Being a medievalist in a ”small place“...

Professor Karl Borchardt Our understanding of medieval history shapes the way we understand the present. These are the words of an important German medievalist, Professor Karl Borchardt from Monumenta Germaniae Historica in Munich. During his visit to the Faculty of Arts, we talked about parallels between the Middle Ages and the modern era, the importance of history in general, and the importance of foreign languages.

You are an employee of an old and prestigious institution. Can you explain in a simple way the task of the institution today and in the future?

The Monumenta Germaniae Historica (MGH) were founded in 1819 by Heinrich Friedrich Karl Reichsfreiherr vom und zum Stein (1757-1831), an important Prussian statesman and reformer. Their aim was and is to publish sources concerning the history of the medieval empire between 500 and 1500. From their foundation, the MGH had a connection with German nationalism. Many Germans used to think that the medieval empire in the Latin West was German. In fact, however, it was the Roman Empire, from the 12th century onwards the Holy Roman Empire, and only in post-medieval times, from about 1500 onwards, was it the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. Today it is more or less universally accepted among German scholars that the medieval empire cannot be regarded as a realm of the Germans. Nevertheless, it is still considered useful to study the history of the medieval empire, its internal constitution and its external relations both in Europe and beyond (e.g. the crusades). So far the MGH have done their job up to roughly the 13th century. Almost all relevant sources until around 1200 have been edited by the MGH, starting from the 6th century. Not all editions are good enough, some of them have to be re-done, but in principle the MGH have accomplished their aims for this earlier period of the Middle Ages. At present the great challenge is to decide what the MGH are going to do with the huge masses of sources from the 13th to the 15th century. There are some editions already for this later period, especially in our series Constitutiones and Staatsschriften. But about 85 % of all medieval sources are from the Later Middle Ages, when paper became available as a means for keeping records. Some French historians aptly speak of ”la révolution du papier“ in the 13th century, which triggered off a quantitative explosion of available sources, comparable only to the introduction of electronic files on computers in the later 20th century. In cooperation with national and regional historians throughout Latin Europe, the MGH now have to find convincing and acceptable guidelines to decide which sources are relevant for the Late Medieval empire.

A long time ago I heard an interview with the famous Czech historian Dušan Třeštík, who was asked why he had chosen medieval history as his subject of interest. The answer was simple and surprising: Romanticism. However, I guess that your motivation was entirely different in nature: So why did you decide to study the Middle Ages?

Absolutely. My primary interest is administrative history, which is a key topic for understanding political, social, economic and cultural changes, but fairly unromantic. Many historians nowadays concentrate on the immediate past, that is the 18th, 19th, and 20th century. But this is not enough to explain the world in which we live. You have to go back to earlier periods, including the Middle Ages. Greek and Roman antiquity is also important for what some people call "Western civilisation". But from the Middle Ages to the present day there is a continuous and unbroken chain of events, of causes and consequences, in almost all parts of Europe. Many important questions of the present-day world can only be explained when you take into account what happened in the Middle Ages. This is especially true for European colonialism, which did not begin with Vasco da Gama and Columbus in around 1500 but with the medieval crusades in around 1100. Historians should try and explain how and why such things happened. To assess whether the things were good or bad is not their primary task.

Why was Europe so successful then, and more successful than the Chinese for example? What was the reason?

Good question! There are many different ideas to explain this central problem. In my opinion this is connected with the crusades. Western or Latin Christians wanted to conquer Jerusalem, not for economic but primarily for religious or, if you prefer, for ideological reasons. When they failed, they began to think about moral, social, political, economic and cultural reforms in order to regain God's favour. ”Saladin has conquered Jerusalem, and we are unable to re-conquer it. So we must reform our lives, and we must look for allies against the Muslims, for example the Mongols.“ In Eastern-Central Europe the Mongols were seen as enemies, and with good reason, yet in general many Latin Christians hoped for an alliance with the Mongols against the Muslims in the 13th century. And later Columbus was in search of the Grand Khan. Neither the Muslims nor the Chinese had similar religious or ideological reasons to invest a lot of time and money into the search for distant allies.

Do you see a parallel between the situation then and now? In the sense that you are forced to choose your allies from two bad options, as the lesser of two evils.

For obvious reasons crusade history is very popular nowadays. But it may be dangerous to draw parallels too rashly. History does not repeat itself. Both the Christians and the Muslims today are different from what they used to be during the Middle Ages. And the major problem for all serious scholarly efforts is knowing the relevant languages. Crusade history is usually done by people who only know Latin and some other European languages; only very few know Arabic, Persian or Turkish. When I served on the board of the Society for the Study of the Crusades and the Latin East (SSCLE) some years ago, there were very few colleagues from Muslim countries. And many of them had emigrated to the West, as they did not feel free to do research on this controversial topic in their native countries. I remember one Arab colleague who had published a remarkable PhD on Ayyubid Syria but worked in Saudi Arabia. He asked me to send correspondence to an address in Egypt because he did not want his neighbours in Saudi Arabia to know about his scholarly activities. Apparently, public opinion in many Muslim countries is not favourable nowadays for such research. As much as we might welcome a dialogue on equal terms with Muslims on the crusades, I am afraid that this remains wishful thinking, not only because we do not know the necessary languages but also because they are not ready for scholarly discussions, except some members of the educated classes.

