My apologies for the tardiness of the Slovo this time. Between searching for a new job and keeping on top of everything, life just sort of crept in. However, better late than never!
This year at Pennsic we had a rather stripped down presence. For the first time, we skipped the "Researching Things Slavic" class and only did the party. The party was lightly attended (we were up against some steep competition) but those who came seemed to enjoy themselves. My thanks to Kathy Evans who, again, made a generous financial contribution towards our operating expenses this quarter.
As we enter our sixth year as an organized group, I would love to get some feedback about who we are and what we want to do. Our membership continues to grow but we seem to be in something of a slump activity-wise. What should we be doing? Let me know your thoughts.
By Peotr Alexeivich Novgorodski
[Editor's note: Lord Peotr missed Pennsic this year, but he had a fabulous reason to do so. Instead of Pennsic, he went to Central Asia. This article is the first of what we hope will be a series of pieces about his travels.]
On Tsargrad, which some call Constantinople. This is indeed the greatest city on earth. It lies on a spit of land surrounded by the sea on three sides, while the fourth is protected by a powerful wall or series of walls thirty feet high by twelve feet thick. Not only this, but the sea shores are also guarded by walls. It is little wonder that our ancestor Sviatoslav could do no more than nail his shield to the wall with even his 1000 ships...
We learned one of the secrets of the city's defense. Below the houses, under the ground, is a vast cistern, built by an emperor over eight hundred year ago. It is a huge chamber, with a forest of columns taken from pagan temples with diverse columns carved upon them. The cistern is filled to midways with water, wherefore a boat may be floated. Therefore, Tsargrad never wants for water, be it even time of siege...
The great markets of this great city are diverse and diverting. As well as the goodly wares one would see in the market at Novgorod, many strange and wondrous things are for sale. The main market is covered with cloth tenting to protect people from the heat of the day and so it is even like twilight at high noon. We found wonderful silk cloths, near strong and supple like mail, also spice of many colors and strong odors which preserve meats indefinitely - these come from the East. The Greeks here sell wine, in great abundance, garlic and also olives, a salty black fruit. They make excellent glass here, in pieces even large enough for windows. Also, they make the finest of mosaic tesserae, gilding and icons. Damascened steel blades of first quality are found, and also ceramics from the lands of the Musselmen.
The Church of Saint Sophia is as Grand Prince Vladimir's emissary's said long ago. It is the greatest building on earth and its dome is as to heaven. Nothing in Russia can compare for size or otherwise. It is hard to believe that it was created by the hand of man. The walls are made of many rare and diverse marbles and other stones from all over the world. The upper walls and domes are vastly decorated with gilt and colored mosaics both ornamental designs and portraits of the various emperors and empresses, Mary and our Lord. All this glitters amid the candles, incense and singing.
The chamber of the church echoes with voices of the many tens of thousands that can fit beneath the great dome with Christ Pancrator overhead. It is so very strange that the Franks and their cursed Venetian allies took Tsargrad by storm and siege some eighty years ago. As you know, they have been well expelled and the Greek Emperor restored. Still grievous damage was done to the city and Empire. The Church of Sophia was badly treated, it being looted in part and otherwise defiled. Holy treasures have been taken and mosaics and walls damaged. All over, repairs are now being made. The arrogant Venetian Doge who led the self claimed Crusaders in taking the city was, upon his death, interred in the Blessed Saint Sophia. Since the return of the Greeks, they have opened the tomb and thrown his bones to the dogs.
By Mordak Timofei'vich Rostovskogo
The Hungarian and Romanian regions of Central Europe were scenes of conflict, invasion, and a permeation of the fashions of the East over a peoples with the fading traditions of the West. The defeat of the combined Hungarian and western forces in the Battle of Mohacs in 1526 sealed the fate of much of the Kingdom of Hungary into an unwilling marriage to the Ottoman Empire for 125 years in some regions. The exterior church murals in Wallachia and Moldavia in modern day Romania reflect this reality, showing Turks in many of the caftan styles mentioned in Turnau's glossary of garment terms, along with turbans.
