Historiography and Identity V. The Emergence of New Peoples and Polities in Europe, 1000–1300

Pohl, Walter; Wieser, Veronika; Borri, Francesco
Cultural Encounters in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages
Turnhout 2022: Brepols Publishers
Anzahl Seiten
XIV, 501 S.
€ 125,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Przemysław Wiszewski, Uniwersytet Wrocławski

The reviewed book is the fifth in the “Historiography and Identity” series initiated by Walter Pohl in 2013. It consists of an introduction by the editors, 18 chapters divided into five geographical and political groups (Scandinavia and the Baltic countries; the Czechia and Poland; Hungary; Serbia, Croatia and Venice; Ruthenia), and a summary of research results by Walter Pohl. As in the previous volumes, the emphasis was placed on the relationship between the formation of identities of various social groups and the content of historiographic works.

To avoid the trap of anachronism in the questions asked, the editors gave up looking for rigidly defined political or ethnic identities in the Middle Ages. They drew attention to the multitude of possible identities functioning in new political communities. At the same time, rejecting the exclusiveness of the ethnic perspective of research did not mean abandoning it. The authors' task was to present various approaches to group identities – religious, legal, state, dynastic – from the perspective of building the identity of large social groups.

The vast majority of studies tried to trace the functioning of the historiographic reflection of authors writing for or in close connection with local communities. This did not exclude the authors from adopting a broader perspective of searching for cultural connections and inspirations that go beyond the narrow framework of the specific pragmatic purpose of a given work. Jacek Banaszkiewicz analyses the motif of Queen Sheba's visit to the court of King Solomon in the chronicles of Central and Western Europe and puts forward a thesis about the change in the meaning of the imperial idea contained in these records. Max Diesenberger, in turn, shows how the Reginon of Prüm's narrative about the origins of the Hungarians served to highlight the image of the crisis of the Carolingian Empire. And it enabled the Hungarians themselves in the 11th and 12th centuries to construct their own, positive characterization of the beginnings of their history.

A significant part of the volume is filled with studies devoted to presenting the Christianization of interesting communities. The article by Ian Wood is particularly intriguing, as he tries to find in the chronicle of Adam of Bremen threads from the chronicler's conversations with the Danish king Sven Estridsen. It also raises questions about the possible way a contemporary researcher could use this oral history to describe not only Christianization, but also the native religion of the Scandinavians. Sverre Bagge and Rosalind Bonté demonstrate how sources describing the distant perspective of the origins of local dynasties and the Christianization of Scandinavia (Snorri Strulsson's Heimskringla and Orkney Saga) were used in the 13th century to strengthen the sense of independence and distinctiveness of medieval Icelanders. And also, how attempts were made to strengthen the political distinctiveness and prestige of the described communities with the authority of the Roman past (Saxo Grammaticus about the Danes) or the local past, older than the Roman past (Snorri about the Icelanders). Jan Klapšte analysed Chronica Slavorum by Helmold of Bosau. The chronicler tried to present missionary activity among the Slavs living in the Elbe basin. No centralized, lasting and Christian political organization was established in Polabia. Scattered tribes tried to maintain their cultural identity based on native beliefs and customs. The expansion of Christianity led not only to the destruction of local cultures, but also to the slow disappearance of Slavic identities. The topic of Christianization, this time of the south-eastern coast of the Baltic Sea, was taken up by Stefan Donecker and Peter Fraundorfer. They analysed the message of the 13th-century chronicler Henry of Livonia in terms of the influence that narrative clichés and the language of the Bible had on presenting the image of Baltic communities. They shaped the chronicle narrative, but at the same time allowed, through analogies and the language of metaphors, to include the described peoples into the common discourse of Western Christianity.

