15.04.19, Berend et al., Central Europe in the High Middle Ages

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Florin Curta

The Medieval Review 15.04.19

Berend, Nora, Przemysław Urbańczyk, and Przemysław Wiszewski. Central Europe in the High Middle Ages: Bohemia, Hungary, and Poland, c. 900-c. 1300. Cambridge Medieval Textbooks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. pp. xi, 536. ISBN: 9780521781565 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Florin Curta
University of Florida

As William Jordan writes on the back cover, "the term Central Europe is fraught, but there is no doubt that, however it is defined, present-day Anglophone medievalists are woefully ignorant about the region. In this book Nora Berend, Przemysław Urbańczyk, and Przemysław Wiszewski address the history of Bohemia, Hungary and Poland from 900 to 1300 and provide a welcome synthesis that will go a long way toward helping overcome this ignorance." "Central Europe" in this book is not exactly that region of Europe located between 10 and 30 degrees eastern longitude, and between 45 and 55 degrees northern latitude. The authors pay no attention to the lands of Central Europe now within German and Austrian borders, while at the same time avoiding the now commonly used phrase "East Central Europe." The first two maps of the book (viii-ix) reveal the political undertones of that conceptual choice: to the northeast, Poland's neighbors are the "pagan Balt tribes," which are presumably excluded from Central Europe because of their belated adoption of Christianity. Ten out of 491 pages are dedicated to the "early history of the region," which has absolutely nothing to do with the topic at hand. Instead of a list of archaeological sites linked to the activity of Homo sapiens sapiens (45) or of a discussion of the prehistoric Western Linear Pottery and Funnel Beaker cultures in Poland (48), the reader would have been better served by the same number of pages dedicated to barrow cemeteries, pilgrimage, social unrest and violence, or Hungary's relations with the Latin Empire of Constantinople, the Golden Horde, and Bulgaria--all topics not covered in this book.

The authors' declared goal is "to study the parallels as well as the differences" in the development of the Central European countries "in a more systematic manner" (39). The book is therefore organized topically, not chronologically. In every chapter separate sections are dedicated to specific issues (e.g., "Agriculture and estate organization" in chapter 5). Within each section there are separate, clearly marked subdivisions reserved for each of the three countries in the region (Bohemia, Poland, and Hungary--always in the same order). This well-thought organization makes it easy to find quickly material for comparison with other regions of Europe, particularly the West. Despite the promise in the introduction, one is however left with the task of culling parallels and differences from the juxtaposed sub-sections on Bohemia, Poland, and Hungary. In other words, there is very little comparison within the region. Instead, the authors offer statements too general to have any analytical value: "In all three polities, internal consolidation was a complex process, tied to the establishment of institutional structures, but also linked to the building of--sometimes ephemeral, sometimes more stable--alliances, the elimination of rivals and power struggles between neighbours" (138). Those who, like William Jordan, only want an introduction to the medieval history of Central Europe may find that sufficient. Historians who look for an in-depth analysis of Central Europe in the Middle Ages will, however, be disappointed. Following long and terse descriptive sections, there is little, if any critical discussion. No alternatives are offered to hotly debated interpretations (e.g., the so-called Central European model advanced in the 1960s and 1970s by Dušan Třeštík and Barbara Krzemieńska), and the reader is not introduced to any new ideas. The book is in fact just a survey of current research.

There are of course qualitative differences between chapters. The best by far is the chapter on ecclesiastical history, while that dealing with "the question of origins" is the weakest. The latter is full of factual errors and half-truths. The Herules are a "German tribe" (47), and the interpretation of the archaeological evidence is based on Jordanes' Getica (49). There was no migration of the "Romanized elites" from Sirmium to Dalmatia in the late sixth century, and no Onogurs "around the Danube prior to the Hungarian settlement" (43 and 103). One is told that "in the sixth and seventh centuries Byzantine observers of the central European area recorded the presence of Sklavinoi," even though Byzantine authors did not know of any Slavs in Central Europe (a region for which they had little, if any interest) (52). Similarly, the Slavs are said to have "an egalitarian social structure...little jewellery; and a 'single' language" (53). Nothing is known about languages spoken in the sixth and seventh centuries in Central Europe. Moreover, hoards (such as that found in Poštorná, Moravia), Byzantine coins, and so-called "Slavic" bow fibulae contradict both the idea of jewel-less Slavs, and the outdated notion of their primitive, egalitarian society. There is a nineteenth-century, pan-Slavic ring to such statements as "at the beginning of the ninth century they [the Slavs] could consider themselves the sole lords over a quarter of the continent" (55). The differences between Western and Eastern Christianity are at times exaggerated. For example, we are told that "the Orthodox Church tolerated burial under mounds until the beginning of the thirteenth century; thus its area of dominance may be identified archaeologically from the eleventh century onwards" (317; see also page 324 with n. 29). However, burial under mounds was still practiced in Bohemia at that same time. The inhumations placed on top of the original cremation under one of the eight prehistoric barrows excavated in the late nineteenth century in Vysoky Újezd nad Dědinou (eastern Bohemia) contained twelve large S-shaped temple pendants, which point to a late eleventh- or early-twelfth-century date.

