Historiography and Identity, VI: Competing Narratives of the Past in Central and Eastern Europe, c. 1200 – c. 1600

Pavlína Rychterová

August 19, 2021 | Pavlína Rychterová  HI Research Blog  |

We are happy to announce that this July the sixth volume of Historiography and Identity entitled ‘Competing Narratives of the Past in Central and Eastern Europe, c. 1200 – c. 1600’, has been published with Brepols. The individual contributions concentrate on narratives of the past originating in Eastern Central Europe. These narratives were written in polities that were gradually established since the tenth century and which went through a dramatic economic transformation accompanied by significant migrations from the west in the thirteenth century. Subsequent changes within the respective societies, fuelled by the extinctions of local dynasties (Babenbergs, Přemyslids, Arpadians and Piasts) and their replacement by foreign rulers, were reflected in extant narratives of the own past produced in the individual realms in the period.

Late medieval narratives of identity are distinguished in general by their great variety. The increasing complexity of the social fabric and the significantly growing economic prosperity as well as the increasing number of various educational opportunities in late medieval Europe brought along a wide spectrum of new concepts, (self-)reflections, and interpretations of contemporaneous realities. Strategies of identification elaborated by various social groups which increasingly had to redefine themselves varied greatly, depending on the continuous transformation of their social environment – although individual authors usually relied on narrative patterns proven in the past, which they adapted according to the current situation.

The present book covers a wide area from the perspectives of geography and social milieu (royal courts, nobilities, estates, monasteries, bishoprics, collegiate chapters, cities, universities, etc.). It offers three possible perspectives for the analysis of the essentially regionally-oriented Eastern Central European historiography, resulting in different methodological approaches to the problem of strategies of identification. First, in ‘A Past that Never Was: Creating Communities’ the authors analyse ‘grand narratives’ focusing on peoples and realms, on their origins, on their mythical, hypothetical, and/or imagined past lost in the silence of preliterate times, as well as on the legitimizing strategies used by the individual chroniclers of a new invented past. The section ‘The Realm and its People: Rewriting Political Identities’ focuses on multiple political identities, their sources, as well as strategies of balancing various identification narratives developed by the individual chroniclers facing the changes of the power structures in their respective polities. The last section on ‘Regional and Ethnic Identities in Dialogue’ presents different layers of conflicting identifications and identities.

Divergent as they are, late medieval transformations of identity narratives show some common features. What first strikes the eye is the highly ambivalent role of identification both with the indigenous ruling dynasties as well as with the dynasties of foreign origin. In some of the narratives analysed in our volume, this issue is addressed directly, in others, it is not explicitly thematized, but is reflected on intensively. There is a similar ambivalence in the treatment of the indigenous nobility, which now and then becomes another important, although precarious, element of identification. In addition, we may observe a tendency to replace dynasties as primary objects of identification with other elements, such as language or custom. The ruling dynasty, which was no longer indigenous, became too fragile as an object of identification, as we may see in Bohemia at the beginning of the fourteenth century after the Přemyslids had died out. In various attempts to balance the precarious options for identification, vernacular languages and much older ethnic affiliations became ever more important.

In the opening article of the first section, Paweł Żmudzki looks for interpretations of the terms ‘Polans’, ‘Poles’, ‘Poland’, used for human collectives and the territories they inhabited. He pursues a comparative approach, as the term does not just appear in Polish medieval sources and is not limited to the area of Poland. János Bak analyses the main identification narratives concerning the distant past of the Hungarians. He discusses the most influential high and late medieval Hungarian narrative, which maybe originated in the 1090s, although the first Hungarian chronicle can only be dated to around 1210. Bak examines the sources of the tradition, which relates Magyars to Huns and the very specific identification strategies Hungarian chroniclers formulated during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. These strategies were accepted by the Angevins as well as the Luxembourgs holding the then Hungarian throne. Jacek Banaszkiewicz focuses on the chronicle of Master Vincent Kadłubek, and discusses the strategies used by him to build up the credibility of his narrative depicting the events of an allegedly distant past. Master Vincent, inspired by Chalcidius’s Latin translation of and commentary on Plato’s Timaeus, based the authority of his narrative on the alleged conversation between church dignitaries, men of holy life, on the nature of memory. He developed the idea that ‘the ideal community’ and the ‘remembered’ origins of it were coincident and identical. This meant a new approach to the origo gentis and it redefined the historical truth. The Austrian Chronicle of the 95 Reigns, written around 1400 and analysed by Matthias Meyer, presents the line of eighty-one mythical Austrian rulers which provided the Habsburg rule with a long and successful (pre-)history of the realm foreshadowing the successes of the ruling dynasty for which the chronicle was actually written. Pavlína Cermanová discusses the Hussite Chronicle of Lawrence of Březová, written after 1427, the most important narrative about the first decade of the Hussite reformation. In Lawrence’s narrative, the apostolic church represented the (ideal) past of his community, the Czech speaking inhabitants of the realm, as well as its future realized in the anticipated second coming of Christ.

