17.01.18, Góreckí, The Text and the World

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Marian Coman

The Medieval Review 17.01.18

Góreckí, Píotr. The Text and the World: The Henryków Book, Its Authors, and their Region, 1160-1310. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. pp. xvi, 288. ISBN: 978-0-19-968879-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Marian Coman
University of Bucharest

Piotr Górecki's fascination with the Henryków Book is a lifelong story of incessant curiosity and intimate knowledge. For the last thirty years, Górecki has constantly returned to the Henryków Book, which has served him as an entrée into different subjects of research. After he drew on this source for several articles and published an annotated translation of the whole text into English in 2007, [1] it was only natural to attempt to write an overarching monograph. Thus, The Text and the World might be considered the pinnacle of his scientific activity for the last three decades, as the author himself alludes in the preface (vii). For Górecki, the Henryków Book is simply the Book, and his decision to refer to it as such is already highly suggestive. The Book carries a myriad of meanings and allows too many interpretative possibilities to be captured in a single exegetical attempt. Górecki constantly refers to the limitations of his own approach in what might seem an excessively cautious academic style. However, his scholarly concern with the limits of interpretation is not stylistically but methodologically driven. Unlike some other classic microhistorical works, Górecki does not use his case study to conjure up a wider socio-economic or cultural world. For him, the Henryków Book is not a window into the medieval society, either that of Silesia, of Poland, of East-Central Europe, or of Europe as such. Instead, it is a medieval world in itself. Hence the challenge to interpret the world-within-the text in relation to the world-outside-the text is far more difficult. Piotr Górecki deliberately places himself on the horns of a methodological dilemma, trying to steer clear of the Scylla of (ab)using the text to get to the world, without being thrown into the Charybdis of forgetting the world and losing himself, and his readers, in the labyrinth of the text. The result is a passionate journey, meticulously designed, painfully slow, and occasionally nerve-wracking.

The historians familiar with the Henryków Book would describe it as a codex compiled at the beginning of the fourteenth century, at the Cistercian abbey of Henryków in Silesia, in Poland. The codex, which is now digitalised and made accessible online, [2] consists of two historical narratives of the monastery and of its estate, written by different authors over a span of almost fifty years, including numerous charters embedded within the texts, to which was appended a list of the bishops of Wrocław. For Górecki, the Henryków Book is far more than that, hence his difficulties to pin it down to a specific genre. He describes the codex as an expression of collective memory, but also as an attempt to actively shape one, as a cartulary-chronicle, as a local history, as a book of gifts, as a monastic necrology, as an estate survey and the list could go on. Medievalists are certainly aware of the dangers of oversimplification implied by a clearcut view that assumes homogenous genres. However, Górecki goes beyond the usual approach of blurring generic boundaries--he seems to remove them altogether--and considers the Henryków Book a sui generis text. The book is structured in two parts, entitled "The Text" and "The World." The titles are rather deceptive, as the first part of the book deals not only with the text and its authors, but also with the community they speak to and speak for. The second part goes beyond the text, turning to other types of sources, mostly charters, but only to come back to the Henryków Book after each excursus. Thus, it can be more fittingly described as a continuous dialogue between the world-within-the-Henryków-Book and the world-within-the charters.

The first section comprises four chapters and focuses on the nature of the text itself. Górecki begins with a discussion on the genre of the Henryków Book, placing it within the larger framework of Cistercian historiography and insisting on its hybrid character. He then turns to the authorship problem, engaging in a close reading of the text as an ego-document. There are substantial differences between the first part, written by Abbot Peter, who sometimes recounts his own actions, and the anonymous continuator, who remains a shadowy figure. This is only the first such difference and the discrepancy between the two parts will continue to grow, as Górecki's analysis advances systematically. Peter's intricate narrative of the foundation of the monastery is analysed by Górecki, who argues convincingly that the former abbot drew on the past as a legal resource. The cornerstone of his argument is that Peter was, in fact, contesting alternative versions on the monastery's beginnings, which Górecki is able to pinpoint by using ducal and episcopal charters. Although he writes compellingly on the contesting memories that were circulating in different groups, Górecki is extremely vague in identifying them. I suggest that a closer look into the relationship between the authors and their audiences might help us better understand the Henryków Book as the result, to use Górecki's words echoing Clanchy's: "of a transition from memory to written record" (56). A question that Górecki left largely unanswered is why was Peter, a former abbot of the monastery, so self-justificatory in his autobiographical details and so "expressly polemical" (29) when he was addressing his monastic community. [3]

