The first month of CMRS has seen us occupied with writing a 6,000 word research paper on a topic of our choice. And until the evening of October 9th, that paper has occupied about half of my working time (I’ve also been preparing applications for the Rhodes and Marshall Scholarships, as well as various graduate programs in the U.S.).
While I didn’t have a particular topic in mind when I arrived, the Ciompi uprising had stuck out as intriguing from a Great Course I listened to over the summer. Launched toward the end of 1378 in Florence, the revolt pitted first the ‘middle class’ of guild workers and shopkeepers against the noble families, then the Ciompi (unguilded wool workers) against both. The uprisings resulted in the deaths of several important officials, the overthrow of the government, and the institution of a guild republic for the next century.
While I was initially interested in writing a historiographic paper, examining the ways other historians have written the uprising since the 19th century, my supervisor pushed me towards an intellectual history of two of the revolt’s near-contemporary chroniclers: the humanist and statesman Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444) and the political theorist and diplomat Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527). Although Bruni and Machiavelli wrote their accounts of the Ciompi uprising nearly a century apart, both wrote under the influence of the Medici family – a dynasty which played an embarrassing part in the Ciompi events. Thus, the essay ended up examining the political thought and contexts of each author, with an eye toward a close reading of their text on the uprising. As I said in the introduction,
beyond providing an interesting look at the development of Renaissance historical technique in the years between the writing of each history, the comparison allows us to consider broader issues of patronage, power, and scholarship in the service of state.
The work was frustrating and difficult, mostly for my lack of classical background and inexperience in intellectual history. But my essay – like those of all of us in the program – was eventually finished and handed in on October 9th for grading. Sometime over the next few weeks, my supervisor and one other person will grade the paper and return it to me. I’ve never had a class in the States which was graded on the basis of a single paper; this has indeed been a new experience.
A month is a long time to work on a single project with few other commitments; I managed to sneak a few breaks in between the essay and the applications.
Every Wednesday and Thursday, Gloucester Green square fills with stalls and sellers as the Gloucester Green Market assembles itself. The first day is mostly food sellers – vegetables, fruits, breads, and cheeses mostly – and the next day is a combination vintage fair/flea market. While I haven’t taken advantage of the Wednesday sellers (the kitchen situation here makes it difficult to plan and cook meals with lots of fresh ingredients), I have poked through the vintage market several times.
A few weeks ago I found at one of the items I specifically wanted to find whilst in Oxford: an Aran sweater. Knitted of báinín yarn (pure marino sheep’s wool which can absorb up to 30% of its weight in water), the aran sweater has achieved something of an iconic status over the past century. While many sellers would have their customers believe that the sweaters and their complicated cable knit patterns had been produced in the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland for hundred of years, the reality is that the sweater is a fairly recent commercialization. Invented as part of a UK government program to help poor Irish farmers supplement their incomes during the late 19th century potato famines, the sweaters were sold to tourists from the early 20th century. By the 1930s, they had achieved worldwide fame, later appearing in Vogue Magazine and on president Kennedy. The purported antiquity of the sweater is a perfect example of the historian Eric Hobsbawn’s notion of an ‘invented tradition.‘ All of that for only five pounds!
The last week of September saw me trying to finish the Rhodes Scholarship personal statement. Limited to 1,000 words, the statement needed to convey who I am, where I came from, what I am interested in, why, and what (and why) I want to study at Oxford. Lacking focus at the CMRS building, I decided to walk to Christ Church Meadows for the afternoon and write sans computer in a more picturesque locale.
At a certain point the meadows border the Isis (known everywhere but Oxford as the Thames). The day I was there was sunny and crisp. The University rowing crews were on the water training, as was a boat of school boys – miniature versions of their collegiate counterparts. I sat back from the bank for a while under a chestnut tree. Several others sat along the bank within the acre and a small group of ducks had taken it upon themselves to waddle from one to the next in hopes of being fed. Soon, they came to me and (apart from one which tried to eat my pencil), left frustrated and unfulfilled.
Later, I walked around the northward shoulder of the meadow, towards the High Street and Magdalen College. The cattle were out en force, as was a hazy autumn sunset, captured above the steeple of the Christ Church Cathedral.