An Interview with Hansen Associate Professor Jenny Spinks

Jenny Spinks is a historian of the early modern world, with a particular interest in visual and material culture as historical sources for research and for teaching. To celebrate her recent promotion to Associate Professor, we feature Jenny’s work here in this interview with recent graduate Jen McFarland.

You can watch the video and/or read the transcript below.


Hi, my name is Jen McFarland. I’m a graduate from the History discipline here in SHAPS, and today I’m speaking with Jenny Spinks, who is [Hansen] Associate Professor in History and who works on early modern Germany, France and the Low Countries. Thanks for speaking with me today, Jenny.

Hi Jen, lovely to see you, lovely to be here.

So, the first thing I wanted to talk to you about was what made you want to become a historian. I know you had a career in galleries before you did your PhD. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that job and about what made you want to do a research degree?

Yes, I’d love to. In a way I fell into doing history. My undergraduate degree was in Fine Arts, so I studied studio-based art and did start working in contemporary art galleries. So, it was very much art of now, art of our time.

But I did some subjects that meant I looked at art history and I got more and more interested, really, in the background story of visual culture and how it was connected to society. And I found that I was just getting increasingly drawn towards that sort of research and also that sort of teaching. But, essentially, I was doing both at the same time. So, I was studying towards a master’s degree, and working in a contemporary art gallery and doing some curating work in contemporary art and craft, really all at the same time.

I was very fortunate that I had a great master’s supervisor who was very open to different ways of doing things – very, very flexible. Good mentoring – wonderful mentoring! – has been a real feature of both my masters and my PhD experience.

So, in a way, I just kept going further and further back. At first, I got very interested in the eighteenth century and then, by the time I got to my PhD, I really knew that the sixteenth century was where I had found myself.

I suppose one of the things that perhaps comes from starting out with contemporary art was that as I went back and became interested in other aspects of culture, besides the visual aspects, the visual culture that I was interested in was often not very high art. It wasn’t very refined; it was often quite ugly or rough. And, so, I suppose I found History as a discipline an incredibly flexible place to be, because you could have this magpie approach where you look towards different sources and you look towards different methods. I was very much influenced by cultural history as a field, which seemed to bring together a few of the different disciplines that I loved.

I’ve always really loved and found it very stimulating to go to museums and art galleries. The way that temporary exhibitions can make an argument through the images or the objects that they lead you through – I always found that a really stimulating way of thinking about history as well. So, I feel really fortunate that I’ve had this mixed background, even though I didn’t have the pleasure of doing a history undergraduate degree.

Was there a set of visual material that particularly drew you to the sixteenth century?

I was really interested in grotesque imagery – literally grotesque – sort of little fantastic figures that changed. I got extremely interested in how, as you went back into the sixteenth century, there was a lot of interest in ugliness and strangeness and the grotesque – quite literally – as a way of communicating to people about the strange times that they lived in.

So, I guess I went from something that initially started out being quite refined and decorative to something that became rougher and rougher and more connected to propaganda and print culture in its quick and fast forms.

You’ve worked a lot on wonders and wonder books, and you were just talking about the strange; could you explain what a wonder is in the early modern period? And how people found out about them, how they circulated?

I always like to bracket wonders together with disasters, actually, because I think of them as part of a continuum. And the way I would pin them down, I guess, is that they are astonishing and unexpected phenomena that you find in the natural world.

They can range across a whole bunch of different phenomena. They can include the very cruelly named ‘monstrous births’, as they’re called – so, children and animals with deformities – through to wondrous signs in the sky.

I’m just going to just quickly share my screen here to show a typical image from very early in the sixteenth century. Here we’ve got some wonders in the sky. We’ve got things like multiple suns and moons. We’ve got here crosses, various kinds of crosses, instruments of the passion, and also more complex figurative visions. So, they’re unexpected things that people were able to meaningfully interpret – that they were able to discuss, as these men are here – this is at the court of Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I [1459–1519].

One of the things I really like about this image as well is that you can see there’s a big cross over the sky, and that’s because Maximilian himself had decided that, in fact, he didn’t really like the imagery here [and crossed it out]. His reign had been very connected with wonders and disasters as portents of his significance as a ruler. And then he started to get a little bit concerned about some of them and what they might demonstrate for his reign.