The last two chapters of the first section look at the Henryków Book through the conceptual lenses of legal memory and authoritative knowledge. This is Górecki at his best and his interpretations of the passages in which Peter wrote on writing convincingly frame his main contention that the Henryków Book was part of a bigger change in the modes of transmission of authoritative knowledge. The subchapter on the meanings of writing in charters is introducing Górecki's comparative method, which he expanded on in the second part of the book. Górecki rightly insists that the shift from memory to written record was not simply a replacement, but "a transition in a complex coexistence between them" (81). Accordingly, he focuses on the threads that connected the oral knowledge and the written word, such as Peter's informants or the charters' witness lists. The analysis of the witness lists is painstakingly meticulous, as Górecki went through hundreds of charters to identify recurrent witnesses and brought to light the communities of knowledge in which they were a part.

The second part of the book comprises five chapters and aims to sketch the world around the Henryków Book, focusing on the lands and people who lived and worked there. In order to map the material world of the monastery, Górecki turns, once again, to the Henryków Book. This time he approaches the text from a different angle, reading it as an estate survey. Górecki carefully reconstructs the strategies used by the monks to compact their properties and to consolidate and enlarge their estate. The other monastic resources--tithes, forests, mills or urban revenues, to name just a few--are also thoroughly analysed. Despite the comprehensive research on the monastic estate, Górecki never loses sight of his main subject: the interactions between individuals and communities. The world of Abbot Peter, analysed in chapter six, is a story of intertwined biographies, in which the key word is facilitator. Actually, facilitator and its derivatives are the buzzwords throughout the whole book and seems to encapsulate Górecki's view of the medieval society, from a rather functionalist perspective. The necessity of mediation is so inescapable that Górecki notices with surprise that a conflict could be solved, every now and then, without a facilitator (166). The three main characters, around which the story revolves, the knight Albert the Bearded, the notary Nicholas and Peter himself, are all, in their own way, very successful facilitators.

The seventh chapter is dedicated to the world of Peter's continuator. As Górecki engagingly argues, there were some substantial changes between Peter's world and that of his continuator, mainly "a shift from gift to purchase as the mode of expansion of the monastic estate" and "a transition in the range of protagonists active in or affected by property transactions" (189-190). One might add that the social role of facilitators seems to have diminished throughout the long thirteenth century. Accordingly, Górecki shifted his attention from the personal interactions to the more institutionalized patterns. For instance, he analyses the standardisation of the service owed to the duke, which took the form of a warhorse fee. Górecki's methodological assumption is that the subjects of his research, such as the meanings of the words service and liberty, the social and economic implications of milling or the use of vernaculars, are "best understood through the diplomas and the Book in conjunction" (212). His technique becomes manifest in the footnotes, where dozens of notes quoting K.H., the acronym for the critical edition of the Henryków Book, and those referring to S.U., the abbreviation for Schlesisches Urkundenbuch, alternate on each subchapter. They seldom overlap, as Górecki prefers to keep the two worlds apart and constantly restrains himself from bridging the gap between them. His methodological precaution is only one of the reasons for his reluctance to advance some broad conclusions. Another one is Górecki's explicit refusal to frame his analysis in a larger conceptual framework, such as those of European frontier or European colonization. Górecki fully justifies his choice, but one might wonder whether the frontier thesis could not be analytically useful. As Górecki himself notices, there seems to be "a connection between German settlement and writing" (148); the agents specialized in milling were "with no recorded exception, Germans" (205) or "the fief-related language always referred to Germans" (222). Obviously, Górecki is fully aware of the debates on "Germanization," but he simply, and elegantly, refuses to engage in this historiographical controversy (256).

