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Danube-on-Thames: The New East Enders

By Blog Admin, on 30 May 2014

This year, 2-13 June, SSEES is running the second UCL Global Citizenship ‘Danube’ Summer School on Intercultural Interaction. This is one of the four summer schools that make up the first year of UCL’s Global Citizenship Programme. The Danube Summer School brings together nearly one hundred students from across the University to learn about the Danube and the people that live along its banks. Coordinated by Tim Beasley-Murray and Eszter Tarsoly, the Summer School draws on the expertise of a wide range of SSEES academic staff, language teachers, and PhD students.

Below is a text from the Danube Summer School’s blog that explains the rationale for the Danube-on-Thames project, one of the Summer School’s outputs.

danube-on-thames1

Historically, the region through which the Danube flows has been a region of extraordinary cultural, ethnic and linguistic diversity. The realm of Empires (the Ottoman and Habsburg) that were multi-, rather than mono- ethnic, this was a region that did not care much for neat borders that separated one group of people from another. Here, you used to be able to find Serbian villages dotted in what was otherwise Slovak countryside, German- and Yiddish-speaking towns wedged between Romanian and Hungarian villages, pockets of Turks and other Muslims, Christians of all denominations (Orthodox, Catholic and varieties of Protestants) living across the region, and everywhere settlements of Germans (the so-called Danube Swabians or Saxons) as well those Danubian cosmopolitans, Jews, both Sephardim and Ashkenazim, and different groups of Roma.

A good, even clichéd image, of this cultural and ethnic plurality, as drawn, for example, by the Austrian writer, Joseph Roth, could be found in the classic Danubian café with its hubbub and chatter in many languages, its newspapers on sticks in German, Hungarian and Romanian, its Romany band playing music that draww on a complex fusion of musical traditions, its Jewish doctor playing chess with a Christian lawyer.

Today, much of this diversity has gone. The collapse of the multi-ethnic empires and the endeavour to create single-nation states, particularly following the First World War, started to tidy up the region and sorted people into national boxes. This process was continued in a much more violent way with the murder of most of the Danube’s Jews and a significant part of its Romany communities in the horrors of the Second World War. After the Second World War, this violence continued with the expulsion of the bulk of Germans from ‘non-German’ national territory – and also, to an extent, the removal of Hungarians from the more-spread out territories that they had previously occupied.

The raising of the Iron Curtain along the banks of the Danube, between Communist (Czecho)Slovakia and Hungary and capitalist Austria and between Communist Romania and non-aligned Yugoslavia, dealt another serious blow to the Danube as a site of intercultural flow. Most recently, the ‘ethnic cleansing’ that accompanied the Balkan Wars of the 1990s was a further step in the homogenization of the Danubian region.

The result is that the Danubian interculturality that this Summer School seeks to explore is not necessarily best explored on the banks of the Danube itself. Where then to look for it? (more…)

Getting Vampirism wrong

By Blog Admin, on 4 September 2013

Johann Christian Harenberg. Some Contemporary and Christian Considerations on Vampires or the Blood-Sucking Dead, Wolfenbüttel, 1733

Johann Christian Harenberg.
Some Contemporary and Christian
Considerations on Vampires or
the Blood-Sucking Dead,
Wolfenbüttel 1733.
Via Wikimedia Commons

Vampires continue to fascinate us, but the legends have strayed a long way from their original meaning, argues Professor Martyn Rady.

The latest commentary on ‘vampires’ In Poland and Bulgaria (summarized in The Guardian, 16 July 2013), which are respectively some decapitated skeletons and staked corpses, shows the problem with studies of vampirism today. Any undead person, or person who is thought to be still walking when they were previously buried, is considered a vampire. These creatures are not automatically, however, vampires; they are merely revenants or returners.

