03.12.20, Klaniczay, Holy Rulers and Blessed Princesses

Main Article Content

Thomas Head

The Medieval Review baj9928.0312.020


Klaniczay, Gabor. Eva Palmai, trans.. Holy Rulers and Blessed Princesses: Dynastic Cults in Medieval Central Europe. Series: Past and Present Publications. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. xviii, 490. ISBN: 0-521-42018-0.

Reviewed by:
Thomas Head
The City University of New York

Gábor Klaniczay has presented, in this work originally published in Hungarian in 2000, an enormously ambitious and extremely thorough examination of the medieval cults of saints who belonged to royal dynasties. His chosen title is in a sense too narrow, for while he focuses on cults from Hungary, Bohemia, and other central European lands, he considers the larger European context so extensively that his work is quite simply the best study to date of the intersection of royalty and sanctity in medieval Europe. He presents the essence of the theme he will be examining as follows, "The holy ruler's special relationship to the powers on high . . . [which] guarantees his country's welfare in some mysterious way. What all of this adds up to is the religious legitimation of secular power in terms of royal and dynastic sanctity, the medieval variant of sacral kingship." (p. 2, emphases in original)

Klaniczay uses his introduction to lay out, succinctly and ably, the main lines of the historiographical traditions concerning both royal sanctity and sacral kingship. He is particularly interested in and engaged with the work of the many twentieth-century scholars from Mitteleuropa for whom these subjects were so compelling. Often speaking "as a Hungarian medievalist" (see, for example, p. 13), he exegetes the political and ideological underpinnings of much of this scholarship. Klaniczay proceeds in the first chapter to consider how medieval ideas of royal sanctity were related to practices of sacral kingship in the ancient world. The opening pages of the book proper are thus a somewhat dull potted history of forms of kingship in the ancient Mediterranean world; essential to the overall architectonic of the argument, these pages are simply less interesting than the book as a whole, and the reader should not lose heart. Klaniczay sensibly argues that Christian ideas of holy rulership developed out of the imperial cult of the late Roman empire. This intermediate conclusion is essential to the very important second chapter where he uses a survey of the saintly kings of the early middle ages to debunk the old, but still potent, thesis of the pagan Germanic origins of European sacral kingship. Rather, the distinctly Roman and Christian ideas coalesce into the king who endures martyrdom to protect his church and thus the faith of his kingdom. Two late tenth-century texts--the passions of King Edmund of East Anglia by Abbo of Fleury and of Wenceslas of Bohemia by Gumpold of Mantua--serve as the key conduits of this model into the thought and practice of the high middle ages. Importantly the latter concerns an episode in the conversion of central European kingdoms to Christianity. It is there that, as charted in the third chapter, a new and different model of the "saintly institutor of Christian kingship" grew during the eleventh century in the cults of such kings as Stephen of Hungary. In this chapter, Klaniczay is particularly interested in showing how Christian ideas of holiness and rulership mutate as they are adapted in newly Christianized kingdoms.

In the fourth chapter Klaniczay describes the development of two very different models of royal saint during the course of the twelfth century. One is the "chaste prince" such as Henry II of Germany, based on the earlier Christian royal martyr. The other is the increasingly militant patron of the fatherland, who adds ever more knightly values to the model of Stephen. While the two ideals were theoretically in tension with one another, Klaniczay also shows how the two categories in practice overlapped. He brilliantly describes how chivalric values came increasingly to influence the portrait of all royal saints, even that of the pacific martyr Edmund, as his story was repeatedly retold in Latin, the vernaculars, and in images. The main focus of this chapter is Ladislas of Hungary (+1112), who was apparently not celebrated as a saint until the inauguration of his cult under King Béla III in 1192. A politically useful patron emerged, yet another member of the Arpad dynasty, who displayed an interesting mixture of elements of chivalric culture borrowed from western Europe and imperial cult taken from Byzantium.