An important part of the book are studies analysing classic problems in research on medieval chronicles: who created them? Based on what sources? For what purpose? Donald Ostrowski and Oleksiy Tolochko focused their reflection on the basic issues of the genesis of the oldest narrative source regarding the history of Rus’. The former, analysing Povest’ vremennykh let (PVL), proposed new hypothesis regarding the authorship of this key message for the beginnings of Rus' (two authors, the breakthrough year 1054 separating their work). Oleksiy Tolochko, in turn, suggests treating PVL as the work of one author. Consequently, he postulates that the information contained therein about the origins of the Slavs should be treated not as an expression of the collective identity of a certain group of inhabitants of Kievan Rus’, but as a result of the erudition of the author, the monk Sil'vester. Paulina Rychterová analyses the two most important works in the early history of the Czechia, namely the Chronicle of Cosmas of Prague and the life of St. Wenceslaus (Legenda Christiani), in terms of the way of presenting the history of the dynasty and the people subject to it. She points to the dependence of Cosmas's style on the classical patterns of historiography (Livius, Sallustius) learned by him during his education in Liège. Rychterová emphasizes the need to take into account the rhetorical side of his work when trying to use it to reconstruct the history of the early Czechia. Taking up similar topics in relation to the work of Anonim’s Gesta principium Polonie, Zbigniew Dalewski emphasizes the circumstances of its creation as influencing the strictly dynastic content of the message. The pattern of the dynastic succession of rulers as the framework of the history of their people will be taken over by the next medieval synthesis of the history of Poland by Master Vincent. Daniel Bagi also drew attention to the pragmatic goals pursued by the mentions of “aliens” in the oldest accounts of the beginnings of the Hungarian Árpád dynasty. In the works of two royal notaries – Master P. and Simon of Kéza – they served to highlight positive elements in the genealogy of the reigning rulers. Master P. also emphasized the ancient roots of the Hungarians by referring to the notes of Reginon of Prüm. Simon of Kéza built positive associations for the reader with the beginnings of the Hungarians as steppe people, because the mother of the King Ladislas IV – contemporary to him – was Cuman. László Veszprémy emphasizes that both chronicles, especially Simon of Kéza, sought to reconcile local traditions with literary images of a “civilized people” coming from Western Europe. Hence the emphasis on the ancient roots and customs of the first Hungarian state. Neven Budak's study refers to the ancient roots of local identities. He pointed out how the chroniclers of two competing centres, Split and Brac, tried to use the information about the connections of these places with the Roman bishopric of Salona to prove opposing theses. A very similar motif is analysed by Peter Štih on the example of the historiography of the bishoprics of Grado and Split. The tradition of connection with ancient history also played an important role in building the identity of the clergy associated with them. The Church of Grado saw itself as the heir of the Patriarchate of Aquileia, and Split’s clergy found its roots in the past of the bishopric of Salona.

Two studies pay particular attention to the polyphonic nature of the traditions that were responsible for creating the identity of medieval communities. The complicated mechanism of building an image of local identity based on weaving threads taken from various sources is documented by Francesco Borri. It presents how John the Deacon's, in his 11th-century Istoria Veneticorum, built a model of Venice's identity based on pre-Roman roots. Plotting many different ancient and early medieval sources, he created an eclectic history that allowed the Venetians to feel equal with the inhabitants of Rome and the most important political centres of Europe. In turn, Aleksandar Uzelac analyses the 13th-century lives of the Serb king, Stefan Nemanja, written by his two sons. Sava presented the king as a person devoted to spiritual practice, while the second son, the late king’s namesake - Stefan, emphasized his activity as a secular ruler. Both threads, spiritual and secular, were closely intertwined and influenced the formation of Serb identity in the Middle Ages.

The study by archaeologist Jan Hasil draws attention to the consequences of the entanglement of the goals of the medieval chronicler and modern researchers. It analyses the geographical distribution of the most important mythical and historical events presented by Cosmas of Prague in his Chronicle. He compares them with the activity of contemporary archaeologists who refer to the chronicler in search of traces of the beginnings of the Czech state. And he indicates that the chronicler saw the beginnings of the Czechs north of Prague, in the Elbe basin. Meanwhile, historians and archaeologists persistently try to justify the central importance of Prague for the beginnings of statehood with the alleged images from Cosmas’ Chronicle.

In conclusion, Walter Pohl emphasizes that chronicles are still an important source for research on the identities of medieval creators and recipients. They contain complex images of overlapping identities. Their method of presentation depended both on the authors of the sources and on the pre-existing information sets they used when writing their works. Meanwhile, most often we do not have access to alternative versions of ideas about the past of communities of interest to the preserved chronicles. Which may result in too far-reaching conclusions regarding the universality of images preserved in the records available to us.

The presented volume will certainly be a valuable addition to the publishing series that present the history of medieval Northern, Central and Southern Europe to English-speaking readers. But it also has an important methodological reflection to offer to researchers interested in today's key topic of the identity of medieval communities across Europe. Drawing attention to the multitude of entangled identities hidden in chronicles is a tip that can be used by researchers of any period and society, not only medieval Europe. Although the studies included in this volume are of a particular nature, the conclusions drawn from them are of universal importance.

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