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

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Academia and the End of Polite Neutrality?

The Scholar in their Study...
St. Jerome, Antonello da Massina, National Gallery.
It transpires, then, that you can spend quite a lot of time teaching and writing about History, and it can still turn around and bite you on the nose. Politics (read: history) has swept into Oxford, into our cafes, venerable college halls, our committee meetings and strategic planning. As I explained to a visiting colleague from Prague, until six months ago, at Somerville College lunches or with one’s students at Fresher’s Dinner, one might well discuss UK Higher Education policy, or immigration policy as it affected universities…. but rarely actual party politics. Perhaps a traditional British reserve, politeness and sense of good taste prevented it being otherwise (I was once told: no religion, sex or politics at high table). That set of mores was swept away overnight with the June 23rd UK referendum on membership of the European Union, and again with the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. After the first result, the atmosphere in college was one of palpable collective grief, and after the second a stunned, sheer funereal silence.

            These events are rapidly redefining what it means, for an intellectual community, to be political. Before June 2016, a handful of historians in the university were openly active in party politics (addressing party meetings, leafleting for one party or another in city council elections). Yet with the sudden advent of xenophobic, anti-liberal democratic, anti-intellectual and populist politics, as if with the flick of a wand, the most basic things we do in this (or any) university have suddenly become highly political and partisan – catapulting us into the frontline of a culture war. When in tutorials we school young people in questioning and critical thought; when we lecture on how nationalism was constructed / invented in the 19th century; when we speak up for continued access to the EU’s mould-breaking research programmes; when we defend the legal rights of our non-British-passport-holding colleagues, all of them top international scholars – all this, improbably, has now become politics with a capital P, setting us sharply at odds with the UK Government and its rhetorics, and liable to bring a torrent of online insults down on any academic publicly defending these things.

            The rules of engagement have shifted under our feet, with a bracing lurch. Academics are trained to deal in nuance, complexity, uncertainty, slow reflection and precision – skills which famously do not automatically translate into punchy public policy positions, or rhetorics. For academics – particularly those active in the publicly-visible world of social media – there are personal risks in speaking out on Brexit, xenophobia or Trump: of outright abusive messages online, or of being seen to use a university post to proclaim private political views. Yet not to speak out arguably carries a greater risk for us all, and what threatens the essential liberal values of universities is not a private matter for those employed to serve, staff and run these major national institutions. Earlier this year, Simon Schama spoke to a packed lecture theatre in Oxford’s Natural History Museum about ‘public history’: he urged Humanities scholars to be bold, and intervene in public debate to defend our values. Simon Schama gave that talk, prophetically, well before the June referendum.

            The (hostile) politicisation of our university life by external forces is unfamiliar to this generation of UK academics, but none of it is new. Down the centuries, scholars and writers have found again and again that, against all their wishes and private inclinations, they get pulled personally into big and dangerous political struggles: one need only look at the life of Niccolo Machiavelli, or Erasmus of Rotterdam. Our sources have been telling us all along how painful, frightening, and disorientating this situation is. Perhaps we have not been listening to those early modern voices as well as we thought we were; perhaps we did not, after all, entirely hear or recognise until now what they were saying. That intellectual freedom, although practised from within the quiet space of the Academy, cannot be quietly defended.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Postcard from Salento

