“‘Urban Culture’ Really Is Best Seen as a Pan-European Phenomenon” – 5in10 with Marcus Meer
Marcus Meer is a historian of communication and visual culture. He completed his PhD at the University of Durham as a Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar and worked as a Graduate Teaching Assistant at Durham and King’s College London. In May 2020, he joined the German Historical Institute in London. His research interests include the comparative history of towns and cities in pre-modern Europe and visual communication of identities, institutions, and spaces.
How do you explain your current research projects to your students?
I would describe myself as a historian of medieval communication and visual culture, with a particular interest in how late medieval townspeople used texts, images, objects, architecture, and rituals to express their identities, social hierarchies, and political structures. I look at English- and German-speaking areas, since I feel that ‘urban culture’ really is best seen as a pan-European phenomenon. Even though there were local and contextual differences, which we should not ignore, of course, many attitudes and practices were shared across geographical borders.
What were academic or personal inspirations that led to your current research?
There is again a lot of talk about statues and other reminders of the colonial past in our public spaces. The first time I noticed this sort of discourse was about five years ago, in the context of the #RhodesMustFall movement. At that time, I was doing my PhD at Durham University on the functions of heraldry in the late medieval city, and among the most unexpected but insightful aspects was that coats of arms—or things like tombs or buildings with coats of arms on them—were defaced or destroyed to make rather unflattering statements about their owners. Sometimes personal injuries were behind such episodes, but they were also part of larger social and political issues, a way to challenge power and an attempt to shape the present.
It surprised me that there is not that much work on similar things in the high and late medieval period, certainly when compared to scholarship on religious opposition towards images. Maybe that is precisely because the high and later Middle Ages are lodged between two peaks of religious iconoclasm: first the ‘iconomachy’ of the Byzantine Empire in the eighth and ninth centuries, and then the image-breaking of the Reformation(s) in the sixteenth century. A project I am currently developing looks into the social and political dimensions of such practices in the Middle Ages more broadly, focusing on cities: practices of censoring, defacing, and erasing visual matters—from statues and stained glass to flags and dress—which are seen to harm individuals, groups, or even society as a whole because of what or whom they represent were widespread. Townspeople used such practices in many conflicts that divided urban societies, as they could challenge powerful individuals, political institutions, and social hierarchies alike in this way.
How are you ‘doing’ research? What are your most important research methods (interviews, archives, excavations…?)
I wish I could say that every day comprises me carefully leafing through magnificent medieval manuscripts in a beautiful archive reading room. And this really is an awe-inspiring thing to do when I get the chance, though even then urban records look a lot more mundane than, say, the Lindisfarne gospels. But before (and after) that happens I spend a lot of time looking through research databases and library catalogues, reading secondary literature and taking notes to find out what the ‘state of the art’ is. Although I am no art historian, I am keen to include visual sources as part of my research—not just manuscript illuminations, but also painted walls, public monuments, and the like.
Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) did inspire you recently?
Since events have been pretty much impossible because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, I can only talk about publications. Since there is so much debate about contested monuments, I can recommend a few people whose work I found helpful for my project in that area: David Freedberg has written on this subject in various places, Dario Gamboni’s The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism since the French Revolution (1997) is useful, too, and so is the volume Striking Images: Iconoclasms Past and Present (2018) edited by Stacy Boldrick, Leslie Brubaker, and Richard Clay, which shows the diversity of these phenomena throughout history. An important takeaway from these publications, in my opinion, is that the attacking, breaking, and removing of statues, for example, in public spaces really is nothing new but has happened and continues to happen all the time. In fact, rather than ‘erasing history’, as some worry, it can be quite a productive process of engaging with the past and creating more historical records for the future, precisely because people talk and write about it.
Do you think that academic mobility changes the way in which research projects are conceptualized? What are your personal experiences in this regard?
Academic mobility has an impact, but it is not always a positive one. My moving between Germany and the UK was formative for my career so far, and the ability to travel for research visits, for example, can be extremely productive for comparative projects. The recent travel restrictions have also shown me how important it is to physically go to conferences, workshops, and seminars. The discussions and chats with people usually leave me with a whole range of new ideas, interesting leads, and critical questions that ultimately make research better.
At the same time, quite often academic mobility is not really a helpful choice but a necessity. There are few jobs out there these days, so early career researchers often have to move from one city to another, maybe from one country or even from one continent to another, just to keep their careers going. That is disruptive not just to your personal life, but also takes up so much of the time that you could otherwise use to conceptualize and do your research. And there are of course people who cannot simply move for a job, visit an archive or travel to a conference, be it for family, health, or financial reasons. For people in such circumstances it is rather problematic that ‘demonstrated academic mobility’ has become somewhat expected by some funding bodies.
Citation: “‘Urban Culture’ Really Is Best Seen a Pan-European Phenomenon.” – 5in10 with Marcus Meer, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 27.08.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/24823.