An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

April 20, 2020

Nowakowska: Remembering the Jagiellonians

Remembering the Jagiellonians  book coverNatalia Nowakowska, ed., Remembering the Jagiellonians. London: Routledge, 2018.

Reviewed by Anna Czarnowus (

Remembering the Jagiellonians, a collection of articles edited by Natalia Nowakowska, includes a captivating vision that provides the readers not only with historical facts, but also the memory (or memories) of these facts and how that memory has been preserved in various Central, Eastern, and Western European countries. The long-lost world of the Jagiellonian dynasty is preserved in the historiography, but also in the collective/ cultural/social memory of the European countries where this dynasty ruled or where their female members were queens. The book takes you on a journey that you may undertake hesitatingly, but then you are taken over by how important this research is for transnational history. The collection is very careful in explaining genealogies and historical facts. It analyzes propagandist ideas. The visual material it includes can sometimes not be accessible otherwise: for example, it reproduces a page from a children’s graphic novel that includes historiographic ideas which only Czechs are familiar with.

Nowakowska’s contributors show the media potential of this narrative, but they also pose a question of whose Jagiellonians would be represented in, for example, a TV show. Would they be Poles’ Jagiellonians, or those of Lithuanians, Hungarians and Slovaks, Czechs, Germans and Austrians, Swedes and the Finnish, Belarusians, Ukrainians, or Russians? These would be completely different stories, as respective articles in the volume make it clear. The collection popularizes what is mostly general knowledge in Poland as a place where the Jagiellonians ruled from 1386 to 1596, but it is generally not so commonly known in Hungary or the Czech Republic, and it is something forgotten in the German-speaking countries, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. The case of Sweden and Finland is different in this respect, since there is a romantic narrative there that includes Katarina/Katariina Jagiellonica, a Jagiellonian princess.

In the "Introduction: Time, Space, and Dynasty" Nowakowska calls the Jagiellonians the unfamiliar (or forgotten) dynasty, even though they once ruled a vast part of Europe: the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, medieval and early modern Poland, Bohemia and Hungary, Transylvania, lands from Zagreb to Kiev. In this sense they are comparable to the Habsburgs and discussing them must be “a debate about space and a debate about time” (1). Studying the Jagiellonians cannot be done exclusively within one nation-state. The editor writes that the intention behind the volume is to discuss Jagiellonian memory from the Renaissance to the present. Importantly, the Jagiellonians originated as rulers of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and as a dynasty they were started by Jogaila/Jagiełło/Iagel, who married Hedwig of Anjou in order to become King of Poland. The dynasty officially ended in 1572, with Jagiellonian descendants and successors living on. The post-1989 changes in historical thinking led to a reassessment of Jagiello, but also to the Jagiellonians entering popular culture and even being treated as celebrities.

Giedrė Mikūnaitė discusses the clash between the Lithuanian understanding of Jogaila as a traitor and the Polish perspective, which focuses on the advantages for the duke. After all, Jogaila became King of Poland and Lithuania and converted to Catholicism, which possibly resulted in cultural advancement in those times. In her article Natalia Nowakowska writes that the differences in seeing Jogaila in Poland and in Lithuania testify to the “ongoing memory wars” that were started in the twentieth century (50) and apparently they continue till this day. The memory of the Jagiellonians for modernity was “made” in Poland in the nineteenth century and visual artists played an important role in this. Nowakowska lists the uses to which the memory of the Jagiellonians have been put: they have been present in historical knowledge in schools, research by scholars, appropriated by towns, institutions, cookbooks, the media, recycled in fiction, and staged as drama. It is impossible for one uniform memory of them to be formulated.

In Hungary and Slovakia, as Stanislava Kuzmová claims, the Jagiellonians have been treated as one of the “foreign dynasties” on the Hungarian throne. Some events related to the Jagiellonian kings became “reference spots” for national history, to mention the Battle of Mohács in 1526 and the tragic death of Louis II in it as an appropriate example (77). The most recent perspective is that the rule of the Jagiellonians has been distorted, so Hungarian historiography has “centuries of distortion” behind it (89). In the Czech Republic in turn, to cite Ilya Afanasyev, the Jagiellonian memory has been individualized, as they have not been conceptualized as a dynasty at all (106). This is why he refers to the “ambiguous half-neglected place of ‘the Jagiellonians’ in the current construction of Czech national history” (111).

In Germany the Jagiellonians are seen as one of the “unknown ruling house[s] of Central Europe,” as Dušan Zupka indicates (121). It is like that even though the dynasty became internationalized by the Jagiellonian daughters, who were married into the ruling houses of the former Holy Roman Empire. Yet there exists recent research on the Jagiellonians in German-speaking countries, including that on the Landshut wedding of Hedwig Jagiellon (132 et passim). In Sweden and Finland, where Catherine Jagiellon was the Duchess of Finland and then Queen of Sweden, there is a memory of her as a Polish-Italian princess, the only royal consort to bear a Latinized name (142). Susanna Niiranen makes her article even more original through detailed analyses of the Jagiellonian Chapel in the Uppsala Cathedral, where Catherine was buried, and of Turku Castle, where she resided.

In Belarus, as Simon M. Lewis claims, the Jagiellonians are identified through the fourth wife of Jogaila, Sophia, a Belarusian princess. Lewis also summarizes why the Jagiellonians have a negative image in Belarusian historiography. It happened owing to the Soviet thinking about the dynasty, since in Soviet historiography they were monarchs who brought the Belarusian territories under Polish cultural influence (163). Soviet thinking also focused on socioeconomic trends and not rulers (163).

In Ukraine the memory of the Jagiellonians could belong to Ukrainian “national history,” but Ukrainians “never saw the Jagiellonians as their own dynasty,” to quote Tetiana Hoshko (184). She discusses the involvement of the Cossacks in Jagiellonian politics, but concludes by stating that “the Jagiellonians are virtually absent from both cultural memory and public space in Ukraine” (198). Russia is similar to Ukraine in this respect, as Olga Kozubska-Andrusiv writes, since by becoming a dynasty in Poland the Jagiellonians also detached themselves from Russia in religious terms. Russian historiography distanced itself from the dynasty and the trend was continued both in Soviet historiography and later, since the Jagiellonians are still not included in Russian discussions of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

This is a very timely volume, since it demonstrates how various nationalisms, but also nationality-oriented studies have presented various truths about one and the same European dynasty. It may lead its readers to the conclusion that the memory of the Jagiellonians is our common heritage rather than material that needs to be seen in detachment from the perspective of different countries. The collection undoubtedly will popularize the Jagiellonians in the English-speaking countries and will be a great source of reference for all scholars worldwide. It is very good that the collection has been published now, in times of the growing separation of various Central European countries from the EU and the ideas on which it was founded. The collection shows that we are all interconnected by transnational history and we should not think otherwise, for the sake of our own realization of who we are and what our (common) roots are.

Anna Czarnowus
University of Silesia, Katowice (Poland)