Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
22.09.01 Rychterov√°/Kalhous (eds.), Competing Narratives of the Past in Central and Eastern Europe

22.09.01 Rychterov√°/Kalhous (eds.), Competing Narratives of the Past in Central and Eastern Europe


If one believes the past exists somewhere waiting to be discovered, or that medieval chronicles are mainly matter-of-fact reports of unvarnished deeds, or that reliability and trustworthiness are characteristic of such histories, or that Ranke was right in suggesting that history is the quest for what really happened, then such acolytes are advised not to read this book. What follows will be disturbing, troublesome and acrimonious. What this volume manifestly demonstrates is that history is often a series of distortions, an exercise in manipulation, invention in the service of ideas, the creative elaboration of origins and evidence, and the construction of ‘truths’ politically expedient and socially demanded. In short, the values of the past may only be as old or relevant as the present. Mythistory prevails: The embroidering of history or the creation of memory after the fact. The essays herein compete for top prize in the quest to construct identity. Many of the narratives developed within the sources explored in this volume serve various propagandist purposes pertinent to the later Middle Ages. The cultures and identities that demanded and produced these histories wished to adulate themselves, their origins, and their achievements. Some of these later narratives appear to be driven by nationalist, religious, social or political agendas (or all of the above), and fueled by revitalized, renewed, or repeatedly rewritten convictions that emerged as historiographical game-changers. These revised narratives actively altered and eventually replaced earlier perspectives. Those in power demanded and dictated legitimation and credibility. Scribes, copyists specializing in manuscript emendations, continuators, and translators developed and redefined historical truth. The historian has to come to grips with these dizzying factors.

Medieval Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Germans, Lithuanians, and Austrians were only a few groups who desired both a famous past and compelling historical traditions that suited later ideas and when none could be found they simply invented narratives to fill the needs and claims of anxious descendants. Some of these creations were ingenious, others less compelling, but each strove to construct identity and historiographical traditions that explained, defended, and advanced assumptions, ideologies, and political ambitions. The results were always true but seldom factual. Chronicles emerged from the dimness of ages past, ghosts were rescued (or conjured) from the shadows of oblivion, and empty years were filled with ideas, events, personalities, and developments that explained not only the past, but enhanced the present, and provided clear pathways into the future. Heroic figures, model bishops, mythical ancestors, ideal communities, warriors of God, language superiorities, and narratives of power and privilege all serve to project German excellence, Polish prowess, Czech importance, and Hungarian myth into the distant past and provide foundations for the beginning of history.

This volume is the sixth and last in a series devoted to the theme of historiography and identity and focuses on the idea of competing narratives in east central Europe between 1200 and 1600. The collection of seventeen essays and an introduction is assembled around three pillars. The first is aptly labelled “a past that never was” and amounts to the task of creating new communities. The second takes its point of departure from “the realm and its peoples” and here we encounter a multi-faceted agenda wherein political identities are rewritten. The third category elaborates “local and regional identities in a dialogue.” The introduction by Pavlína Rychterová attempts to link this volume to the geographic scope of volume five which consists of Bohemia, Poland, Hungary, Prussia, Lithuania, Austria, and parts of Germany. Most of the introduction is devoted to alerting the reader what to expect in the following 450 pages. We find the usual array of references to politics, dynasties, ruling families, ecclesiastical elites, kings, economic challenges, military exploits, the definition and refinement of social groups, and the variety of sources that appear to undergird the broad thrust of history and tradition in the geographical areas noted above. We find attention paid to grand narratives, power structures, and conflicting identities. What follows is a sprawling survey with chapters ranging in size and depth of analysis, written by scholars of east central European provenance, providing the reader with a battery of less known and neglected material and plenty of fodder for future research. Clear criteria were deployed in assigning topics and obvious omissions, such as the work of John of Viktring, the Old Czech Annals, the Chronica aulae regiae, the work of Peter Eschenloer, and the Chronicle of Zittau, to name a few, have been put down to a paucity of qualified experts to address these and other sources.

It is pointless to summarise the seventeen chapters since the great benefit is the existence of the volume itself in a scholarly lingua franca and the intrigued reader can delve into the generally unplumbed and plumbingless depths of the waters that appeal most. What can be examined more usefully are the general themes and threads that pervade the volume and which shed light on the narratives that establish identity and provide historiographical foundations for modern research and understanding of the past in east central Europe.

