History

A Lonely Degree

As my second year at university wraps up and I embark on the painful process of chasing up summer reading and wringing my hands over my thesis, I have been thinking about all those things good and bad that define studying history at Oxford. And although it’s an incredible learning experience that I value every day, I do think that it could easily be made that much more incredible. I do enjoy my degree. I love history – I love the narrative, I love the themes emerging centuries and continents apart, I love eureka moments when chronology slots together and I love recognising and empathising with people and things millennia gone. Studying history at Oxford, a place that wears its own so proudly and is home to the best and brightest historical minds the world has to offer is a unique experience that we all often take for granted. It’s amazing that every week I sit down for an hour or more alone with a world expert on my subject to directly converse about a piece of work I have produced – these are incomparable privileges that I’m well aware I am lucky to have. But sometimes I wonder whether I wouldn’t enjoy my degree a whole lot more if it was taught in a different way.

History at Oxford can often feel like a very lonely subject. I was very fortunate in my first year to choose three out of four of the same papers as someone who became a bosom buddy, who shared my enthusiasm for actually talking about our subject, comparing notes and touching base. But unless you strike gold in that respect it’s incredibly unlikely that a history student’s closest friends will end up being from their course – quite simply because you never SEE each other. When other subjects groups have several core modules they all take together and lectures they go to en masse, right from week one historians are scattered across lecture theatres and colleges throughout the university dependent on our module choices – and since many tutors still favour the one-on-one tutorial format sometimes you can go whole terms without discussing your work or your era with anyone other than the world-renowned academic that’s been assigned to improve you. Part of what makes the Oxford course so great is that it can be very self-directed and flexible – your tutor will choose essays for you that they’re most adept at teaching, or you will choose topics that you’re interested in – but this also means that nothing is standardised and a whole term of lectures can pass by with not a single one being relevant to what you’re working on. If you’re producing an essay in four business days then you’re probably not going to choose to spend an hour listening to something inapplicable, so only the most dedicated will turn up to the full lecture programme (and as if anyone actually TALKS to each other).

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Last term I did a paper on the viking world, which was taught in a format I hadn’t experienced before: weekly tutorials of two or three students for which we would submit an essay in advance, and a two hour class with all eight people taking the paper. This term I’m taking a historical disciplines paper that is entirely class-based, although with personal feedback on all work submitted. Both of these systems have been resoundingly more enjoyable than the simple lecture/tutorial format, not least because half the joy of being at university is realising that other people think and process things in a very different way to yourself. In an environment where we’re all still suffering the after-effects of the school playground notion that talking about your work and enjoying your intelligence means you’re an awful nerd, there is still not too much room to discuss your studies outside the academic setting; a class might be the only chance you get to see what and how others on your course are writing and thinking. But the class format also means doing presentations, group discussion, LISTENING to each other… when so many of us will be abandoning academia for the real world straight after our undergraduate degrees, are these skills not equally important if not more than getting used to churning out thousands of words a week about something you know next to nothing about?

So a resounding yes to the tutorial system – that’s not the enemy in my enjoyment of my degree. It’s the main reason that people strive to get into Oxbridge above other universities, and that level of personal feedback and interaction is invaluable. But also yes to structures of learning that throw you in amongst your peers, give you something to measure yourself against and encourage interaction. For a good chunk of us this degree is the end of our studies and after it we’ll be thrust right into the world of work which for most people does not consist of everything being achieved in a solitary bubble. If part of university study is preparing us for the real world, shouldn’t our studies be a bit more real?

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Bits of Bavaria: Torture

In another instalment of my time living in deepest southern Germany I visit Burghausen castle’s torture museum and terrify myself.

When I was wandering around the castle last week I caught sight of a sign with the word “museum” in it, and assumed this was Burghausen’s internet-famous shrine to itself. Three rooms of rusty iron implements later and I realised what “Folter” probably meant, and that I was in fact completely alone in the city’s torture tower. Now let’s make no mistake, I am super morbid – in fact my fascination with the grisly side of the past is almost certainly the underlying reason for my history degree – but I became absolutely terrified as I climbed higher and higher and passed more and more horrible objects with their gruesome and oh-so-detailed instructional diagrams. I lost it somewhat on the third floor, after a gleeful small child opened the iron door to an oven and explained to me that this was where they burnt accused witches alive. (I don’t actually know if this was entirely accurate information, in my horror I did not read the sign before fleeing down the stairs).

