Why Medieval: Annamaria Kovacs

I think it all started in grade school back in Hungary when my history teacher first threw his key at the boys who wouldn’t stop talking during his class.

Let me explain that.

He was an older gentleman, in a country where individualism and any deviation from the official doctrine was at minimum frowned upon and discouraged, and often punished with rather harsh measures. Although by the time I was in grade school in the late 70s Hungary was known as ‘the happiest barrack’ of Eastern Europe, the textbooks from which we were supposed to learn history were still chock full of standard Marxist rhetoric, praising the communal lifeform of Prehistoric people, declaring that theirs was ‘the first society where everyone worked and was equal.’ In stark opposition to that, the Middle Ages and ‘feudalism’ was portrayed as a dichotomy of ‘oppressors’, that is, the backwards Church and its cat’s-paws, the noble ‘class’ (to this day, when someone uses the term ‘class’ I cringe) versus the oppressed peasants huddling in their pitiful huts, preserving their meager existence by whatever they were allowed to keep from the toils of their labor.

Yes, it really was written like that. And then I haven’t even mentioned the illustrations.

So when Mr. Talas took said book during the first class, and literally hurled it against the wall, saying ‘and this is what we’ll NOT learn from’, needless to say, we were a bit shocked. But he then proceeded to explain to all those confused fifth-graders that why what was in the book was, at minimum, questionable.

For me, it was love at first sight: the Middle Ages became much mnore complex and much more interesting, full of life, conflicts, personalities, individuals and their actions as opposed to the struggle of shapeless and faceless masses…. By the time it was time to leave grade school I was actually able to follow along, ask questions and write pretty decent essays rather than just parrot what was in the book. My teacher (who, I’ve learned later, was from a line of university professors exiled to teach grade school because of his views) taught me ctritical thinking and source criticism very early, and that I should always, always dare to ask questions and learn that by studying the past, one can be prepared for the future.

I also learned how to duck when he trew that bunch of keys: the boys behind me really talked a lot…

In high school, I had the privilege of being taught history by a brilliant lady who actually was one of the university students actively involved in the 1956 revolution, and, as we later found out, was there at the parliament building when the Communist guard opened fire on the peaceful demonstrators. She also started by dismissing our textbook and showing us where it was in error, each and every time. Her explanation of the collapse of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Dark Ages was so concise, logical and enlightening that later I used my high school class notes to teach that part to my aspiring archeology students.

Ms. Beke later, after 1989’s peaceful regime change, became part of the first Democratic government as Secretary of Education and we lost touch. But I’ve never forgotten how she stood in the middle of the classroom on that day in 1989 when we came back from the declaration of the Republic in front of the parliament and recalled, tears streaming down her face, how, back in 1956, she held her friend’s dying body in her arms on the very steps where the new republic was now being born.

Witnessing history, and hearing people who’d actually been there…I was always a romantic at heart, and at that point, with all the emotions an 18-year-old’s heart can hold (and yes, that’s a lot), I knew that this was it. This was the same stuff the medieval epics were about; that there were universal, ages-encompassing values and virtues and that I’d be in love with history and the Middle Ages forever.

Annamaria Kovacs

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