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

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.