Vercamer (2015 Congress)

Grischa Vercamer
(Friedrich-Meinecke-Institut, Freie Universität Berlin)
“One man’s villain is another man’s hero:
Concepts Which Medieval Historians Employed
to Construct the Images of Central European Princes as Good or Bad

Abstract of Paper Presented at the 50th International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo, May 2015)
Session on “The ‘Good’, the ‘Bad’, and the ‘Ugly’ Ruler:  Ideal Kingship in the Middle Ages”
Co-sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence and
the Center for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the University of Florida
Organized by Mildred Budny (Research Group on Manuscript Evidence) and Florin Curta (University of Florida)

2015 Congress Events Announced and 2015 Congress Events Accomplished

[Published on 17 April 2015]

To the Polish Chronicler Gallus Anonymous, author of the Gesta principum (“Deeds of the Princes of the Poles”), Yaroslav the Wise, the Grand Prince of Kiev, was a coward and a swindler.  In reading the so-called Повѣсть времѧньныхъ лѣтъ / Povest’ vremennych let (Russian Primary Chronicle), compiled in Kiev, one encounters a completely different picture.  Similarly, in his Chronicon, Thietmar of Merseburg described Bolesław the Brave, the first King of Poland, as an arrogant parvenu whose father was still tributarius (“tributary”) of the Holy Roman Emperor.  Cosmas of Prague, the author of the Chronica Boëmorum (“Chronicle of the Boehemians”), described Břetislav I, Duke of Bohemia, as a restorer and innovator of Bohemia, while to Vincent Kadłubek, the author of the Chronica seu originale regum et principum Poloniae (“Chronicles of the Kings and Princes of Poland”), he was just a villain and desecrator of the grave of Saint Adalbert.

It goes without saying that chronicles are propaganda, that is, in most cases they are written with a specific purpose in mind.  If an author came from a particular cultural background, the princes of that area would urge him to praise them and their ancestors.  He may have done it of his own accord. Thus the ‘Charismatic leader’ turned into the ‘Traditional leader’ (according to Max Weber’s types of legitimate ruler), the scion of a noble lineage.  However, in praising one’s ‘own’, one apparently needs to distance himself from the neighbor (or ‘foreigner’) – or even to discredit him.  In the High Middle Ages (10th – 13th centuries), apart from charters, the chronicles provide the only information to survive about individual rulers that we have.

To proceed on that information, as historian, one could collect single passages from different sources and form it into a whole picture (as is often done).  By such means, the medieval author, his intentions in writing, and the style and composition of his work are often taken into account only very superficially.  But especially on account of the scarcity of source-material from the early and High Middle Ages in East-Central Europe, we require mechanisms to assess the single chronicle as fully as possible.  Normally these elements are provided in source-compendia (for instance, the Repertorium Fontium Historiae Medii Aevi).  Such compendia, however, focus too much upon the individual sources, so that the narrative strategies employed in describing the princes named in them are not in the center of interest.

That requirement is precisely the point of departure for this paper.  There is no sense in simply collecting all the fulsome praises of one’s “own” prince or the crude statements against neighboring or foreign (“enemy”) princes without a wider frame of reference.  There is the need to look at the context, to determine how a protagonist or an antagonist is constructed as a whole figure by the specific author.  Is there perhaps a matrix which the authors used?  May we deduce from such a matrix any real characteristics of a given prince or do we have to realize that the concrete personality of East-Central-European princes is not at all, or far too little, accessible for us?