Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Meet Professor Christiana Payne, Lecturer in the School of History, Philosophy and Culture.

I’ve been interested in landscape painting for a long time. I very much enjoy walking in the country, visiting mountains or coastal areas, looking at clouds, sunsets and sunrises, and seeing how the seasons change. So it seems natural to me to take an interest in those artists from the past (and present) who have recorded their impressions of these places and effects.

My most recent project has been on trees in British art from 1760 to 1870.  The idea came to me from a combination of looking and reading. I saw an exhibition (in Edinburgh) of watercolours by the eighteenth-century artist Paul Sandby, including some amazing pictures of beech trees, and at about the same time (on a holiday in Suffolk) I read a book by the nature writer, Roger Deakin, entitled Wildwood: A Journey through Trees.  I realized that here was a new topic, which, surprisingly, had never been treated systematically before. Moreover, it had definite popular appeal.

I knew that some of my favourite artists had devoted a lot of attention to drawing and painting trees – Samuel Palmer, John Constable and Edward Lear. What I didn’t realize when I started was there were some beautiful illustrated books on trees published in my chosen period – and lots of drawing manuals. Evidently, amateurs and artists were drawing trees like mad at this time, getting to know the attributes of the different species and trying to express their ‘character’ as if they were human subjects.

 John Constable, Elm Trees in Old Hall Park, East Bergholt (1817).  © Victoria and Albert Museum, London 

The research has given me a new view of British landscape painting – one in which drawing is as important as painting.  It has taken me to see watercolours and drawings in public collections, especially the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. I’ve enjoyed looking at old books in the Bodleian Library. And I’ve also travelled to see actual trees – the very ancient ones, that were depicted in the eighteenth century and still survive today, such as the Tortworth Chestnut in Gloucestershire, the Ankerwycke Yew, near the spot where Magna Carta was signed, and the Bowthorpe Oak in Lincolnshire. In some cases they look exactly like the ‘portraits’ that were made of them in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries.

There is something mystical about these huge old trees, and in the eighteenth century people wrote openly of ‘worshipping’ them. They believed that their forefathers – the Druids - had worshipped God in groves, before the building of cathedrals whose architecture mimicked the forms of the forest.  They recorded the many popular superstitions that gave magical power to trees.

I find that my work gets favourable reactions, because so many people love trees. I had my own favourite trees as a child – an old horse chestnut on which I had a rope swing, and a group of beeches whose roots were intertwined. I once found some money amongst the roots of these beech trees – which then became know in my family as the ‘leprechaun trees’. Now that I live in Oxford I very much enjoy getting to know individual trees in the street, in the local park, and even on the Brookes campus – there is a magnificent oak between the Tonge and Gibbs buildings that I visit regularly.

Samuel Palmer, In a Shoreham Garden (c. 1830) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London  

Attitudes to trees have been affected by social and political change. Eighteenth-century paintings show humble cottages nestling in the shelter of ancient oaks; by the mid-nineteenth century they depict middle-class visitors picnicking in the woods. Views of landed estates make way for pictures that celebrate public woodland, open to all. Different species rose and fell in popular estimation: oaks acquired special status because they provided the main material for wooden ships, but in the mid-nineteenth century the beech woods were especially loved as places to escape the summer heat of the cities.

Trees purify the air, they hold on to soil to prevent flooding, they provide havens for wildlife. And much recent research shows that they are vital to human wellbeing. So there is a direct link between the perception of trees in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the issues that face us today.

I’m delighted to have been awarded a Research Excellence Award by the University – this will enable me to focus on sharing the results of my research with a wider audience.  I am curating an exhibition at the Higgins Art Gallery and Museum, Bedford, and will also be working with the National Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum on activities and resources for visitors.

