Warsaw, Budapest, Prague, and Oxford

As well as its international reputation for teaching undergraduates the Modern History Faculty is a world centre for historical research. It is an area of Faculty activities that is growing fast, in volume and distinction. Sometimes academic study and historical events react closely together. The contribution of the University of Oxford to the opening of academic links between western and eastern Europe before and after 1989 is well attested. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Modern History Faculty has built further links through the presence of graduates from eastern Europe and the opportunities Oxford’s libraries and academics provide. Natalia Nowakowska explains the attraction of research in Oxford.

Universities can sometimes react to major international upheavals far more deftly than governments. While members of the so-called Visegrad Four – Poland, Hungary, Czech and Slovakia – had to wait over a decade for admission to NATO, and are still travelling the long road to membership of the EU, Oxford’s Modern History Faculty has been fostering a growing community of postgraduate specialists in this region since the 1980s. This cosmopolitan group includes British, Hungarian, Polish and American students.

At first glance, Oxford is not an obvious centre for such research: almost a thousand miles from Budapest and Kraków, the University’s most dramatic links with Central Europe occurred at the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth century, when the Oxford-Prague axis fed the heresies of Lollardy and Hussitism. Today, however, the Bodleian boasts some of the UK’s richest resources for Central European history. Duke Humphry’s Library, for example, holds a thirteen-century copy of Peter Comestor’s Historica scholastica, with rare marginalia in medieval Magyar. Researchers can admire illuminated manuscripts produced for the Renaissance Polish court, such as the prayer books of King Zygmunt I (1506–48) and his Italian bride Bona Sforza, and a unique occult text from the 1490s, which depicts a Polish monarch summoning archangels. The Hungarian Renaissance is represented by a manuscript volume of Seneca from the library of the celebrated monarch and patron Matthias Corvinus.

The Bodleian’s printed holdings are no less notable. In the nineteenth century, the library acquired the collections known today as the Libri Polonici and the Libri Hungarici. The former had been the private library of the historian Józef Andrzej Łukaszewicz (d.1875), and was purchased after his death for £366 from a Berlin book-seller: it includes important works dating from the Polish Reformation, as well as the first printed chronicle of Polish history, Maciej of Miechowa’s Chronica Polonorum of 1521. The volumes of the Libri Hungarici collection date largely from the Enlightenment, and include Sajnovic’s seminal investigations into the links between the Magyar and Finnish languages, and early catalogues of what is today the Hungarian National Museum. In addition, the Bodleian has a number of seventeenth-century works by Hungarian Presbyterians, who were drawn to England in the heyday of Puritanism. In the twentieth century, the Bodleian consistently acquired the most recent historical works from Central Europe. In the 1950s, it became only the second UK library to establish a department for east-European acquisitions, which negotiated exchange deals with the state publishing houses of the Communist bloc. The department today employs some six staff specialising in Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, Polish, and Russian holdings.

Details from Private Prayer Book of King Wladislas of Poland
Details from Private Prayer Book of King Wladislas of Poland

There is no shortage of scholars to explore these valuable collections, with about a dozen postgraduates now working on Central European history. Recent and current theses tackle such topics as witchcraft prosecutions in early modern Poland; the Yiddish language in Hungary; Poland’s relations with the Renaissance papacy; oral testimonies of the Red Army’s occupation of Budapest; a comparative study of local elites in sixteenth-century England and Poland; Habsburg legal systems, the Jewish question and the development of Czech democracy; political thought in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the age of Enlightenment; Hungarian and Slovak towns in the sixteenth century, and the Frankist movement, a Messianic sect which arose among the Jewish communities of eastern Poland in the eighteenth century. Szonja Komoroczy, St. John’s College, explains that she chose Oxford because of ‘scholars and professors on the one hand, and library resources on the other’. British students frequently have a personal connection with the region, such as a Polish or Hungarian grandparent. Benedict Rundell of Magdalen College remarks that ‘there seem to be far more students here doing Polish and other Central European history than I’d expected – people keep on mentioning names to me. I certainly don’t feel as isolated as I thought I might be.’ A large proportion of these postgraduates is supervised by Robert Evans, Regius Professor of Modern History, who advocates a broader historical understanding of the region as a whole, arguing that there is a tendency for specialists ‘to attach themselves to existing national traditions.’

Unsurprisingly, the revolutions of 1989 have created greater opportunities for travel, academic exchange, and exploitation of foreign archives. Oxford’s exchange programmes with the region, however, pre-date the fall of the Communist regimes. As early as 1986, Professor Zbigniew Pełczyński of Pembroke College co-ordinated visits by Polish and Hungarian scholars to Oxford. The Oxford Colleges’ Hospitality Scheme has similarly welcomed Central European researchers for over twenty years: this too was originally created to benefit Polish academics, and has now expanded to include Bosnians and Afghans. The university has recently established more formal links with Prague’s Charles University, which is a member of the Europaeum, a partnership of European universities. Human traffic is by no means one-way: British doctoral candidates often spend up to a year working in archives in Central Europe. At least two Oxford historians have recently received Polish Government Postgraduate Scholarships, which fund research trips and provide academic patrons at local universities.

Central European history can none-the-less be a challenging business. Considerable linguistic skills are required: in addition to Magyar or a Slavonic language, students often need both German and Latin. In addition, ascertaining the state of current research in Central Europe can be difficult, as there are no printed or electronic databases of theses in progress, as exist in the UK and USA, for example. State archives can sometimes appear untouched by the political changes of the 1980s, with a decidedly Communist attitude to both service and westerners: one student who lost her reader’s card in a Polish archive was categorically instructed to return only once it had expired – in four years’ time! Meeting local doctoral students working on similar areas is, however, a rewarding and often sobering experience. As one postgraduate commented: ‘The students whom I met in Kraków explained that there was virtually no possibility of state or university funding for their research – they all worked full time as secondary school teachers or archivists, writing their theses in the evenings and at weekends.’

In Oxford itself, the community of Central European specialists is often a lively one. The OU Hungarian and Polish Societies organises a range of social and cultural events in the city, while the graduate Austrian & Central European Society, established in 1999, produces an on-line journal entitled Compass, which receives contributions from historians, linguists and politics students. The society has recently launched a website, linked to the UNESCO pages, which offers informal (and often entertaining) survival guides to Central European archives. The web address is http://users.ox.ac.uk/~magd0324.

The most ambitious recent initiative was, however, an international conference organised entirely by a committee of postgraduates, chaired by Larissa Douglass of St Antony’s College. The conference, held at St Antony’s in May 2002, was entitled The contours of legitimacy in Central Europe: new approaches in graduate studies, and heard papers from 74 postgraduates, was addressed by 24 senior academics, and was attended by 30 diplomatic and academic observers. The event was partially financed by the Modern History Faculty, and declared by one of the keynote speakers to be unprecedented in the UK. Initiatives such as these, twinned with the Bodleian’s considerable resources and the University’s traditions of welcoming Central European scholars, are helping to put Oxford on the map as a centre for research into the region’s rich history, just as its countries optimistically enter a new era, poised to join Europe’s most prestigious club.

Natalia Nowakowska,  Lincoln College

(3rd year DPhil candidate)


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