The truly interesting aspect of 16th century Polish styles of clothing is that they became almost entirely Eastern and, eventually, that commitment filtered through to the West in the 17th and 18th century fashions so familiar to anyone looking at pictures of the Founding Fathers of the United States. For example, in western civilian fashions of these post period centuries, the dolman became the sleeveless, long vest worn under the mente that became known as the "sack coat." In military fashions of these same periods, the dashing "Hussar" cavalryman is seen wearing a hip length jacket, still called a dolman, with an equally short mente worn over the left shoulder and held on by a cord. Both garments are heavily braided and often fur edged with tall fur hats, braided pancar trousers, and curiously Hungarian looking boots.
During the 16th century, Wallachia, Moldavia and the Balkans were under the control of the Turks. As in most lands under long term occupation, the "foreign" ways, traditions, and fashions of the occupiers become less alien, starting with the second generation born after the initial occupation. It was no different in this case, especially as Eastern fashions had been infiltrating for a hundred years or more through the increasing presence of the Turkish ghaziers. The new Turkish governors, commanders and officials could be easily seen as supplying the final influence to complete this trend from the bottom.
Portraits of the nobility in these areas are never described as wearing either the German style doublets or Spanish style dresses one finds mentioned in the clothing inventories of the Polish nobility in this same era. In fact, as mentioned earlier, historical commentary of this period mention the "Hungarian fashions" of Stephen Bathory's haiduk troops on their entry into Warsaw. Strangely, these descriptions were made in 1576, exactly 50 years (or two generations) after the Battle of Mohacs.
An important fact to remember about sixteenth century Hungarian fashion is the shortage of resources due to the Turkish tribute demands. Not surprisingly, surviving garments from this era began to use fabrics of Ottoman manufacture. They had an influence upon the Italian brocaded fabrics, in the form of a much stronger foliate design more common in Turkish manufactures than previously seen in Italian goods. The numbers of guilds producing luxury items such as passementre (lace), embroidered fabrics, and jewelry also declined steeply.
Clothing inventories also reflect this growing poverty, even among the nobility in these areas in the 16th century. Though made of wool, linens, and cheap brocades, the decoration ushered in a new era of Hungarian fashion known collectively as "the Magyar style" in Poland and Germany. This consisted of heavily embroidered garments, including shirts, contos, and dolmans; essentially all the garments either worn next to the skin or directly over the shirt. This went for the skirts, aprons, and shirts of the women as well. Outer garments were typically made of wool of varying grades, velvets, brocades and some heavier weaves of linen, habinatsa, and other tough fabrics to protect against the fierce winters of the Carpathian Mountains and upper Balkans.
By Paul Wickenden of Thanet (1)
A will is an interesting historical document. It tells us a great deal about people's lives: what they believed as well as what they owed. Soviet archeologists and historians were obsessed with them for ideological reasons (part of the duty of a communist archeologist was to prove the economic conditions of various stages of history and thus confirm the Marxist-Leninist theory of material dialectics) and, as a result, large numbers have been reproduced. But wills tell so much more.
I originally discovered this will while trying to document female sarafans to period (see "Are Sarafans Period?" in the previous Slovo) but the entire text proves particularly interesting. For people more familiar with Western Europe, the most striking thing about this will is that it is from a woman and that she is giving her possessions to her granddaughter. Some random male relatives (her "descendent" [son?] Ivan) pick up some land and a few tubs and heavy implements, but the sheer bulk of her goods are being transferred in a matriarchal line.
One can only guess at the reasons for this. Perhaps Mavra had tirelessly nursed her ailing grandmother and thus won the elder's favor. Or perhaps Mavra had been given an insufficient dowry by her parents and granny was trying to augment Mavra's appeal as a marriage prospect. Regardless, there is undoubtedly a juicy family story here. It seems unlikely, for example, that Ovdotia could be anything other than a paternal grandmother to Mavra (if Ovdotia had a living daughter, it would be quite a slap in the face to bypass her daughter in favor of her daughter's daughter for receipt of the family linens and kitchenwares). But again, we can only guess.
