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Response to Review of Ritual and Symbolic Communication in Medieval Hungary under the Árpád Dynasty

In Anthony Grafton´s The Footnote one finds the classic example of a reviewer's work: ´many critics have responded much as a slow-footed fullback responds in a hard-fought soccer match to the evasive tactics of a fast-moving striker. Just kick the legs out from under your opponents – show that they have misread, or misinterpreted the documents – and you need not bother to refute their arguments´.[1] These are precisely the tactics Nora Berend has used in her merciless attack on my book.

Berend's review is manipulative in almost all its points. In showing the alleged weakness of my methodology Berend deliberately focuses on the few examples which are disputable and offer multiple readings, and neglects the vast majority of examples based on numerous accounts preserved in both Hungarian and non-Hungarian sources, where my arguments stand on firm ground. Although Berend states that ʻarguments from the literature are repeated without critical evaluationʼ, while giving only one example of this vice (Peter Orseolo´s lance handed over to German King Henry III in 1045 – and unfortunately for her a poorly -picked example), in fact it proves nothing at all. Berend's claim ʻthe assertion that the lance ‘ʻrather than being merely part of the royal insignia’ʼ ʻ‘was a symbol of the German monarch’s military victory’ʼ is entirely misleadingʼ is a sign of her failure to understand my arguments. In my book I never questioned the lance being part of the royal insignia of Hungarian kings (although Berend´s argument based on evidence from the time of St Stephen is not a persuasive one). I only mention the alternative that the lance sent from Hungary to Rome after the victorious battle at Menfő (1044) could have been a sign of military success. This interpretation is based both on contemporary sources (Annales Altahenses maiores; Bonizo episcopus Sutriensis Liber ad amicum), and on modern scholarship (J. Deér, J. Bák)[2]. It is true I cannot prove with certainty that the royal crown remained in the hands of Peter Orseolo. On the other hand Berend cannot prove the opposite. What I provided was the most plausible interpretation of these extremely unclear and problematic events in Árpád history. To base her whole critique on one single example (which has been studied without conclusion for generations) is really a biased approach from Berend.

This approach is also applied in description of my use of the primary sources. Berend adopts the tactics of the slow-footed fullback from Grafton´s aforementioned quote and claims that ʻthe only source for the supposed associated rituals is usually a single, much later chronicle, very often the Illuminated Chronicle, and a few times, the so-called Hungarian-Polish Chronicleʼ, ´the vast majority of cases analysed in the book can only be known from one single source´ and ´this text constitutes Zupka´s main primary source´. This is, of course, anything but true. Why does the reviewer omit the repeated examples drawn from Historia Salonitana[3], Master Rogerius Carmen Miserabile[4], Hungarian Anonymous[5], Simon of Keza[6], Cosmas of Prague[7], Canon of Vyšehrad[8], Chronicon Aulae Regiae[9], Annales Altahenses maiores[10], Gallus Anonymous[11], Herimannus Augiensis monachi Chronicon[12] (only to give a handful of examples), and many more contemporary sources describing the events from their own present or from their recent past? All these sources are used continuously in the book, being the first-hand source of information on the events described, or giving a counterweight to the versions preserved in the Hungarian chronicle of the 14th century. In face of these facts, Berend´s hypotheses about my absolute dependency on the 14th century Hungarian Chronicle will not stand. How can Berend omit this vast corpus of sources? In total I have used a hundred primary sources, volumes and editions, including chronicles, annals, legends, treatises, laws, letters, and charters. Why does Berend want the reader to believe I worked only with two or three (additionally very dubious) of them?

But there are also other examples of Berend's strained criticism. Hinting at the Legend of S. Gerard that preserves the famous story of Gerard´s refusal to conduct a festive coronation for King Samuel Aba, Berend attacks me saying, ʻOne cannot use the narrative sources uncritically, and assume that, for example, a 14th-century composition provides reliable accounts of 11th- and 12th-century (alleged) eventsʼ. But, do I really do that? Again, the reviewer gives a misleading example. In fact, I never wrote that the 14th-century depiction is a verbatim description of the 11th-century event. I adduce a statement from the contemporary 11th-century Annales Altahenses maiores, and then I provide a reference about the questionable nature of the Gerard legend, giving voice to those who claim its original version dates back to 12th and even to the late 11th century.[13] It leads one to wonder what Berend's goal was when she attacked my use of St Gerard's legend as, apparently, in her own publication, she admits ʻit may and may not be a reliable sourceʼ for earlier history.[14]