Monday, 20 March 2017

The 'Alien' Royal Myth

In 1917, at the height of the First World War, George V renamed the royal family from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor . The name ‘Windsor’ was suggested by his Private Secretary, Lord Stamfordham, who discovered that Edward III was known as ‘Edward of Windsor’ before he became king. At the same time a number of royal German cousins were also naturalised, the Battenburg family was renamed as Mountbatten, the Teck family became the Cambridges. To mark the centenary of the founding of the House of Windsor, Channel 5 has commissioned ‘Inside Windsor Castle’ and Channel Four has screened ‘The Royal House of Windsor.’ Both featured familiar and well-worn myths the royals about the German antecedents of the House of Windsor; myths that are in need of a long overdue debunking.

The Royal Family is German.
One of these myths is that the royal family is German. Well it is in origin, but there was never a German monarch. The usual claim for the royals being German is that in 1714 George of Hanover became King, and he was a German. And in 1840 Queen Victoria married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who was German. But in neither case were they German by the time they arrived in Britain. In 1705, the Princess Sophia Naturalisation Act laid down that Sophia, and all her descendants, were naturalised British subjects. It was her son who inherited the throne in 1714. Similarly in 1840 Prince Albert gave up his Coburg status and was, also by act of parliament, naturalised as a British subject.

In fact George I (r. 1714-1727) and George II (r. 1727-1760) were the last kings to have lived for any time in Germany. George III famously said: ‘born and educated in this country I glory in the name of Briton.’ So the idea that the royal family is German, or was for over a century and a half, is an illusion.

They Spoke with German Accents
Well George I and George II did and Prince Albert did. But the others did not. Why would they? George IV, William IV, Queen Victoria, Edward VII and George V were all brought up and educated in Britain. But this is a stubborn myth. In reviewing ‘The Royal House of Windsor’ in February 2017 in The Daily Telegraph, the journalist Harry Mount wrote of Queen Mary that she was ‘of German stock … speaking with a marked German accent all her life.’[1] Queen Mary was certainly ‘of German stock’ –her father was Prince Frederick of Teck- but she had a British mother (Princess Mary of Cambridge) and was brought up in Britain. Moreover recordings of Queen Mary survive, such as her Empire Day speech in 1923, which demonstrate that she clearly did not speak with a German accent.[2] This is a myth that has been repeated so often that it is sometimes assumed to be true.

The ‘alien’ view of the royal family has a long lineage. Saxons complained about Norman invaders, Tudors were derided as Welsh upstarts and the Stuarts regarded as Scottish interlopers. But the real alien myth began in 1714 when George I succeeded Queen Anne, who died without heirs. Jacobites, who favoured the restoration of the Catholic Stuart family from France, emphasised George of Hanover’s foreignness as a way of undermining his legitimacy. One writer questioned whether, as a Lutheran, he could become king as he had not been baptised by an episcopal chaplain (in fact it was soon shown that he had been). But the commonest myth was that the House of Hanover were very distant cousins of Queen Anne and had only a tenuous claim to the throne. The myth grew up that there were dozens of people more closely related to Queen Anne but had been debarred from the throne because they were Catholic (because the Act of Settlement of 1701 debarred Catholics from succeeding). This is a myth that has survived to the present day. In 2014, on the three hundredth anniversary of the Hanoverian succession of 1714, there was some coverage of the event on BBC radio programmes. Two historians made the claim that in 1714, when Queen Anne died, there were fifty people more closely related to her who were debarred from the throne because they were Catholics, so the throne passed to George of Hanover because he was a Protestant. Could there really have been fifty people closer to Queen Anne who had been excluded by the Act of Settlement? It sounded unlikely to me. So I worked my way through the genealogical tables to try to find if this was true. There wasn’t fifty or even fifteen people, there were six. I made the evidence available on the History of Parliament website.[3] 

There are all sorts of ways in which royals are different from us, but foreignness is not one of them, however it’s a myth that takes a long time to die.

