All posts by Emma Bridges

Studying Russian and other Slavonic Languages: New Videos

Recently we held an online open day for potential applicants interested in studying Russian and other Slavonic languages here at the University of Oxford. If you were unable to attend but would like to know more, we are delighted to share a playlist of videos with more information about our undergraduate courses. You can view the videos on our YouTube channel here.

Language, Politics and Power: The Dictator Novel in Latin America

Arthur Wotton, who is currently studying for an MSt in Spanish at The Queen’s College, is writing a dissertation on the Latin American dictator novel. In this post he shares some insights into this enthralling literary genre.

Latin American literature is among the most popular and rewarding options offered as part of a Spanish degree at Oxford. Students have the opportunity to study a diverse and fascinating corpus of literature, and to explore the innovative styles of writing that authors developed in order to respond to the social, cultural and political landscapes of Latin America. Household names such as García Márquez, Borges and Neruda feature on the reading list, as do huge range of literary movements from the 1800s to the present.

‘In this household, Trujillo is a national symbol!’: this poster had to be hung in every Dominican home during Trujillo’s rule.

One of Latin America’s most interesting and influential literary traditions reflects a political reality that has been ever-present since independence: dictatorship. A long lineage of caudillos, or strongmen, have loomed large in Latin American politics for centuries: repressive and often brutal figures such as Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay, the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua, and Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, who ordered that churches display signs reading ‘Dios en cielo, Trujillo en tierra’ (‘God in heaven, Trujillo on Earth’)!

Alfredo Stroessner

The dictator novel, or novela del dictador, emerged as a result of writers seeking to challenge, satirise, or come to terms with the impact of dictatorship through representing it in fiction, and the genre came to be one of the most influential and important in all of Latin American literature, involving many of its most famous names. Not only do they focus on political machinations and repression, but in depicting visions of authoritarian societies they tackle a huge variety of themes, including historical memory, appearance and reality, the importance of language, and gender roles.

Here’s a brief look at some key dictator novels:

Miguel Ángel Asturias

Miguel Ángel Asturias’s El Señor Presidente (completed 1933, published 1946) is a disturbing and experimental novel, loosely based on the Estrada Cabrera regime in Guatemala. Asturias presents a terrifying society governed by whispers and rumours, where dictatorship permeates all aspects of life: he talks of how ‘una red de hilos invisibles, más invisibles que los hilos de telégrafo, comunicaba cada hoja con el Señor Presidente, atento a lo que pasaba en las vísceras más secretas de los ciudadanos’ (‘a web of invisible threads, more invisible than telegraph wires, connected every single leaf with the President, who was aware of what was going on in the citizens’ innermost entrails’). Everyone, from the raving despot to the capital’s homeless, is caught up in this web of oppression, which is juxtaposed with mundane daily life: prisoners are interrogated while jubilant street parties take place outside, and citizens go about their morning chores as the daughter of an exiled colonel frantically searches for her family.

While Asturias’s dictator is only seen briefly, Gabriel García Márquez delves into the mind of the ruler of an unidentified Caribbean country in El otoño del patriarca (1975). García Márquez uses lots of magical realist descriptions in this novel, which seems to go in circles as the dictator’s ‘dead body’ is repeatedly found in the crumbling ruins of his palace. This gives the book a rather timeless quality, and its rambling sentences, which occasionally take up whole pages, make us think about language and who controls it – just like in Augusto Roa Bastos’s monumental Yo el Supremo (1974), an extravagant and complicated work made up of an interlocking series of conversations and footnotes in which language and writing are central.

Memory, history and how we approach them are also prevalent themes in the novel of dictatorship. The question of how people can come to terms with the past after the fall of dictators is explored by Mario Vargas Llosa in Conversación en la Catedral (1969) and La fiesta del Chivo (2000 – a staple of the Oxford first-year reading list). These ground-breaking novels alternate between present-day events and characters’ recollections as their protagonists confront the past. In Conversación en la Catedral, Santiago has a lengthy and revelatory conversation with an old acquaintance in a seedy bar in Lima, while La fiesta del Chivo interweaves Urania’s return to the Dominican Republic with storylines explaining Trujillo’s assassination. Vargas Llosa not only presents a comprehensive picture of societies under dictatorship, but also uses large casts of characters to show how different opinions on these regimes come into being.