At the present time you are preparing a project concerning the regesta of Hospitallers in an archive on Malta. Could you tell us more about this project?

The Hospitallers and other military-religious orders were centralized to some degree, as they had a master and a central convent usually in the Latin East. So their history has to be studied both from central and from  regional sources. Concerning the Hospitallers in Bohemia and Moravia, the archive in Prague is of course essential. In a sense it is even unique, because the Hospitallers' Bohemian priory was never dissolved during the secularization around 1800. All other Hospitaller priories were dissolved and their archives were moved to other institutions. In Bohemia they were kept together, even after they were taken over by the state in 1948. Although the Bohemian priory was relatively unimportant if compared with the rich priories in France, Italy or Spain, the archival tradition here is very good. The archive in Prague even holds many documents from the central headquarters of the order which are lost elsewhere. Nevertheless, even for Bohemia and Moravia the contents of the Hospitallers' central archives extant on Malta are also important. When you study Church history, it is a matter of course that you also use the Vatican archives. In the same way it should be a matter of course to use the archives on Malta when you study the Hospitallers in Bohemia and Moravia. The Hospitallers came to Malta only in 1530, but in the archives of Malta you find documents from earlier periods, when the Hospitallers were on Rhodes between 1309 and 1522. My project is to calendar such documents concerning the priories of Germany and Bohemia from the master's registers on Malta which start in 1346, in the hope of providing Czech and other colleagues with hitherto unknown prosopographical and other data.

In your lecture you stressed the role of the Hospitallers as administrators and the fact that their administrative knowledge and know-how was important for Late Medieval nobility. Could you specify the role of the Hospitallers as administrators in the transformation of the Late Medieval nobility?

The traditional, more or less Marxist theory is that the bourgeoisie developed bureaucracy and worked together with kings or princes to erect an absolute monarchy; then they got rid of the kings or princes and established the modern state. Today most scholars agree that this process already began in the Middle Ages and that the 13th-century mendicant orders, which preached and worked in the towns, helped to spread this bourgeois ideology and mentality. But the 12th-century military-religious orders promoted the same attitudes and skills, because they had to be good administrators - both to defend Latin Christians in the East and elsewhere and to run their local estates. Moreover, the military-religious orders promoted these attitudes and skills among the nobility, because they were more or less run by milites. So it was not only the bourgeoisie but also the knightly class, the nobility, who became good administrators and learned administrative skills. Without this, I am pretty convinced, the nobility would not have been able to form its manorial system during the 15th century and after. In Eastern-Central Europe and elsewhere the nobles survived the Late Medieval crises, when traditional grain production was no longer profitable enough, because they learned from their relatives in the military-religious orders and in royal or princely service to grow profitable crops for export markets, and to invest in fishing, brewing, or textile manufacturing. This is fairly important for understanding how the nobility maintained its importance in Europe up to the 19th and 20th century.

How would you advise medieval history students or young medievalists beginning their research careers?

The first thing medievalists and other students of history should do is to learn languages. For understanding European history you have to be able to read both the sources and the secondary literature. Without learning languages you do not understand the notions behind the words, which no translation can ever render in an exact way. Of course this is a general problem of communication within Europe and beyond. For academic purposes then the suggestion would be to go to sources, especially to unprinted, unedited texts. Nowadays it is fairly easy to find and copy historical sources on the internet. But it doesn't help you very much just to see a charter on the internet. You must also be able to read and to understand it. So next to learning languages, the study of palaeography and other historical auxiliaries remains indispensable.

This is your first visit to Ostrava and our university. What is your impression so far?

Having worked as a town archivist in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, I think I understand the difficulties which the absence of colleagues and libraries do create. Yet being a medievalist in a small place can also be a challenge with positive results. When working in Berlin, Vienna or Munich you are surrounded by thirty, forty or fifty people who are convinced that medieval history is important and who rarely wonder why medieval history is important at all. Furthermore, you work together with medievalists but not with people from other disciplines, and so you do not think about the possible contributions of medieval history for archaeology, philology, art history and the like. From my own experience I therefore think it can be challenging and encouraging to go to a smaller place, because there you are forced to think about broader questions. And I understand that the Ostrava medievalists are trying successfully to profit from such rather challenging conditions in their relatively small departments.

Thank you very much for the interview.

Daniela Rywiková, Anna Pumprová, Richard Psík

Zveřejněno / aktualizováno: 18. 11. 2022