuit college of Cordoba in 1611. In over half a millennium of high-profile activity, the Society of Jesus, this distinctive product of the 16C Roman church, never produced a pope.
So, when on Tuesday an archbishop of Buenos Aires and a Jesuit is enthroned as bishop of Rome, we need to look to the 16th century to grasp the long-term trajectories which have led Cardinal Bergoglio to the papacy. His church has never recovered the religious monopoly in Western and Central Europe which it lost with the 16C Reformation, but the story of this particular papacy begins in 16C Spanish America. We can only guess what Pedro Carranza, as he began the construction of Buenos Aires’ first cathedral by the brown river in the 1620s, or Argentina’s only beato, the Mapuche Ceferino Namancura, a pious teenager who died of tuberculosis in Rome in 1905, would have made of the idea of a pope from Argentina. However, for Christianity, which itself came to Rome from the imperial margins, a pope from the periphery of Spain’s pioneering global empire seems a historically apt choice.

The man from Buenos Aires
Photo by Catholic Church England & Wales

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Our Speaker Tonight...

A chair's eye view...
The Class of 1968 Seminar Room in the Weigle Information Commons at UPenn's Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center
Photo by Weigle Information Commons

     From an early stage in most historians’ careers, they find themselves being asked to chair seminar papers or conference panels. As with most things, nobody tells you how to do this; you’re meant to learn the dos and don’ts through observation alone. Chairing is meant to be straightforward compared with the greater intellectual challenges of research and teaching, but it’s not that simple.

       The chair of a History paper is a mixture of game-show host, compere and master of ceremonies. They are meant to be welcoming and witty, to inject a bit of energy into proceedings and keep the show on the road, but also to act as a mere facilitator, a warm up act, for the guest speaker/s. As chair, you have to introduce the speaker, by giving a précis of their career which they will approve of and recognise. By convention, the chair asks the opening question in the post-paper discussion, so during the talk there is pressure to think of a menu of possible lines of enquiry. Even if the audience starts to flag or fidget or yawn during the talk, there is a moral responsibility to look attentive, encouraging and fascinated, as if to set the audience a good example. If the speaker speaks for more than their allotted time, the chair has to stop them, but has no real tools with which to do so. You’re caught between the sense that it’s very rude to interrupt someone, to bluntly and publicly ask them to stop talking, and the sense that that is precisely what the audience keenly expect you to do. With the overrunning speaker, one can start with subtle cues: leaning towards them attentively as if they are coming to their concluding sentence, adopting an anxious body language, and of course slowly pushing your watch back and forth across the table.
Photo by smaedli
   There is a risk that, after the paper, the audience are not inspired to ask more than a couple of desultory questions, and then it falls to you to engage in a spontaneous, public, unprepared tutorial-style dialogue with the speaker, on a topic about which you may know almost nothing. As for the speaker, you don’t want them to respond to questions at too much length, using them as an opportunity to quote whole paragraphs they had earlier edited out of their paper, seeing the discussion as simply a chance to continue with their delivery in extra time. Equally, you don’t want the speaker’s answer to be too short, meaning that the precious store of communal questions gets used up too quickly. As a chair, it can feel like a personal failure if the session ends obviously early.
   But despite all the potential intellectual and social pitfalls, while chairing you’re always aware of how much harder it is to be in the speaker’s seat - where, at a conference, you might well find yourself sitting in about 20 minutes’ time.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Papal Resignations & Abdications

Pope Benedict XVI...until the end of this month.
Photo by M.Mazur/www.thepapalvisit.org.uk

It was a bit of a surprise yesterday, when working in the SCR surrounded by a mass of notes on the 16C papacy, to receive a text message saying that Benedict XVI had just resigned as pontiff. To all the late medieval and Renaissance popes I lecture on to Oxford undergraduates, this would have seemed a totally incomprehensible, reckless move, which just serves to show that although timelessness is a central part of the Roman Catholic church’s identity, things do change.

Journalists have been reaching for their dictionaries of medieval popes to grapple with the precedents for a papal resignation / abdication. Producing a definitive list is not easy, because there are different ways of defining ‘resignation’, and early medieval sources can be murky. There are claims that certain late antique popes resigned after being arrested and sentenced by the persecuting Roman imperial authorities. John XVIII was recorded as having died in 1009 as a simple ‘monk’, possibly implying an abdication. Later that century, Benedict IX allegedly sold his papal title in 1045, to Gregory VI who was forced to give it up in the ensuing fall-out. Most famously, the hermit-pope Celestine V abdicated in 1294, issuing a decree which for the first time made papal resignation legal and a recognised possibility in canon law. More recently, in 1415, Gregory XII was leaned upon by Europe’s princes to resign gracefully (like the anti-popes opposing him), and thereby end the 37-year long Great Schism.