The opening article of the section ‘The Realm and its People: Rewriting Political Identities’ concerns the Hungarian-Polish Chronicle written in the late 1220s or early 1230s, probably in Slavonia (now Croatia) at the court of the king of Halych, Coloman, and his Polish wife, Salomea. The chronicle represents, according to Ryszard Grzesik, a specific stream of regional historiography, emphasizing friendly contacts between Hungarians and Slavs in Pannonia and legitimizing the Hungarian rule over Pannonia inhabited by Slavs. The Chronicle of the So-Called Dalimil written in Bohemia in the second decade of the fourteenth century, is traditionally interpreted as a voice of the Bohemian and Moravian nobility and as a product of Czech pre-modern nationalism. Pavlína Rychterová’s analysis puts this traditional interpretation under scrutiny. The chronicle formulated multi-layered concepts of identity which may be read as a reaction to a crisis of identity of the Czech speaking politically active strata of the society after the extinction of the indigenous dynasty of the Přemyslids in 1306. The extensive Styrian Rhyme Chronicle was written at roughly the same time as the Chronicle of the So-Called Dalimil, by Otacher ouz der Geul, a vassal of the Styrian noble family of Lichtenstein. Václav Bok focuses on the chivalric values which represented powerful source in the text for the interpretation of the changing political alliances, and for strategies of identification directed at the supposed readers of the text, the Styrian nobility. Václav Žůrek and Pavlína Rychterová deal with the Chronicon Bohemiae of Přibík Pulkava of Radenín (d. 1380), one of the courtiers of Charles IV. The authors scrutinize Pulkava’s transformation of older narratives on the history of the Bohemian duchy in detail, and its constructs of the continuity between the Přemyslids and the house of Luxembourg. The chronicle formulated an exceptional identification narrative aimed at all the different inhabitants of the monarchy ruled by Emperor Charles IV and providing them with the story of a common (Slavic) origin. The Chronicle of the So-Called Dalimil – that had conceived an aggregate of identification with the land, its people, their language, combined with the memory of and the wish for an indigenous ruling dynasty – was translated twice during the fourteenth century: once into German and once into Latin. Vlastimil Brom assesses the strategies which the author of the first rhymed German translation used to make the chronicle acceptable for German speaking inhabitants of the realm. The multi-ethnic grand duchy of Lithuania entered the Christian world relatively late, in the fourteenth century, and even after that it had to face its archenemy, the Order of Teutonic Knights. The Christianization of the land brought with it an increase in literacy, especially in Ruthenian and in Latin, the languages used in the princely chancery established at the end of the fourteenth century by Grand Duke Vytautas. Here, the first known chronicle of this realm, the Origo regis et ducum Lithuanie, was written by an anonymous author. Half a century later, this and other historiographical narratives were compiled in the Chronicle of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania. Rimvydas Petrauskas compares two versions of this text from the 1450s (Early/Short Digest) and the 1510s/1520s (Middle/Broad Digest) and scrutinizes legitimizing strategies of its authors, as well as identity concepts formulated in individual narratives reflecting the fundamental changes the duchy went through in the given period.

