The Medieval Review 12.08.10

Garipzanov, Ildar H. Historical Narratives and Christian Identity on a European Periphery: Early History Writing in Northern, East-Central, and Western Europe (c.1070-1200). Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2011. Pp. xiii, 292. 90 EUR. 978-2-503-53367-4. . .

Reviewed by:

Anna Adamska
Utrecht University
a.b.adamska@uu.nl

The volume which will be discussed here, is by no means the first one embracing the "north-east periphery" of medieval Latinitas. The comparative approach to the study of social and cultural phenomena common to early medieval Scandinavia, East-Central Europe (understood as medieval kingdoms of Bohemia, Poland and Hungary) and Eastern Europe has already proved both useful and successful. [1] This time, we receive a collection of studies presenting the "first wave" of historical narratives which appeared in the area grosso modo at the turn of the twelfth century. Despite differences of genre and language, these gesta, chronicles and annals form a surprisingly homogenous group of texts. They all are the first-known attempts to create an account of the earliest history of particular ethnic communities and states. They thus became the foundation of "national" historiographies, a framework for further medieval discourses about the "national" past. Among these local masterpieces one can find, e.g. Ailmon's gesta of the Danish kings, the Historia Norwegie, Agrip, the Icelandic Islendingabók, the Hungarian Anonymous' chronicle and the chronicle of Cosmas of Prague, sketching the history of Bohemia, and finally the Kievian Primary Chronicle.The theme of the volume is how these narratives not just expressed, but in a real sense shaped the "Christian identity" of these young kingdoms in the periphery of Europe. This theme is not entirely new. Ildar Garipzanov, the author of the introduction to the volume, shares the conviction of many scholars that in the Middle Ages "texts not only reflect ethnic, social and cultural identities, they contribute to the creation of 'strategies of distinction'. They give meaning to social practice and are often intended to inspire, guide, change or prevent action, directly or indirectly." [2] However, he fails to define convincingly what the term "Christian identity" actually meant for authors at the turn of the 12th century, nor does he define what the term means for present-day scholars. [3] Although in some contributions an uncertainty can be detected about what we are actually looking for, a close reading of the texts suggests that the main way to express one's own "Christian identity" was to underline the opposition between "us" and "the others," especially pagans. This essential juxtaposition, elevated to the status of the backbone of human history in its entirety, ordered the whole narrative of the History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen of Adam of Bremen, presented in the first case study, again by Ildar Garipzanov. The choice of this text for the opening of the volume was a good one, not least because in a sense it formed a bridge between works created in the "older" centres of Latin culture and the narratives from the periphery. The genre of gesta adopted by Adam also allowed him to express a "missionary Christian identity," which was to influence later historical works in the north-eastern periphery, especially in Scandinavia.

However, the way of defining "ourselves" as Christians by pointing to pagans and all other "Others," could provide problems for the first historians in the periphery whenever they wanted to shape a picture of their national past, for a simple reason: their past used to be pagan. Twelve monographic articles discuss the strategies adopted by historiographers to deal with the pre-Christian period in the history of their peoples. The variety of solutions is truly impressive. In the gesta of the Danish holy king Canute, the memory of old pagan religion was most effectively suppressed. [4] Other texts, such as the Old Norse Agrip af Norégskonnuga sogum and the Latin history of Norwegian kings by Theodoricus, present the passage from heathendom to Christianity as a transition from darkness to light, with the history of the country "really" starting only after conversion.

We can also admire the creativity of other historiographers who tried to legitimise the pagan past and insert it into their national histories. In the eyes of the anonymous chronicler who composed the first gesta of the Polish princes, Providence acted through the dynasty of the Piasts long before their official baptism in 966. Ari, the author of the oldest account of Christianization of Iceland, did not hesitate to emphasize the continuity between the pagan and Christian institutions of social life (the assemblies, law system, administrative division of the country). Describing the conversion as a democratic act of the whole ethnic community, he showed that "Christian identity" could be combined with pride in the pre-Christian past, and--as Else Mundal put it--he showed it "in his own, calm, Old Norse way." [5]

There are also authors discussed in the volume, however, for whom the "Christian identity" of their people is not really the issue. Cosmas of Prague, whose materia scribendi was the intervention of his people's own, Bohemian, saints in national history, at the same time sketched a breathtaking picture of the Golden Age of the pre-Christian Czechs. Ecclesia was Cosmas's home--after all, he was dean of the Prague cathedral chapter--but, according to Janos Bak, Cosmas strongly identified with an ethnic community that was not identical with a "Christian community." [6] And for the author of the oldest annals of Novgorod, also coming from the milieu of a cathedral chapter, the succession of local archbishops and the growth of the material wealth of his Church determined the rhythm of life of the local community, and the "others" were very far away.

The book presented here turns the attention to sources, which until now have hardly been considered by mainstream "Western" scholars. It also offers some insights into the local scholarly traditions of their analysis--often with on-going polemics concerning their authorship, authenticity and transmission. The volume's ambition to depart from traditional methodological frames remains unfulfilled, however. [7] It can be read more as a collection of monographic studies than as a polyphonic contribution to the discussion on the role of texts in shaping medieval identities. This is mainly because the conceptual frame of the volume was not elaborated sufficiently.