Surprisingly, when it suits her, Berend uses the Illuminated chronicle at face value, saying that ʻthe text of the Illuminated Chronicle is accompanied by lavish imagesʼ and warning that ʻthese images are not illustrations for Árpád-era history, but statements about the past in an Angevin contextʼ. She attempts to show my misunderstanding of the source by comparing the text and depiction of Solomon’s adventus with King Henry IV, although there is nothing to criticise or amend – I explicitly express in all cases that the miniatures are late 14th-century depictions of the events described. Here, again, Berend tries to criticise an error which, in fact, I have never committed.

In addition, Berend implies that ʻthe so-called Hungarian-Polish Chronicle is also used as a ‘ʻreliable’ʼ sourceʼ. The truth is I never labelled the Hungarian-Polish Chronicle as a reliable source. In the footnotes I mention clearly that ´scholarship is deeply divided…because of controversy about the reliability of the main source.´[15] Even more, Berend repeatedly ignores the references to most recent interpretations in the works of the leading experts on the issue, M. Homza and J. Steinhübel[16] (perhaps because they are not Hungarians?). Berend is also wrong criticising me for not using J. Karacsonyi and R. Grzeszik's analysis and editions, saying ʻneither are used to inform Zupka’s analysisʼ. As a matter of fact, I quote them on page 152 and in the footnote 43.[17] Considering the meeting of Stephen I of Hungary and Boleslaw I of Poland in 1001 – this was meant as a representation of a model, although Berend fails to see it.

And again, Berend is wrong when she says that I believe the Hungarian-Polish Chronicle account is ʻtaken as a truthful representation of events at the very beginning of the 11th century ʼ. What I write is that: ʻSince the authenticity and credibility of the Hungarian-Polish chronicle as a source has often been questioned we cannot regard its account of the meeting between Stephen I and Bolesław the Brave as wholly accurate. However, even if the actual course of the reconciliation might have differed from the surviving account, this kind of ritual encounter could undoubtedly have taken place in 11th-century Hungary. Several other accounts in the sources describing further encounters in this period substantiate this assertion, as we shall see in the cases that follow. Therefore the author of the Hungarian-Polish Chronicle is likely to have framed the meeting in the context of ritual actions existing in his time.ʼ[18]

Berend believes my statement that the ritual patterns of symbolic communication, rather than the historical authenticity of individual events lend themselves to examination, ʻsits oddly with repeated affirmations in the book that suggest the veracity of the accountsʼ. Well, there is nothing odd about it at all. History, just as historiography, is not black and white. There are rules, patterns, phenomena, but that does not mean there aren´t any exceptions or deviations. Therefore it is absolutely just and sits perfectly with my main argument that in some cases we deal with events more probably depicted in their real form, just as in other cases we only have a later or idealized depiction at our disposal. This interpretation follows the current research on medieval rituals. One only has to read Buc, Koziol or Althoff, Dalewski, Weiler and Stollberg-Rilinger to better understand the arguments of my book and to be able to set it within the context of current ritual studies.

According to Berend ʻexisting scholarship on the Hungarian material is incorporated patchilyʼ. There are two cardinal problems with this point. First of all why does Berend believe I should rely only on the work of Hungarian medievalists? Anyone can write on the history of Hungary (do only French write about France, Germans about Germany, and so on?). The medieval Kingdom of Hungary was a multiethnic and multilingual state, home to different ethnicities and peoples. The Hungarian Middle Ages are therefore common historical heritage and they represent the scholarly focus of academics from numerous nations and language areas (Romanians, Croatians, Serbians, Slovaks, Germans, etc.) and they have the same right to scrutinize their common history. A work written by a Serb, Romanian or Slovak is as good as the one written by a Hungarian. The fact I chose a German, Slovak, or Czech author because I believe their treatment of a certain issue is better or that it better fits the overall argument cannot be counted against me. Another aspect the reviewer fails to see is that the topic has never been treated in one volume; that being one of the main goals of my publication. For this purpose some regional aspects were left out, as I was trying to focus on a more global, overall picture.