Przemysław Wiszewski discusses in the first article of the section ‘Local and Regional Identities in a Dialogue’ the Versus Lubenses, a narrative produced in the Cistercian monastery of Lubus founded by the Piast prince Bolesław I the Tall in the 1160s and settled by mainly German-speaking monks from Pforta (Sachsen-Anhalt). The foundation of the Cistercian house is described in the chronicle as a turning point in the history of an ‘uncivilized’ and only formally Christianized region. The contrast between ‘us’, the monks, and them, the ‘Poles’ (defined as subjects of the Piast princes, and not as the people speaking Polish), constitutes an important axis of the narrative, as it makes it possible to define the identity of the monastic community. Christina Lutter focuses on the Furstenbuch, written by Jans ‘Enikel’ in the 1270s. Lutter addresses the narratives of encounters between rulers and (noble) women displaying negative traits of a ruler (lack of temperance, adultery) as well as positive ones (ability to atone for one’s own sins). As a reward for the latter, Austria is awarded to a former tyrant who then turns into an exemplary ruler. The decision is made by the emperor who thus judges the moral qualities of Austrian dukes. The chronicle served as a narrative of the Babenberg rulers intended to support Habsburg claims in Austria. Piotr Węcowski scrutinizes different layers of identification strategies in the extensive chronicle written by Jan Długosz, strategies aimed at enhancing the importance of Kraków by projecting its glory into the distant past. Marcus Wüst describes the transformation of the identification narratives produced and reproduced within the Teutonic Order in Prussia between the beginning of the fourteenth and the late fifteenth centuries. In his chronologically organized analysis, Wüst connects the transformations of the narrative of the order’s past to the changing political situation in the region as well as within the order itself. Martin Haltrich provides comparative material to the historiographic works produced within the Teutonic Order by concentrating on the oldest layer of annals, legends, and chronicles written in Melk, Göttweig, and Klosterneuburg. His goal is to define contemporaneous concepts of community and their possible impact on later narratives of the past. Jörg Sonntag addresses the urban societies in southern Germany in the late Middle Ages. He focuses on Jakob Twinger of Königshofen (1346–1420) and his chronicles of Augsburg, on a chronicle written by the Dominican Felix Schmid (also called ‘Felix Fabri’), of Ulm, and, finally, on the Buchli der hundert capiteln (also called Upper-Rhine Revolutionary) – a text from around 1500, treating both local and universal history. In all these narratives, the main feature of the collective identity of the respective local and regional societies is language, i.e. German, supplemented with stories of their ancient origins.

All the chronicles discussed in the volume show tensions between local, regional and supraregional identifications which had become precarious with the decline of overarching powers, while cities and regional powers gained in importance. Yet local and regional identities were rarely deemed sufficient in the historiography of the late Middle Ages. They had to be connected to wider frames of identification, which were often found in a distant past: origins derived from a shared European mythical repertoire, biblical narratives or the glory of ancient Rome. In this respect, the manifold constructs of identity in the histories of the period built on earlier ‘visions of community’ and strategies of identification, which have been explored in the first five volumes of the ‘Historiography and Identity’ series.



Historiography and Identity VI: Competing Narratives of the Past in Central and Eastern Europe, c. 1200 – c. 1600, ed. by Pavlína Rychterová, with the assistance of David Kalhous (Cultural Encounters in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages 32, Turnhout: Brepols, 2021)

Online Content

All volumes of the series:

Historiography and Identity 1: Ancient and Early Christian Narratives of Community, ed. by Walter Pohl and Veronika Wieser (CELAMA 24, Turnhout: Brepols, 2019).

Historiography and Identity 2: Post-Roman Multiplicity and New Political Identities, ed. by Helmut Reimitz and Gerda Heydemann (CELAMA 27, Turnhout: Brepols, 2020).

Historiography and Identity 3: Carolingian Approaches, ed. by Rutger Kramer, Helmut Reimitz, and Graeme Ward (CELAMA 29, Turnhout: Brepols, 2021).

Historiography and Identity 4: Writing History across Medieval Eurasia, ed. by Walter Pohl and Daniel Mahoney (CELAMA 30, Turnhout: Brepols, forthcoming).

Historiography and Identity 5: The Emergence of New Peoples and Polities, 1000 — 1300, ed. by Walter Pohl and Francesco Borri (Turnhout: Brepols, forthcoming).

Historiography and Identity 6: Historiography and Identity VI: Competing Narratives of the Past in Central and Eastern Europe, c. 1200 — c. 1600, ed. by Pavlína Rychterová, with the assistance of David Kalhous (CELAMA 32, Turnhout: Brepols, 2021).


The project from which this series of volumes originated was part of the research cluster ‘Visions of Community: Comparative Approaches to Ethnicity, Region and Empire in Christianity, Islam and Buddhism (400–1600 CE) (VISCOM)’, funded by the Austrian Research Fund (FWF).



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