Our main regret concerns the absence of a general conclusion, which would enable a verification of some of the assumptions, expressed a priori in the introduction, and in the construction of the whole volume. The contributions clearly show the importance of the concrete political and cultural setting in which the historiographers under consideration were shaping their pictures of the past. Most of them dialogued with their own times, trying to answer the expectations of their audience. Actual memories of the acts of one's own people's conversion may have become "blurred and elusive," but the "historiosophical" construct of "missionary Christian identity" and of the eternal struggle between Christianity and heathendom, used by Adam of Bremen or Gallus Anonymus, was fed by continuing real struggles with real pagans (in Pomerania until the 1130s). Furthermore, we have to believe that the works presented in the volume "played an important role in the process of identity formation," but surprisingly little attention has been paid to the problem of their transmission and later use.

One may regret that the structure of the volume reflects old-fashioned divisions between texts in "Latin" and in the "vernacular," which have been abandoned in the recent study of medieval literacy. Indeed, the contributions concerning the Scandinavian material show quite clearly that the traditional divisions between Latin and the vernacular as well as those between "oral" and "written" are unjustified, because of the far reaching intertextuality and permanent interaction between oral and written ways of textual transmission. [8] The deliberate choice of language for the narrative was an important decision. This has been carefully investigated by Jonas Wellendorf for the case of the Icelandic Hungrvaka.

But above all, one important question remains unanswered: is there something special about the role of historical narratives in shaping "Christian identity" in the northeastern periphery of medieval Europe? The contributions suggest that, as had happened earlier to groups of "barbarians" after their conversion, so for the peoples in the periphery the first historical narratives were the way to connect their own past not only with universal history, but also with the Christian philosophy of history. [9] The conceptual and textual tools, too, seem to be generally the same, because at least the Scandinavian and Central European writers were formed using the same models of textual culture, which was formed by the Bible and a staple diet of Christian and classical authors. All this means that we are dealing with the transfer of a model of discourse, which was adapted by subsequent newcomers to the cultural commonwealth created by the Roman Church. One might have expected more on the diversity within the periphery, considering the differences between Roman and Orthodox Christianity, but further comparative studies are still needed. The book presented here provides enough materials for ongoing discussions.

-------- Notes:

1. See especially: The Neighbours of Poland in the 11th century, ed. P. Urbañczyk, Warszawa, 2002; The Making of Christian Myths in the Periphery of Latin Christendom c. 100-1300), ed. L. B. Mortensen, Copenhagen, 2006; Christianization and the Rise of Christian Monarchy. Scandinavia, Central Europe and Rus', c. 900-1200, ed. N. Berend, Cambridge, 2007; The Edges of the Medieval World, ed. G. Jaritz, J. Kreem, Budapest, 2009.

2. M. de Jong, R. McKitterick, W. Pohl, I. Wood, "Introduction," in: Texts and Identities in the Early Middle Ages, ed. R. Corradini, et al., Wien, 2006, p. 4. This volume is the result of a long-term research project, which started in 1996 and is still going strong, within the frame of the annual International Medieval Congress in Leeds. The relationship between texts and emerging identities is also an important part of the HERA Project "Cultural Memories and the Resources of the Past, 400-1000 AD," directed again by M. de Jong, R. McKitterick, W. Pohl and I. Wood. See also: The Uses of the Past in the Early Middle Ages, ed. Y. Hen, M. Innes, Cambridge, 2000.

3. A good picture of prescriptions and prohibitions concerning "Christian behaviour" in daily life just on the turn of the 12th century, can be found in the early account of the mission of Otto of Bamberg in Pomerania in the 1120s. S. Ottonis Episcopi Babenbergensis vita Prieflingenis , ed. J. Wikariak, K. Liman, in: Monumenta Poloniae Historica, series nova, VII/1 (Warszawa, 1966), 51-52. This list of rules, concerning the reception of the sacraments, religious practices, sexual morality and magic, can be used as a starting-point for further discussion.

4. Michael Gelting, "Two Early Twelfth-Century Views of Denmark's Christian Past: Ailnoth and the Anonymous of Roskilde," p. 54.

5. E. Mundal, "Islendingabok: The Creation of an Icelandic Christian Identity," p. 114.

6. J. M. Bak, "Christian Identity in the Chronicle of the Czechs by Cosmas of Prague," p. 174.

7. The most spectacular attempt of such a break, that is the interpretation of the Kievian Primary Chronicle according to the method of Hyden White (D. Ostrowski, "Pagan past and Christian identity in the Primary Chronicle") is an interesting intellectual exercise, but does not really contribute to answer the main question of the volume.

8. Ibidem, and Th. M. Andersson, "The Two Ages in Agrip af Nóregskonnuga sogum, passim. From the rich literature on the subject see: E. Mundal, "How Did the Arrival of Writing Influence Old Norse Oral Culture," in: Along the Oral-Written Continuum. Types of Texts, Relations and their Implications, ed. S. Rankoviæ et al.,Turnhout, 2010, p. 163-182; M. Mostert, "Using and Keeping Written Texts: Reading and Writing as Forms of Communication in the Early Middle Ages," in: Scrivere e leggere nell'Allto medioevo, Spoleto, 2012: Settimane di studio della Fondazione Centro Italiano di studi sull'Alto Medioevo, 59, 1, p. 71-96.

9. See: S. Bagge, "Theodoricus Monachus: The Kingdom of Norway and the History of Salvation," p. 74.