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

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Winter Conversations

Engelsberg manor, in the mid-afternoon sunlight.

After an unusually busy term and Oxford History admissions week, in a final gasp of academic activity before Christmas, I flew to Sweden for a seminar on ‘Declinism’ organised by the Ax:son Johnson Foundation. One of the hallmarks of the Foundation’s seminars is that they are often held in a late 17C manor house in the village of Engelsberg, 160km north of Stockholm. Engelsberg itself is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its preserved ironworks, a monument to the importance of iron ore mining in Swedish history. The aim of the seminars is to stimulate interdisciplinary debate in the Humanities – this month’s, on ‘Declinism’, was the third in a series which had begun with ‘Decadence’ and ‘Decay’.

            And so as part of a group of some ten speakers – from Mexico, the UK, the USA, Germany – we found ourselves crunching across hard frost with our suitcases, in air several degrees below freezing, towards a manor house decorated with candles, evergreen and traditional glazed stoves. We were taken into a room rigged up with television cameras, ready to film the seminar for broadcast by the Foundation. Throughout the day, we heard papers on how the notion of ‘decline’ did, or did not, play out in ancient Assyria, ancient Greek literature, in perceptions of the Ottoman or Aztec worlds, in 20C America or in modern debate on climate change. I spoke on the Jagiellonian dynasty, perceptions of its demise, and claims of its rebirth, in 16C Central Europe. The event, deep in rural Sweden in December, felt like a cross between a country-house party and a monastic-style retreat for academics.

            The discussions continued late into the night, and the interdisciplinary conversations in particular were memorable. We have various fora in the UK for talking to scholars in other Humanities (and/or social science) subjects, not least the dynamic TORCH here in Oxford. But sometimes I wonder if we are so careful to be polite to each other that we don’t say what we really think. Before Engelsberg, the closest I’d come to having very open interdisciplinary conversations (of the sort where you can look an esteemed colleague in the eye and say: ‘I just don’t understand why you do what you do’) was in the Somerville Medievalists group meetings, with my German & Italian literature colleagues. At Engelsberg, (in a smoke-filled room, with low lighting and lots of loud intellectual exchanges going on), I was able to have very frank conversations on whether it is possible to write history at all, on postmodernism, text and, indeed, truth. It is good to be challenged on the fundamentals of what you do as a scholar. I think there are some misperceptions of what historians do, or think they are doing, which suggests that there are things we could articulate better. I learnt at Engelsberg that the gaps between Humanities disciplines can be quite big, maybe bigger than we like to admit outside of a darkened room. But I also learnt that – however heated the discussions – even in the early hours of the morning they are tempered with genuine mutual academic respect and curiosity.