One cannot read this handsomely-presented volume without being left with the nagging doubt that so much of the past has been invented long ago and far away and that many cultures sought to find their raison d’être in the discursive murkiness of an even more distant past, especially within antiquity or in Biblical models. From the latter we encounter prophecy, divine approbation, chosen people narratives, heroic images of ordinary or invented characters, a bevy of best-in-the-world claims, particular groups (Hussites, Teutonic Knights, or Austrian religious) as agents of God, and earnest efforts to demonstrate the moral and superior civilisation of this or that tradition generally clad in national or patriotic garments and offering arguments predicated on miracle stories and other extravagant claims. Modern parallels exist. Outside the specific content of this volume it seems to me that the pervasive myth of Christian America, Donald Trump’s subjective belief in stolen elections and voter fraud, coupled with American imperial excellence makes for a fine twenty-first century appendage to these medieval inventions. Many of the sources in this book when coaxed under the lamp of scrutiny reveal a making-it-up-as-you-go-along propensity in the service of a later or larger agenda. For example, the Poles carved out a civilisation from paganism, wilderness, and essential oblivion to populate and irrigate a desolate field whereby transforming it into a fertile crescent that kept at bay hostile foes and in so doing created a past that never was in order to justify and legitimate a cultural phenomenon. Some Czechs got it into their heads that they were a community of the divine elect and represented the chosen people of God empowered to diffuse the darkness of a lost and erring faith and so some Hussites (but certainly not all of them!) provided a definite link to the early church, the purity of Christian faith, and the ideal past of apostolic identity in a sea of apostasy. The Knights of the Teutonic Order are presented as standing between savagery and civilization. Harm inflicted on the order is damage done to the whole of Christianity for there is neither a true faith nor a Christian community outside the blessed order. The fourteenth-century Peter of Dusburg obediently composed an uncritical and wholly positive treatment of the history of the order. The entire volume is filled with similar rhetoric. Entire nations became true believers.

Where history remained mute, chroniclers and other writers gave voice to the voiceless past. Where dreariness imposed its monotonous tone, these same writers provided colour and action to a faceless vacuum unremittingly boring for its anonymity and brevity. Narratives that did exist were carefully rewritten and revised so that the empty years were filled. Etymological twists and turns were easily exploited into hypotheses (never mind irresolvable philological challenges) and these in turn yielded literary creations that elaborated traditions and identity. Some were fanciful but each corrected the forgetfulness that damages the past and such apparent negligence became fertile soil for planting seeds that were guaranteed to produce a bountiful harvest. Mythmaking became mythistory and produced nascent identity and in many cases provided foundational historiography. Naturally, this process produced rather tenuous identities. Examining the ‘Polish’ past, Paweł Żmudzki observes that “all medieval historical traditions...are artificial” (40). This volume is an elaboration on that theme wherein so many writers simply forced their own narratives into existing narratives or added their heroes to the panoply of sacred history. Writing accomplished two purposes: it makes the erosion of historical knowledge more difficult and simultaneously creates historical knowledge and identity. This permits the creation of history replete with values important at later times. Anachronism is not a consideration, and neither is the fact that most tales of war are completely invented as we see in the anonymous early fourteenth-century Czech-language Dalimil Chronicle. Competing narratives aimed at inventing identity were more concerned with creating a legitimizing account of the past. Legitimation is a fluid concept but the conceptualization of the past, in these sources, takes a different point of departure from the scientific approach. Examining the Lithuanian historiographical tradition, Rimvydas Petrauskas reminds the reader that learning about the past does not come principally by means of critical analysis of sources but instead by investing in those same sources a modicum of authority. In this way, the past can be utilised to provide models for the present. The medieval present shapes the past and history is quietly formed on the workbench of ideological servants. The result, as Marcus Wůst points out, does not depend on modern considerations of academic neutrality but instead on a determined quest to instruct, admonish, legitimate, and participate in the construction of identity. Here is where the volume succeeds admirably for it shows how this was possible, the ways and means it came about, and also explains the foundations of identity and history. Inasmuch as religion was intrinsic in the fabric of the medieval world it comes as no surprise that many of the sources examined in this volume are suffused with “theological framing, spiritual instruction, and a glorifying, sometimes nearly apotheosizing narration of events” (376). This is not just true of chronicles of the Teutonic Knights in Prussia but is evident elsewhere.

The concept of identity is complex and subject to a myriad of understandings. The volume does not adequately engage with this. It is also unclear in what ways the volume successfully challenges “traditional assumptions prevailing in the nationally defined Medieval Studies of Eastern Central Europe” which has plagued much of the historiography heretofore. There have been forward strides and these should be acknowledged, but the focus remains parochial and even some western scholars--proudly calling themselves experts and specialists--now actively contribute to this insularity. The conundrum is hilarious. Poking the bear generally produces indignation, but who cares? The various essays tend to underscore notions of unity and common story or origins thus buttressing the past as a flat expanse capable of supporting shared history, values, identifications, and a monochrome credibility. The latter is foundational for a consideration of the past that never was. And if that hypothesis is unconvincing, one should simply read this book.