The Madres de la Plaza de Mayo: mothers of the desaparecidos of Argentina’s Dirty War protest against the junta in Buenos Aires.

At turns comedic, unsettling and mesmerising, dictator novels combine vibrant storytelling with a huge range of interesting themes that are bound up in their depiction of autocracies. Hard-hitting and satirical, they are extremely thought-provoking, and it’s fascinating to consider the resonance they still have today. The relationship between executive power and the media has come into sharp focus recently, as have generational political divides like those we see opening up in Vargas Llosa’s novels as family members hold starkly different perceptions of events that took place.

How might El Señor Presidente’s regime operate in an age of social media, when we share so much about ourselves online? And how would we react upon finding out that one of our world leaders had suddenly been transfigured into an enormous parrot made out of words – or tweets? – like Jorge Zalamea’s Gran Burundún-Burundá?

The dictator novel is a rich and powerful genre of Latin American fiction, and is a great starting point for anyone interested in getting into Spanish-language literature. Some of the longer texts described above can be somewhat daunting, so here are some more accessible recommendations:

  • Tirano Banderas by Valle-Inclán: perhaps the first true dictator novel, Spanish writer Ramón del Valle-Inclán depicts the ways in which a menacing ruler attempts to crush a revolt and maintain his grip on power.
  • El gran Burundún-Burundá ha muerto by Jorge Zalamea: a highly underrated but fascinating ‘poem in prose’ about the funeral of a dictator who had banned the use of language itself!
  • Conversación al sur by Marta Traba: two women reunite after many years and reminisce about their time standing against the Argentinian dictatorship as part of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo movement.

by Arthur Wotton

Image credits Wikimedia Commons

Oxford Modern Languages Online Open Day

We’re delighted to announce that booking is now open for our 2021 Modern Languages Open Day. This is an online event (with live sessions delivered via Microsoft Teams and Q&A via Slido) and will take place on Saturday 1 May 2021 between 10am and 4pm: attendees are welcome to dip in and out of sessions over the course of the day. It’s a great opportunity for prospective applicants to find out more about all of the languages we offer, as well as Oxford’s joint degrees featuring languages alongside other subjects. The day will be hosted by current tutors and undergraduate students and there will be lots of opportunities to ask questions.

A full programme for the event is available here. Booking is essential (links to the online elements of the event will be supplied on booking). Attendees can register for a space via this link.

We’ll look forward to meeting you!

Studying Spanish and Portuguese: New Videos

Recently we welcomed potential applicants to our online open day for Spanish and Portuguese. If you were unable to attend but would like to know more about studying either of these languages at the University of Oxford, we are delighted to share a playlist of videos featuring tutors and students talking about our undergraduate courses. You can view the videos on our YouTube channel here.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Merton’s Beasts: a look at the images in a Medieval bestiary

Seb Dows-Miller, an MSt student at Merton College, introduces some of the intriguing beasts he has encountered in the medieval Bestiary which is held by his College library.

When was the last time you tried to draw a lion? How did it go? It’s definitely not easy!

Now imagine you’re a medieval monk or nun, working in a dimly lit library with not much other than a candle to light up your work. You’ve been asked to draw pictures to accompany a bestiary, a medieval text that talks about the behaviours of different animals, many of which live in far-off lands or don’t exist at all.

You’ve never seen a lion, nor has anyone you’ve ever met, and the only clues you have about what they look like are drawings by other monks and nuns, who don’t really know what a lion looks like either. Do you think your drawing would be any good?

We actually have examples of drawings done in conditions like these. Manuscript 249 in the library of Merton College, written in a mixture of Latin and Anglo-Norman (a dialect of French that was spoken in England after 1066), contains one of only three surviving copies of a bestiary by the poet Phillippe de Thaon.

The manuscript has been at Merton since 1374, and in it there are close to 50 line drawings containing all sorts of animals.

The image below, for example, shows a lion hunting a zebra, and was almost certainly drawn by somebody who hadn’t seen either animal before, but it’s still pretty good!

Merton College, MS 249, f. 1v

Some of the drawings are less successful… The one below depicts the ‘cetus’, a mythical creature that has been written about since Classical times, generally assumed to be modelled on a whale. Clearly nobody had ever got close enough to realise whales don’t have scales!

