Monday, 5 November 2018


This is just to post a link to a really interesting programme about nostalgia on radio 4.  It's provocative, gives food for further thought, and a useful sense of the range of political positions which draw on nostalgia.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Nostalgia 7

I began my research on the subject of nostalgia inspired by Svetlana Boym's wonderful book The Future of Nostalgia.  In it, I found inspiring articulation of the idea that nostalgia can be forward-looking, radical, even subversive. It can be used to construct and sustain visions of the future.  And I've taken this idea of the possible radicalism of nostalgia, and tried to explore its potential in the context of the fourteenth century.  Utopian thinking in the later Middle Ages overlapped in intriguing ways with nostalgia for an imagined, sometimes pre-lapsarian past, and this could be harnessed to produce extraordinary and radical visions of the future.

But these ideas began to crystallise for me before Brexit and before Trump.  The resurgence of popular politics has also seen the resurgence of alarming expressions of profoundly reactionary nostalgia.

'Make America Great Again' and 'Let's Take Back Control' prey on the most basic sense of disillusionment.  Those who buy into the cliches seem often to realise that the past was not as rosy as it's portrayed - but somehow that doesn't matter if you can replace knowledge with a strong sense of loss.  And this is a powerful combination - reactionary nostalgia  combines anger and longing.  Anger on its own often doesn't get very far.  Longing certainly doesn't.  But the two together form a very potent mix.

Can nostalgia be reclaimed?  It certainly can be by the political left.  But this does not necessarily indicate a truly subversive vision (Corbynite interest in re-nationalisation is a striking example).  Can nostalgia play to something altogether more radical?  My sense is that nostalgia is a complex of feelings which can be tuned in many keys.  What emerges can be utterly, drearily, but also frighteningly predictable. But it can also make us hear old tunes afresh, harmonising them in new and unsettling ways.  There's plenty of the former in the fourteenth century - 'make ... great again', or 'take back control' are boring and unoriginal.  And I think there's plenty of the latter too.

But one of the many depressing aspects of the recent turn in global politics is the demonstration that nostalgia can be both tedious and dangerous.

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Nostalgia 6

Agriculture is another area of modern life where those of us who don’t actually farm enjoy wallowing in nostalgia.

Last week, we went to a farm show in a nearby village in Hessen.  It was all rather delightful – beautifully groomed horses, lots of fairly innocuous drinking and tasty treats, some amazingly choreographed tractor manoeuvres and rides on some old carts and pony-traps.  I was even invited to drive a 1967 tractor round the field – a new skill which I’m sure will come in useful.

But why are we so self-indulgent about the past where farming is concerned? I guess it’s partly just because it’s a convenient illusion to forget about the more unpleasant aspects of modern farming, upon which we all choose to rely – from the hard graft, to the more distasteful treatment of animals, and industrial scale of many operations.  I think there may also be something much more politicised involved.  I was initially inspired in my own research on C14th nostalgia by Raymond Williams’ work on the growth of a pastoral idyll in industrialised England (The Country and the City).  His literary scholarship is, frankly, unparalleled for its skilful blend of close reading, contextual engagement, and strong political bent.  It is a very complex book, but Williams’ sense that country life becomes idealised by successive generations, all of whom manage somehow to claim that it is only in their lifetimes that things have changed so dramatically, describes nicely the experience of going to a country show.  And there is, of course, a more sinister edge to this.  If cities tend to embody modernity and mishap, the nostalgic idealisation of the countryside masks social tensions and inequities which would otherwise be deemed unacceptable.  The nostalgic rural idyll becomes a morally indefensible form of denial and delusion.

I’d like to defend nostalgia.  There are contexts in which it can support a radical agenda, and there are certainly ways in which nostalgia can refocus us on crucial values. But that clearly depends on a kind of clear-sightedness which nostalgia often works precisely to obfuscate.  

Monday, 13 August 2018


We're in Germany at the moment, and had a lovely day out the other day at the Lochmuehle.

 It's an activity park for little children, with animals to pet, and old-fashioned rides like carousels and giant slides with mats to make one whizz down at triple-speed.   It struck me just how much of what we do with our children is explicitly nostalgic.  On reflection, I also have to admit that I choose to dress my younger son in quite obviously nostalgic clothes (my older son has always been so obsessed with dressing up as other characters that I rarely have a choice as to what he wears!)  On the face of it, it's really strange to nostalgically and deliberately associate childhood with the past - after all, the children of today represent the future.

Why do we so often approach bringing up children with such a strong sense of nostalgia?  I don't know the answer, and I'm not going to change the kinds of things I do with my kids - I love carousels, and traditional lemonade, home-made cakes, and old-fashioned rompers and dungarees.