Santa Maria de Finibus Terrae, Leuca, Salento
Photo N Nowakowska
           Salento is one of Europe’s many evocative ‘finis terrae’ – places where the land just runs into the sea, like Portugal’s Sagres, Brittany’s Finisterre, England’s Land’s End. Salento is the far tip of Puglia, the stiletto point on the heel of Italy, and its Cape Leuca overlooks the spot where the postcard-blue Adriatic meets the darker Ionian Sea. Even on a hazy August day, at Leuca you can see Albania to the east, like a mirage. With its ancient Greek heritage and Greek-speaking villages, olive groves with clumps of prickly pear, and ruins of the local Messapian civilisation, Salento has often claimed itself to be a distinct region of Italy, historically separate even from Puglia, whose regional capital lies 200km north in Bari.
            Whatever I had expected as a historian to find in Salento – a traditionally agricultural and poor part of Europe, ‘Maldive-like’ beaches which attract Italian holidaymakers in their thousands, local black widow spiders – wasn’t quite what we saw. Over Salento’s rural emptiness, there is a strong veneer of design chic. Baking hot Otranto, famous for being sacked by the Ottomans in 1480, has medieval alleys bursting with high-end boutiques:  designer bikinis, designer lights. It was clear from fabulous coffee-table books widely on sale that there is a trendy Salento style… white wash, white linen, ironwork furniture, the essential rustic farmhouse vibe. The cover story of one of Italy’s national interior design magazines, this summer, was the Salento look.
            It was also striking how strong a narrative of its own identity Salento can project. I picked up a little book by Pierfranceso Pacoda about the Night of Tarantella, the hugely successful folk festival centred around Salento’s dionsyian, dervish-like ‘tarantella’ dance: the dance you danced if bitten by venomous local arachnids. Pacoda, and other local intellectuals, argue that international interest in the dance and its pizzica music has sparked pride in popular Salento culture, given its populace back a firm sense of place and identity. If Salento could not have actual automony of government, they wrote, it could at least create its own ‘autonomy of imagination’. These writers spoke of Salento as typifying the Mediterranean dilemma: for so long the centre of the world, over slow centuries coming to terms with becoming a backwater. Salento, they write, can renew itself by reclaiming its own distinctive cultural outputs.    
        This lively debating of past and present is manifest in Salento’s impressive local museums. In Ugento, the town museum (pointed out with great pride by locals, who approached us in the street full of civic enthusiasm) is an imaginative museum-within-a-museum: an early modern monastic house, with many frescoed side-chapels in tact, in which Messapian artefacts are carefully displayed. The Ugento museum tells its ancient, and 17C, histories together, cleverly interweaving them. And in the Greek-founded port of Gallipoli, the medieval castle, jutting into the harbour, has been restored as both heritage site, architectural academy and contemporary art space. Walking through its dim corridors, you are greeting with glass-and-LED tortoises and installations made from the lifejackets of Mediterranean refugees, while in the courtyard Anthony-Gormley-style humanoid sculptures peer down from the ramparts. Gallipoli castle’s bookshop was a treasure trove of publications on Salento: everything from colouring books to collections of late medieval documents. Salento has a lot of problems, but it has a tangible energy and self-assertion too, presenting itself not as periphery, but one of Europe’s historic cultural crossroads. Finisterrae: where the land ends, and the story begins.

Gallipoli Castle
Photo N Nowakowska

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Poland, the UK and the Brexit Vote

A great Polish Anglophile: King Stanislaw August Poniatowski
       In 2008, Richard Unger edited a volume entitled Britain & Poland-Lithuania: Contact and Comparison from the Middle Ages to 1795. In light of the UK’s vote for Brexit, it is worth going back to books like these, to ask where Polish-British relations have come from and where they might be heading. There are many narrative threads within the Brexit vote, but this is certainly one of them.