The cetus, apparently, lifts up ships on its back and strants them at sea. Merton College, MS 249, f. 8r

Among the mythical beasts in the bestiary, we also find a ‘monocheros’ (unicorn). While we usually think of the unicorn as being very similar to a horse, according to Phillippe de Thaon and those who copied the text it was actually closer to a ‘buket’ (goat)!

On the left is a goat, and on the right is a unicorn! Merton College, MS 249, f. 3r

What was the purpose of this text? Nowadays we have all sorts of books and TV programmes talking about the behaviour of animals as we understand it, and so in that sense the bestiary isn’t too different to the way most of us think about wild animals today.

Unlike our modern approach, however, medieval bestiaries are usually quite religious in flavour. They talk a lot about what the behaviour of animals apparently tells us about the teachings of religious texts such as the Bible. The community spirit and self-sacrifice of ants, for example, is said to tell us a lot about the way in which Christian society should be organised.

Ants! Or are they peanuts?… Merton College, MS 249, f. 4v

So, did the readers of our bestiary only want to get down to the Christian message of the text? We can’t be too sure, but it was almost certainly more complicated than that. Whatever the texts themselves say, people reading and copying bestiaries probably wanted to find out more about the natural world just as much as they wanted to hear any religious messages.

These are elephants, believe it or not! Here they’re in the Garden of Eden, keeping their calf safe from a dragon. Merton College, MS 249, f. 6v

Another important question is: who read this text? We can be sure that once it had arrived at the college, Merton’s copy was read primarily by men who were members of the college, but was this always the case? The text is dedicated to Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), wife of Henry II of England, and so there was at least one intended female reader!

The fact that this particular bestiary was written primarily in Anglo-Norman, rather than Latin, which is very unusual for this part of the Middle Ages, suggests that the text’s audience was probably quite broad, and may have included people who didn’t know how to read Latin. Just as we use books with pictures to teach children how to read, could bestiaries have been used to help teach medieval learners?

What’s going on here? The picture below shows an ibis eating (possibly) a snake, but the picture has been cut off at the bottom of the page. This probably doesn’t mean that the illustrator just ran out of space, but rather that someone later on, when putting a new binding on the manuscript, trimmed off the bottom of the page to make it fit.

Merton College, MS 249, f. 10r

Meanwhile, this poor onoscentaurs (centaur) has had the top of his head trimmed off! We see this a lot in medieval manuscripts, where later re-binders have cut off images or sometimes even text. The most recent re-binding of Merton MS 249 took place in the 17th century, so it could have happened then or even earlier.

Merton College, MS 249, f. 5v

This shows just how important it is to remember that manuscripts change over time. The manuscript didn’t stand still after its creation, with different generations of readers having different interpretations of what makes it valuable.

This is a ‘caladrius’, a mythical bird that is said to be able to take on the illness of any sick person to stop them from dying. Merton College, MS 249, f. 8v

There’s so much more to discover in this manuscript, so why not have a look for yourself! The text is very difficult to read (although you might recognise certain words, even if you don’t speak French), but the pictures tell just as much of a story. You can also follow the misadventures of Merton’s beasts on Twitter: @MertonBeasts.

by Seb Dows-Miller

Images reproduced with the kind permission of the Warden and Fellows of Merton College, Oxford.

French and Spanish Flash Fiction Competitions: Deadline Reminder

The clock is ticking… The deadline for this year’s French and Spanish flash fiction competitions is 31 March 2021 so, if you are thinking of entering, now is a good time to start work on your story! The competition – to write a story of no more than 100 words in either French or Spanish – is open to students aged 11-18, with cash prizes up for grabs in different age categories. For full details about the competition check out this post.

Dispatches from the Year Abroad: Paris

Third-year undergraduate Beth Molyneux (Lincoln College) has been sharing updates on her Year Abroad travels. Following on from her earlier post about her time in Munich, she is now in Paris.

Even before coming to Oxford, I knew I wanted to spend some time living in Paris, having caught glimpses of the city on family holidays and on a day trip during my French exchange. It’s potentially the least original of year abroad locations, but I really do think there’s a reason for that!

A lot of people come to Paris to do an internship during their year abroad, but I’d chosen to study for this semester, and was quite excited to get back into the academic world after having taken time off from studying in Germany. That’s one of the great things about the year abroad: it gives you time and flexibility to try out a few different things, and mix and match between your studies and the big scary world that comes after university.

