The Medieval Review 12.09.28

Pleszczyński, Andrzej. The Birth of a Stereotype: Polish Rulers and their Country in German Writings c. 1000 A.D. East Central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 450-1450. Leiden: Brill, 2011. Pp. vii, 353. $182.00. ISBN: 978-90-04-18554-8.

Reviewed by:

David Warner
Rhode Island School of Design

Bishop Thietmar of Merseburg was a man of strong opinions and antipathies, and he was happy to share them with his readers. When it came to the Piast dukes of Poland, those opinions and antipathies acquired a degree of venom that still impresses. He liked the dukes well enough when they were subservient and humble, but not so much when he thought they were arrogant and uppity. He was particularly annoyed by Boleslav Chrobry, son of Duke Mieszko I, the second representative of the Piast line. Here was a man whose father had been so humble that he would not have refused deference to a Saxon margrave and, yet, he had been elevated from a tribute-payer to a lord and dared to lord it over those who should rightly be his superiors. [1] For this outrage, Thietmar held Otto III responsible, the emperor having met with Boleslav at Gniezno and bestowed a new, higher rank upon him. With regard to the Poles, in general, he was somewhat more generous. To get anything useful out of them, so he opined, they had to be punished as one would a stubborn ass, but their customs were occasionally praiseworthy. Given the relative novelty of Christianity among the Poles, for example, Thietmar thought it admirable that people found to have eaten meat after Septuagesima were punished by having their teeth knocked out. [2] Rather a backhanded compliment, to be sure.

It would be unwise to generalize from the testimony of a single German bishop. Indeed, Thietmar's own cousin, Brun of Querfurt, expressed remarkably positive views regarding Boleslav and the Piasts. But given the troubled, modern history of relations between Germany and Poland and the degree to which the medieval scholarship produced by both countries has, at times, provided a channel for reciprocal ill-feeling, one might justifiably feel something of a chill when reading Thietmar's comments. Although Pleszczyऔski refers rarely, if at all, to that history and body of scholarship, readers who keep them in mind will better appreciate the dispassionate perspective that counts as one of the more positive characteristics of this volume. Pleszczyऔski's perspective is noteworthy in other ways, as well. His volume is representative of a relatively recent and growing trend in medieval scholarship, namely, the publication in English translation of research produced by scholars resident in East Central and Eastern Europe. This reviewer will date himself somewhat by noting that these are areas formerly separated from Western Europe and the Americas, politically and culturally, by that curious entity known as the "Iron Curtain." That the voices and perspectives of scholars such as Pleszczyऔski are being included in our ongoing discussion of the Middle Ages can only be viewed as a positive development that is likely to have stimulating effect.

In general, one might argue that Pleszczyऔski's work reflects both older and more recent trends in medieval scholarship. It reflects older trends in focusing on the medieval natio, long a topic of interest to medievalists. It reflects more recent trends in that it is not concerned with the traditional question of how specific medieval nationes evolved into modern nation-states, but rather with how a particular medieval natio and its elite were viewed by contemporaries. As his causa scribendi and entry-point Pleszczyऔski cites an all too common and all too modern issue: ethnic stereotyping. "The Poles," he notes, "used to be perceived by Western Europeans as in a way inferior...ascribed vulgarity, ridiculed for their allegedly peculiar customs, and they even happened to be seen as barbarians" (1). Slavs in general and Poles in particular were said to be primitive, savage and servile by nature. Although evidence of such stereotyping can be found in both the medieval and modern eras, Pleszczyऔski argues that the medieval stereotype of "the Pole-Slav-barbarian" must be considered as a distinct phenomenon, separate from the "realities of the modern world" (1). The disagreement between Thietmar and Brun, for example, was not based on racism or nationalism, but rather on their differing conceptions of the "special mission of the Saxon empire."

As the chronological focal point for his investigation of this topic, Pleszczyऔski has chosen the years 963-1034, a period that witnessed the conversion of the Poles to Christianity and the not-unrelated emergence of the Piasts as their dukes and sometime kings. Although ultimately forced to surrender the title, Duke Mieszko II reigned as king of Poland between 1025 and 1032, and there is some thought that Boleslav Chrobry may have been granted the status of a king by Otto III. This was also a period in which interaction between the Piasts and the Ottonian-Salian Reich attained a particularly high level of intensity, characterized both by violent confrontation and by cooperation. Indeed, as Pleszczyऔski notes, it has been argued that contemporaries may have treated Duke Boleslav Chrobry in some sense as a "territorial lord of the Empire," the equivalent of a German margrave (85). This period of intense interaction between Poles and Germans also coincided with a period of high literary output on the part of writers residing within or associated with the Reich. A selection of these writers provides Pleszczyऔski with the majority of his evidence. On this list of informants, readers will mostly encounter familiar names: Widukind and Thietmar tend to dominate the analysis. Less familiar perhaps are the testimonies of Ibrahim ibn Yaqub, a traveler-cum-diplomat who visited northern Europe in the tenth century and that of the Codex Mathildis, a manuscript sent to Mieszko II by the duchess of Lotharingia. The codex includes a laudatory poem dedicated to Mieszko II and, until the nineteenth century, it also included a portrait of the king/duke. The portrait survives in the form of two modern copies.

As one of the "prime goals" of this study, Pleszczyऔski has attempted to "identify the cultural and political context" of the opinions that German sources offered with regard to Poland and its rulers (323). His methodology rests on a close reading of these sources, with particular attention being paid to their use of key terms and concepts. Overall, he argues for what one might characterize as an evolutionary arc. Vaguely negative opinions in the early period of German-Polish relations became more complex, with both negative and positive aspects, as cooperation between the Piasts and the Reich increased. As relations between the Piasts and the Reich began to sour during the reign of Henry II, the balance between negative and positive opinions began to shift in favor of the former. By 1034, negative opinion was dominant. To reach this interesting--albeit not terribly startling--conclusion, Pleszczyऔski has made certain assumptions regarding the authority of his informants. As these assumptions are not acknowledged, they are worthy of mention in this review.

Although Pleszczyऔski's analysis is based on close readings of a limited number of texts, he has endowed those texts with greater authority by assuming that they are reflective of some larger audience or body of opinion. On the basis of two passages in Widukind's Saxon history, for example, he argues that one can determine "the way the Polish Piast ruler and his state were perceived by contemporary German observers" (11). In the case of ibn Yaqub, the fact that this wide-ranging traveler visited Emperor Otto I would suggest that his opinions regarding the Piasts reflect opinion at court. Indeed, in a kind of effect-to-cause reasoning, Pleszczyऔski argues that these mostly German texts can also reveal the thinking of the Polish elite: that they suggest, in particular, how the Piasts attempted to influence opinion by adopting behaviors that countered existing stereotypes. Most medievalists would probably concede that we sometimes face the unhappy choice between generalizing on the basis of a less-than-abundant pool of evidence or remaining silent. But given the growing body of literature concerned with the question of whether or when one can speak of a verifiable, medieval "public," readers might have expected a more nuanced definition of the "public" or audience for the texts surveyed in this study, especially since the analysis so often seems to rest on the assumption that these texts were influential, both reflecting and affecting the opinion in both the Reich and Poland.



1. Thietmar of Merseburg, Chronicon 5.10, ed. R. Holtzmann, Die Chronik des Bischofs Thietmar von Merseburg und ihre Korveier überarbeitung, MGH SSRG NS 9 (Berlin: Weidmann, 1935), 232-33.

2. Thietmar, Chronicon 8.2, ed. Holtzmann, 494-5.

Copyright (c) 2012 David Warner

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