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A Renaissance Royal Wedding

Lanisha Butterfield | 17 Apr 2018

Tomorrow, 18 April 2018, marks the 500th anniversary of one of history’s most iconic royal love stories: the marriage of the Italian Princess Bona Sforza to King Sigismund of Poland, Grand Duke of Lithuania.

In celebration, the Weston Library - part of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, is hosting the exhibition A Renaissance Royal Wedding. The display chronicles the unexpected union of the two royals from different cultures, and the Italian-Polish connections that developed as a result.

On 18 April 1518, the two were married in Cracow cathedral, Poland. Their lavish wedding was attended by dignitaries and scholars from across Christendomn. The relationship underpinned links of politics and kinship between the two countries, that evolved into a dynamic exchange of people, books and ideas which continued for decades, in a story still unfamiliar to many scholars and students of the sixteenth century.

An Italian ruler in her own right, Bona Sforza (1494-1557) was born a Milanese-Neapolitan princess and went on to be queen of Poland through marriage, before she became duchess of Bari, Puglia in 1524. By contrast, King Sigismund (1467-1548) was the scion of a large royal house which, at its peak (c. 1525), ruled half of Europe, from Prague to Smolensk. Their five children – who later ruled in Poland-Lithuania, Sweden and Hungary - presented themselves throughout their lives as Polish-Italian royalty. To this day, Queen Bona Sforza remains a high-profile - if controversial, figure in Polish history.

The Bodleian exhibition showcases Oxford’s exceptional collections relating to early modern Poland and Italy. Highlights include, Queen Bona Sforza’s own prayer-book – very rarely displayed in the UK. The book is a tiny treasure of Central European manuscript illumination, painted by the Cracow master and monk Stanisław Samostrzelnik, and decorated throughout with her Sforza coat of arms. Other objects in the display include an account of Bona’s bridal journey across Europe (the first book ever printed in Bari), a Ferraran medal of Bona from the Ashmolean’s collections, and early 16th-century orations, chronicles and verse produced in both Cracow and Naples testifying to the Italian-Jagiellonian connection.

The display, curated by Natalia Nowakowska and Katarzyna Kosior, of Oxford’s History Faculty, is part of a European Research Council (ERC) funded project, entitled Jagiellonians: Dynasty, Memory and Identity in Central Europe. To accompany the display, a public lecture and international conference on Renaissance royal weddings, with speakers from 13 countries, will be held over the coming weeks at the University (dates tbc).

A Renaissance Royal Wedding is running at the Weston Library, Broad Street, Oxford, until May 13 2018


JRR Tolkien and Susan Cooper; CS Lewis and Diana Wynne Jones. Oxford will always be associated with the greats of fantasy writing – and now the genre is being placed centre stage, courtesy of a new University-run summer school that will allow members of the public to explore this often-overlooked branch of literature.

Titled 'Here Be Dragons', the summer school will run from 11-13 September and is also aimed at prospective Oxford students with an interest in the fantasy genre.

Academics from Oxford's Faculty of English and invited speakers will present a series of talks on the history of fantasy literature, the major writers, and cross-cutting themes.

Organiser Dr Stuart Lee, from Oxford's Faculty of English, said: 'Oxford is the natural home for a summer school on fantasy literature. Many of the great British writers taught or studied here, and the English Faculty is building up an international research profile in the genre.

'If you are interested in fantasy literature – where it came from, what inspired the major writers, how to study it – then this is the school for you.'

The registration fee for the summer school (£200, or £150 for students) covers attendance and catering. For further information, see the full programme or the booking page.

The summer school coincides with a major free exhibition running throughout the summer at the Bodleian Libraries, titled Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth.

The exhibition explores Tolkien's legacy, from his genius as an artist, poet, linguist and author to his academic career and private life. Visitors will be taken on a journey through Tolkien's most famous works, The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings, encountering an array of draft manuscripts, striking illustrations and maps drawn for his publications. Objects on display include Tolkien's early abstract paintings, the touching tales he wrote for his children, rare objects that belonged to Tolkien, exclusive fan mail, and private letters.

The exhibition runs from 1 June to 28 October.


In a guest post for Arts BlogKatrin Kohl, Professor of German Literature and Lead Researcher on the Creative Multilingualism research project, writes about recent calls for all British citizens to be able to speak English.

Should we be for or against British citizens having to be able to speak English? What makes a British artist sing in Cornish when she could be communicating so much more usefully in English – not only the lingua franca of England and the British Isles, but a language that's now spoken and sung across the world? Why is the Irish language such a politicised issue when some claim that there are now more Polish than Irish speakers in Northern Ireland? And where do users of sign language fit into these debates?

