26 Sep

The pleasures and pitfalls of recreating the past

Knights in shining armor at Jedenspeigen medieval fair.

Knights in shining armor at Jedenspeigen medieval fair.

A few weeks ago we spent a scorching hot summer day looking at knights jousting, men-at-arms hitting each other and their shields with swords and maces and doing it all in a sort of commemoration of the Battle of Dürnkrut and Jedenspeigen, also known as the battle on the Marchfeld.

This battle that took place on a similarly scorching summer’s day in 1278 between Premjsl Ottokar II., King of Bohemia and Rudolph I. of Habsburg, German king and commander of the Imperial army. It is known as the beginning of the more than 600 year rule of the house of Habsburg in the region, as Rudolph crushingly defeated Ottokar (it should be noted that he was aided by King Ladislaus IV. of Hungary, whose bowmen played quite a pivotal role in the defeat of the Bohemian forces).

Now, seeing these guys up on their massive horses doing jousts, battling it out with swords and just generally showing a remarkable deftness was great but of course nowhere near historically correct. It was entertainment and what was needed was  a story that framed the show. Some of the riders played actual historical persons (like Ottokar himself or his bastard son Nicholas), others were in there to put some diversity into the story. But all in all, it was meant to keep the hundreds of people watching at the edge of their seats (which were actually bails of hay, of course).

Not always an exact science

So, when it comes to recreating an event like a battle that took place some 700 years ago, limits are not just the constraints of wanting to tell an entertaining story, there’s also very real problems concerning the actual sources of the events that should be depicted.

Incidentally, in 1982, a bit more than 700 years after the battle took place, Austrian historian Andreas Kusternig published a very thorough book that discussed the problems of reliable narrative sources. His example was the above mentioned battle on the Marchfeld, and reading it, it becomes clear how intricate and sometimes frustratingly complex the study of these sources are.

It starts with a very simple question: who were the people that decide to write down accounts of what happened at this battle? Were they simply anonymous clerical writers or were they tasked by royalty or aristocracy to pen down the events chronology for posterity?

Then the question of the sources’ sources: where did they get their information from? Actual contemporary witnesses of the battle? Maybe just some hearsay?

And one other major question to ask: when was it written? Relatively shortly after the battle or maybe a couple of years later?

After looking at and answering these questions, there’s a plethora of other issues that might come up: Who were the writers of the source loyal to? What was the writer’s interest in the story? Whom was their account written for?

It’s often more or less impossible to answer all of these questions without a shred of doubt, so it’s often a matter of taking an educated guess. Once you’ve done that you’re able to dissect the source and glean from it what you think is reliable information, or what might just be propaganda.

And then it becomes even more complicated…

Imagine you’ve answered all the above questions, deduced what’s a reliable source and what isn’t and then, if you want to be really sure, you take a look at the different versions of the texts you went through. Because, unfortunately, it’s not as clear cut as you might have thought.

Of the sources Kusternig discusses, all of them came to us in various shapes and forms. Historians then had to go ahead and through various methods decide which copy of their source is the most recent, the most complete, ultimately the most reliable. A task that is quite monumental.

Which is actually a pretty bad segue to tell you about the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, a collection of primary sources of the German middle ages (we’re using the term German here rather loosely). It’s a great undertaking that was started in the 19th century and it’s actually a task so monumental, it’s not finished yet. The results are big tomes that themselves need quite a bit of an introduction to make sense of (a fact I found out about during my own studies). The good news is, the MGH, as it is often abbreviated, can be found online as well. So  don’t take my word for it, go ahead and take a look at what medieval sources look like.

Anyway, the story doesn’t end here. The thing is, historical studies are subject to change as much as any other scientific field. In the case of editing old sources into an easily readable format, the problem was that most of the historians who did this adhered to the so-called positivistic approach, which focused on what was the apparent meat and potatoes of a source, expecting it to adhere to some sort of naturalistic law of writing history. In the course of that approach, many of those questions weren’t ever asked, the result of which happened to be a bit frustrating. As Kusternig puts it (translation my own):

Only in the Codices themselves do we find the text in its immediate completeness, while its context within the edition is often critically hacked to pieces and found in various Continuationes, Auctaries, versions or other edition-formats devised by the editors. Only by looking at the original can we get an idea of what it actually looks like.

Basically, all the sources that talk about the battle on the Marchfeld were carefully edited, but in such a way that modern historians have to go back, look at the various originals (which themselves are often copies of copies of copies) and then decide for themselves whether maybe even more salient information could have been gleaned from them.

So what does that all mean?

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog-post about “filling in the gaps”. What I was talking about then was how most accounts of historical events or people leave open gaps of interpretation. There is a lot of guesswork involved when it comes to what dresses, hairstyles, food, drinks and many other things looked like. We will never be able to go back in time and have a look ourselves (unless you’re Bill and Ted, in which case you can do whatever you want), so we depend on educated guesses first and then the ability to pour what little we have into the moulds that become our historical films, novels or video games. Which is exactly the point where what I do comes in, facilitating the process of discerning between the wild and the educated guess in order to create a convincing and ideally educational piece of entertainment.

But even before we can do that, there is considerable groundwork to be done by historians to make sure that the foundations on which these guesses are based are solid. Just like any other science, it is all based on collaborative efforts. As we saw above, certain types of historiographic ideology might keep us from seeing parts of sources that weren’t deemed important. Only later generations of historians, who went ahead and took another look at these sources, made sure that certain elements of a source got the reception and scholarly scrutiny they deserve (and need).

In the case of above mentioned Renaissance fair, though? I’d say as long as it gets some people to look up what (probably) really happened on that fateful scorching summer’s day in 1278, their time is well spent.


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