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

Monday, 24 October 2016


My current monograph project examines nostalgia in the long fourteenth century.  When I started work on this, I hadn't really stopped to think quite how pervasive nostalgia is.  I'm used to my own personal rosy-tinted view of the past - and I think it can be something very positive, a way of reminding me what I value and the person I strive to be.  Collective nostalgia is a little less obvious - and yet, society is saturated with it.  

Right now, we are facing the consequences of the nostalgia-soaked Brexit rhetoric ('take our country back'), the looming threat of Trump's nostalgic appeals to 'make America great again', and a widely-shared sense that Corbyn's politics is one of nostalgia for the socialism of the 1970s.  It's very striking that nostalgia operates across the political spectrum - it's an incredibly powerful emotive force, and it can be both radical and reactionary.

As my research starts to come together, I'm going to post regular comments about nostalgia. I'll try hard to alternate reflections on the nostalgia which pervades our modern world, and comments on the hankering for the past which I'm finding in the Middle Ages.  The aim will be that an implicit dialogue between eras emerges.  

Thursday, 6 October 2016

On Wednesday, I went to the opening of the exquisite OPUS ANGLICANUM exhibition at the V and A.  It is a treasure-house of elaborate and exquisite works of art.  It makes the point very effectively that if embroidery is a skilled craft, it is also art of great sophistication.

I've reviewed it for the Oxford Medieval Studies blog - see here.

The exhibition has been criticised in the Guardian for failing to contextualise the objects sufficiently. In a particularly bullish review, Jonathan Jones comments that 'no one in the 14th century ever looked at copes in glass cases. They saw a bishop wear one as part of the vast, stupendous aesthetic experience that is a gothic cathedral. Illuminated by filtered light from stained-glass windows, glowing beneath a shadowy vault, to the sound of harmonious singing, these robes were a component of a much larger and more powerful artistic event.'  Frankly, this is a narrow-minded criticism.  An exhibition in a museum doesn't claim to replicate medieval viewing practices.  It is, by its very nature, a quite different experience.  Most medieval viewers would never have been able to see the minuscule and elaborate iconographic details on the copes and chasubles displayed here.  These were visual statements designed to function at a whole host of levels: amongst the sights, smells and sounds of the liturgy or of court life, garments and cloths would have formed part of an almost overwhelming sensual experience for viewers, dazzled by the colours and the extraordinary gilded threads, catching glimpses of the populations of highly expressive figures, ranging from saints to cheeky wildmen peeking out from behind embroidered foliage.  Up close, the iconography of the pieces functions very differently - it becomes didactic, witty, political.  Why try to flatten out ways of seeing things, rather than to acknowledge, as the exhibition implicitly does, that we are now able to engage with these embroideries in ways which resonate with, but are quite different from, those of medieval viewers?

In this sense, it seems to me quite right that an exhibition should imply both continuity with, and the alterity of, the past.  We see things with different eyes, different expectations, and in different cultural frameworks.  All this is nicely symbolised in the Steeple Aston cope: it was cut up, reconfigured and made into an altarpiece.  It is nicely characterised not just by the patina of age, but quite literally by the discontinuities and dislocation of time.  And yet, it's also still here - touching us across the centuries.

One of my favourite images is of the Virgin Mary as a child.  On a orphrey of around 1400 (a band to be applied to an ecclesiastical garment), she is depicted as small child just learning to walk with a baby-walker.,The child's expression is one of wide-eyed wonder (I don't have an image of this - you'll have to go to the exhibition!). In a similar scene on the Whalley Abbey vestments of around 1420, the iconography and lay-out are almost identical  but the child's expression has shifted to one of extreme concentration. Her mother watches, with hands out-stretched in surprise and admiration.

Orphrey from the Whalley Abbey Dalmatic showing the Virgin taking her first steps; source:

It is a rather moving emotional development across the two embroideries, 20 years apart.  The faces of this little child remind us that emotions and their representations shift across the years; we think about them differently, we view them differently; we can't perfectly reconstruct a medieval experience.  But despite this, they can still move us and reverberate across the centuries.