By Professor William Gibson, Director of The Oxford Centre for Methodism and Church History

[1] Harry Mount, ‘From German dynasty to the UK’s first family’, Daily Telegraph features, 22 February 2017.
[2] (accessed 25 February 2017)
[3] [1] (accessed 25 February 2017)

Image: The text of the Princess Sophia Naturalisation Act, 1705

Friday, 17 March 2017

Dragons in Human Form

In a number of witch trials and folkloristic source we encounter a mysterious magical being called dragon (“Drache” in German żmij,” in Polish, “pūķis” in Latvian, “aitvaras” in Lithuanian) that brought witches money, butter or grain. Usually, this kind of dragon was imagined as a flying snake or a streak of fire that quickly flew over the dark night sky.

Modern picture of an ativaras or Lithuanian dragon

The dragon was supposed to be a shapeshifter. In folkloristic sources, it sometimes appears as a chicken and changes into a snake-like form later on. I would like to thank the renowned Latvian folklorist Dr Toms Ķencis who generously shared some of the results of his research with me. He alerted me to Latvian folkloristic sources that suggest that the witch herself could turn into a dragon and steal produce from her neighbours in that form.

In witch trials, the dragon is identified as a demon. In a minority of early modern sources referring to witches and dragons, the dragon is said to be capable of assuming human form. In a Saxon witch trial from 1536, the culprit confessed that the dragon came to her every Thursday. It brought her butter, cheese and money. The dragon assumed the outward shape of a handsome young man. They ate together and had sex. 

This idea seems to have been widespread in Eastern Germany: in 16th century Saxony, “Drachenhure” (dragon’s whore) was a common insult. In 1652, a woman from Saxon Fichtenberg claimed to have had a strange vision: She had seen a dragon in the sky that had sex with various women from her neighbourhood. Even though the contemporaries were willing to accept the existence of dragons in principle, this story was too outrageous. It did not cause a witch hunt; state and church officials chose to ignore it.

At first glance, the dragon as a shapeshifter reminds us of the medieval Sigurd tales that feature Fafnir, a shapeshifter who turned himself into a dragon in order to defend his treasure. However, the early modern sources talk about completely different issues and originated in a totally different social context.

Arthur Rackham’s Fafnir

The idea that the dragon appears in human form and has intercourse with the witch was probably suggested by demonology. Demonology interpreted every type of magic as witchcraft and most spirits as demons in disguise. The witchcraft doctrine suggested that the spirits of hell took on human form and had sex with their disciples, the witches. These elements were simply added to the dragon beliefs of folk culture.

One of the reasons why the witchcraft doctrine was so influential was its flexibility and its integrative power. It managed to include various bits of folk belief into a new coherent system and thereby provided an explanation for all of them: The witchcraft doctrine suggested that all the innumerable spirits beings of folk belief were simply demons. This explanation not only bridged the huge gaps between various kinds of spirits and all the local and regional traditions of spirit beliefs, it also made these beliefs absolutely compatible with learned demonology and vice versa.

By Johannes Dillinger, Professor in History, among whose many research interests are the history of Witchcraft, Magic, and Folk Religion.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Meet Dr Hannah Yelin, Lecturer in the school of Communication, Media and Culture.

Why did you choose celebrity memoirs as the object of your research?

In terms of high and low culture, ghost-written celebrity memoirs are often treated like they’re the absolute bottom of the pile. But if we take time to examine the genre properly, it has a lot to tell us about society, fame and even ourselves. Within these books, famous women tell us their story, in their ‘own words’. However, it is an open secret that constellations of ghost writers, management and market forces orbit these texts, undermining their promises that we can access the ‘real’ woman behind the celebrity image. As a result, the ghost-written memoir inhabits a complex grey area between biography, autobiography, fact and fiction.

Why does it matter if they’re ghost-written?