This is a story of intensifying contact, convergence and progressive entanglement between two European polities, one thousand miles apart. Throughout the Middle Ages and sixteenth century, contacts between these isles and the Polish kingdom were ongoing, albeit in a piecemeal, low-key way. Readers of Unger’s collection can pick up interesting morsels: the long shoes fashionable in England in the 1360s were called ‘crakows’, in the 1590s Cracow boasted its own Scottish pub. The monarchs of England and Poland exchanged infrequent, polite letters, mostly on crusading (and were often unclear even of one other’s names). It was in the 18C that mutual interest between the two countries picked up: the last king of Poland, Stanisław August Poniatowski, and his court were Anglophiles, with a strong interest in British literary and political culture. In 19C London, exiles from partitioned Poland were a high-profile cause celebre to many. In 1939, it was of course Hitler’s invasion of Poland which triggered the United Kingdom’s declaration of war; famously, Polish citizens played a role in the Allied war effort at RAF Northolt, Bletchley Park, Monte Cassino. It was as a result of this conflict that the first large-ish Polish diaspora settled in the UK, numbering some 200,000 people. The end of the Cold War, and Poland’s much celebrated joining of the EU in 2004, saw Polish citizens coming to the UK in astonishingly high numbers, attracted in part by the presence of an established Polish community in the country. Tabloid papers began to run stories alleging Polish vagrants roasted swans in English parks. And now we have this: a Brexit vote in June 2016, in which Leave campaigners voiced open displeasure about the presence of Polish shops on their streets, of Polish-speaking children in the school playground. Post June 23rd, there are repeated reports of verbal abuse of Poles, and a nasty graffiti attack on the long-standing Polish Cultural Centre in west London – a place for international film, artists and theatre. A notable WWII alliance has given way to rancour and fear.

Polish shop, Oxford, 2013

But Poland is not just the Polish delicatessens on streets up and down the United Kingdom. Poland ‘over there’ is a NATO member, an EU ally, its nationalist Law & Order (PiS) ruling party currently engaged in its serious own stand-off with the EU over the rule of law. In meeting as a group of 6 self-styled ‘EU founder members’ the day after the Brexit vote, the EU west European states caused anger and dismay in Poland. Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of PiS, has quickly urged the EU to consider again a 2 speed Europe, with a new European treaty; Polish liberals fear Brexit might galvanise PiS towards a ‘Polexit’, allowing it to rule in populist style without sanction from Brussels. So the Polish government, and fraught Polish domestic politics, will play an important role in any forthcoming EU-UK negotiations on Brexit. The EU institutions in Brussels have a problem to the north with their British Brexit neighbour, and a problem to the east with openly nationalist regimes such as those of PiS (and Orban in Hungary).

Poland and Britain interacted for centuries in their very different forms: as medieval monarchies, early modern composite states, dynastic unions, and modern nation states. Now, with their very populations entangled in the 21C, Poland and the UK are interacting within a new globalised world and interconnected Europe, still speaking loudly of inviolable ‘sovereignty’, yet both in a strong mutual embrace they cannot easily escape. The Brexit vote is a British earthquake, but it is also a highly significant event in Central European history and politics. Poles, both in Lincolnshire and in the Belvedere Palace in Warsaw, are today actively shaping the UK’s history; just as the UK is shaping theirs. We shall see, to our relief or to our cost, whether in this decade the oscillating centripetal or centrifugal forces in European history will win out. 

Polish Cracower shoes - the height of 14C London fashion...
(From http://bit.ly/29o3x5E)