Of course, wonders and disasters are phenomena over a much longer historical period. But what I find across the sixteenth century, and the thing that’s really fascinating for me for this time, is that people really connected them to very sharp historical changes or moments of turmoil – so, in times of war but especially in connection with the religious changes of the Reformation and Counter Reformation.

People interpreted the strange things that they saw around them, sometimes through natural causation, but always on a spectrum which put most emphasis on God’s providence, on the idea that there is a religious message being conveyed to you, and that you should heed it, you should change your behaviour. Or that you should condemn your neighbours who have a different religious viewpoint, for instance.

And the ways that people were finding out about them were through means like preaching, through letter networks amongst the literate, through chronicles, but also particularly through new forms of print – broadsheets, which were cheap, simple, rapidly produced prints, usually with verses, sometimes sung, sometimes to be read out loud, sometimes with really rough images. And also these things called wonder books, which the image I just used is from. That’s something I’m really interested in.

In the sixteenth century, we get this trend for people thinking about wonders, not just as something singular – as a one-off – but as something that is increasing during the time in which they live. And so people start to collect them, to think about what they mean if you add them all up.

And of course, the biggest meaning during this time period was apocalyptic – that there were signs building up towards the last days, the end times, the Day of Judgement. These signs could have a really big meaning in your life. They weren’t just a peripheral entertainment. And so I find them very fascinating as a window onto society and change for that reason.

Do you find that you see similarities in how people are using that to respond to change or to disruption, and to what we do in the now, in the ‘modern’ period?

In the now! Wow, that would be…

It’s a hard question, sorry!

I would be brave to go too far down that route. But I guess it’s the way that they trigger things like emotional responses.

As I said a minute ago, I tend to bracket disasters along with wonders because they often also had religious meanings. And they could include things like fires, floods, clear natural causation. But they also raised the question: why did they happen at this time, to this community? And I think that is something that in some sections of the media and, in some community settings, you’ll get a lot of discussion about: why has our community had to endure this terrible event, or this astonishing thing?

I suppose this is something that’s transhistorical, in a way; but something that does really fascinate me about signs and wonders or wonders and disasters, is that historical specificity. So, perhaps something like the Fukushima nuclear disaster is a good analogy for some of the sixteenth-century disasters – like an explosion of stored gunpowder that blew up a castle and was written about not just as a dramatic event but also an event that indicated that the losing side were being given a message by God, essentially.

That sort of rich historical specificity, I suppose, is what really keeps drawing me back to the early modern events. In particular, I find it really fascinating the way that some stories become iconic and got reused over and over again, retold, but often to quite different ends. So a Catholic community and a Lutheran community might use them or talk about them in quite different ways.

As you dig into them, as a historian, as you do that detective work, you also find things that it’s sometimes easy for us to miss. Let me just jump in here again, briefly, with a slide – we might get, for example, an image like this.

This event in 1549, over Braunschweig in Germany, is absolutely littered with political meanings, which you don’t get necessarily on the first glance, or you don’t understand closely until you really dig into the combination of the text and image. Once you do, then you realise that this is a story that’s reported over and over again for about fifty years, usually to make quite a strong religious point to do with the Lutheran reformation but also to do with some political figures.

So I find wonders endlessly rich ways for getting into the society that was astonished by them at the time but also found them worth continuing to talk about and report and write down and depict.

Moving on from your research to your teaching, I know you’ve recently co-authored two articles on teaching methods, one on object-based learning and one on study tours. Could you tell us a bit about your approach to teaching?

Yes, I feel very fortunate, as one of the Hansen staff in the History department, to be able to really think about how important teaching is. I know we all think about how important teaching is – but it has been wonderful to be part of a teaching team that has been so supported to really put a focus on teaching. And those articles that I did were collaborative. That was one of the great things about them: they were about how we work together as a community – with other colleagues who are teaching, but also with students, to encounter history.

I think one of the things that I’ve found especially enriching as a teacher is teaching in galleries and museums on site. I was lucky enough to be able to take Australian students to Germany with a colleague a few times. But we do this here at the University of Melbourne as well. In particular, because of all the rich access to collections we have here, we are able to use items from university collections – to have that really tactile, immediate access to objects from the past, which we’re so fortunate to have. That’s something that I find really particularly exciting about teaching.