Oxford has an exchange programme with La Sorbonne, and I was lucky enough to get a place to study there for the second semester of this academic year. Oxford aren’t very prescriptive about exactly what you have to study if that’s what you opt for on your year abroad, so as long as I do the right amount of credits, I’m pretty much free to choose whatever modules I like. I’ve stayed in my comfort zone so far, with modules from the department of ‘Littérature française et comparée’, but I also know people who’ve branched out into history courses, philosophy, and even Greek. I think I’ve managed to get a really good mix of modules that relate directly to some of the topics and texts I’ve covered in my course at Oxford, alongside some entirely new topics, and some language classes to keep that grammar ticking over.

I say I’ve stayed in my comfort zone, but even when studying a topic area that’s familiar to me, transitioning to a French university is far from simple! Academic systems are unique to each country, and I already feel like I’m beginning to get a flavour of what French university life is like and how it’s different to England, or at least Oxford, on the academic side of things. At the moment it’s harder to get an idea of what the social side of things is normally like, because there are far fewer social events on campus than there would be in ordinary circumstances. In this respect, though, I’m quite lucky that I’ve chosen to au pair alongside my studies, because it means that I have daily contact with a family, and a homely environment, where I have purpose and a little bit of my own space in the city, which might otherwise be a bit big and anonymous.

Living and spending time with a French family really gives you a sense of the difference between speaking French and becoming French. More so than when I was in Germany, I have the sense that I’m not just learning the language, but am also getting  used to the French, or at least the Parisian, way of life: shopping at the local market, eating well, exploring the city at weekends, and, in a few weeks, heading off to the Alps for a winter break, courtesy of the family I’m staying with. Once the COVID situation starts to improve a little and things open up again, I think there will be even more opportunities to soak up the cultural aspects of Paris, its museums, restaurants and libraries, and I can’t wait to experience the city in summer.

It’s hard to capture in a blog post the excitement that comes when you set up your life in a new place for the next six months, knowing that this is the place you really want to be, and having a stretch of time to do and see everything you want to, make the most of the opportunities thrown your way, and work your way towards becoming, slowly, a little bit more French (or German, or Spanish, or Italian), as you get accustomed to a new way of life and find your place linguistically, intellectually and personally. But it’s definitely been a feeling I’ve experienced on my year abroad, and I hope you do too!

by Beth Molyneux

(Image credits Beth Molyneux)

A Rewarding Discovery: Exploring Agency in Sixteenth-Century Women’s Writing

DPhil student Nupur Patel (Lincoln College) gives us a glimpse into her research on sixteenth-century French women’s writing, and reflects on her journey to postgraduate work in French.

Admittedly, when I first began my Bachelor’s degree as an undergraduate of French and History, I had no intentions of pursuing postgraduate study. As much as I loved my degree, I always thought it was a distant dream to join the table of scholars at the University, and I was yet to find my own specialised area of interest. My third year was a transformational moment; I began to delve into early modern women’s writing which lit a fire in me. For my undergraduate dissertation, I came across Marguerite de Navarre, who is sometimes called the ‘Mother of the Renaissance’ for her great influence during her lifetime, and beyond. As I become more acquainted with her literature, I decided to explore her role as a playwright and patroness. In the process of reading and writing, I came across other women writers and became fascinated by questions of women’s agency and experiences. This coincided with discussions about intersectional feminism, activist movements and the global Women’s Marches which were placed at the forefront of newspapers and TV screens. These events encouraged me to study a DPhil which looked more deeply into early modern women’s agency.

Les oeuvres de Mesdames Des Roches, de Poitiers, mère et fille. Image credit Wikimedia Commons.

My research looks at responses to the concept of modesty in the works of four sixteenth-century French women’s writers. In the early modern period, modesty was fundamental to the ways in which women are perceived and understood in society. It was means of controlling women’s bodies and sexuality, and was intimately linked to other concepts of chastity, shame and honour. In my project, I look at four sixteenth century women writers – Marguerite de Navarre, Les Dames des Roches and Gabrielle de Coignard – all of whom lived in different areas in France and show that it was possible for writers to challenge, rethink and even completely overturn modesty’s place in early modern French society. In the world of literature, they use their texts as ways to respond to modesty in ways that give them agency and liberate other women from the oppressive term. It is an empowering means for women to reclaim their bodies and sexuality from men who seek to constrain them. An important example where this takes place is late sixteenth century Poitiers, where poet Catherine des Roches lived with her mother, Madeleine des Roches. Together, the pair were known as Les Dames des Roches, and they produced three works in their lifetime: Les Œuvres and Les Secondes Œuvres – which included poetry and prose – followed by Les Missives – the first private letters to be published by women in France.