I think it may lie partly in the desire to relive our own childhoods - we're tempted back into our own eras of innocence and trust.  And I wonder whether it also connects to our sense that childhood should be about stability, and that traditional and old-fashioned things are somehow timeless.  We tend to associate the modern with fashion, changeability, and the transient.  Indeed, clothes with a more 'vintage' feel are often described as being of 'timeless appeal'.  Is there then a sense that we're endowing our kids with a childhood that transcends time?  Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but it is striking that this repudiation of the modern is particularly associated with our attitudes to small children.

Saturday, 11 August 2018


I'm finding that the more I think about nostalgia, the more the process becomes one of a sort of infinite regress.  If returning to my teenage home provoked a wash of deeply personal nostalgia, that nostalgia itself felt timeless.  I wonder if that was part of the appeal of the emotion - that it felt like one which remains intact despite all the change.  In other words, it's not just the sense of stability in the past which is sentimentally appealing - but it's the sense of stability of that longing itself which makes it so comforting.  And whilst the stability of the past is clearly an illusion - after all the past is lost and gone forever - , so is the stability of nostalgia a misnomer.

Indulging in a haze of nostalgia may feel timeless, but like many other emotions, it needs to be historicized (this call was effectively expressed in a special edition of the journal Parergon 2016).  It seems clear from psychological studies that there is a core of emotions involved in nostalgia which transcend most cultural differences, and which are deeply rooted in our humanity.  But there are many aspects of nostalgia which differ quite dramatically from place to place, period to period, culture to culture.  What we are nostalgic for and what provokes nostalgia?  How do we express nostalgia?  Is nostalgia deemed a radical or reactionary set of feelings?  How does the personal experience of nostalgia interweave with collective longings for the past?  What is the particular constellation of emotions provoked by nostalgia? 

These questions go far beyond the semantics of nostalgia - and even in periods without a word for this longing for the past, they offer insights into that bittersweet sense of longing and loss.

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Nostalgia 3


When Johannes Hofer coined the term 'nostalgia' in 1688, he was attempting to diagnose and give a name to the widespread homesickness which was afflicting many of his contemporaries.  At a time when mercenary soldiers in particular were travelling far from home, he and others observed physical symptoms including lethargy and even fainting.  It was the effect of a paradox: that many seemed to be living in a permanent state of transience.  

It's a challenge for me, as a medievalist interested in 14th-century nostalgia, to acknowledge that the term was not invented before the 17th century.  But emotions are, of course, more complex than the terms which attempt to circumscribe them.  And, more interestingly, what Hofer named 'nostalgia' was not really what we nowadays term 'nostalgia'.  One of the most striking differences is that nostalgia now tends to refer to a longing for a lost time, whereas Hofer was using the term to indicate longing for a lost place.  It's interesting to trace how the word 'nostalgia' has come to refer to time rather than place in the three centuries since it was invented.  So I thought a little experiment might be in order to try to pin down what I feel when I am myself nostalgic.

So last week, I treated myself and Baby to a visit to my old home.  In the early morning sunshine, we walked slightly tearfully past the old house, nodded to the spreading walnut tree, and wove our way along the hedges to the green lane. This was the walk I did every single day after school.  These were the trees and the hedgerows that comforted me when life felt terrifying, and that shared my exuberance at the wondrous ways life was unfolding.  I sat down in the green lane with Baby, and breathed in the soft haze of cow-parsley and spring blossoms.  I felt I was swimming in a delicious sea of melancholy, bittersweet beauty.  This was nostalgia.  It was a feeling infused with a sense of loss - loss of the sense of innocence and security which comes with a sheltered childhood, loss of my parents' happy marriage, loss of a particular vision of how life would turn out.  The feeling was even more powerful because there was such a sense of presence of all these things: it was as though my grandmother might beckon over the hedge that coffee was ready, that the cat might stroll past with a mouse in her mouth.  Nor were these memories deluded - it wasn't just a golden haze, but far more real than that.  And it certainly wasn't sad - whilst it made me tearful, it was intoxicating - addictive even.

What have I learned? I think I have proved the point to myself that historical semantics only gets us so far.  There are a constellation of emotions associated with nostalgia - linked to place, to time, and to people - and it doesn't really matter that Hoefer only invented the term rather later than my period of study.  I know the feelings I'm looking for, and my task is to think about what provoked them in the fourteenth century, why, how they were expressed, and what were their effects.

Thursday, 8 December 2016


I've published an article in BBC History Magazine on medieval nostalgia here.  They've illustrated it beautifully, and I think it gives a nice flavour of what I'm up to.  I hope that people enjoy it!

December from the Tres Riches Heures of the Duke of Berry.  Source: wikicommons