Again, I think, visual material can be very rich here. I use lots of textual material but I’m really conscious that because I work on German and French and, sometimes, Dutch material, some of the things I want to talk about and to get students looking at are not always available in English-language translation. And that’s an instance, too, where visual material and material culture can really be quite rich at conveying ideas about the past and telling stories about the past.

On the topic of collaborative teaching: I touched on how important collaboration is, but one of the classes that I really have enjoyed putting together and co-teaching over the last few years is one on the History of Violence [HIST30068] that I co-teach with a modern specialist. Professor Zoë Laidlaw and I are co-teaching that at the moment and, in the past, I’ve taught with Dr Kat Ellinghaus.

In this subject you have a modernist and an early modernist talking about the history of violence and getting the students to really test out: what does it mean when you look comparatively at the history of violence? You think about things like interpersonal violence in completely different technological settings. Or what does it mean when you look at frontier violence in societies that are engaged in different stages of colonial activities? There’s something quite exciting about getting students to really test out: can you think comparatively about those things? What are the ethics of thinking comparatively? Is it a good idea to do so? I enjoyed that a great deal.

I really love teaching the history of the Witch Hunts in Early Modern Europe [HIST20080], which is something that sounds quite specialised; you know, witch hunts – it sounds very niche and obscure. But, actually, it takes you to the heart of gender dynamics, political change, scientific changes and structural beliefs, religious changes. It really confronts us with some questions about the otherness of the past: who drove witch hunting? Was it elites? Was it ‘unruly’ groups of people in villages? There are so many different historical debates that historians have had over the years and that we’re able to come to in the classroom and untangle through incredibly rich sources. So, those are a range of the things that I really love about teaching.

There are so many different ways that we can interact at all different levels – from a first-year class and encountering something for the first time, to working with an honours student who’s doing a 15,000-word project, where over the course of the year they end up knowing much more than you do about the topic. These are all really exciting, but really different, ways in which teaching is just endlessly fun and stimulating.

Yes, and you’ve made that really clear and covered such a great variety of your approaches. I was wondering about the visual and object-based learning in particular and how you find students find engaging with non-textual sources. Have you seen a difference over time between how students come to those sources?

That is such a great question. I think students are always really open and interested. And I think we’re really particularly lucky at the University of Melbourne because students are doing a real range of different courses.

I’m just thinking about when I taught in the UK. Occasionally, you’d get a student who said, “I’m not doing an Art History degree, I’m doing a History degree!” But, actually, they were doing history, because they were digging into these materials, not so much for aesthetic purposes or to establish who the artist was or to do any of those things that we might more commonly associate with art history – although art historians do really different and interesting things as well. Rather, they were using visual materials so as to look for a different window onto society. And I think that students are really keen on that.

I think the thing that’s really changed actually is the support mechanisms for object-based teaching and the way that universities are increasingly seeing their cultural collections – which they might have got in all sorts of odd ways over the past 100 or 150-plus years, and sometimes they’ve been widely used, but sometimes they’ve just sat in a cupboard –  increasingly, there are resources and experts and support staff being put into making those things available.

So, obviously, it’s just an absolute joy – when we’re able to be on campus – to teach in the Arts West building in the Object-Based Learning Lab and to work with the specialist support and collections staff there, who know the collection so well, and then give us this incredibly beautiful environment to go in and look at things up close.

So, yes, I think there has been a lot of change but I think students are always there and really keen to engage with it.

Fantastic! And yes, I think it makes the tutorials much more engaging to be able to sit and see what you’re talking about, rather than just looking at translations or sources printed out.

I guess it also creates that larger sense of all the different ways in which you can be a historian. Being a historian could involve sitting down with textual sources and working on them really closely all by yourself; but it could involve heritage work or it could involve being involved with collections and archives.

There are so many different ways in which you can be a historian and contribute to making history and investigating history. And that’s one of the things I really like about using different sorts of sources: it gives a more concrete sense of all those different pathways.

