The Burghers of Calais: a morality tale

In Victoria Gardens, London, outside the Palace of Westminster, stands a statue of six men: the Burghers of Calais. Unveiled a hundred years ago this summer, it is one of a dozen casts of Rodin’s original in Calais and commemorates a famous incident from the Hundred Years War, recorded by Jean Froissart in his Chronicles.

Rodin's Burghers of Calais

Froissart tells how the army of Edward III, king of England, had laid siege to Calais for almost a year. The French king had advanced to nearby Sangatte, then retreated. Peace efforts had failed. As supplies dwindled, six of Calais’ leading citizens – the so-called burghers or (in French) bourgeois – offered themselves as hostages in return for the lifting of the blockade.  The six (Eustache de Saint-Pierre, Jean d’Aire, Jacques de Wissant, Pierre de Wissant, Jean de Fiennes and André d’Ardre) left the town with its keys, expecting to go to their deaths. They were saved thanks to the intervention of Philippa of Hainault, queen of England, who begged the king to show mercy.

Rodin’s sculpture, unveiled in 1895, proved controversial. His burghers did not look heroic. He portrayed them as men might look after eleven months of siege – emaciated and drawn. This was not their moment of triumph, but a moment of doubt about their decision to face death. The commissioners of the work, Calais’ municipal council, were not entirely happy with Rodin’s innovative style, but that’s another story. (Read more about the artistic arguments here.)

Reading these past weeks about the desperate attempts of migrants in Calais to reach the UK reminded me of Rodin’s statue and Froissart’s story. Froissart’s story, because at its heart is something that has been badly lacking from most of the political debate on Calais and the ‘migrant crisis’ – mercy. Other people have documented far better than I can the appalling conditions from which the migrants in Calais have fled, and in which they now live. But I have yet to hear a British politician say that mercy is what is needed in the face of such human desperation. It is a sad thing indeed when medieval queens seem to have a better humanitarian instinct than twenty-first century politicos.

And I think of Rodin’s statue, well, because it’s in the back garden of the Palace of Westminster. I bet most MPs have done a TV interview within yards of it. Did they ever stop to think about who those starving, almost skeletal people in the statue were? Or what happened to them? Perhaps if they did, they might be a little more inclined to show mercy to people who are desperate enough to risk death.

Image by Patche99z used under a CC-BY-SA-3.0 licence.

Class, cuts, languages and academia

A couple of days ago on Twitter, Caroline Magennis asked the question ‘What are the challenges of being an academic from a less privileged background? Questions of ‘fitting in’ but also practical issues?’ Her tweet prompted numerous comments, which you can read on Storify.

I said that one big issue was access to language-learning, which got me thinking about the fact that my route to learning Italian as an adult has – in less than fifteen years – all but disappeared.

Back in 2001, when I first started thinking seriously about studying Italian history, I signed up for an Italian beginners class. It was held on Saturday mornings at a local further education college. Not any more. A quick look at the Lambeth College website shows that not only has that course disappeared, but also the GCSE and AS-Level courses I went on to take in subsequent years. The same is true of the vast majority of FE colleges, which now focus on what are supposedly more ‘vocational’ courses.

I could still go for the two-week language course I took in Rome in the summer of 2001. That comes in at €639.50 these days for lessons and accommodation, plus you need to add food and flights, so it’s likely to be a struggle for an indebted recent undergrad. (Fortunately I wasn’t particularly indebted, because I’m old enough to pre-date tuition fees… but that’s another story.) And besides, there’s only so much you can do with two weeks.

What really made the difference to my language skills was the overseas research allowance that used to be available alongside an AHRB/AHRC doctoral studentship. As a funded PhD student (I started in 2004), I was entitled to a grant for one overseas research trip of up to twelve months’ duration. The allowance for a year in Italy, which came on top of the standard PhD stipend, was £7,200. It sounds generous, and it was, but it served an important purpose of encouraging work in the humanities on non-Anglophone topics. It meant I could get on with research and not worry about money. I could afford twice-weekly one-to-one language lessons for the first six weeks, regular flights to visit my partner, the cost of storing my belongings in the UK, and lots of trips to archives around the country. And – not surprisingly after a year immersed in Italian – I came back to the UK with very good language skills that I’ve used in my academic work ever since.

But that opportunity has gone now. The overseas research allowance was scrapped with the switch to block grant funding, and instead doctoral students compete for whatever their local university can afford in terms of travel funds. Only a handful of well-off universities can now sustain their PhD students for more than a couple of months abroad: extensive work in foreign archives is becoming the preserve of a few.