Górecki's unwillingness to draw some larger conclusions makes that chapter rather disappointing. At the end of an extremely dense analysis and an in-depth argumentation the reader is, once again, reminded of what the book is not about. Nonetheless, Górecki does provide an articulate and compelling argument of his approach. He convincingly argues that, although the Henryków Book captures a whole universe within its pages, it still is "an irreducibly local source" (257). Therefore, one has to accept Górecki's reading of this source, just as an "entrée into a number of subjects" (257), as the most methodologically sound. In stark contrast with Oscar Halecki, who invented the label of East-Central Europe in order to frame the Polish history for a Western audience, Piotr Górecki unequivocally refuses such an instrumental approach. [4] His main contention is that the society within the Henryków Book has a value in itself and should be analysed as a local world, not just as a periphery of western medieval Europe. For that reason, Górecki seems more inclined to assume for himself the role of the facilitator, mediating between the world-within-the-Henryków-Book, the world-within-the charters and the world of contemporary historiography. The skills required by such a difficult task are thoroughly impressive. Piotr Górecki's ability to approach a wide variety of subjects and to write, equally at ease, legal, anthropological, literary, biographical or local history, to name just of few, is matched only by his capacity to stick close to the sources. Throughout the whole book, there is hardly any page without an excerpt from the Henryków Book, which is never lost sight of. [5]

Nonetheless, Górecki is so captivated by the text that sometimes he risks falling under its spell. Thus, every now and then, Górecki seems too seduced by the Abbot Peter's rhetorical ability. While interpreting Peter's categorical refutation of the kinship tie between Albert and Nicholas, which had an impact on the early history of the monastery, Górecki remains as vague as Peter. The former abbot had his own reasons to leave unnamed those monks who were ready to "place a man over themselves by reason of a kingship" (178). [6] In his analysis Górecki prefers to comment broadly on the strategies of self-positioning and on the renegotiating of memory. However, he does not make any attempt to further disclose the factions within the monastic community. Górecki's concern not to read too much into the text seems to fail him only once. Commenting on a passage about perambulation, Górecki interprets it as a chronicler's reflection on a change that has allegedly happened in the boundary making procedures (104, 249). However, the chronicler monk seems to refer only to an exceptional type of perambulation, performed by the duke himself, in person, "something he had never done before, nor did afterwards" (104).

These minor remarks and comments are in no way intended to minimize the book's achievements. On the contrary, they are the most genuine evidence of Górecki's accomplishment in persuading his readers to engage with his book. By refusing to take an authoritative stance as the interpreter of the Henryków Book, to which he was certainly entitled, Piotr Górecki invites his readers to a mesmerizing journey and compels them to embark on an uneasy quest. Always keeping his readers on their toes, Górecki refuses, until the end, to provide them with any straightforward conclusions. Therefore, the question of how we are to frame this microhistory within a larger picture is left to the reader to answer.



1. Piotr Górecki, A Local Society in Transition: The "Henryków Book" and Related Documents (Toronto: Pontifical Institute for Medieval Studies, 2007).

2. The Book of Henryków: Digitalised by Fides Digital Library, accessed October 20, 2016. http://digital.fides.org.pl/dlibra/docmetadata?id=744&from=publication.

3. Górecki refers to the audience only three times (8, 25, 29). Unlike the terms author and authority, audience is not included in the index of the book.

4. This is a change in Górecki's approach, as he previously used the East-Central Europe umbrella for his published works.

5. One might notice that Górecki is highly reluctant in pursuing further any analysis that would take him farther from the text. See for instance his underdeveloped remark on the insignificant role of the supernatural powers of God and Satan in the Henryków Book (168, 249).

6. The exhortation is written in a negative form, but clearly the Abbot was referring to a group of monks that held Albert in high esteem precisely because of this alleged kinship.

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