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

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.