The fact that these routes to language acquisition have been abolished means it’s even harder for students who didn’t have the advantage of learning, say, Latin or multiple modern languages at school to get into those areas of history that need languages. The language problem is partly an issue of social class, for sure. But it’s been exacerbated by cuts to both further and higher education in the past decade that make it harder than ever for people who didn’t start with language skills to catch up.

Greece: making a drama out of a crisis

Along with Neville Morley (who’s far more expert in these matters than I am), I’ve been playing a spot of historical bingo over the past few days. The Anglophone press has certainly had a field day with its Greek metaphors as the crisis has unfolded. I don’t want to trivialise the very very serious situation that now faces public services in Greece, and I’d encourage readers to join the protests (there’s one this evening in London) against more austerity and/or to donate to Medical Aid for Greece, which is helping to fill the gaps left by drastic cuts to the Greek health service. In return for which, feel free to entertain yourselves at the expense of global journalism as its practitioners try valiantly to squeeze in yet another classical metaphor to their coverage… This article from the Telegraph manages to get Thermopylae, Homer, Plato, Pericles and Aeschylus into the first three paragraphs. Class. Greece is like Sisyphus, proclaims Larry Elliott in the Guardian. USA Today manages the Battle of Marathon alongside Thermopylae. They’re clever people. Al-Arabiya has Greece sandwiched between Scylla and Charybdis. The Spectator discusses how Solon would have solved the Greek crisis. There are plenty of Pyrrhic victories. Not to mention a spot of Schadenfreude. Thanks, the FT. Got your own top clichés to add? Go ahead in the comments. Did you make that donation yet?

Five cities, seven years: my life post-PhD

It’s seven years today since I was awarded my PhD, and it’s also my last official day in the office at my current job. That’ll be the seventh job in seven years, the fifth city and the second country. In Year One I had two part-time teaching jobs (OU, Birkbeck) and a part-time academic-related role for the Kent & Medway Lifelong Learning Network. In Year Two I was a fellow at the British School at Rome; in Year Three I was a Max Weber Fellow at the EUI, near Florence. In Year Four I had a temporary lectureship at Durham; since Year Five I’ve been at Sheffield. Later this summer I’m off to a new role as Associate Professor in History & Heritage at Swansea.

In the conventional terms of academic ‘success’ (problematic though those are) I’ve done pretty well. The point is that this career track would have been close to impossible for anyone with caring responsibilities, or whose wellbeing relied on stability and routine. Five cities in seven years? This is not a good way to run things. But you know that. The first years of academic life are more than ever characterised by insecurity.

There are plenty of big political points to be made here, and I might write about them in future. But here, for what it’s worth, is the more personal advice I’d give to anyone who has to navigate the ‘early career’ world.

1. Bad things will happen. They are not your fault. Don’t fall into thinking ‘if only I’d got X on my CV it would all have been different’.

2. Not all the advice you will get is right. Do listen to what people tell you, but remember there is always more than one opinion and make up your own mind. Several people were sceptical about me writing a trade book (i.e., one for a general, not just academic readership), but I did it anyway, and it opened up a whole new set of opportunities for me. In particular, bear in mind that…

3. Times change. What was good advice in 2005 may not be so good any more. It’s worth watching trends in the job market. I managed to make my way into the sub-discipline of public history as universities began to recruit to this specialism, based on a few things I’d done in previous jobs plus that trade book. I know several colleagues who’ve tweaked CVs and shifted from western to global history, or into digital humanities specialisms.

4. Work out your strengths and play to them. There are certain basics that academics need to deliver: research, teaching, willingness to do the necessary admin. But within that try and work out what you do best, and what you enjoy, and make that ‘your thing’. My thing has turned out to be the writing and media stuff. Every so often, someone asks me, ‘should I write a trade book?’ The answer is, I don’t know. But if you enjoy writing, and you’re good at it (good enough that people compliment you on your writing), then it might be worth considering.

5. Join your union and get involved. The vast majority of positive things that have been done for junior staff have been thanks to the efforts of union activists. Warwick UCU helped stop the systematisation of casual employment through TeachHigher. On a more modest but still important note, Sheffield UCU has just secured the introduction of a new redeployment system that should make it easier for colleagues whose contracts are ending to move to new jobs within the institution. If we’re going to make a difference, it will be like this. Your union can also help you assert your full legal employment rights should this become necessary (but don’t leave it to the last minute to join: there’s usually a qualifying period). You can join UCU here.

