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

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.