The fact is this: the UK has always been, and will remain, multilingual. And this is no more incompatible with everyone being able to speak English in the UK than it would be in India. Many people switch between different languages every day, and we all, at the very least, keep different linguistic registers in play as we move between different spheres and groups of people at home, at work or at school.

Louise Casey recently asserted that the UK should set a date for everyone to speak English. She's surely not wrong when she argues that additional funding should be provided for fostering English language skills, or that building linguistic bridges between communities can promote integration. But integration isn't helped by imposing a single language top-down or assuming that diversity is best eradicated. Languages are neither confined to what is useful nor just about what the majority speaks – we need look no further than the establishment of Welsh as an official language of the UK to appreciate this fact.

Languages are about lives, as the production of Gwenno Saunders' Cornish album shows us. While her linguistic heritage may be unique (with a Cornish poet and a Welsh language activist as parents), she's not alone in being able to draw on diverse languages as a personal treasure trove. All across the UK, people cherish the languages that are part of their heritage or that they have come into contact with in other, often very individual ways. Communities pass on their languages in religious practice, supplementary schools and cultural events, and individuals make something linguistically new from cross-cultural marriages and culturally diverse school environments. A language is a special emotional resource, a voice within which embodies memories of conversations with loved (and hated) ones past and present.

This personal, emotional dimension of languages has been sidelined in the way foreign languages have come to be taught in the UK – if the value of knowing a language is reduced to its practical function, it becomes unclear why we should bother with the hard graft of learning a new language when we can make ourselves understood in English. By the same token, it then seems sufficient to promote English as the sole passport to global success, whatever other languages children might already be familiar with. Many children are made to feel ashamed of knowing another language, and some schools indeed prohibit their speaking anything other than English on the assumption that they are thereby doing the children a favour – English is imposed as part of a lifelong school uniform.

Fortunately, many schools instead embrace the multilingualism of their students, enable them to take qualifications in their home languages, and allow them to discover their own linguistic resources in creative writing that extends beyond linguistic boundaries. Creative Multilingualism has been working with Oxford Spires Academy and with Haggerston School in Hackney to find out how children respond to exploring new language spaces. Modern foreign languages can be taught as part of that process and in interaction with it. This fosters a spirit of community that isn't confined to a single language, but characterised by shared variety and enhanced understanding of the potential that linguistic diversity holds for us all: each language is a subtly different window on to the world and a different link with other groups of people. As a preparation for life in an increasingly global world, this is hard to beat.

The UK rightly takes pride in its exuberantly diverse creative talent, but there's currently little appreciation of the ways in which languages enrich the country's creative identity. The UK music scene isn't just culturally and ethnically tremendously diverse, but linguistically too. Take Punch Records, a company set up to work with emerging Black British and British Asian artists who have grown up in urban contexts where varieties of English routinely mingle with other languages. The Slanguages exhibition project serves to showcase hip-hop, grime and rap as multilingual forms with a political edge. Birmingham school playgrounds have here served as seedbeds for adventurous modes of communication that offer exciting scope for developing new rhythms, speech forms and gestural language.

The UK's extraordinarily varied linguistic heritage is an invaluable national resource. At a time when the country wants to project itself as being more than Little Britain, and more than a country on the edge of Europe, it makes sense to value all those languages that have entered the UK over the decades, centuries and indeed millennia. Each of them has left its audible traces in the population, and together they open up a multitude of living pathways to other parts of the world. We might as well celebrate our flourishing abundance of languages – they're certainly not likely to go away.

Creative Multilingualism is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of the Open World Research Initiative.

Mind-Boggling Medical History

1) Eating too many bananas makes you grow more body hair by increasing levels of potassium.

2) Maggots are used in hospitals to clean infected wounds.

3) Excessive cycling can cause permanent damage to the muscles in the face.

Look at the statements above. One refers to current medical thinking, one is an idea from the past, and one has been made up entirely. But which is which (answers below)?

These are just some of the weird and wonderful statements put to people who play Mind-Boggling Medical History, a game developed by Oxford's Dr Sally Frampton and colleagues, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Mind-Boggling Medical History is an educational game designed to challenge preconceptions about history and show how ideas in medicine change for a variety of reasons. From floating kidneys and wandering wombs to transplanted heads and dogs that detect diseases, the game challenges players to look at a series of statements and decide which concern current medical practice, which are based on historical ideas or practices no longer used, and which have been, well, made up.

Players can choose from a number of rounds related to different medical themes, including sex and reproduction, animals, mind, and treatment. A physical card pack is available to those working in education, nursing, public engagement and museums, and an online version is freely available to all.

The game draws on the interdisciplinary work of the Constructing Scientific Communities project, led by Professor Sally Shuttleworth of Oxford’s Faculty of English, which explores the concept of citizen science in the 19th and 21st centuries.

