“Lives I did not lead”: Aleksander Gieysztor

I’m not exactly familiar with his work, but I’ve certainly got him in various reading lists and know who he was, roughly: a Polish historian of medieval Europe more interested than some in talking to Western European historians, with a particular bent towards socio-economic stuff and archaeology. I didn’t know he’d died in 1999 (along with too many others!), but I might have surmised that he was pretty old by now. And there it might have rested, had I not ‘inherited’ from the books that Philip Grierson left to my department the proceedings of the 47th Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo, Spoleto. If you haven’t encountered this august institution, it’s a series of big conferences that have run at Spoleto’s Italian Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages (you see) since the mid-1950s. They’re always themed, but somehow there is a particular group of historians who are likely to have been there any given year, and a variety of friends and colleagues who turn up less regularly. It’s a kind of club to be in, I guess. Anyway, the 47th one was entitled Il Feudalesimo nell’Alto Medioevo and has a lot of people important to my work in it, so I guess you’ll likely hear more about it from me as I go through it and as my rather weak Italian wakes up to the challenge. Right now, though, that isn’t the point.

Aleksander Gieysztor, 1983

The first thing in the volume is nothing to do with the theme, though, being a memorial speech by Karol Modzelewski, one of Aleksander Gieysztor’s students. It tries to explain, not what Gieysztor’s work was about (because Gieysztor came to Spoleto enough that it could be assumed people would know), but the background that meant he was such a big deal for Polish scholarship (and now has an entire academy named after him). Modzelewski paints him as a unique figure of mediation, between the East where he always lived and the Western scholars with whom he worked so often; between a romantic-legendary Polish school of history for whom a self-determining nation was born in the ninth century in resistance to the Ottonian German overlords, and a positivist school more interested in what qualities the nation had that caused it to become and function as a unit, an organism, rather than the human political aspiration of the older school; and between the native Polish scholarship and the Communist authority that suspected nationalism, independence of thought and collaboration with the West. Modzelewski in fact recounts being himself hauled up before the Warsaw University authorities in 1968 for being too dangerously revisionist, and Gieysztor working hard to make sure that the inevitable disciplinary action didn’t actually stop him stepping back into a career after a suitable interval (and you can find notes on the episode being taught here).

This is a scholarly environment which is thankfully alien to me, but Modzelewski evokes the paranoia and anger of the patriotic young in 1968, and also the ‘safe space’ in which Gieysztor and others like Tadeusz Manteuffel had striven to contain Polish intellectual independence by working on something well removed from contemporary political dilemmas in the form of medieval history. Gieysztor’s scholarship had always been focussed on the Middle Ages but in the 1950s he’d soon realised that that was a place that could be defended as irrelevant and therefore able to think more freely. It’s all relative, but it’s slightly disconcerting to read, and find it plausible, that medievalists were thus quite likely to be revolutionaries compared to other disciplines that weren’t so carefully watched by the authorities.

War ruins in Poland, 1945

So how did Gieysztor get away with this patron position where he could move and talk to everyone with respect and without (much) suspicion? Well, that’s where it completely leaves my personal map. He had been head of the Propaganda Bureau of the Warsaw resistance movement during the German occupation. And that was after being an artillery commander during the 1939 attempt to repel the German invasion. He’d been in Warsaw the whole war except for a short spell in a German camp in 1945, had seen the population partly massacred by the Germans (while Russian troops sat idle across the river), had generally been in the patriotic thick of it and had, therefore, inexhaustible credit with the Polish authorities. He (and Manteuffel, who had also been a Resistance commander) had war honours in resisting fascism that no-one could dispute, and he was careful enough to respect the forms of the new régime as far as was needed to make sure that the things he thought were important about Poland and its self-knowledge could somehow be preserved from complete dilution or suppression.

I don’t know how far Modzelewski’s adulation is justified, because he was obviously close to the man and memorial speeches are no time to stint praise, but as lives go it’s one that I simply can’t imagine. My father, who served in three invasions during the Second World War claiming throughout (or later claiming that he then claimed… ) to be a pacifist recruited by mistake, might have understood it all right, but because of people like him or like Gieysztor I’ve been saved from having to face that kind of horror and compromise. It just strikes me that when I meet old historians, or read their work, I never think too deeply about background; I recognise some idealistic preconceptions maybe, but it just doesn’t strike me that they might have been formed in war, with one’s homeland shot and bombed to ruins about one, one’s colleagues and friends arrested and shot, and one’s principles wrecked on the barrel of a gun. How does one write medieval history after all that? But all these guys who saw this stuff, if they lived they had to do something more normal afterwards. These histories are lurking in the backgrounds of a lot of what I read, I suspect, and even now, of people I meet, and if the world stays the shape it is, I guess we will still be seeing war-formed historians for a while. I don’t really understand how one assimilates experience like that into one’s intellectual formation, but I’m pretty glad I haven’t had to learn.

Karol Modzelewski, “Ricordo di Aleksander Gieysztor (1916-1999)” in Il Feudalesimo nell’Alto Medioevo (8-12 aprile 1999), Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 47 (Spoleto 2000), pp. 1-14.

4 responses to ““Lives I did not lead”: Aleksander Gieysztor

  1. Another amazing post. Thanks.

  2. Pingback: Pseudo-Polymath » Blog Archive » Thursday Highlights

  3. Well done! I look forward to reading your stuff in the Spoleto series, btw. And thanks for summarizing this for us.

  4. Thankyou all for your plaudits, though it’s really other people’s work I’m presenting dressed up with a few hyperlinks. Larry, I’m not sure from your comment if I’ve managed to give you the impression that I’m being published in the series somewhere, rather than just talking about it; I’m not (yet…), but I will have some more to say about this volume, for sure. Thankyou for reading…

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