The second problem is that the scope of the series within which the book has been published and the readership of the book made me cite most of the works (where possible) in western languages – there is no point in giving the readers references to editions in languages they do not read, and which are in most cases absolutely inaccessible to western scholars. In addition, Berend reminds me that ʻcrucial books in Hungarian should have been consultedʻ, but surprisingly, alongside Ágnes Kurcz’s book on chivalry, recommends also a work of extremely small relevance for the goal of the book, as it is not significant for the discussion and interpretation of the main arguments (András Mező’s book Patrocíniumok a középkori Magyarországon). This seems to be a strained attempt to look for weaknesses where there are none to be found. In another place Berend rejects my alleged unconvincing interpretation, while her argument is at least flimsy, as she starts her correction with ´it may have been´.

Very puzzling is Berend´s contemplation of the well-known and well-established distinction between Hungarian and Magyar. Berend, coming from a Hungarian environment, must be aware of the nuances arising. Her example of French/Français misses the point and only confuses the reader with an inappropriate and puzzling parallel. To compare the Hungarian and French case is mixing apples with pears and does not help to understand the problem at all. Berend´s kind attempt to explain what I wanted to say only shows her misunderstanding of my argumentation. My point was to make a clear distinction between Hungarian (i.e. pre 1918) and Magyar (i.e. post 1918) history and historiography, which was substantially different in its nature, composition, language and focus. This issue, obvious and self-evident for scholars from Central Europe, but largely unknown to scholars in Western Europe and the US, needs to be clarified in a volume dealing with Central European, and especially Hungarian history (the same distinction works also in other languages: hongrois/magyar in French; ungarisch/magyar in German; uherský/maďarský in Czech, etc.).

In her conclusion Berend attacks my book as one that ʻobfuscates both the specificity of some of the Hungarian material, and the historical interest of the textsʼ. Giving an example of the festive-coronation (not a crown wearing as Berend incorrectly states) by a political opponent and the symbolic choice between the crown and the sword (i.e. kingdom and duchy), Berend fails to see that I treated these events as anecdotal, modelled representation of the ritualised communication of the era as captured by the contemporary sources. Maybe, after a second reading of the reviewed book, Berend might realise that, in most cases, she criticised things which are not present in the book.

To sum up, the same rituals, events and political encounters which I examined in the book are being treated in the same or a similar way by prominent scholars of ritual and political communication in medieval Europe, such as Gerd Althoff[19], or Zbigniew Dalewski[20]. They also appear in works of most of the Hungarian medievalists, whose presence in my book was so sought after by Berend in her review, and also in those of non-Hungarian scholars. To name only the most important ones: Gábor Klaniczay[21], Pál Engel[22], Gyula Kristó[23], Gábor Varga[24], János Bak[25], Zoltán Kosztolnyik[26], Dániel Bagi[27], Gergély Kiss[28], Márta Font[29], Ján Steinhübel[30], Vincent Múcska[31], Wolfgang Ziegler[32], Martin Rady[33], and many more could be added. All of them base their interpretations on the information from the Hungarian Chronicle of the 14th Century.   

Berend even scores an own goal by criticizing my use of the Hungarian Chronicle of the 14th century, as she cites the same source freely in all her major publications! She uses the Hungarian Chronicle to support her arguments in her political history of Hungary[34], as well as for the cultural history[35], and she quotes it also for the Christianization of the Central European realms[36]. When it suits her she argues that a certain event was recorded in the eleventh century chronicle and then later inserted in the 14 century version![37] But she does not allow this for rituals. So, in Berend´s argumentation, it is absolutely appropriate to use these sources and the events preserved in them when writing political, social or cultural history, but this is not allowed in a book on ritual and public communication.