We can tell, however, that Ovdotia was a moderately rich widow. She has a moderate amount of real estate, including a fairly substantial homestead (called a dvor [court, palace] in the will) and she can afford servants -- both inside the home and in the fields. She possesses a rather large wardrobe of clothes (both hers and her [presumably deceased] husband's), fabric, kitchenwares and goods, and several acres of cultivated and uncultivated land.
But what really gives an indication of her standing is the audience of two priests, a sexton, and a scribe (as well as some incidental witnesses) that attend her recording of this will. The Church's interest is not purely altruistic (if it was, the attendance of her personal priest and a scribe probably would have been sufficient). They had a financial interest in this document. Not only does she bequeath fairly significant amount of land directly to the Church, but she also has included a clause that grants everything to the Church should her granddaughter Mavra pass away before she can inherit.
One question that is fair to ask is how much of this will was dictated in the words of Ovdotia? It is fairly likely that Ovdotia would have been able to write and read on her own, but it is more traditional for legal documents of the time to be drafted by a special ecclesiastic scribe. Such scribes knew the proper flourishes and formulae necessary in such documents and we can safely assume that the words are primarily his. The disorganized listing of items in the document, however, suggests a hastily created will. The most probable combination of events is that while Ovdotia lay on her death bed, these men drafted down her wishes as they popped into her head ("Give Mavrushka two towels. And give Vaniushka those old tubs. Oh, yes, and give Mavra my favorite shuba," etc., etc.). It lay with the scribe to record all this accurately and give it some semblance of order at the same time.
As for the translation provided here, I must humbly plead forgiveness for its failings. Sixteenth century Russian is not exactly taught in standard Russian classes. Even with extensive help from my colleague Predslava Vydrina (Masha Holl) and the use of both Dal's and Sreznevskii's dictionaries, I frequently had to wing it and guess a meaning. For one thing, sixteenth century Russian scribes apparently did not consider verbs to be very necessary and frequently omitted them. And many of the words used are archaic and/or have changed their meaning.
30 December 1577
In the name of the father and the son and the holy ghost. Know that I, servant of God, Ovdot'ia Ivanova doch' Goluba, write this testament (while departing from this world) in sound body and mind, of to whom I give what and from whom I have taken what. Give to Iurii Cheliadnia in order to pay off a debt [kabale] (2) one and a half rubles of money, and give to Ushak, servant of the Solovetskii monastery, a ruble of money to pay off a debt [kabale].
The goods and chattels in my possession are as follows: in storage are ten barrels of barley malt, and in Pertnem in the lands of Ermoshinskoi are a half-obzha less one osmina of arable earth (purchased by deed), and a duck glade in the marsh in Pertnem itself and the field in Shermokshia (in all one osmina). (3) In Rakhnov there is a quarter obzha by deed with Kornoukh, and with Kostarii, and with Voronets in keeping. In Pertnem, there is a homestead with an entire estate in the Ermoshinskoi county (in which I live). And it is my wish to give this homestead and lands to the miracle worker of Solovka Spas, and to have them remember me in prayers and to write [my name] in the prayer book [senanik]. The value of these lands and homestead is twenty rubles.
Three puds (4) of rye have been planted in the earth at my Ermolinskoi lands, and this rye is to be given to my granddaughter Mavra Agafonova doch' in the summer. And with Senka Novoselov, I have lands, and a field, and arable earth which are without structures, and these arable lands and fields I give to my descendent Ivan Stepanov syn. And of the planted rye there I give a portion to Ivan, and a remainder of one and a half puds to my granddaughter Mavra. And a gelding, a spotted cow, and two calves I also give to my granddaughter Mavra.
A blue single-breasted caftan [odnoriadka] (worth forty altyn) (5), a necklace given to me by Mikhail Diatlev (worth twenty altyn), buttons (worth twenty altyn), a pair of earrings, two sarafans decorated and couched with white, thirteen woman's shirts [rubashka], a hat [shapka] of crimson damask linen, a boiar's shuba under cover, a featherbed, pillows, some venison, and all the utensils (both iron and copper), all this I give to my granddaughter Mavra. And six silver pins, some beads [proniski], and two silver crosses, all this I give to my granddaughter Mavra. And shoes (worth ten altyn) I give to my granddaughter Mavra. And three boxes and two towels [ubrus] I also give to Mavra.