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Strangers in London

The Dutch Church, Austin Friars (photo by NN)
Academics are increasingly encouraged to engage the public in their research - via ‘impact’ initiatives or through active collaboration with non-scholars in what is termed ‘knowledge exchange’. It was therefore refreshing to participate in an academic conference on the Reformation which was entirely conceived, curated and organised by the Dutch Church in the City of London (and not by early modern historians). Last week, the conference ‘John a Lasco: I am A Stranger’ heard speakers from the United States, UK and the Netherlands. Johannes a Lasco (or Jan Łaski the Younger, 1499-1560), was the most significant Reformation figure produced by Poland: nephew of a powerful Polish archbishop, furnished with the best possible foreign education, Johannes a Lasco went on to play a leading role in Protestant communities northern Germany, England and his native Poland. Here in England, it was to Johannes a Lasco that Edward VI entrusted leadership of the ‘Strangers Church’ in 1550 – a place where London’s foreign refugees and immigrants could worship together.
            It was marvellous to hear papers about Lasco and the Strangers’ Church in the very place where that church once stood. Originally part of the enormous Austin (Augustinian) Friars monastery, the building was given to the Strangers, destroyed in the Blitz, and rebuilt by the Dutch community in London. It is an inspiring, beautiful and resonant space. Thomas Cromwell’s great mansion was built just across the road (as readers of Wolf Hall will know). The speakers delivered their lectures before an enormous stained glass window showing John a Lasco, bearded and in green robes, and the two children connected with this church, the boy-king Edward VI of England, and Princess Irene of the Netherlands who laid the foundation stone of the new building in 1950.
            We heard from Michael Springer about Lasco’s magnum opus, the Forma ac Ratio, an extended ‘how to’ guide on running a Calvinist congregation, from Andrew Spicer about the foreign residents of London in the 1550s, from David Gehring about a parallel life to that of Lasco, the Elizabethan Robert Beale. Silke Muylaert spoke on how the Stranger Church in London reacted when the Netherlands erupted in religious revolt, bringing traumatised and impassioned refugees to their corner of London. The Dutch Church had however also organised this conference to pose broader and contemporary questions about refugees, immigrants and toleration. We therefore heard how in 16C eastern Germany, or 17C Prague, or 16C Poland, very different religious communities could coexist in curious, unexpected and usually precarious ways. This conference was most timely, in light of the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, and the UK’s own referendum debate about identity and migration. It was sobering to hear that in late 16C London, the government had conducted a full census of foreign residents, quizzing them in depth about their reasons for coming to England; that other Londoners complained about immigrants driving up 16C house prices and taking jobs; that the Elizabethan government deeply feared that refugees from a savage European war would bring religious and political radicalism to these shores (Andrew Spicer, Michael Springer).

It is always a pleasant surprise when research on 16C Europe speaks so directly to communities in the UK today. A Lasco was in London only three years, forced to flee by ship along with his congregation of ‘Strangers’ in 1553, when the Catholic queen Mary I ascended the throne. The Dutch Church is soon to unveil a new plaque commemorating Johannes a Lasco and his time in London: it will mark how a unique life, and a unique building, connect England, Poland and the Netherlands and their respective histories. The plaque will also be a prompt to reflect on the different experiences which foreigners, immigrants and refugees have had in our capital city (welcome, warm coexistence, expulsion) over the centuries, as the United Kingdom again finds and articulates its place in the world.

Monday, 6 June 2016

The Tudors & the EU Referendum

The English Channel; the edge of history?
         Historians have been prominent in the EU referendum debate, with George Osborne hosting a reception with Remain academic supporters last week. The question of the British Isles’ relations with the wider European continent is, however, a problem which has long underpinned the popular Oxford undergraduate course ‘British History, 1500-1700’, quietly and subversively. In teaching the history of Tudor England, Europe is a well-established ghost at the feast.
            Teaching this paper to some of the UK’s brightest students, using books written by some of our brightest scholars, is to see how deeply ingrained the idea of a separate ‘England’ and ‘Europe’ is. Students from a range of ethnic and social backgrounds instinctively write of the Tudors and their subjects as ‘we’: ‘we had a Reformation’, ‘we invaded France’. Europeans become ‘they’. This is merely a crude echo of what history students find in many books about early modern England, which breezily sketch differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – England had a sensible, state-imposed Reformation, while those continentals had wild riots, image-breaking and wars. English witchcraft trials were calm local affairs and small scale; the Europeans (and Scots) had out-of-control paranoid panics. The English ‘we’ is civilised and law-abiding, the continental ‘they’ is slightly hysterical. This kind of seductively simple picture of the sixteenth-century is possible only if one employs a rhetorical sleight of hand – to pack the entire European landmass and its islands into one homogenous ‘they’, neatly contrasted with an English ‘us’. There was of course no single European experience of Reformation (and no Protestant Reformation at all in many places), or witch-hunts or, say, the evolution of parliaments. Tudor England might have been much like Denmark or Transylvania in certain respects, but more like France or Portugal in others. Europe was in the sixteenth century a collection of kingdoms, duchies and republics, just as it is today a collection of highly varied nation states. England was distinctive, but so was every polity in Europe. (And all those polities claim, when writing their national histories, that they were unique).
            This powerful idea of a pristine historical separation between Tudor England and a chaotic Continent is of course a myth. The events which rocked the kingdom, and these islands, in the sixteenth century were not purely indigenous in origin: ideas of Reformation, state power, witchcraft, history, art and many others came primarily from abroad. The religious reformer and Polish refugee, John a Lasco, was for example a prominent Protestant in Edward VI’s London, as a major conference next month in London will recall. Books, ideas, objects, images and people crossed (and criss-crossed) the sea. This is a history of dense, ongoing connections and exchange, which is no cause for embarrassment.

