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

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.