And if the death of Mavra should serve God, and if my granddaughter should be without heirs, then these goods and chattels of which are written here in this testament (and those things which are placed on the altar after Mavra's death) should pass on to Solovka.
And to my descendent Ivan, I give an oven-door, a large vat, and two tubs. And a sledge, a travelling rug [polost'], and a horse's collar I give to my granddaughter Mavra. And that which is found in the clothing boxes is all to be given to my granddaughter Mavra. And to my grandson Veshniak I give a skewbald gelding, a horse's collar (worth ten altyn), two and a half rubles [poltina] in coin, and clothes that are his. And to my descendent Aleksandra in Ust'-Mosh' I give a stallion. And to Bogoiavlenii in Kozhozero I give a cow and a pair of calves. And I give two pigs to my granddaughter Mavra.
In Turchasovo, for reciting the prayers for the dead [sorokous'ia] (6), the best black single-breasted caftan [odnoriatka] and five boxes of barley [zhito], rye, and flour, and malt and bread shall be purchased. The account shall be paid, and the remainder given to my granddaughter Mavra (and I give a rabbit-fur to my granddaughter Mavra for the deed). From the cells of Spas and Nikola in the parish of Turchasovo, summon forth the poorest elder and elderess. And I order the Pertnem bailiff to see that all these goods are taken and given to the Solovetskii elder Ilinarkh so that things might be settled. Not that I am guilty to anyone for anything but rather for the glory of God and for my spiritual father who serves God.
To my granddaughter Mavra I give two icons: one of Zosim and Savatei and the other of Kozma and Dom'ian. And the remaining icon I give to my descendent Ivan. And the icon of Nikola in the church I give to the Nikola Monastery. And in Syvtozero, there is one eighth of a cottage (7) and in the house in Pertnem in storage there are ten sazhen (8) of netting and this netting and the portion of the cottage I give to my granddaughter Mavra and the remainder of the cottage I give to Ystoma Shumikhin.
And a shuba of rabbit-fur and heavy fabric I give to my granddaughter Okulina in Pertnem. And a boiar's shuba, a sermiaga (9), three shirts [rubakha], and three dresses [portka] all I give to my granddaughter Mavra. And this shuba, sermiaga, and shirts taken from my servant [kazak], as well as forty and three cubits [lokot'] of cloth [utiral'nikov] shall be given to my granddaughter Mavra.
And prior to this time, the possessions, which are to be given to my granddaughter Mavra by this testament, were promised to no one, neither to my grandchildren, nor my descendents, nor any of my other relatives.
And in this spiritual place sat my priest of Turchasovo's Transformation of the Savior Church Ontipa Semenov syn and other good people: Ivan Ivanov syn Panar'in and Ivan Ostaf'ev syn. And also sitting here were the Nikola Monastery of Turchasovo's priest Deonisei Ivanov syn, the sexton Konstiantin Zakhar'in syn, and Kirilo Stepanov syn Paltsova. This testament was written by Nikola's ecclesiastical scribe Matfeiko Vasil'ev syn in the year 7086 on the 30th day of December.
[on the back side:]
And here sat the priest of Turchasovo's Transformation Church Antipa Semenov syn, a spiritual father, and placed his hand. To this Nikola's priest Deonisei, the sexton Konstiantin, and Kirilko placed their hands.
(1) Copied in the seventeenth century and archived at LOII, kol 2, #146/1, ll. 309-12ob, reprinted as "#645: Dukhovnaia pertenemki Avdot'i Ivanovoi docheri Goluby," Akty solovetskogo monastyria: 1572-1584 gg, ed. I. Z. Liberzon (Leningrad: Nauka, 1990), pp. 101-2. My special thanks to Predslava Vydrina for her help and insights on obscure words and terms.
(2) A kabala is a loan which carried with it an obligation to perform labor if it was not paid in full by a specified time.