            This myth of a historic separation between the British Isles and an abstract place called ‘the Continent’, however historically questionable, is one which we unfortunately still perpetuate in our teaching. At Oxford, the History B.A. offers separate papers in British and ‘General’ (European) history. At post-graduate level, cutting-edge research is discussed in two separate groups – an Early Modern Britain seminar, and an Early Modern Europe/World seminar. It wasn’t true in the sixteenth century that the British Isles had a historic experience so unique that it set them totally apart from other societies in the geographical vicinity; it still wasn’t true in the twentieth century when so many of our classic Tudor England textbooks were written; and it is not true today. Britain, and England, have always been an integral part of a rich, difficult, mutually entangled European history: in the referendum, we risk breaking crucial twenty-first century alliances, on the basis of a historical myth to the contrary. The United Kingdom, with its constituent territories, is part of Western Eurasia; it can of course pretend that it is not, but to do so on June 23rd would be unwise.  

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Faustus: Magic & the Medieval City

This term, Oxford will see a new student production of Christopher Marlowe's 'Doctor Faustus'. As part of their public & educational outreach, the students have commissioned blogs from academics on themes related to the play. This blog first appeared on the Doctor Faustus production website.

Collegium Maius, Krakow's Jagiellonian University

Of all the prophets, wandering scholars and conjurors produced by sixteenth century Germany – a society undergoing profound change – few have captured the imagination of later generations quite so much as Dr. Johann Faust. Marlowe’s play (1592) is based on an apparently real figure, whom we can just about glimpse in the historical sources: in decrees issued by city officials, and above all in gossip, letters and rumours circulating among educated men. This shadowy Faust, trailing from German town to German town until his reported death in an alchemical explosion in the 1540s, is described as a trickster, great sorcerer (necromancer) and blasphemer. But while Faustus may have existed on the margins of recorded history, and on the margins of acceptable society in his own day (banned from entering various German towns), his interest in magic was anything but marginal in sixteenth-century Europe.