The first item that greets visitors is a large phallic wooden board. This thrilled me, and I instantly whipped out my iPhone because really, what is funnier than objects that are inadvertently shaped like penises? NOTHING. I was therefore very disappointed to read the explanatory sign and diagram telling me that these were purposefully lewd stocks designed for obscenely behaved women. It turned out that the entirety of the first room was dedicated to implements for punishing sex-crazed females – the medieval ladies of Burghausen were clearly not very well behaved. I learned some interesting facts, such as that Sweden was the only nation in Europe whose men did not enforce the use of chastity belts on their wives whilst away on business trips, and exactly which historical period E.L. James got all the inspiration for that syuper accurate portrayal of the BDSM community.

I became rather panicked about ten minutes later after accidentally shutting myself in a cellar strongly resembling the location of the last scene of The Blaire Witch Project, so rushed through the remaining rooms. I did have a good laugh at a ducking-stool type affair, specifically reserved for baker’s accused of baking too small bread rolls. #medievalproblems

When I finally exited through the gift shop, I laughed rather too hysterically at a prominently displayed Amnesty poster campaigning against the use of torture, and then cycled home to nurse my mental scars.

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“That disgusting Cleopatra”

For Christmas my aunt gave me Stacy Schiff’s internationally best-selling biography Cleopatra: A Life. Studying history at university has given me a knee-jerk aversion to reading anything past-related outside of term-time, but I gave it a go anyway – I so rarely get to read a book dedicated to exploring the life of a female historical figure. It’s marvellous. It’s on Hilary Mantel levels of making history fascinating (although hopefully a bit more accurate). It’s an amazing insight into the life of someone right up there amongst history’s-most-misunderstood-characters, as well as the times that she lived in and the people and cultures that surrounded her. Who knew that Macedonian Greeks sat on the Egyptian throne for centuries? Who knew how sumptuously lavish an Alexandrian feast could be, and that the guests would all be gifted the cutlery and the furniture afterwards? Fabulously written and incredibly detailed, Schiff opens up a whole new world of family feuds and erotic scandal, priceless jewels and an unimaginable city that has been lost to the past. The book is amazingly written, and the story amazingly told.

It’s a sympathetic account to be certain; Schiff’s Cleopatra is no “whore queen” sleeping her way to the top, but rather shapes her Roman lovers to her political needs whilst having a jolly good time simultaneously (as her litter of dynasty-uniting children might attest). Hers is not Chaucer’s “martyr to love” whose only tool was sexuality, or Shaw’s “silly little girl” play-acting at politics with the big boys. The Cleopatra of this biography isn’t even particularly beautiful, as the hooked nose and strong chin of her only surviving contemporary likenesses prove. Schiff’s Cleopatra is a phenomenally clever strategist, a polyglot and an educated intellectual, a woman who ruled over an enormous and ancient empire that ended with her death. Schiff is no impartial historian (who is?) and that’s exactly what makes this book so great – it’s a very personal biography, as all biographies should be. It’s deeply pro-Cleopatra and her sex – the succinct passing put-downs of the countless (male) writers who have besmeared her subject’s reputation and memory over the last two thousand years were some of my favourite passages. In an endearingly witty interview with The New York Times Schiff delightfully dismisses centuries worth of assertions that Cleopatra’s diplomatic skill-set ended at the door to the bedroom by scoffing that “it has always been preferable to attribute a woman’s success to her beauty rather than her brains”.

I’m all for the image-rehabilitation of history’s scapegoats, especially if they happen to be powerful and independent females existing a couple of millennia before that was in vogue. I can’t pretend to have any of the ancient history credentials to confirm or deny whether the portrait Schiff paints is an accurate one, but it’s certainly a cracking read – and I also can’t pretend that I was not crackingly convinced.

Vikings in London

I spent this term studying a paper called “The Viking Age: War and Peace c.750-1100”, a module covering Scandinavian raiders and settlers and their activities at home and abroad. It has conveniently coincided with Copenhagen’s celebrated Viking World exhibition hitting my own home town. Professor Lesley Abrams, much celebrated in viking circles and coincidentally my tutor (Oxford education whaddup) was invited to the opening a fortnight ago, bringing its existence to our class’s attention; she did not sing its praises. Neither did many other reviewers. Undeterred my mum and I spent a sunny Friday afternoon eating and wandering in central London, before charging into the British Museum and ploughing mercilessly through the foreign hoards (a la vikings) towards the declamatory banners of rusty-sword-overlaid-with-swirling-ocean (original). We got two steps into the first room and then turned around and left. The place was absolutely rammed. It was unbearable. I was aware that the popularity of the exhibition had meant tickets were sold in timed slots, but this was something else entirely – a queue that snaked around the entire exhibit creating a human conveyor belt of fleeting glimpses of glass-cased objects and universal impatience and despair. Seeing our despondency a security guard took us aside and recommended we return either first thing in the morning or last admission in the evening to have any chance of enjoyment, so we headed to the members lounge to drown our sorrows in tea and free wifi, and returned at 10am the next day to a slightly less horrifying scene.