Absolutely. I think you are also using some of the Melbourne collections in your current project, which is an ARC Discovery project. Could you talk a bit about that and how you how you’re using the Melbourne Uni collections as well?

Absolutely, yes!

It’s a really enjoyable project. It’s called Albrecht Dürer’s Material World in Manchester, Nuremberg and Melbourne. And it’s a team of seven of us, including Charles Zika at the University of Melbourne, Matthew Champion at the Australian Catholic University, and colleagues at the University of Manchester [Sasha Handley, Stefan Hanß and Edward Wouk] and also at Heidelberg University [Dagmar Eichberger].

The Whore of Babylon, from The Apocalypse, 1498. The Met, 18.65.8

We’re all working together to really look at this iconic Renaissance German artist Albrecht Dürer. He’s very famous for things like his picture of a hare – one of those images that people often recognise. He lived in Nuremberg in the late fifteenth, early sixteenth century.

Nuremberg itself was a really fascinating place because it was one of the most important cities in the Holy Roman Empire. It was a city where there was lots of confluence of trade. It didn’t have a standard guild structure, so there was some innovation around how people created work and entered into the different crafts.

This was a period when things like metal work, technical measuring instruments, scientific materials, medical objects, musical objects – so many different sorts of objects! – started to be crafted in new ways during this time. I’m just going to share my screen.

Dürer himself is particularly well known for these incredible prints that he did. He’s absolutely foundational to print culture, which is getting started in all sorts of new and exciting ways in the late fifteenth century, as artists put their stamp on print and create new commercial careers out of it as well. This is his print of Nemesis who’s a sort of Fortune-like figure.

Dürer has got this incredibly detailed, skilful way of creating prints. But one of the things that he embeds in his prints is, as you can see, objects. And one of the things that Nemesis is holding out, holding aloft there, is a vessel, which is an absolutely beautiful representation of the kind of craftwork skills that were being refined and generated in places like Nuremberg, at that time.

Something that we want to do with this project is to really think about the larger material world that Albrecht Dürer occupied: how did that stimulate him, to be living in a period where there were lots of changes in technology, in trade, in moving into a world in which objects were increasingly created and exchanged and circulated? So, that’s what we’re really looking at.

It’s a collaborative project and we’re doing quite a bit of co-authoring, as well as some of our own pieces – I’m working on this Nemesis print for instance. I’m equally interested in the bridle that she’s holding because things like armour, and various kinds of metal work were also very, very important in Nuremberg at this time.

Nemesis (The Great Fortune) by Albrect Dürer, 1501–1502. The Met, 19.73.89

We’ll be doing some publications; we’ll bring out some leading scholars to Australia – in some distant version of the future, when it’s possible to do that. And we’ll be having one and hopefully two exhibitions, which will be a forum for putting prints together with objects.

One of the things you may be wondering, as I talk about this, is: why is this relevant to Melbourne? We’re really fortunate in Melbourne – and Manchester in the UK is a city that has a similar sort of collections trajectory – Victorian cities, like Melbourne, like Manchester, put a lot of effort into collecting media like prints.

So we’ve got really wonderful print collections in Melbourne – absolutely world class, like the National Gallery of Victoria, also the Baillieu Library here at the University. We’ve got really extraordinary collections of Dürer’s prints in Melbourne. And, so, we’re very keen to get those treasures of our collections out to a broader audience and to sit them in their material context.

Something that we’ve been doing is digging out other objects that are out there in Australian collections. Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum [Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences] has some pieces of armour; we found Nuremberg tiles in a collection in Geelong; a rosary, a German rosary bead, in Adelaide – various things like that, uncovered with help from colleagues. There are all these scattered things that we’d like to pay a bit more attention to, essentially.

In a way, the project is about collecting and modernity and modern cities and how they use things like prints to build up their collections. But also, it’s about how we look back to an earlier city at a key turning point in history through the lens of Nuremberg. We’ll also be connecting with some colleagues in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, which has a pretty extraordinary collection. So there are lots of chances to make links and also to showcase what’s available, and what’s happening here in Melbourne at the same time.

That sounds brilliant. Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Jenny. I’ll be really looking forward to seeing what research comes out with the Dürer project!

It’s been a pleasure. Thank you, Jen.