            Poland, for example, has its own Dr. Faustus figure – celebrated for centuries in literature, art and even in the Cold War children’s songs I sang at my Polish Saturday School in London in the 1980s. He is called Pan (or Mr) Twardowski. Twardowski was rumoured to be the magician employed by King Sigismund Augustus of Poland (d. 1572) to conjure the spirit of his late wife Barbara, and this grew into a bigger story, about a Twardowski who made a pact with the devil and became the Man in the Moon (one of only two Poles to make it into space so far!). In fact, the Polish royal capital of Kraków was one of Renaissance Europe’s great hot-spots of fortune-telling and magic. The first professor of astrology at Kraków was appointed in 1459, and the predictions of the university’s astrologers were much sought thereafter, reprinted across the continent. At the Polish court, a crystal-gazing prayer book (now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford) was produced for the royal family, which explained how the monarch could summon four archangels to tell him the future. In an episode reminiscent of Faustus’ reported demise, two Kraków friars were killed in the 1460s in an alchemical experiment which went badly wrong. In fact, a Central European capital like Kraków could have such a reputation for magic, that the great Lutheran theologian Philip Melanchthon asserted that Johann Faust must have been ‘a scholar of Kraków’, where magic was openly taught.
Twardowski with the devil
Sketch by M E Andriolli, 1895
            Historians pay a good deal of attention to magic and astrology in medieval and Renaissance Europe, because contemporaries themselves saw it as a serious if problematic branch of knowledge. In the Renaissance period, European magic underwent a profound shift. Medieval magic (as numerous well-handled 14th century manuscripts in the British Library well testify), employed spells derived from mainstream Christian prayers, typically with the intention of summoning spirits. A new Renaissance magic was, by contrast, focused on recovering from the ancient Greek or Jewish past new methods for seeking higher truths: by practising Kabbalah, or singing the mystical hymns of Orpheus. Figures such as Faustus and Twardowski have perhaps inspired so many stories since their own day, because they represent a kind of shadowy last gasp of that older, medieval form of magic – spells, Christian liturgy said backwards, spirits, demons, in other words traditional necromancy.

This, as Christopher Marlowe well knew, was a European tradition in which England very much participated. There was a legend of a Cambridge student who had made a pact with the devil, in order to achieve his dream of becoming professor of theology at the great Italian university of Padua - but was promptly found dead. There is a sea of scholarship on Queen Elizabeth’s I advisor John Dee (d. 1608/9), occult philosopher and astrologer. In the seventeenth century, England would produce in the words of John Maynard Keynes ‘the last of the magicians’, that passionate pursuer of ancient mystical truths, Sir Isaac Newton (d. 1727). The methods for doing magic changed, but the dream of acquiring secret knowledge lived on among the scholarly elites of early modern Europe, very long after the curtain fell on that first performance of The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Talking about Jagiellonians...

Anna Jagiellon, Queen of Bohemia & Hungary (d. 1547)
Hans Maler zu Schwaz
We are gradually approaching the half-way mark of the 5 year Jagiellonians Project which I run, funded by the European Research Council. One of the (many pleasurable) challenges of directing a project such as this is managing its communications – striking a balance between saying too little, and saying too much. On the one hand, part of the purpose of this project is to raise the profile of the Jagiellonians as an international dynasty among historians and audiences outside Central Europe. Making full use of a project webpage, Twitter, mailing lists, quarterly newsletters and conferences in the UK and beyond is therefore an important part of our activities. At times, I have felt like a P.R. agency or professional evangelist for the Jagiellonians, even as (paradoxically) my own scholarly and personal relationship with them has become more nuanced, and perhaps more ambiguous.

On the other hand, this is also a fast-moving, collaborative research project – academics often work on a topic for some time before feeling ready to air their findings. There is a time lag (sometimes of years) between a project (or project website) launching and polished historical research hitting journals or bookshelves. All the Jagiellonian Project’s communications have to come with the tacit tag-line: ‘work in progress’, or ‘historians still at work’. Another reason for not saying too much is because this is not a solo project, but a highly collaborative one involving a team of six researchers. When writing books on my own in the past, I have been relatively relaxed about recounting the ups and downs of research online. However, it is not necessarily appropriate to give a blow-by-blow account of the internal workings, and private discussions, of a large team of scholars as we work together on a collectively authored publication.

As it turns out, a major focus of the project’s research has been communication itself – how ideas about a Jagiellonian dynasty were articulated by humanist scholars (those masters of rhetoric and persuasion) in splendid orations delivered at diplomatic summits, royal weddings, coronations, and funerals in 16C Central Europe.  When I look at our website, so well run by our project Administrator Briony Truscott, with its family lists, (forthcoming) maps, timelines and royal portraits, I wonder how far we have inadvertently slipped into the shoes of those humanist diplomats, courtiers and poets, taking on ourselves, five centuries on, the task of presenting the Jagiellonians to a wider world.