Another strange feature of Berend´s review is its aim and motivation. In all likelihood Berend chose to review my book only because it speaks about medieval Hungary and works with (also) Hungarian sources. Berend has shown no interest in rituals, symbols and political communication. Therefore her review completely neglects the main goals and arguments of the work in question. She pays absolutely no attention to its main arguments, the detailed interpretations and deconstruction of the traditional narratives. Tacitly Berend ignores the introduction which for the first time sets the Hungarian Árpádian political culture within the general scholarship on political and symbolic communication. Also, she seriously neglects the chapter devoted to the theoretical concepts and methodological approaches used for the scrutiny. It is precisely in these opening chapters that I explain my approach, motivation and goals. In these passages I also deal with the question of the sources, their reliability and the possibilities of their use for my work. I also provide an overview of the literature and the most important voices in the debate over the Hungarian narrative sources for the Árpád-dynasty era. Berend also fails to assess or evaluate the main arguments and interpretations provided in the cardinal sections of the book, i.e., the settlements of disputes and reconciliation rituals, the welcoming ceremonies attached to the adventus regis ritual, and the numerous and various rites accompanying the meetings of rulers. All of these main arguments remain unexamined in Berend´s patchy review. The few mentions (always connected to the nature of the sources used) are simply not enough. Skimming on the surface, and entrenched in her contemplation on the nature of the sources used, Berend is unable to provide opinion or judgement on the essential parts of the book. To conclude, I will help myself again with a quotation from Anthony Grafton´s The Footnote, when speaking about Leopold von Ranke´s response to a ruthless critique of his first book: I write ´for those who want to find, but not for those who look in order not to find[38]

Dušan Zupka


[1] Grafton, Anthony. The Footnote. A curious history. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 1997, p. 16.

[2] ´However, here too, no later coronation ceremony or any other occasion of royal presentation mentions a lance among the insignia. Actually, a lance, but clearly another one, features in the description of Emperor Henry´s investing King Peter of Hungary, as his vassal, with a golden lance´. BAK, János M. “Holy Lance, Holy Crown, Holy Dexter: Sanctity of Insignia in Medieval East Central Europe.” In Studying Medieval Rulers and Their Subjects. Farnham: Ashgate Variorum, 2010, p. 58.

[3] ZUPKA, Dušan. Ritual and Symbolic Communication in Medieval Hungary under the Árpád Dynasty (1000 – 1301) Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2016, p. 42, 48, 62, 110, 126, 127, 129, 131, 132, 133, 154. 

[4] Ibidem, p. 56, 57, 134.

[5] Ibidem, p. 107, 108, 109.

[6] Ibidem, p. 50, 64, 73, 82, 124.

[7] Ibidem, p. 60, 62, 97, 100, 155, 160, 163, 175, 193.

[8] Ibidem, p. 60, 155, 160, 174, 175.

[9] Ibidem, p. 42, 59, 175.

[10] Ibidem, p. 1, 2, 40, 41, 43, 56, 73, 76, 87, 88, 90, 93, 112, 123, 124, 141.

[11] Ibidem, p. 66, 100, 136, 141, 142, 152, 153, 154, 156, 159, 161, 193.

[12] Ibidem, p. 76, 87, 88, 89, 91, 92, 93, 111.

[13] Marsina, Richard. “Stredoveké uhorské rozprávacie pramene a slovenské dejiny,” Zborník Slovenského národného múzea, 78 (História 24) (1984), pp. 167-193.

[14] ʻWhether the Legenda was written in the thirteenth or fourteenth century, or in the twelfth century, containing information from eleventh-century sources or local traditions, and was then rewritten in the fourteenth century is debated: it may or may not be a reliable source of information on Ajtony.ʼ Berend, Nora (ed.) Christianization and the Rise of Christian Monarchy. Scandinavia, Central Europe and Rus’ c. 900-1200. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 330.

[15] ZUPKA, Ritual and symbolic communication, p. 150.

[16] Uhorsko-poľská kronika. Nedocenený prameň k dejinám strednej Európy, ed. Martin Homza. Bratislava 2009; Steinhübel, Ján. Nitrianske kniežatstvo. Bratislava: Veda, 2004.

[17] Karácsonyi,  Béla. Tanulmányok a magyar-lengyel krónikáról. Szeged, 1964; Żywot św. Stefana króla Węgier czyli kronika węgiersko-polska. ed. Ryszard Grzesik. Warszawa, 2003.

[18] ZUPKA, Ritual and symbolic communication, p. 152.

[19] ALTHOFF, Gerd. Die Macht der Rituale. Symbolik und Herrschaft im Mittelalter. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2003, p. 116.