Dr Frampton said: 'Mind-Boggling Medical History originated as a public engagement activity for museum events. Because it had such a positive reception, we decided to apply for Arts and Humanities Research Council funding to help develop the game into a more sophisticated learning resource designed to aid critical thinking.

'The game is aimed at school students, nursing and medical undergraduate students, and museum visitors. Our collaboration with the Royal College of Nursing has been a really important part of the project and has helped us explore how the game might be used by healthcare students to get them thinking about the ways medical knowledge and scientific evidence change over time.

'Through the game we have tried to build on the objective of the Constructing Scientific Communities project of enhancing understanding of public engagement with medicine and science. We hope it will also show how historical facts and theories can be used to prompt questions about current understandings of medicine and science.'

Answers: (1) Fictional; (2) Present; (3) Past.

George Orwell Square

Two of Oxford's early-career academics have been chosen among this year's New Generation Thinkers by the BBC and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

The scheme gives researchers with a passion for communication a platform to share their ideas with a wider audience via BBC Radio 3 and other outlets.

Representing Oxford this year are theologian Dr Dafydd Mills Daniel and English scholar Dr Lisa Mullen. They are the latest in a total of ten Oxford academics who have been selected as New Generation Thinkers since the first cohort was announced in 2011.

Dr Daniel is researching Sir Isaac Newton the committed Christian and alchemist, while Dr Mullen is working on a monograph looking at the work of George Orwell through the lens of his complex medical history, examining how his experience of being a patient influenced his political thought and use of language.

Dafydd DanielDr Dafydd Mills Daniel (AHRC / Steven Haywood Photography)

Dr Daniel is the McDonald Departmental Lecturer in Christian Ethics in Oxford's Faculty of Theology and Religion, as well as a theology lecturer at Jesus College. He said: 'I was absolutely thrilled to have been chosen as one of this year's New Generation Thinkers. To go to the BBC and to talk to producers and representatives from the AHRC about making arts and humanities programmes was an incredible experience.

'I am particularly keen to highlight what it means to study theology. Theology is a number of things, and one of those things is the opportunity to study a range of subjects, from languages, ancient texts and the rich tapestry of diverse religious traditions, to ethics, philosophy of religion, and the history of ideas.

'As a New Generation Thinker, my research concerns Sir Isaac Newton. Not Newton the rational man of science, who is often regarded as the founder of the secular age, but Newton the committed Christian, who was also an alchemist – staying up all night in his laboratory attempting to discover the philosopher's stone, which would turn ordinary metal into gold. I find the interplay between Newton the scientist, alchemist and theologian a compelling subject for research in itself. It also crosses over into wider areas of my academic work, which concern the history and development of such ethical and philosophical concepts as "reason" and "conscience" from the 17th and 18th centuries into the modern day.'

Dr Mullen, the Steven Isenberg Junior Research Fellow at Worcester College, said: 'It's a huge honour to be chosen, and I can't wait to get started. Communicating ideas is a key part of being an effective researcher, and the feedback and advice I've already had from people at the BBC and the AHRC has been really useful.

Dr Lisa MullenDr Lisa Mullen (AHRC / Steven Haywood Photography)

'Like most academics, I’m always happy to talk about my particular area of research and why I find it fascinating, but the New Generation Thinkers award is an opportunity to plug into all kinds of different cultural conversations, and to think about how my work intersects with broader questions and debates. Questions about language, knowledge, power, the value of literature – these are all things that really got Orwell going, and they are just as urgent now as they were in the first half of the 20th century.'

The ten New Generation Thinkers for 2018 were selected after a nationwide search for the best academic ideas with the potential to be shared through the media. The winners will now have the opportunity to make programmes for BBC Radio 3 and other outlets, as well as contributing to wider media through the AHRC. In addition, the scheme partners with BBC Four, where some of the selected academics will be given the opportunity to present a programme for TV.

Alan Davey, Controller of BBC Radio 3, said: 'Radio 3's mission is to connect our audiences with pioneering music and culture, and since its launch in 2010, the New Generation Thinkers has been a central part of this. The scheme has supported and nurtured some extraordinary academic talent, giving the broadcasters of tomorrow a platform through which to present their fascinating and thought-provoking research to our listeners, and I can't wait to hear what ideas these ten exciting thinkers will bring to us in the coming year.'

Professor Andrew Thompson, Chief Executive of the AHRC, said: 'This scheme is all about helping the next generation of academics to find new and wider audiences for their research by giving them a platform to share their ideas and allowing them to have the space to challenge our thinking. The New Generation Thinkers scheme is also one of the AHRC's major vehicles for engaging the public with the inspiring research taking place across the UK. More than ever we need the new insights and knowledge that come from arts and humanities researchers to help us navigate through the complexities of our globalised world and address the moral and ethical challenges of today and tomorrow.'