(3) An obzha is a measure of land of either 5 or 15 desiatinas (a desiatina is approximately 1.09 hectares) and basically the amount of land that one person with a horse can plow in one day. An osmin is about a quarter of a desiatina.
(4) A pud is a measure of weight of approximately 16.36 kilograms.
(5) An altyn is a three-kopeck piece or about 1/33 of a ruble.
(6) The sorokous'ia are forty days of prayers that are recited for the dead. One of their roles is for remission of sins "voluntary and involuntary, in word and in deed, committed in knowledge or ignorance" which (as we can see from what follows) is not the impression that Ovdot'ia wants to leave. Rather, she wants them recited to honor God, in order to preserve her reputation as a pious person.
(7) "One-eighth of a cottage" is a literal translation of osmaia dolia izby. I am unable to determine if there is some sort of alternative meeting. One thought is that she is referring to partial ownership of the cottage, but there is no historical indication that time-shares are period.
(8) A sazhen is a measure of length and approximately 2.13 meters.
(9) A sermiaga is a caftan made from heavy course fabric.
By Peotr Alexeivich Novgorodski
"There was a prince in my country named Oleg. His soothsayers and magicians told him that the steed which he best loved would bring him death..." The fire glints off my bracelets and I can see that I have the audience's attention. "Now, Oleg was no fool and he had this horse put out in the farthest pasture, well cared for and vowed to never see it again..."
This is how I begin telling a particular story that I call "Oleg's Fate" which is drawn from authentic Russian material of the Kievan period. Two great pleasures in the SCA are listening to bards and the telling of tales. It has been great fun and a true challenge to locate and adapt material from historic Russian sources. The exploration has brought me into contact with much of the primary source material that have been translated.
Part of the challenge has been to find stories that are authentic and yet work for the modern sensibility. The hard part (translation of important documents) has been handsomely accomplished for a number of important works. Accessible material includes chronicles, epic poems, traveler's tales, bardic cycles and other folk materials.
Around eight hundred years ago monks began to chronicle history. Included in these documents were legends and tales. The knowledge base and sensibility of these chroniclers are strikingly different than our modern views. Yet, I have found that many stories can extracted from ancient materials, intact, with only the slightest editing.
Usable materials need be short and punchy (best if they run only a couple minutes). A good part of my adaptation is stripping away inessentials, while keeping the flavor of the material. I try to eliminate references to people (other than the main actors) and places that are unfamiliar. Fortunately, lead characters are often Princes, Princesses, and merchants, and are readily recognizable. Sources will often use several names for a single character such as patronymics and euphemisms. For clarity's sake, I recommend avoiding this. Also, avoid calling Russian rulers Tsars (it is an anachronism since they were called princes during the early period). Russian city names (Kiev, Novgorod, Vladimir, etc.) have not changed and can be used. Constantinople was called Tsargrad (Caesar's City) and I will often mention this and say "the place the Franks call Constantinople."
Unfamiliar terms should be eliminated or explained. I think it is rude and distracting to drop a word in and not give the audience a handle to understand it. Indirect explanation is often best. For example, I will talk about Sadko playing the gusli -- we don't need to have seen one or read a dictionary definition -- because in the next sentence I describe how he laid it on his lap and plucked the strings. The monetary term grivna dropped into a story adds flavor, but I try to let the audience know it is a large unit of measure, a grivna of silver or better "a grivna, or as you might say an ounce of silver." Other occasional foreign words add spice, but I recommend using them exceedingly sparingly. For the most part I stick with the familiar elements of stories-castles, rivers, warriors, merchants, bards, steam baths, and magic.
