The king on his knees – Demonstrating humility and penance in international relations

Students on my MA module ‘Medieval Diplomacy’ have again been working on drawing comparisons between modern and medieval diplomatic practices. Here, a first example from Hanna Nüllen.

The picture of then German chancellor Willy Brandt dropping to his knees in front of the Warsaw Ghetto memorial on 7 December 1970 is often counted among the most powerful images of post-war Germany. To this day, articles dealing with this gesture are published in regular newspapers and the photograph can be found in many German schoolbooks. The intention behind this genuflection is still debated and while many see it as a simple demonstration of Brandt’s personal feelings on the matter of the atrocities committed by the Nazi Regime, some suggest, that his motives might have been more complex. At the time Brandt was in the middle of signing a treaty with Poland and later described his genuflection as a reaction to the overwhelming weight of history.

Whatever his intentions, Brandt was not the first person who might have tried to make political and diplomatic gains out of a gesture of humility and penance. We find many instances of kings and other rulers publicly showing their humility throughout the Middle Ages not only as a demonstration of their kingly virtues but also to influence the outcome of negotiations or to regain their position. One such example is Louis the Pious, who publicly paid penance twice, in 822 and in 833, in order to maintain his position as the king of Frankia, which was beginning to fall apart. In contrast to Willy Brandt, who silently dropped to his knees as an acknowledgment of the crimes committed by Nazi Germany, Louis confessed to long lists of personal wrongdoings. While his circumstances were vastly different to those of Willy Brandt, in both cases the influence their gesture might have had on their and their people’s future is discussed in much the same way. Hence, even though showing humility is sometimes perceived to be a sign of weakness, it can often work to strengthen one’s position.

What does that word mean, really?

All medieval historians engage with translation in some way to do research; whether it is simply to read primary sources or secondary literature, to write up research based on variations in translation, to edit translations already made, or to create new translations. Medievalists spend years honing their translation skills and I think it would be fair to say that translating, in its various forms, is one of the hardest parts of my job, not only because it requires significant skills but because it demands space in time and in mind – the two commodities hardest to juggle in my role as a lecturer in a busy history department.

'Oh great, this book's in cow.'

‘Oh great, this book’s in cow.’

My own experience with translation clearly began before I decided to go into research. As most of you will know, I’m a non-native speaker of English and this means that I continuously engage with translation by copying, editing and thinking about the way native speakers use English in speech and in writing. It has often been a process of trial and error – really, lots of errors (so many horror stories that are not suitable to write about here!). Nevertheless, by the time I started my postgraduate studies, this process had left me fairly confident that I could tackle any text with a good dictionary and patience. For several years, I felt that this worked like a charm – mostly – until my research took me in new directions and I had to make completely new translations of the sources I was working with. Honestly, my postgraduate training and a PhD had not prepared me for this. Even small practical things like whether to indicate variations in spellings in the word document using square or round brackets or footnotes became a matter to ponder for days, weeks and months. And, the more translations I did, the less I felt I knew.translation-is-a-puzzle It has resulted in me becoming more pedantic about words and phrases in general and those students and colleagues who know me well, can attest, with great exasperation, to the fact that I start almost every question or objection with “but what does that word mean in practice?”

Next week I, together with the Leverhulme-funded international network ‘Voices of Law: Language, Text and Practice’, will be hosting a postgraduate workshop on editing, translating and using medieval documents. I will be sharing some of the basic problems of translating (yes, maybe I’ll divulge some of those horror stories too), focusing on problems relating to purpose, time, knowing too much/too little, and logistics. I’ll be joined at the workshop by some more experienced colleagues from Cambridge, Copenhagen, Glasgow, and the Frisian Academy, who also grapple with translations. Afterwards, the papers from the workshop will be made available in an online booklet, which will, hopefully, provide postgraduates with some useful guidance on this topic.