Monday, 4 July 2016

EU solidarity letter

One of the many aspects of Brexit which distresses me is the sense that many of our European counterparts may feel betrayed or judge Britain as a whole because of the result.

Together with colleagues, I have therefore written open letter to our European friends - it has been submitted to major European newspapers (and so far, has appeared here), to remind our European friends, colleagues and neighbours, that many of us continue to feel emphatically European and to believe that the EU project, however flawed, is idealistically worthwhile.

If you agree with the sentiments, please do sign the letter at
It is translated into German, French, Italian, Dutch, Swedish, Finnish, Spanish, Portuguese, Slovakian, Latvian and Romanian.

It would be great if you could mention in the comment section on the petition whether you were entitled to vote - we want everyone to have a voice, but we would also like to preempt any criticism and to be entirely open.

What is left to do at the moment? - to continue hopeful, to maintain solidarity, and to live our values of openness, tolerance and enthusiasm for the richness of cultures and dialogue.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016


source: wikipedia

The beginning of last week was, for me, comically awful.  I returned from a weekend in Germany to find that my bank card had been blocked for no apparent reason, my phone had over-heated and died, our boiler had leaked, destroyed the kitchen ceiling and flooded the kitchen, and a hedgehog had made its way into our sitting room, nested under the arm-chair and messed in every available corner including all over my son's toys.  The house stank of mould, hedgehog poo and tears of rage.

source: wikipedia

By mid-week, I had a nasty and painful allergic reaction on my face, which made the areas around my eyes swollen and burning.  By the time I made it to the out-of-hours doctor at the weekend, when it had become almost unbearable, the doctor opened the consultation by saying 'I suppose you want me to make you look beautiful' - how's that for stupid and sexist?

But on Friday, the comedy took a tragic turn with the results of the referendum.  I can't find anything to laugh about this.  I don't even know where to start in expressing my distress - what a future for us and our children...  The rise of racism and xenophobia; the exploitation of voters through misinformation; the social, generational and geographical divisions revealed in our own country; the sense of betrayal felt by so many of our European counterparts; the hand-rubbing of the European far-right; the diplomatic implications for European harmony.  I'm not even thinking about the economic consequences any longer - the catastrophe stretches beyond the economic as a set of ideals are fundamentally threatened.  But of course, the economic implications will be suffered most painfully by those who have already been cruelly done-down.  It all hurts so much.

I, and many many friends and colleagues, are sending a letter to major European newspapers tomorrow, expressing our deep distress and sadness; our continued hope; and our ongoing belief in the idea of Europe, whatever the outcome. We have built our lives around an idea and an ideal of Europe.  We will continue to allow this idea to shape our lives and our interactions.

Thursday, 12 May 2016


I don't think I could be called fashionable by any stretch of the imagination, but having new clothes is always a nice feeling - unless you let yourself think about suffering and exploitation which goes into so much clothing production and 'fast fashion' nowadays.  There are some lovely ethical brands (eg., but it's amazing that, on the whole, we are all so complacent about this issue.  Indifference and fashion go hand in hand - in many ways, apathy seems to be the prerequisite of fashion.

Dress by People Tree -

Tragedies in clothing production occur on a fairly regular basis (eg. the Rana Plaza disaster), quite apart from the daily misery of conditions in many factories - but fast fashion only needs to nod vaguely towards their responsibilities and most people seem to be satisfied.

I'm reading a lot of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century sermons at the moment (this is for my project on nostalgia in the fourteenth century).  It isn't a huge surprise to find the preachers  fulminating against contemporary fashions, revealing necklines, fancy jewellery and so on (usually with a good dose of misogyny thrown in) - in their view, the growing obsession with finery and fashion seemed to embody pride and avarice.  But I was a little more surprised to find their critique also turning to the implications of the production of this clothing.

The early fifteenth-century preacher, San Bernardino of Siena passionately told the crowd, 'were you to take one of these gowns and press it and wring it out, you would see, gushing out of it, a human being's blood.'

Most of San Bernardino's fiery rhetoric would do us little good today - quite the opposite - but on this issue, his combining of anger and compassion might stir us in the right direction.