Portrait of Catherine Des Roches from Costumes historiques de la France. Image credit Wkimedia Commons.

Catherine’s life was particularly intriguing, for she veered away from gender expectations of the time. Instead of marrying and having children, she chose to live with her mother with the hopes of nurturing her great passion for learning and writing. Her mother encouraged her writing, which scholars such as Estienne Pasquier and Scévole de Sainte-Marthe wrote about with great admiration in their dedications. Such figures honoured both women as very talented writers and salon hostesses. Estienne Pasquier, especially, was very fond of Catherine and recalled to his friend, Pierre Pithou, one particular moment during a salon meeting in which a flea landed on Catherine’s bosom; this inspired great wonder in him, which resulted in the publication of La Puce de Madame des Roches, a collection of poems by Pasquier and other male poets who write about this story. These poems come in the form of different languages and reveal an attempt to turn Catherine into an object of male desire. Many of the poets, including Pasquier, are mesmerised by the sight of the male flea sucking blood from her breast. Instead of reflecting male desire, Catherine chooses to reject them in her own flea poem. In her striking account of the flea landing on her bosom, she decides to make the flea a female nymph who seeks refuge from a tyrannical male god. Catherine transforms her body, once a site of eroticism, into a place of shelter and honour; she liberates it from shame and desire and turns it into artistic inspiration for her poetry. Her poem is a striking example of how a woman writer can use her writing to challenge modesty and society’s conceptions of the female body; she, and others in my study, reveal moments of empowerment within the confines of patriarchal society.

Studying Catherine des Roches and the other women in my study has been a very rewarding experience, and a great reminder of the breadth of topics that can be studied in French literature. As I try to unearth moments of early modern women’s agency, I have colleagues who study medical literature, postcolonial texts, the depiction of disabilities, and dancing manuals. As my first undergraduate dissertation taught me, when studying languages, the possibilities at endless, whether, like me, you are looking at women’s writing in the sixteenth century, or at something completely different.

by Nupur Patel

Oxford Modern Languages Online Open Days

We’re delighted to be able to share news of our forthcoming Open Days for sixth-form students who may be interested in studying Modern Languages at Oxford. These would normally take place in Oxford but this year we’re running a series of online events sharing information about some of the many different languages we offer – potential applicants can join us from the comfort of their own home! There will be opportunities to chat to tutors and current undergraduates, as well as some events with live workshops and taster sessions.

The open day schedule for February and March 2021 is as follows:

  • Friday 26 February – Spanish and Portuguese
  • Saturday 27 February – German
  • Saturday 27 February – Russian and other Slavonic Languages
  • Saturday 13 March – Italian

In many of the courses we offer you can study a language from scratch, so please don’t be put off from attending if you aren’t studying any of these languages at A level!

For detailed programmes for each event, and information on how to book, visit the ‘Open Days’ page on our website. You can also find a series of videos about studying languages at Oxford on our YouTube channel, and there are specific playlists associated with the Spanish/Portuguese and Russian/Slavonic languages open days.

Later in the year we’ll also be holding an online version of our Faculty open day, where you’ll also be able to learn about some of the other languages we offer. Keep an eye on this blog and on the ‘Open Days’ page on our website for updates.

We’re looking forward to meeting you!

Competition news from the Oxford German Network

Colleagues at the Oxford German Network have just launched Round 2 of this year’s Oxford German Olympiad; the competition features a choice of creative tasks aimed at school pupils in age groups ranging from Year 10 to Year 13.

Two of the new tasks are sponsored by the White Rose Project, which is investigating the story of the White Rose resistance group. The competition tasks focus on resistance member Sophie Scholl, who would have had her one hundredth birthday in 2021. The third task asks entrants to consider the parallels between the 1920s and 2020s.

There are cash prizes available for the winning entries. Full details of all Oxford German Olympiad competitions are available on the OGN’s website here.