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Although this is fairly horrifying

I will admit to finding over-crowding in museums and galleries horrendous and experience-ruining, so I didn’t even attempt to examine every object or read every sign. There were some specific artefacts that I really did want to see, and I zoned in on them right away – it was an absolute treat standing in front of the Lewis chessmen, relics of that time when the Western Isles belonged to Norway and not Scotland (ha), and seeing my personal favourite of a tiny 2x2cm silver sculpture of Odin and his seeing eye ravens Hugin and Munin. I enjoyed the re-construction of a viking longship, complete with real-life ship bits slotted into the metal frame, and I appreciated the garish replica of Harald Bluetooth’s Jelling Stone – his monument to his own success as a uniter of Denmark and champion of Christianity. But I couldn’t help but feel that I enjoyed all of this so much exactly because I understood these objects’ significance within the viking “life” or “legend” as a whole; not to sound like the condescending history student that I am, but I feel that the joy of the artefact lies within what it can tell you and how it can be interpreted. There was a dearth of explanatory information, and it was not limited to unsatisfactory descriptions of objects. Perhaps it’s just unrealistic expectations of curators to cram into three rooms what I have learnt in 8 weeks of a history degree, but if you’re going to title an exhibit “Vikings: life and legend” then I feel you’re implying you will do some explaining of life versus legend – or just some explaining in general.

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Odin and his menagerie

I am being unfair and I know it. I totally learnt some new things and there were some really great curatorial touches –  the snippets of skaldic verse printed on the walls, and eery recordings of Norse being spoken over the lapping of waves and creaking of oars (obviously). But I think that some of the more thrilling and “legendary” aspects of viking times were unnecessarily skipped over. The example I would choose is that of the Ridgeway Hill skeletons, displayed in an awkward corner. This was a mass viking grave found in Dorset in 2009, containing 54 dismembered skeletons of Scandinavian males (mostly) aged 16-25. They showed no evidence of being involved in a battle, but had certainly suffered a violent death – they had all been tossed naked into the pit, almost certainly executed, possibly as captives, at a time of conflict between native Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavian settlers. This is exactly the sort of mysterious and gory tale that makes popular history. Who were they? How did they die? Who killed them and decapitated them and buried them so dishonourably? Was there an audience? What happened to the missing heads? In the exhibit the only thing written about this intriguing discovery was that it “proved the vikings didn’t always win”… a rather vague statement that I thought really wasted a real-life historical conundrum. But then again, I almost certainly ended up doing history for my morbid temperament alone, so perhaps these are not the questions that plague your average museum-goer.

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DON’T FORGET ME I BEG – Adele/Harald Bluetooth

And while I’m complaining about everything and anything I must say that much as I hate exhibitions being overly child orientated, the British Museum does love to encourage enormous numbers of primary school parties and under-12s and almost none of the exhibition was child-friendly or interactive. Far be it from me to encourage the presence of any children in any public space ever, but this lack of engaging things to plonk your 4-year-old in front of while you read up on the intricacies of longship construction led to several tantrums and over-active small people underfoot. I can’t imagine that its Scandinavian incarnation was so lacking.

So to sum up: I’m glad that I went, I will almost certainly go again, but I do feel like more could have been done with this exhibit. For your average British Museum goer who has had to pay £15 for this claustrophobic experience and whose knowledge of the vikings is limited to drooling over Chris Hemsworth in the latest Avengers instalment, I’m not sure it really does the trick.

Welcome

Icelandic saga writers tell of an ancient viking ritual: the Rite of the Blood Eagle. It is a method of execution in which the back of the victim is carved open, the ribs broken, and the lungs torn out through the wounds to flutter in the breeze like wings. Regardless of whether this act was a pagan demonstration of disdain for Christianity (by creating a corpse mockery of an angel), or simply a myth from mis-interpretations of ancient skaldic verse, last week I wrote a whole essay about it and made my tutorial partners sit through multiple gruesome descriptions.

You may infer an analogy for how you, the reader, will relate to this blog, or perhaps you will infer that I couldn’t think of a snappy opening post. Either way, welcome to The Voyeuristic Stroller; have a photograph of something morbid.

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