What do the Old Norse sagas, the chronicle narrative of Jean Froissart and the Old Serbian annals have in common? How about the Dominican collection of pious exempla by Jacobus de Cessolis, Liber de moribus? Well, to give you yet another clue, think of the late French Arthurian romance of Melyador and the anonymous fifteenth-century Middle English metrical romance Capystranus. Still no nearer to the answer? Hungary and the Hungarians! Surprising as it may sound, Hungary makes a frequent and variegated appearance in a variety of medieval narrative sources across Europe, from Iceland to Italy, not to mention Germany, France, England and such close neighbours as Poland and Serbia.
Let us speak, for instance, of chronicles, apparently objective narratives – or are they? What happens when we realise that reading chronicles for historical data demands as much hermeneutic effort as the analysis of chivalric romances? Levente Seláf, comparing the representation of Hungary in Froissart’s Oeuvre and the Middle French romances, the Vulgate Lancelot and the later Melyador, finds a number of similarities in the authors’ representation of Hungary and the Hungarians. In both Froissart and Melyador, Ireland becomes a fantastic, marginal territory, a hybrid of spaces and concepts, where Hungarian knights fight, savages flourish and true Christian find their passage near to impossible, except as a space where heroic daring and chivalric prowess can be displayed.
In turn, Csete Kantona demonstrated how the Icelandic perspectives on the steppe people could shift, depending on the historical context. While the Turks as a people and Asia Minor as a space were regarded with respect prior to the fourteenth century, they became enemies following the Turkish advances at the later period. One of the quotations reads: ‘Turks, Black men and a good many other nasty people’.
Interestingly, Levente Seláf highlighted that Froissart did not present the Muslims as the stereotypic Saracens: instead, they are sophisticated aristocrats, equally courteous and gay (‘assez Courtois et débonnaires’) as the Christian knights. Apparently, it is the question of perspective, whether the Muslims are detestable or just as good knights as everyone else…