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22.08.03 Kotecki et al. (eds.), Christianity and War in Medieval East Central Europe and Scandinavia

22.08.03 Kotecki et al. (eds.), Christianity and War in Medieval East Central Europe and Scandinavia

A noteworthy development in contemporary Medieval Studies is the intensifying dialogue between scholars dealing with East Central Europe and Scandinavia. The last two decades saw the appearance of publications concerning, for example, historiography, the cult of saints, and literacy. Now, a large volume has been presented discussing various interconnections between religion and war in the north-eastern periphery of medieval Latinitas and in the neighbouring part of the Slavia Orthodoxa. The boundaries of this area are drawn quite widely: from Hungary (from the late twelfth century onwards embracing also Dalmatia) through Bohemia and Poland to Scandinavia, and thence to Livonia, Finland, Novgorod and Polotsk. Most of the thirteen articles concentrate on the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, in the first place in order to retrieve traces of the transfer of crusader ideology into this area. One contribution (by Jacek Maciejewski) deals with later medieval matters: an adaptation (and alteration) of a thirteenth-century narrative concerning the military activity of the bishops of Płock in Mazovia.

Two principal issues serve as a frame for all of the case studies in the volume. The first is the essential incompatibility between, on the one hand, the general policy of the Roman Church forbidding men of the cloth to shed blood, and on the other hand the realities of life that led the clergy to participate in military struggles. The second issue can be defined as the extent of cultural appropriation. The question whether conversion to Christianity and the gradual application of Christian ethical norms changed human behaviour and opinions about war and bloodshed that had been developed by indigenous Slavic and Scandinavian culture is broadly discussed in the volume. A rich and multifaceted project emerged to study phenomena situated at the crossroads of political, social, and religious history.

What the volume makes clear, first of all, is the general practice of a sanctification of war which was by no means a medieval peculiarity. As has been rightly pointed out, “a medieval battle always belonged to the sphere of the supernatural and holy--it was a manifestation of God’s will” (255), and in all traditional cultures measures were taken before, during, and after a military confrontation to secure victory. These measures embraced the election of the leader who appeared to be “chosen by God” in one way or another, seeking Divine help by prayers and masses, connecting the timing of the armed confrontation with the liturgical calendar, and, finally, using the protection of relics and other apotropeia. The wide spectrum of these means is skilfully presented by Dušan Zupka in his analysis of the religious practices and rituals of war performed in Hungary from the tenth until the late thirteenth century.

In the context of sanctification of war, one can better understand the belief, explicitly mentioned by medieval authors, that Heaven itself intervened in military struggles. Various forms of such intervention, for instance by the active protection of “military” saints or the Virgin Mary, or the sending of an angel to lead the army, can be found in narratives from Hungary, Poland, Prussia, and Livonia. They can be read as the result of a transfer of ideas from the West by the intermediary of the German Imperial court (181-183). In the same context, one can understand a broad involvement of clerics into the culture of war which went far beyond liturgical tasks or providing pastoral care to the military forces. Clergymen, literate and skilled in building up an argumentation on the basis of authoritative texts, were able to provide arguments for bloodshed and justified even civil war, if needed. Bjørn Bandlien discusses the mechanisms of this process at the time of dynastic conflicts in Norway in the second and third quarter of the twelfth century. Similar involvement of ecclesiastical elites in political games--and, subsequently, often in military confrontations--were visible also in Denmark, Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary, as these countries faced dynastic struggles in the same period. Among others Gábor Barabás argues that, in the case of the Hungarian prelates, this involvement evolved during the thirteenth century from their role as mediators and peacemakers to a position of adherents to one or another political, and in consequence military, camp. Last, but not least, justification of and propaganda for the most “legitimate” bloodshed, that is of crusades--in the north-eastern periphery directed mainly against the “pagans”--was also a task entrusted to churchmen. The lucid presentation by Johnny Grandjean Gøgsig Jakobsen shows how, in the middle of the thirteenth century, the recently created Dominican Order got a kind of monopoly to preach the idea of the crusade against the Prussians, Livonians, and Curonians (99-100). Interestingly, this mendicant involvement also carried serious financial tasks, amongst other things due to responsibility for moneys being collected for supporting the crusade.