Looking at who ghost-writes and how both offers a fascinating peek ‘behind the scenes’ at the mechanics of fame-making and raises important political questions. For example, bestselling memoirs sold as the ‘true’ experiences of women are often co-authored by men. This is especially important to think about when the co-authored memoirs narrate stories of surviving sexual abuse as in the memoirs of celebrities Jenna Jameson and Pamela Anderson. This suggests that it is important we consider what power dynamics might lie in the construction of these texts and how that might shape the way stories are told.

What is the wider relevance of celebrity memoir?

In the process of examining memoir I get to interrogate values of contemporary society and the way that women are coaxed to perform certain roles. Memoirs are a particularly good example showing how that happens, especially when we consider how they are ghost-written. Looking at the conventions of this genre tells us about the space permitted to public women to tell their own stories. The contradictions of agency in self-representation shown in celebrity memoir can tell us about the wider contradictory demands that structure femininity in general.

What do you mean by contradictions of agency in self-representation?

Memoirs offer a certain amount of power to public women who wish to intervene in the kinds of stories that circulate around them in a media landscape largely populated by unauthorised exposés. This is important when we consider how much women’s stories have historically been erased. But memoirs also reveal the limitations that structure the way that women are permitted to represent themselves.

What is a Research Excellence Award and what will you do with yours?

I have been lucky enough to receive funding from the university which I will be using to write my book and organise a series of events. The working title of the book is Subjectivity for Sale: the Gender Politics of Ghosted Celebrity Memoir. The events will be called the Celebrity Culture Club and they will bring together academics and people working in the media to discuss the urgent questions of the day relating to celebrity culture.

Monday, 6 March 2017

The Dragon as a Household Spirit: What does it look like?

In a number of witch trials we encounter the idea that a mysterious magical being called dragon (Drache in German) brought witches money, butter or grain. The dragon simply spat out money, milk or other goods when it had reached the house of its master or its mistress. 

A modern picture of the dragon as a household spirit by Měrćin Nowak-Njechorński: The demonic being has turned into a fairy tale character. 

The belief in the dragon explained – though in an entirely negative way - why some householders had more produce or more money than others.
It is surprising that a number of people in early modern Eastern Germany, the west Slavic areas or the Baltic actually claimed to have seen a dragon. They said that they had observed a dragon flying over the night sky. This is even more remarkable because almost nobody ever claimed to have seen a witch flying on broomstick.

People usually described the dragon as a ball of fire with a long fiery tale that moved very quickly over the dark sky. At least in witch trials, none of the witnesses mentioned that the dragon had any wings. It was said to have a big head - like a stag or a cow as a Saxon witch trial from 1652 had it. A little later in the same trial record, a witnesses explained that the dragon has a “thick front like a tub but its rear is thin and fiery.” In a Bavarian witch trial from 1699 a witness said that the dragon had “a black pointy head. It was the size of a large man, the upper half as black as coal and tar, but fiery downwards.” In other trials the witnesses agreed that the dragon looked like a flying fiery pole that threw sparks.

At least from the middle of the seventeenth century onwards, scientists explained the dragon sightings as meteorites. Of course, this explanation made no impression on the village level or in the court room. It is not enough for historians to explain the belief in the dragon as a somewhat quaint though entirely wrong interpretation of a natural phenomenon. The social context matters. Witnesses in witch trials said time and again that they had not only seen the dragon flying over the night sky, they claimed that it had flown into the house of a certain person, sometimes through a window, sometimes through the chimney. Any person who was said to receive visits from a dragon was supposed to be a witch. In the words of a witness of a Bavarian witch trial from 1670: “The Drache had come flying often and at various times into the house of the defendant’s father and thus the general suspicion had been voiced that the culprit could not be free of witchcraft.” Thus, sightings of dragons could lead to accusations of witchcraft.

We may safely assume that at first people who seemed to do better than their neighbors attracted some negative attention. Their economic success invited suspicions of witchcraft. These suspicions made the villagers ‘see’ the dragon fly into the house of alleged witches.

