Too Much History and Too Many Flavors

I believe it was a commenter at According to Hoyt, a woman from Romania, who observed that you don’t want to live where a lot of history happens. The more I read about certain parts of the world, the more her words ring true. Central and Eastern Europe have a lot of history, and the historians, populists, and general population all interpret that history in all sorts of ways, sometimes at odds with each other and their neighbors.

Slavic peoples moved into eastern and central Europe in the 400s, waves that spread south and west, often around marshy places and other undesirable terrain. They worshiped ancestral deities, each affiliated with a particular clan, although there seem to have been a few greater deities. As was the traditional pattern with humans around the world, conversion from animism and ancestor worship did not come until Christians (Eastern or Western) could prove that their god was stronger than the tribal and family gods. Along with Christianity came literacy, at least for the clergy and a few of the nobles.

One task of the literate was to write down the people’s past, or more importantly, the dynasty’s past. This did a couple of things. One, it showed why the Czechs, or Moravians, or Poles, or Wends, had the firmest claim to wherever they happened to be. Two, it set them among the ranks of real nations, those with a history. Three, it proved that the dynasty which commissioned the work was legitimate and blessed by G-d to rule. Four, (occasionally first in the mind of the chronicle writer), it showed how Christianity had come and lifted the heathen out of darkness and into salvation and civilization.

The nation, as defined until the late 1700s, meant the people with political rights and power. In other words, the Polish nation were the nobles. The Magyar/Hungarian nation consisted of the nobility. And so on. Peasants belonged to where they lived, and their lord. Thus no one batted an eye when the people from Saxony who moved into Hungary and Bohemia after the Mongol incursions set up towns with different laws. They were not part of the nation, but of the Saxon nation, and so of course they had different rights. Eventually this became a bone of contention, but at first it was just seen as normal, and the rulers agreed with those rights. No one asked the peasants.

Borders meant “the end of the monarch’s ability to control and collect revenue.” As a result, the exact dividing lines between kingdoms were fluid, to put it mildly. Fast forward to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and you have Serbia claiming what it had “held” in 1389. That this would have made parts of Romania, Croatia, and Bulgaria subject to the Serbs was not a problem—for the Serbs. The Romanians claimed chunks of Beylarus and Hungary and Ukraine. Italy dreamed of Gaul and the Balkans (the French had other ideas). Everyone wanted the territory they’d had at their peak, even when those borders were, to put it charitably, vague.

Combine this with a paucity of natural borders, and you can imagine the results. Poland, for example, had to deal with an invasion almost every century, or so it seems. Hungary got a breathing space after the Ottomans began retreating, but then along came the 19th and 20th centuries. Bohemia had a better defensive setting, but also a lot of wealth, and seemed to be the flashpoint for other peoples’ wars. I’ve joked with my students that the Neolithic peoples’ term for Poland was “oh no, here they come again.”

As a result a lot of history happened in the region. Rome lapped the southern edges, the Teutonic Knights collided with pagans and Orthodox Christians, the Poles and Lithuanians bounced off the Germans and Russians, Bohemia was in the middle of a lot of things, Hungary had to deal with the Ottomans, and Mongols, and Soviets, and the less said about Ukraine, the better. In part because it is so confusing, and because the limits of language and the Iron Curtain, it’s been hard to learn much about the region unless you are really, really interested in it. General, popular histories are not all that common. And they tend to be thick, because so much happened.

7 thoughts on “Too Much History and Too Many Flavors

  1. And the winners write the ‘history’… Sigh… And no, living through that would NOT have been fun. ‘Interesting times’ get old very quickly…

  2. It also shows how interesting times in one place spread out and impact others: The interestingness in North Africa and Iberia after the fall of the Western Empire and the Islamic conquests there provided a hungry market for slaves, which the Vikings happily filled by going a-Viking from Northern Europe to England, Scotland, Ireland and Iceland – so those markets in Iberia and North Africa impacted folks trying to live quietly far away from all that history going on.

  3. This is why we were moved to West Germany less than a year before the Wall fell. Apparently, in the world of adults (as I was a child then) there was ‘much afoot.’ Me, I was just surprised we were moved out sooner than expected; a diplomatic tour back then was eight years.

  4. I’m glad not to have lived where a LOT of history took place, though I now live where some history occurred, peaceably.

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