Several articles in the volume deal with the most ambiguous aspect of the involvement of the clergy in war, that is the personal and active participation of churchmen in combat. Despite the constant and unwavering policy of the Holy See prohibiting clerics to carry weapons and take part in bloodshed, surprisingly many bishops in the area acted as warlords, especially in confrontation with pagans. Voluntarily or at the request of a ruler (as in the case of the Dalmatian bishops) they led their armies to battle, and on occasion became casualties of war. It must suffice to cite here as an example the decisive battle against the Mongols at Muhi in April 1241, in which no less than five Hungarian bishops lost their lives (46). A noticeable gap between official church policy and popular attitudes towards war (and especially towards crusades) is visible also in development of ideas about the martyrdom of warriors fallen in battle. Kristjan Kaljusaar rightly emphasizes the widening of this gap in the thirteenth century when, on the one hand, the rules of the canonisation process became tightened but, on the other hand, members of the military orders killed by the pagans in Livonia were broadly considered as a community of martyrs (258).

It goes without saying that we can see all these complex relationships between Christianity and war in East Central Europe and Scandinavia through the eyes (in one way or another, the partisan eyes) of medieval authors. As often happens in research on the region, in this volume too a (relative) scarcity of sources is often emphasized. An example: although the Baltic crusades were widely preached, no sermons propagating the idea of the crusade are known to have survived from the region, and one can only guess about their content. Most studies build their argumentation on the basis of narrative sources: chronicles and sagas, annals and hagiographical works. The greater part of this corpus of sources was widely exploited by local scholarship and, to same extent, they are known already to the international scholarly community as well. One of the strongest points of the volume lies in the introduction of the considerable number of the narratives from the old Rus’, going beyond the habitually cited Povest’ vremennykh let (see, for instance the erudite contribution of Anti Selart). Nonetheless, the opportunity to meet again the usual suspects (such as, for instance Saxo Grammaticus, Henry of Livonia, Cosmas of Prague, Master Vincentius, etc.) allows one to notice the limits of the research agenda. Most contributions to the volume offer a meticulous analysis of the intentions of the authors as well as of their intellectual equipment and personal interests. Sometimes less than revealing conclusions are drawn as a consequence. To mention but a few examples, we learn that Henry of Livonia was extremely interested in warfare because of his social origins (252), and that the fifteenth-century eminent Polish historian Jan Długosz “liked to write about battles” (94). Sophisticated interpretations of historical accounts concerning warfare should not conceal the rather obvious fact that for all medieval chroniclers, war (and especially war conducted for religious reasons) was the materia scribendi exactly because war was something to be remembered, a subject that fulfilled the expectations of the intended audience, whether it was a lay or clerical one.

Interestingly, a great deal of attention for the recipients of messages and for the ways ideas about war were received is shown by Martin Wansgaard Jürgensen in his study of the functions of the mural paintings found in several rural churches in Denmark (in Jutland and on the island of Funen, to be precise). In his opinion, the paintings, originating from the first half of the thirteenth century, and depicting some episodes from the life St. Thomas Becket as well as battlefield scenes, may have preserved the memory of real military struggles and were a monument to the self-awareness of the local gentry. However, in a broader sense, images of combat could resonate with every member of the parish community, referring as these images did to widely known metaphors of the Christian life as a combat with the forces of evil (131).

The volume under discussion is marked by a wide application of comparative perspectives. Comparisons between the various countries of East Central Europe, between this region and Scandinavia, and, finally, between this periphery of Latinitas and neighbouring parts of Slavia Orthodoxa, provide a multitude of timely observations. They are also an important contribution to the general discussion about the different ways and strategies of the Christianisation of medieval Europe “from the West” and “from the East.” What is missing from the volume, however, is an overall conclusion which would help the reader to form a clear opinion about the specificity of the area within the whole of Latin Christendom.

This shortcoming seems, however, a minor one in comparison with serious editorial drawbacks, painful if one remembers editors’ complacency, expressed in the introduction that with this volume they offer to the international audience “an original scholarly view” (1), and “original and fresh insights” (20). This may be true, but it is truly regrettable that this intended flagship product of the region’s scholarship is marred by the embarrassingly bad English into which the introduction and some of the articles were translated (especially those translated from Polish). Suffice it to say that, contrary to the editors’ convictions, the volume they produced is not a “collection of chapters” (1), and that this type of scholarly publication ought not to be called an “anthology” (161). Another result of the lack of editorial care are mistakes in spelling and layout (the last occurring especially in the second part of the book). All these defects cannot but provoke the readers’ irritation and their distrust of the bombastic declarations about the “original and fresh insights.” The indexes of personal names and placenames and the general index are useful tools for navigating the book.