Pál Engel, The Realm of St. Stephen: A History of Medieval Hungary 895-1526 and some thoughts about fantasy and Parts East

Pál Engel, The Realm of St. Stephen: A History of Medieval Hungary 895-1526. English translation by Andrew Ayton. I.B. Tauris, 2005.

For a change of pace, I like to have at least one history book on the go that has nothing to do with what I’m supposed to be reading. For several months between spring and late August, this 400-pages-plus tome by Pál Engel, alleged to be the standard introductory work in English on medieval Hungary, was the history in question.

Its twenty chapters present a chronological progression from the pre-Christian Hungary of the 8th century through to the Jagiellonian kings at the end of the Middle Ages and the kingdom of Hungary’s eventual division between the Holy Roman and Ottoman Empires. Accounts of political events are interleaved with chapters which focus more thoroughly on the social and economic background. Its level of detail increases as it progresses forward in time, but Engel does – to my eye, at least – a decent job of laying out the problems, silences, and biases of the sources. Bear in mind, however, that while my impression is one of good faith history, I can’t speak to its accuracy, since it is very far from those periods on which I’ve done any serious reading.

Europe east of Vienna and north of Byzantium is the disregarded younger sibling of European medieval history. (Or, perhaps, the disregarded great-aunt you forget lives in the attic until she thumps the floor and the ceiling-plaster in the living-room cracks.) Only when one begins to investigate it does one realise how little do the Balkans, the Carpathian basin, or the Polish plains influence our view of the European medieval world. Even though, for example, the kingdom of Hungary was a major exporter of gold and horseflesh, and the Hungarian crown was at times deeply involved in the politics and succession disputes not only of its neighbours, but of kingdoms further afield as well. The feudal organisation of the medieval Hungarian kingdom looks rather different to the English or French model, for example. It’s eye-opening to see a different sort of hierarchy, when it comes to the gradations in status between people not part of the “magnate” class of nobility.

It’s a good, well-structured overview, and I can see why it would be offered up as the standard introduction on the topic.

From here let me segue to a brief excursus on history, Europe’s Pannonian Plain, and fantasy. It has troubled me for a while that Parts East of Vienna seem to be fair game for invented nations (Sherwood Smith, this year’s Gene Wolfe novel, others), but something that’s prodded my mind as a particular cause of unease recently is the Lackey/Flint/Freer alt-hist fantasy collaboration The Shadow of the Lion. Set in Venice, it’s pretty much a coming-of-age fantasy with a whole bunch of youthful protagonists doing their coming-of-age among intrigue and magic and danger.

Which would be fair enough, but I went to reread it lately – I hadn’t, I don’t think, read it since 2003 or 2004 – only to be confronted with a baffling and rather offensive piece of worldbuilding and characterisation. For one of the princes of Europe is inhumanly, demonically evil, where all the others are merely humanly flawed. This ruler is not a Spaniard or a Frank or an Englishman, nor even an Italian or a German or a Greek; rather it is one Jagiellon, Grand Duke of Poland and Lithuania.

Is it the bias of my sources? Or is it that when deciding upon villains, a writer is that much more inclined to portray people from the lands beyond the former Iron Curtain, or from the “barbaric” (cough), “fierce” (cough cough), “inscrutable” (choke), “exotic” (choke choke), “decadent” (cough) [check as applies] East, as wicked beyond reason or redemption?

When it comes to the eastern bits of Europe and their apparent fantasy counterparts, it is American writers who do this par excellence. And I’m just a little pissed about it.

(The historical Jagiellonowie rulers of Poland were interesting. They deserve better than to be cast as incarnate devils.)

2 thoughts on “Pál Engel, The Realm of St. Stephen: A History of Medieval Hungary 895-1526 and some thoughts about fantasy and Parts East

  1. I started reading The Shadow of the Lion a while back and hated it. Partly because I’m Polish, I think, and Poland of the 1530s was known somewhat for its policy of religious tolerance relative to the rest of Europe…and not for its cruel demon-possessed dukes.

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