I have found the following sources useful for stories:
Russian Primary Chronicle (translated and edited by Samuel Cross and Olgerd Sherbowitz-Wetzor) This covers the Kievan period of Russian history, including some traditional stories. My favorite selections are: Saint Andrew visits Novgorod (page 54) - A satiric description of Novgorodians bathing (i.e., I went to this city and saw the weirdest thing...). Brief. Oleg's Fate [912 AD] (page 69) Viking type story of Prince who tries to avoid his fate "it is from the steed which you love...that you shall meet your death." Olga's Vengeance [945-6 AD] (page 78-81) Multi-part vengeance by princess for murder of her lord. She buries them, burns them, slaughters them in battle, burns them in their homes, kills the men, and sells the rest into slavery. A good ripping tale, one of the longer in the Chronicles. Vladimir's Conversion [986 AD] (page 96-97). Russian prince decides to become monotheistic (everyone was doing it!). He entertains representatives of Islam, Judaism and Roman Catholics, before adopting Greek Orthodox Christianity. Story needs to be told carefully to avoid giving offense. Other versions of the same story appear in other national histories. Belgorod Porridge [997 AD] (page 123) Smart Russians under siege fool gullible nomads by showing them that porridge grows in the ground.
The Song of Igor's Campaign (trans. Vladimir Nabokov). This is the one extant epic poem from the period, well known through an opera and artwork. It is the story of an ill-prepared raid against the nomadic Polovtsy, in which the Russian hero is defeated, gets captured, and then escapes. Of its 860 lines around 300 lines critique infighting princes, while the remaining lines contain the action. Even with considerable editing, recitation runs to near thirty minutes. A possible approach would be to break it into two presentations (up to Igor's capture, followed by the escape in the second session). Ideally, this would be a poem to commit to memory.
Another source are byliny (a type of folk ballads), first documented in Sixteenth Century but dating back to the early Middle Ages. Several cycles exist, the Kievan and the Novgorodian among them. I have yet to locate good material from the Kiev cycle, but from the later I note two excellent ballads. Sadko is the story of a young bard who is granted wealth by underwater deities. Later, as a wealthy merchant, his failure to honor them results in jeopardy to his fleet and his penance in the court of the Tsar of Seas. It is a well know story in Russia, with a Soviet era film by the same name. A good way to tell this tale is as a two-part narrative (first, the acquisition of the wealth; and the second part starting with his voyage). Vasili Bukarov is an odd poem about a wealthy and mighty noble who loves to brawl and can only be controlled by his mother.
Non Russian Sources
The Travels of Marco Polo, the Complete Yule-Cordier Edition. Besides the travel narrative, Polo digresses with a number of local legends. How Fire Worship Came to Persia (pages 78-81). The three kings come to admire the infant Jesus and return to Persia with some unusual beliefs. Old Man of the Mountains (pages 139-146). Powerful warlord convinces followers they have been to heaven, using hashish and a beautiful garden. Story of "the hashishin", or how fanatical warriors are enrolled.
The Greek Alexander Romance (trans. Richard Stoneman) Mythic version of the life of Alexander the Great. These stories were well known throughout the European and Middle Eastern medieval world. The Caspian Gates (pages 185-7). Hero Alexander seals the unclean nations of the earth behind bronze door between mountains. Story is alluded to both Marco Polo and the Primary Chronicles.
The Viking Sagas recorded in Iceland in the 1200s are a remarkable record of Russia's northern neighbors. These include Egil's Saga (trans. Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards), Njal's Saga, Laxdoela Saga, Eyrbyggja Saga, and Grettir's Saga among others. One could spend a long time delving into this rich literature. I commend the reader to Egil's Saga for an introduction. Egil at Yngar's Feast (pages 79-80). Three year old Egil gets himself to a feast and composes two praise poems to his host. Egil Flirts With an Earl's Daughter (pages 110-111). He invites her to drink with him, she isn't interested until he recites how many he has murdered: "I've borne the bloodstained sword / And bitter spear shaft / The raven at my right hand..."
This article means only to introduce some of the rich trove of authentic medieval texts available. In this survey I have made an educated guess of European and Asian materials a Rus might have known. Many other sources are well worth investigation including The Arabian Nights and the Old Testament.
I conclude with the end of Oleg's Fate: "Now Oleg returned from his adventures. He asked after his favorite horse and was told it had died several years before. Then, he gathered his wise men and soothsayers and took them out to the field where the horse had died. He found the skull lying white amidst the prairie grass. He said unto his men, "This, my horse, was to be the means of my death? What say you now?" And so saying, he gave the skull a kick. So doing, he disturbed a poisonous serpent. This snake then bit him and he perished."
