The Study of the Middle Ages in Poland

The Study of the Middle Ages in Poland

By Ryszard Grzesik

Annual of Medieval Studies at CEU, Vol. 15 (2009)

Introduction: The fifteenth anniversary of the Medieval Studies Department at CEU is a good opportunity to describe the present status of recent medieval studies in Poland. Looking back over the whole twentieth century, there were three important turning points: 1918, when Polish independence was restored; 1939-1945, the period of Nazi-German and Soviet aggression when social life in Poland, including education and science, was demolished, and 1956, when Polish social sciences postponed the vulgar Marxism-Leninism in Stalin’s interpretation and returned to pre-war research streams.

The years after 1956 can be interpreted as a time of gradual liberalization of historical research. From the 1960s, Polish historiography (maybe excluding the historiography of the twentieth century) did not differ from Western European historiographies. Even though the year 1989 saw great political changes, initiated by the Round Table in Poland, it was not a turning point for medieval studies. The only difference was the question of finances, which remains an issue. The economic barrier separating Poland from luckier Western democracies still results in the absence of Western books in Polish libraries, which is still a reality even if things have improved somewhat in the last two decades, especially after becoming a member of the EU. We now have many more grant opportunities, although researchers are still learning how to apply for grants, and I hope that the new generation will be able to take advantage of the situation.

The year 1989 saw the start of discussions about the state of historical research and about the organizational aspects of Polish scholarship. The present organization of medieval studies was created after the Second World War and revised after 1956, but closely resembles the pre-war system. The basis are the universities and the Polish Academy of Sciences (Polska Akademia Nauk, henceforth: PAN), created in 1952, with local Polska Akademia Umiejętności (Polish Academy of Arts) units active since 1871 (with a break from 1952 to 1989).

A number of universities and research institutions undertake the study of the Middle Ages; the most important centers are the University of Warsaw, where social history is addressed using comparative methods including cultural anthropology, sociology, and literary criticism. The two universities in Cracow: the Jagiellonian and the Pedagogical, most famous for research on the Late Middle Ages and source criticism are among the most important centers of medieval studies in Poland. Poznań is perhaps more traditional in its approach to medieval history, but it boasts an active center of historical methodology for the history of European civilisation, church history, and source criticism. Wrocław has a natural interest in the history of Silesia; Toruń concentrates on the history of the Teutonic Order and the territories of Prussia; of the two universities in Lublin, the Catholic University deals mainly with the history of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland and the Maria Curie- Skłodowska University focuses on the social and cultural history of the Middle Ages. Gdańsk concentrates on the history of Pomerania, especially the eastern part; Łódź is a strong center of research on Early Medieval settlement as well as the history of war, armor, and Byzantine studies. Białystok, formerly affiliated with Warsaw University, concentrates mainly on the regional history of Podlasie; Katowice covers the history of Upper Silesia, social history, and Poland’s relationship with Great Moravia, Hungary, and Bohemia. Minor centers of Polish medieval studies have been established at new state and private universities and high schools: Częstochowa, Rzeszów, Kielce, Piotrków Trybunalski, Pułtusk, Szczecin, Zielona Góra, Bydgoszcz, Siedlce, Słupsk, and Opole.

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