Each of the last two chapters weighs in at a hefty one-hundred pages, almost the size of a short monograph in itself. First comes a detailed analysis of the nine women from royal or princely families who were beatified over the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the most famous and popular of whom was Elizabeth of Hungary. These women, a combination of pious widows who patronized convents and princesses who avoided marriage by taking the veil, were the chief means by which the mendicant orders entered central Europe. They used their family resources to establish mendicant convents in which they practiced a life of simplicity and poverty which was a conscious and effective foil to the ostentatious court life of their families. They blended the two most important currents of late medieval holiness, female sanctity and mendicant poverty, and thus adapted ideals of Italian origin to the realities of kingdoms of the eastern "periphery" such as Hungary. While these central European women constituted the great majority of "royal saints" in these centuries, Klaniczay does offer a comparison to their west European contemporaries, most importantly Louis IX of France. In the final chapter Klaniczay describes how the cults of these women flourished during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in their native countries where the cults were encouraged and patronized by the ruling dynasties as a sacred confirmation of their power and authority. Thus the women who had self-consciously rejected court life became in a sense the cornerstones of those very courts in later generations. Their cults also flourished in the western lands of Europe, particularly France and Italy, through the mediation of the Angevin dynasty which married into central European ruling families. There various traits common to female Italian saints, such as mystical visions and stigmata, were added to the portraits of Elizabeth of Hungary and the others, even though they had not actually exhibited those traits in their lives. Throughout these chapters, Klaniczay carefully crafts his argument in light of and response to André Vauchez' magisterial Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages (French second edition, Rome, 1988; English translation, Cambridge, 1997).

Klaniczay ends the book with a sixteen-page conclusion which is new to the English translation. Here he evaluates new developments in scholarship since the original composition of the book, considers how he might proceed to rewrite the book in the light of those developments, and argues for the importance of the so-called "periphery" of Europe in the history of the so-called "mainstream."

One aspect of the book worthy of separate comment is the use of art historical evidence. The cults considered in this book were the inspiration for many illuminated manuscripts, reliquaries, and sumptuously decorated chapels. Klaniczay makes extensive use of this evidence and has provided the book with ninety-one black-and-white illustrations, mostly of very good clarity and quality. He is very attuned to the importance of the symbolic representation of both holiness and royal authority, yet he mostly considers the visual evidence as simple illustrations of the texts which he has read, and not as independent texts. This is a failing among historians commonly decried by art historians. To his credit, Klaniczay notes in the conclusion that he wishes he had incorporated art historical scholarship and evidence more fully into his argument.

I am, not unsurprisingly, completely unable to judge the specific merits of the actual translation from the Hungarian presented in this volume. The English reads quite fluidly and gives the general impression of being of high quality. There are, for example, surprisingly few inconsistencies or oddities in the rendering of personal names and other proper nouns, problems often rampant in translated volumes (but see Gerald of Aurillac and Géraud d'Aurillac on p. 115; "Gratianus" for the author of the Decretum on p. 188; the complexly macaronic "the Cathari, the Waldenses, the Umiliati" on pp. 195 and 200; and "Poor Clare" beside "Clariss" on pp. 238-9). English translations of scholarly works, and some but not all primary sources, are regularly noted in the footnotes. There are a handful of errors of fact which have probably been introduced in the translation process (see, for example, the identification of St. Jerome et al. as "Apostolic Fathers" on p. 196, and the introduction on p. 60 of St. Augustine, presumably instead of members of the imperial family, into the discussion of the endlessly enigmatic Trier Ivory). Another, even smaller, handful of errors of fact must be laid at the door of the author himself: it was, for example, the relics of St. Faith alone, not yet placed in the glorious reliquary statue, which were stolen by the monks of Conques from Agen in the ninth century (cf. p. 146). There is one persistent problem of worthy note which may be the fault of the translator or of the author himself. Throughout the work, the words "canonise" and "canonisation" are used in an inconsistent manner (see, for example, pp. 79, 98, 111, 125, 133, 148, 158, 171, 185, 195, etc.). At times they appear to refer specifically to a papal authorization of a saint's cult, at other times the use appears to be intentionally more general. So much for the reviewer's duty of reporting problems and errors, which remain acceptably small in number for a translated volume of this size and complexity.

Cambridge University Press is to be congratulated on making such an important work--particularly one published not in French or German, but in a language not read by the great majority of western scholars--available in translation so soon after its initial publication. And, it should be noted in conclusion, the importance of Klaniczay's study reaches far beyond the bounds of the history of Christian hagiography, or even of medieval religious history. As he succinctly notes, "St. Stephen, whose canonisation was occasioned by state policy consideration, continues to be a saint for state and political occasions to this day." (p. 147) Stephen's relics have indeed played an important role in the public theater of Hungarian politics since the euphoric upheavals of the late 1980s. Klaniczay's own thoughts on the contemporary implications of this very impressive and welcome study are succinctly noted in the conclusion.

Article Details

Author Biography

Thomas Head

The City University of New York