Celestine V, Castel Nuovo, Naples
Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen
Although there are, then, precedents and a clear (13C) legal basis for Benedict XVI’s actions, it is nonetheless an unprecedented act. All the medieval pontificates listed above were in acute crisis, whereas Benedict XVI is seen within the Catholic church as the legitimate, uncontested pope, with the support to continue for much longer. The reasons for earlier papal resignations have been incompetence (Celestine V) or corruption, but yesterday a pope gave up the office for the very first time on grounds of physical frailty.

That last point signals a surprising shift in understandings of the role of the pope, if only on the part of the current incumbent himself. The pope is, according to the Catholic church, the Vicar of Christ, directly selected by God (through the agency of the cardinals) in conclave, in the general expectation that he will serve until the end of his life; a bit like a marriage. This was the view taken by John Paul II, who suffered from a long illness, seeing this very public suffering as a necessary, Christ-like part of the office of pope. This contributed to the air of saintliness around the late Polish pontiff. Benedict XVI, however, yesterday clearly rejected his predecessor’s model – stressing that the papacy was an office with actual functions which needed to be performed (e.g. travel). The papacy, in other words, is something you do, not something you simply are. This interpretation of the office – which future popes may or may not embrace – looks modernising, pragmatic, and de-mystifies the papacy. It is a radical step, and will arguably be the Bavarian pope’s most important legacy.

As for the popes of the High Renaissance, they could not have resigned, because they feared their successors would simply murder them and their families – just as the ex-pope Celestine V was reportedly murdered in Anagni castle, where he had been imprisoned, in 1296. In the 21C, a pope can at last resign, retire or abdicate without any such fears.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Back to Pendle Hill

Who's up on Pendle Hill?
Photo by BasiliskSam

One of my Christmas presents (a rather unseasonal choice, as it turned out) was Jeanette Winterson’s latest foray into historical fiction, The Daylight Gate, a novel about the Pendle witch trials of 1612.  The Pendle trials saw 10 individuals executed for witchcraft, most famously the two elderly matrons Chattox and Demdike, but also the wealthy yeoman’s widow Alice Nutter, Winterson’s chief protagonist.

The Daylight Gate seems at first to be a realist and rational take on the Pendle material – the prosecutions presented as a cynical conspiracy against local pauper families by paranoid, misogynist local elites. In Winterson’s 17C Lancashire, people are routinely raped, tortured, starved, beaten and imprisoned in squalor, events here described with a reportage-style detachment.

However, The Daylight Gate slowly becomes something stranger, and engages at a pleasingly sophisticated level with research on early modern witchcraft trials. It’s been argued for some time now that the great witch-hunts of the 16C and 17C were made possible by a temporary fusion between the long-standing beliefs about witches found in rural traditional culture, and new intellectual, elite beliefs about the devil. Winterson weaves these two strands of early modern culture neatly together, plausibly linking up the spirit-conjuring of the gentleman magician John Dee in Elizabethan London, with Lancashire women boiling corpse heads in pots to injure their neighbours.

Historians are paying ever more attention to the claims of some early modern individuals that they were indeed witches able to wield dark powers – there are psychological explanations for this phenomenon, and even religious ones, as Michael Ostling has recently argued in his study of Polish witchcraft trials, Between the Devil and the Host. Winterson navigates these possibilities skilfully, giving us the Pendle witch scandal as its participants, with their 17C cosmologies, might have seen it. Pendle Hill itself is splendidly evoked, as a liminal place where boundaries between worlds might be crossed. If Hilary Mantel tries to make early modern England comprehensible to 21C readers by rendering it as a political and psychological thriller, Winterson presents a far stranger, more alien, and probably more authentic vision of that society.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Sitting with Pictures

Nesterov's Blessed St. Sergius of Radonezh, Russian State Museum.
© Andy Freeberg, reproduced with permission.
This weekend’s Guardian magazine carried a feature on the photographer Andy Freeberg, and his images of Russian art gallery attendants, Guardians of Russian Art. When I wander around art galleries, the attendants, sat on their little stools, staring into the middle distance, appear unsmiling and fantastically bored. So it was interesting to read that the attendants photographed by Freeberg talked to him passionately about their jobs – one woman, it was reported, came back to the gallery on her days off to continue looking at the paintings, while another commuted for hours to the job she loved.

Freeberg’s photos of the attendants sitting, silent and still, in front of the paintings they guard are gently humorous, but I also found them moving, and they made me think of historians. Freeberg is interested in how gallery attendants might come to look like the paintings they guard all day. I sometimes wonder if historians, like dogs and their owners, also gradually come to resemble the periods they study, or at least take on some of their characteristics.

In particular, however, the attendants in Freeberg’s photos give off a sense of contemplating, sitting, and being with the art objects they have responsibility for. That reminds me of historians in archives, who spend hours a day (also on uncomfortable chairs) in the presence of their documents, listening for voices, simply being with the past. So perhaps art attendants in world-leading galleries, and historians huddled over their sources behind the doors of archives, have a certain kinship, a kind of bearing witness to the endeavours, labours and lives of others, which leave many people baffled or unmoved.