By Paul Wickenden of Thanet
At my Barony's spring event, Tournament of Chivalry, I happened to witness the presentation of Lord Ivan Petrovich's Award of Arms. This was no simple scroll, but a complete triptych, created by Master Tarik (a rather legendary scribe in these parts of the Middle Kingdom). The triptych is made of three pieces of wood that are hinged together. They were lacquered and the designs are painted on (as is the lettering). Lord Ivan was generous enough to send me a scan of the award and allow me to share it with you.
The text of it reads: "Ivan Petrovich: As you have in divers efforts enriched our realm, We, Finn & Tamara happily bestow upon you an Award of Arms & all rights attendant. Done by Our hands on this fifteenth day of April in this the thirty-fourth year of Our Society."
By Despina de la Brasov
[Editor's note: While you may have heard about the SIG discussion group on-line (aka "SIG-L"), many of us (myself included) are not involved with its activities. Occasionally, there are some really interesting points that are made. I happened to catch this little piece and convinced Despina to allow me to republish it here for the general audience. She was responding to a question from a friend of Alastair Millar, who had asked a thought-provoking question.]
Can you explain why there are so few Slav historical re-enactments in central Europe?
It is, indeed, an excellent question your colleague poses. My personal answer comes from my experiences in research. The English wrote a lot down, and they were never completely looted and taken over by a dictator or form of government that believed in complete suppression and destruction of the past (Cromwell aside, as much survived him and he wasn't in power so long in the grand scheme of things).
My area is Transylvania/Wallachia - modern day Romania. When the communists took it over, they took it over. My research into historical dress for the area turns up a lot of folk costume that can be positively dated to the 19th century, no farther. (If one more person sends me to a website that turns up a ton of folk costume and nothing documentable before 1600, I think I will cry with the frustration of it.) Only very recently have I been able to find manuscript type documents pre-19th century from this area on the web, as well as pictures of frescos from 15th and 16th century monasteries to use as reference for costumes and scribal work (and those are extremely few). All of the artwork that I can find on the web done by people from this area - 19th century and later, not a lot of it either.
I would love to find portraits of the ruling princes and nobles of the area from pre-1600 (aside from Vlad the Impaler), but it is very difficult. Suppression and destruction has eradicated and slowed down the availability of material on this area, and many other former communist state areas.
So, I guess I'd say it's not for lack of love of history, but for lack of period sources, destruction of such sources and long time suppression of such sources.
One of the most well known tales of the Middle Ages was a mythical version of the life of Alexander the Great. Tales of the "good pagan king" of the ancient world were known throughout Europe, the Middle East and on into Central Asia. Recently I was examining a modern illuminated miniature in Uzbekistan depicting a battle between two kings. "What is it?" "Oh, that is Iskander fighting King Darius." The artist responded.
Creation of "the Alexander Romance" was a process that probably began within a hundred years of his death and was completed within 200 years thereafter. The work, to the modern reader, is a mixed bag. The narrative is not the real story of Alexander the Great, but a jumble of myth, legend, rumor and fact. Early on it is evident that the authors had no idea whatsoever of geography. Furthermore as a story it is very muddled with parts of the story told twice and glaring inconsistencies.
On the other hand, there is some great and unique story telling material here. Once Alexander has conquered all the nations of the world he sets out to explore. He plumbs the end of the world where the sun does not shine, the depths of the sea in glass jar and the heights of the sky drawn by two great birds. In other interesting vignettes Alexander dialogues with Hindu wise men, called in the text the "naked philosophers," and collects tribute from the Amazons.
One of the most compelling of the legends is of the Caspian Gates. Hero Alexander seals all the unclean nations of earth behind bronze gates in a mountain pass, to protect the inhabited world. Marco Polo's travels refers to this legend. The Russian Primary Chronicle alludes to this with a tale told by a monk of place where voices can be heard from a cleft in the rock. The savage tribes within are bit by bit over the ages widening the opening. Some day, it hints, they may again burst forth. Perhaps in this part of the legend we see a near universal fear of nomadic invaders from the East.
-- Peotr Alexeivich Novgorodski
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