Professor Johannes Dillinger, Professor in History, among whose many research interests are the history of  Witchcraft, Magic, and Folk Religion.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Dragons and the Magical Worldview of Pre-Modern Eastern Europe

I’m currently working with primary sources about a very special and very helpful kind of dragon. This kind of dragon is not the medieval monsters that we encounter in ‘Beowulf’ or the various versions of the Sigurd / Siegfried tale. Early modern German, Baltic and Slavic folklore knew spirits in the shape of flying fiery snakes called dragon (“Drache” in German or “Żmij” in Polish). In contrast to the monstrous dragons of medieval epics, they were small household spirits that acknowledged a magician as their master. The dragon allegedly flew into its master’s house and brought him money or goods that could be used directly or sold like grain or milk. All the goods the dragon allegedly brought to its master it had stolen from somebody else.

The dragon was the embodiment of transfer magic. This is why I am interested in dragons! We still know much too little about the economic aspects of magic. Studying witch trials that mention dragons could help us to gain a deeper understand of the magical worldview and the relevance of magic in pre-modern everyday life.

By combining historical and folkloristic sources we can identify that the belief in the dragon as a household spirit was well-known in a huge area roughly between what is today northern Bavaria and Latvia. There is perhaps a 'natural' explanation for the phenomena. A number of people claimed to have seen a dragon flying over the night sky like a ball of fire with a long fiery tail. Sightings of comets might have contributed to the belief in dragons.

But what is fascinating for me, is that most sources mentioning dragons are trial records from witch trials. They date from the 16th and 17th centuries. Interestingly, the dragons seem to play a  more prominent part in the early trials of the 16th century. Owners of dragons were said to be in league with the devil; the dragon itself was – in accordance with the Biblical use of the word ‘dragon’ - identified as a demon. Owning a dragon was a common accusation brought against men and women suspected of witchcraft. In the Eastern parts of Germany the dragon features rather prominently in witch trials. In the West, it doesn’t seem to appear at all. Therefore, we may safely assume that the belief in the dragon as a household spirit originated in Eastern Europe, possibly in connection with the custom to keep snakes as pets. 

It seems that the belief in dragons bringing money did not become extinct in the 18th century when the witch trials slowly petered out. We find numerous tales about such dragons in Silesian folk legends collected in the 19th century. Some time ago, I talked to a colleague who grew up in Lusatia (southeast of today’s Saxony), the home of the ethnic group of the Sorbs and a region where German and West Slavic culture mingle and thus create a unique and very colourful folklore. He told me that as a boy he still heard tales about the dragons. 

Of course, people did not take them seriously anymore. Yet, if you wanted to denounce a neighbouring village as primitive and backward, you said:
The women there still have a dragon.
By Johannes Dillinger, Professor in History, among whose many research interests are the history of  Witchcraft, Magic, and Folk Religion.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Arnolfini Gothic

One of America’s most famous residents has just arrived in Britain, happily unaccompanied by petitions for and against.  Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic has made a rare trip across the Atlantic to star in the Royal Academy’s much anticipated new show, ‘America after the Fall:Painting in the 1930s.’ 

Even if you’ve never seen the painting in its usual home in the Art Institute of Chicago you are likely to recognise it – Wood’s 1930 painting is perhaps the most reproduced of all American artworks, and certainly the most parodied, even making a guest appearance in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Just write American Gothic into your search engine to see the weird and wonderful variants that come up.

So what is it that makes American Gothic so compelling?  Not, I think, its execution; if I am remembering correctly from my student days in Chicago Wood’s neat but plain brushwork makes this one of the rare cases of a great artwork which is not much more impressive in the flesh than it is in reproduction. What makes American Gothic special is, rather, its combination of utterly lucid design and immensely striking subject matter, both qualities which work as well in reproduction as in the original. Wood’s picture is perfectly balanced, the care with which it is constructed epitomised by the alliterative echoes between the shapes of the pitchfork, the pattern on the man’s dungarees, the gothic window and the cactus on the porch.