[20] DALEWSKI, Zbigniew. Ritual and Politics. Writing the History of a Dynastic Conflict in Medieval Poland. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2008, pp. 71, 147, 148.

[21] Klaniczay, Gábor. Holy Rulers and Blessed Princesses. Dynastic Cults in Medieval Central Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp. 133, 148, 173, 176, 177, 191, 326, 333.

[22] Engel, Pál. The Realm of St Stephen. A History of Medieval Hungary 895-1526. London/New York: I. B. Tauris, 2005, pp. 14, 19, 29, 34, 45.

[23] KRISTÓ, Gyula. Die Arpadendynastie. Die Geschichte Ungarns von 895 bis 1301. Budapest: Corvina, 1993, pp. 56, 91, 94, 98, 106, 174.

[24] Varga, Gábor. Ungarn und das Reich vom 10. bis zum 13. Jahrhundert. Das Herrscherhaus der Arpaden zwischen Anlehnung und Emanzipation. München: Verlag Ungarisches Institut, 2003, pp. 15, 48, 108-110, 119, 129, 133, 168.

[25] BAK, János M. “Holy Lance, Holy Crown, Holy Dexter: Sanctity of Insignia in Medieval East Central Europe.” In Studying Medieval Rulers and Their Subjects. Farnham: Ashgate Variorum, 2010, pp. 58, 60; BAK, János M. “Legitimization of Rulership in Three Narratives from Twelfth-Century Central Europe.” Majestas, 12 (2004), pp. 43-60.

[26] Kosztolnyik, Zoltan J. Five Eleventh Century Hungarian Kings: Their Policies and their Relations with Rome. New York/Boulder: East European Quarterly, 1981, pp. 59-62, 74-76, 93-94.

[27] BAGI, Dániel. Genealogische Beziehungen zwischen Piasten und Árpáden. In Adamczyk, Dariusz – Kersken, Norbert. Fernhandler, Dynasten, Kleriker: Die Piastische Herrschaft in kontinentalen Beziehungsgeflechten vom 10. bis zum fruhen 13. Jahrhundert. Wiesbaden, 2015, pp. 139, 140, 141, 142, 143, 144, 145, 146, 148, 150, 152.

[28] KISS, Gergély. Regnum et communitas regni. Représentations de la 'patrie' dans la littérature légendaire hongroise et dans les chroniques. Specimen nova. Pars prima. Sectio mediaevalis III. Pécs 2005, pp. 51-55.

[29] Font, Márta. Coloman the Learned, King of Hungary. Szeged: Szegedi Középkorász műhely, 2001, pp. 11-12, 18-19, 78-79.

[30] Steinhübel, Ján. Nitrianske kniežatstvo. Bratislava: Veda, 2004, pp. 259, 260, 269-270, 271, 273-275; Steinhübel, Ján. Duchy of Nitra. In Slovakia in History. Ed. D. Kováč et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp. 23-29.

[31] Múcska, Vincent. ”Boj uhorského štátu proti pohanstvu v 11. storočí.” In Pohanstvo a kresťanstvo, eds. Rastislav Kožiak – Jaroslav Nemeš. Bratislava: Chronos, 2004, pp. 201-205.

[32] Ziegler, Wolfram. König Konrad III. (1138–1152). Hof, Urkunden und Politik. Böhlau: Wien, 2008, p. 424.

[33] RADY, Martin. Nobility, Land and Service in Medieval Hungary. London: Palgrave, 2000, pp. 12, 17.

[34] Berend, Nora – Urbańczyk, Przemysław – Wiszewski, Przemysław. Central Europe in the High Middle Ages : Bohemia, Hungary and Poland, c. 900 – c. 1300. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013, p. 75, 134, 148 -150, 164, 190.

[35] Berend, Nora. At the Gate of Christendom : Jews, Muslims and 'pagans' in Medieval Hungary, C.1000-c.1300. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, p. 28.

[36] Berend, Nora (ed.) Christianization and the Rise of Christian Monarchy. Scandinavia, Central Europe and Rus’ c. 900-1200. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007, pp. 321, 339, 340, 345.

[37] Berend, At the Gate of Christendom, p. 113.

[38] Grafton, The Footnote, p. 65.