6. Remember, there is more to life. I started my PhD age 29, having done lots of other things already. I’ve found that outside perspective really helpful (did you know, there are jobs out there where people don’t work ridiculous overtime?!) There are lovely things about academia, and most of the time I enjoy my job. But I also know that the system could work oh, so much better.

City number six, here I come.

Why a historian of Florence says #SaveHannibal

Well, I didn’t expect to be launching a new blog with a plea to save a favourite TV show, but there you go. I’d been writing something else about the history behind NBC’s Hannibal and its characters’ trip to Florence – and then NBC announced they were cancelling the show. I was not impressed.

It’s not often, as a historian, that I find a show on TV that does something really fun and creative with the history of its setting. This one’s an exception. To date Bryan Fuller’s TV spin on the characters from Thomas Harris’ books has given viewers a visually-stunning back-story to the first novel in the series, Red Dragon. As Season Three opens, popular culture’s favourite cannibal Dr Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) is on the run to Italy with his former psychiatrist Dr Bedelia DuMaurier (Gillian Anderson). His cover has been blown with the bloody finale to Season Two.

But Florence is not only a glamorous setting for a killer on the run. Hannibal is all about the co-existence of civilisation and evil. The series plays with the city’s historic reputation as a place of both beauty and bloodshed, where aesthetics outweigh ethics.

It’s an image of Renaissance Italy that was famously summed up by Orson Welles, improvising on the set of The Third Man:

Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

In Hannibal, talk quickly turns to Dante Alighieri (c. 1265-1321), one of the most important Italian poets of his age. Dante is most famous for his Divine Comedy, an account of his journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. Inferno, the first part of this work, is the source of more than one conceit in the series.

In what is known as the contrapasso, the punishment for sinners in Dante’s Hell often fits the crime. Schismatics, for example, find their bodies split open. Mason Verger, who in the second season schemed to feed people to his pigs, found himself feeding his own face to Will Graham’s dogs. He endured a Dantesque penalty.

In the Season Three opener, Dr Lecter puts down a critic by quoting the first sonnet from Dante’s Vita Nuova, with its striking image of a woman eating her lover’s heart. He goes on to lecture on the seventh circle of Dante’s Hell, home to suicides, and makes a throwaway reference to “chewing” elsewhere in the poem.

This is a nod to the punishment for traitors. In the final circle of Hell Satan has got his teeth into Brutus and Cassius (the assassins of Julius Caesar) and, of course, Judas. The same image appears in the spectacular mosaic ceiling of Florence’s Baptistery. “You really are the Devil,” says Abel Gideon (Eddie Izzard) to Hannibal, as the latter dishes up Gideon’s leg. He has a point.

Before Dante gets to that final circle, he hears the long and gruesome tale of Count Ugolino della Gherardesca, betrayer of Pisa to its enemies, who has been condemned to eat the back of his co-conspirator’s head ‘like a dog’. The Count was imprisoned with his own children, who pleaded with their father to save himself by eating them. Whether he did so or not, Dante leaves to the reader’s imagination.

Another Florentine historical reference to watch out for is the Pazzi conspiracy. Featured in Season Three of Hannibal is Italian police inspector Rinaldo Pazzi, whose name is no accident. The historical Pazzi were rivals of the Medici, Florence’s leading family. In 1478 they led a conspiracy to murder Lorenzo ‘the Magnificent’ and Giuliano de’ Medici at Mass in the city’s cathedral. The former escaped; the latter did not.

The conspirators were strung up from the Palazzo Vecchio. According to a famous account by scholar and poet Poliziano, as they struggled at the end of their ropes, one of them, Archbishop Francesco Salviati, sunk his teeth into the body of another, Francesco de’ Pazzi. The Pazzi reference sets up a parallel between Lorenzo, the celebrated Renaissance man, famed for his patronage of art and letters, and our anti-hero with his equally exquisite taste. (There’s another in-joke here: Lorenzo’s wife was called Clarice.)

You might have spotted by now that the most famous line of the Hannibal canon, memorably performed by Anthony Hopkins in the film Silence of the Lambs, alludes to two Florentine specialties: fava beans and Chianti.

The history of Florence – and the city as metaphor – has plenty still to offer today’s writers and film-makers. I really hope someone decides to #SaveHannibal and gives us a chance to see more.