And then there is the subject matter, so oddly fascinating that the image, once seen, is impossible to forget.  ‘Haunting’ and ‘uncanny’ are two of the words most often applied to American Gothic and uncanny is perhaps the one that fits it best – uncanny in Freud’s sense of something which is at once both utterly familiar and unfathomably strange. The couple seem so ordinary, so commonplace, and yet there is also something disturbing about them, about their long, pinched, expressionless faces, the hint of threat in the sharp tines of the fork, the overtones of religious repression lent by that improbable gothic window. The very title, American Gothic, suggests that dark themes of the sort explored in ‘gothick’ fiction might be lurking beneath the respectable facade.

Perhaps there is something else, too, which contributes to the uncanniness of the picture, something which might resonate with particular force for a British audience. It is well-known that Wood painted American Gothic shortly after a trip to Munich in which he became fascinated by fifteenth-century Flemish paintings. On his return to America he started to apply the precise brushwork, neat drawing and meticulous imitation of appearances he had seen in these works to his Iowan subjects. These traits are highly developed in American Gothic, and the word ‘gothic’ would itself have evoked the medieval world to which these Flemish painters were then thought to belong. Wood even borrowed actual compositions from his Flemish predecessors.  It is one of these borrowings, often noticed but insufficiently explored, which, I believe, helps to lend American Gothic its unique flavour.

I do not know whether Wood saw Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait in the National Gallery in London during his trips to Europe. However, he must surely have known the work in reproduction, and it seems to me highly likely that he conceived American Gothic as an updating not just of early Netherlandish art in general, but of the Arnolfini Portrait in particular.


Placed side-by-side, we might first be struck as much by the differences between the two paintings as by their similarities.  Wood’s couple are outside, they are bare-headed, and the man stands on the right. But the more we look the stronger the echoes become. In both cases the couples, symmetrically arranged, stand on either side of a glass artefact which seems to bear immense significance, the gothic window in American Gothic, the convex mirror in the Arnolfini Portrait. Mr Arnolfini’s raised right hand is echoed by the pitchfork in the male farmer’s hand, while the spikey verticality of the fork itself has its equivalent in the Arnolfini’s chandelier.  Meanwhile, the still-life detail of the oranges on the Arnolfini’s windowsill is situated in exactly the same place in the composition as the cactus on the porch in American Gothic.  In both pictures the man looks out at us while the woman looks more askance, and in both the woman wears a belted dress and has her hair tightly combed. In both pictures the man’s face is unusually long and lugubrious. It even seems possible to me that Wood chose his male model, actually his dentist, for his passing resemblance to Mr Arnofini.

Once we’ve got our eye in, even the deviations from the original start to seem like deliberate comments on the differences between modern Iowan farmers and fifteenth-century European merchants.  The plain clothes and simple surroundings of the Americans are in stark contrast to the sumptuous costumes and costly possessions flaunted by the Arnolfinis. The Protestantism of the former is asserted as strongly by the chapel-like window of their house as the Catholicism of the Arnolfinis is asserted by the rosary beads on their wall and the scenes of Christ’s Passion around their mirror.  And the sensuality of Mrs Arnolfini’s body (she looks pregnant but her shape was probably meant to indicate her youth and beauty) is so very much more pronounced than that of the flat-chested, strait-laced farmer’s wife.

These differences and similarities make me think that in American Gothic Grant Wood was attempting not so much to copy the Arnolfini Portrait as to make a modern version of it.  Is it mere coincidence that the titles of the two works (the Van Eyck was then as now known as the Arnolfini Portrait) contain the same pattern of syllables and start with the same letter?  As the two works are now situated just a short walk from each other in London, it will be fascinating to see if they are as similar as I think they might be.

By Dr Harry Mount, Programme Lead in the History of Art and History