All cultures have believed that the dead may on occasions return to life, but that is not to say the returned will share the characteristics of the vampire. The Greek revenant or vrykolakas might thus return to this world in order to help with the ploughing or other household chores. The West African demon who hides in trees ready to rip out with his long tongue the innards of the unwary traveller, may feast on the living, but he was never human and thus had never experienced mortal death. Both are, however, frequently described as vampires, along with such other supernatural manifestations as ghouls, strigoi or screech-witches, and cannibalistic shape-changers.

The origins of this confusion lie with Augustus Montague Summers (1880–1948). Summers was a pretend priest, notorious exhibitionist, and associate of Aleister Crowley, which is never a good sign. He made his money writing superficially learned books on the supernatural. The Vampire: His Kith and Kin (1928) lumps together a range of revenant stories, together with examples of creatures feasting on the living, and posits a single category of malevolence, which he calls vampirism. The book was a best-seller and Summers rewrote it under several different titles.

We need to pin the vampire down, or else like Summers we will render every evil object a vampire. To be a vampire requires three things: (a) revenance, to be returned from the dead, (b) a proclivity or even physical requirement to feast on the living, and (c) contagion, the ability to infect others with the disease of vampirism. These are necessary conditions. Nothing less will do.

Once we have established the conditions, the provenance follows. Vampires originate in Serbia. The original name, which is upir, is Slavonic and means a demon. In Serbia, however, vulgar traditions of Orthodox Christianity established for the first time the combination of the three features that we have determined. Possibly, this had something to do with beliefs in ‘slow death’, whereby the spirit leaves the body over a period of weeks; possibly, it was related to practices of ritual exhumation; possibly, it was synthetic of Christianity and other traditions. (more…)

Borders and what they do: lessons from a lost Habsburg province

By Blog Admin, on 3 May 2013

Contested Frontiers in the Balkans-p17oi0ls081o7l132i1l2ld101al9Why write about a province that has long ceased to be and is currently divided between three states?  Irina Marin explains why she wrote about the historic Habsburg province of the Banat of Temesvár

Well-hidden behind the title Contested Frontiers in the Balkans: Ottoman and Habsburg Rivalries in Eastern Europe is a monograph of the Banat of Temesvár or, by its Romanian name, Banatul Timișoarei. Why write a book about a historical province that has long ceased to be one and is currently peacefully divided between Romania, Serbia and Hungary? Outside the region and a narrow circle of historians, the Banat is a classic Ruritania, a non-existent land for all the reality it has for outsiders.

Everybody will have heard of Transylvania, Bosnia or Kosovo, but I doubt the Banat of Temesvár is at all known in the English-speaking world. Even when events take place there which are worthy of public attention, people usually refer to the present-day countries rather than the historical province, even if the name ‘Banat’ is still in local usage. So why write a history of this seemingly obscure province?

First of all, because no such history is available in English. The region deserves putting on the map of Anglo-Saxon historical scholarship. This, however, is not a strong enough reason and does not forestall the Ruritanian accusation. We instead should perhaps turn the question around and ask what makes a province worthy of interest. Sadly, more often than not the answer is blood and violence: whether blood sucked by vampires (as in Transylvania) or massacres and ethnic cleansing (as in Bosnia, Kosovo). Extremes of violence should, of course, never be ignored or left unexplored and unexplained.

The problem arises when one concentrates exclusively on such places visited by unprecedented violence. It creates the impression that nothing but ethnic violence comes out of Eastern Europe and fuels myths of  ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’ as characteristic of the region.

I have therefore stopped at the Banat of Temesvár as a relatively peaceful province, with just as many ethnicities and religious denominations as these, but if anything dogged by myths of harmonious ethnic cohabitation rather than the perennial ancient-hatred myth. My new book is not intended to solve bibliographical disputes, count populations or work out who was there first. It is instead a historical meditation on the destructive and creative effect of ebbing and flowing borders on an ethnically variegated population, who lived and died under several waves of imperial rule, under nation-states and under communist and post-communist regimes. (more…)