There is much terminological confusion in this book. "Nomadism" is mistaken for "pastoralism" (79), while "Venetian Republic" and "Germany" are anachronistically used for the period around year 1000 (111 and 161). Memel is the Lithuanian name for Klaipėda, not for Königsberg/Kaliningrad (438), and Zemun is a separate town, and not a "part of Belgrade" (233). No evidence exists that the 1091 Cuman attack on Hungary was "unleashed" by Emperor Alexius I Comnenus (232). Those mentioned by Ibrahim ibn Yaqub as trading in Prague were "Turks" (Magyars), not Jews from Hungary (255). There is no apparent reason to cite Patrick Geary's Myth of Nations in reference to Samo (54 with n. 21), while completely ignoring Omeljan Pritsak and Peter Golden in reference to the Kangar-Pechenegs (72) or Victor Spinei in reference to the Cuman bishopric (p. 443). The works of younger historians are equally ignored: no mention of Robert Antonín's studies of the ideal ruler in Bohemia, or of Mikołaj Głaydsz and his now fundamental book on Poland and the Crusades. No Slovak historian appears in the notes of various sub-sections dedicated to Hungary, despite great contributions to the study of such key issues as rituals and symbolic communication (Dušan Zupka), minting (Ján Hunka), religious reforms in Hungary (Vincent Múcska), medieval queens (Martin Homza), or the social transformations of the thirteenth century (Erika Javošová). According to the author of the sub-section on "consolidation" in Hungary, Christianization in Transylvania took off only after the Hungarian conquest of the region (149). However, the church excavated in Alba Iulia in front of the St. Michael Cathedral--the earliest such building in Transylvania--has been convincingly dated to the mid-tenth century, before the Hungarian conquest. The comments that probably one and the same author made on Otto of Freising's portrait of Hungarians are based on Sverre Bagge's article on the Gesta Friderici, and not on the Gesta (193). Had the latter been the case, one would have noted that "the tyrannical form of government and barbarian character of the inhabitants of Hungary" are not "juxtaposed to the anarchy of the Italians," since the former appear in Book I, and the latter in Book II. Moreover, while depicting the Hungarians in the worst possible colors, Otto of Freising also compared them to the Byzantines, perhaps in order to emphasize that even before entering Byzantium, Frederick Barbarossa got a taste of it in Hungary.

The lack of editorial coordination may be responsible for opposite points of view appearing in different parts of the book. For example, doubts are (rightly) raised on pages 277-278 about the so-called service settlements, while their existence passes for fact on pages 305 and 308. The notes could have definitely benefitted from a firmer editorial hand. Errors abound, and some of them have produced hilarious effects. For example, the title of Ivan Borkovský's book on Levý Hradec is mutilated in such a way that the name of the site becomes that of Borkovský's co-author (85 with n. 96). Other notes are a sad illustration of academic small-mindedness. In note 16 on page 176, the reader is told, without any justification, that "Z. Kosztolnyik's works are utterly unreliable." That is sufficient cause for damnatio memoriae: instead of In my Spirit and Thought I Remained a European of Hungarian origin: Medieval Historical Studies in Memory of Zoltán J. Kosztolnyik, the book is cited as Capitulum VI (333 with n. 65), even though the latter is the title of the series. Conversely, Die Friesacher Münze im Alpen-Adria-Raum. Akten der Friesacher Sommerakademie, Friesach (Kärnten), 14. bis 18. September 1992 is wrongly attributed to István Gedai, although it is actually a collection of studies edited by Reinhard Härtel and Markus Wenninger (p. 288 with n. 55). There are many misspellings, in the notes ("Maedievalia" for "Mediaevalia" on page 97 with n. 136; "Zwiefalen" for "Zwiefalten" on page 375 with n. 153; "bracteats" instead of "bracteates" on page 452 with n. 41), as well as in the text ("Isiah" for "Isaiah" on page 136; "Kędzierzavvy" for "Kędzierawy" on page 175; "Odera" for "Odra" on page 307; "dioecese" for "diocese" on pages 336 and 389; "Alba Julia" for "Alba Iulia" on page 347). There is no room here for all the Czech (but interestingly not Hungarian) titles that are misspelled or without diacritics--not a good sign for an introduction to the historiography of medieval Central Europe.

Several passages are cited in Latin in the early chapters of the book, without any English translation (86, 96, 114-115). Instead of "groat," the coin is called "grossus" (451-452), and coats of arms are "escutcheons" (484). However, Polish and Hungarian translations are provided for certain phrases or terms. "Polskie prawo książęce" is indicated after "Polish ducal law," as if the understanding of the latter would not be possible without the former (214). Hungarian equivalents are given for Latin terms pertaining to social, administrative, or political organization: "The contemporary term was castrum or civitas, vernacular vár" (153). Elsewhere in the text, however, one learns that "the first surviving [Hungarian] vernacular texts were tied to the pastoral role of the church" (402), and therefore contained no administrative or political terms. What then is the evidence of such terms as nádor or megyék being used in the 11th or 12th century? The authors seem to have agreed on using "native" names for the medieval rulers--a sound decision: if one employs Bolesław Chrobry instead of Boleslav the Brave, one must also accept István I, instead of Stephen I. However, there is really no logic behind the use of "native" river or place names where English equivalents are available (e.g., Laba, instead of Elbe on page 47; Brünn instead of Brno on page 167; Lausitz for Lusatia on pages 224-225; Schwabia instead of Swabia on page 375; Karnten and Kraina instead of Carinthia and Carniola on page 434).

Still, there is much of value in this book. Berend, Urbańczyk, and Wiszewski offer a solid survey of the medieval history of an important region of Europe. Their topical treatment of the subject matter adds much to the existing literature on medieval states, church, economy, or societies. Their sections on ecclesiastical institutional structures, monasticism and regular clergy, as well as liturgy and saints are excellent points of departure for any beginning graduate student in medieval history. If advised readers put down this book because there is no overarching argument and no conclusion, few will do so without having learned a great deal along the way.

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