Interview with Gábor Klaniczay

The Hungarian medievalist discusses being in Paris in 1968, learning from Jacques Le Goff, and the Orbán regime

June 28, 2018
gabor klaniczay

Gábor Klaniczay, university professor of medieval studies at the Central European University in Budapest, is an authority on religious history. He has published two monographs in English, The Uses of Supernatural Power: The Transformation of Popular Religion in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (1990) and Holy Rulers and Blessed Princesses: Dynastic Cults in Medieval Central Europe (2002), as well as many translations and edited volumes. He was recently elected an international honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, founded in 1780, whose earlier members have included Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King.

Where and when were you born?
Budapest, Hungary, in July 1950.

How has this shaped you?
I grew up in socialist Hungary. In 1956 [the time of the short-lived revolution, crushed by the arrival of Soviet troops], I saw history in the making. Coming from a family of intellectuals – my father was a professor of Renaissance and baroque literature, my mother an art historian – the appreciation of high culture and the learning of foreign languages was an inspiration from home. My choice of profession, to become a historian, was a result of this.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
Before my university studies, I had the chance to live in France for a year: 1967-68, what a year! Then I had to do a year of military service in Hungary. Subsequently, I studied history and English in Budapest. It was the age of student movements; in socialist Hungary there was only a fake reflection of it, but there was still something. It also influenced my choice of a historical subject for my MA thesis: medieval heretical movements.

When did you decide on the major themes you would devote your scholarly life to?
I decided very early: while still in high school I turned towards the study of the Middle Ages. Yet I was seduced by another age, the sociology of subcultures and counter-culture in the 1960s and 1970s; I wrote some journalism in those times, and I also keep on writing historical essays on this subject. But the major theme remained medieval and early modern Christianity, the problem of popular religion, the cult of saints, the beliefs in magic and witchcraft, the visions, apparitions – currently I am working on a book on the discourses on stigmatics.

What was it like to go to Paris for postgraduate studies?
To study at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, in the seminar of Jacques Le Goff and Jean-Claude Schmitt, was a great experience: lively discussions, imaginative interpretations passionately debated, an inspiring mixture of the representatives of different disciplines.

How have you been enriched by the fellowships you have been awarded in several other countries?
I kept returning to Paris later and taught some courses at the EHESS. I also spent some time in Rome, where I got acquainted with the resources of the Vatican Archives and the erudition of Italian colleagues. In 1986, I spent four months in New York at [what is now the East Central European Center] at Columbia University. All these fellowships helped me a lot in situating my research within the current worldwide discourses on the historical anthropology of medieval Christianity.

What was the impact of the end of the communist era in 1989?
After the fall of the Iron Curtain, these possibilities multiplied: in 1990-91, I had a most fruitful year in the Institute for Advanced Study, in Berlin, and in 1992 in the Getty Center in Santa Monica. In Hungary, this was a period of founding new academic institutions. In 1989, I founded with colleagues the Budapest Review of Books. At Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, I initiated a historical anthropology programme. I participated in the discussions on the foundation of Collegium Budapest – Institute for Advanced Study (a European-backed centre initiated by the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin), and later, in 1997, I became rector of that institute. I also participated in the foundation of the Central European University, and I became the head of the medieval studies department there.

What was it like to move to the CEU in 1992?
The fascinating experience at CEU resides in the international recruitment of students and staff. As the education was developed for MA and PhD levels, the seminars frequently resembled an international conference, bringing together the experience of different scholarly traditions.

What has been the impact of recent political developments in Hungary, and the pressures on the CEU itself?
These pressures have been very unfortunate and represent a serious stress on our work. So far, we have been continuing our work in these conditions. But in the long run this situation undermines the functioning of our university, it makes the recruitment of students and the hiring of new faculty more and more difficult.

What kind of support have you received from scholars in other countries?
There have been many solidarity statements and public declarations. The worldwide solidarity was very moving, and means a lot to us, but the current regime [of Viktor Orbán] was not impressed by it, and maintains insecurity.

What does it feel like to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences?
It is a great honour: this is all I can say.

If you weren’t an academic, what do you think you’d be doing?
When I was young, I did some painting, and I maintained an interest in visual matters such as design and fashion, so this could have been an opportunity.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
I have admired several professors and colleagues. Let me name two: my master, Jacques Le Goff, and my colleague Natalie Zemon Davis. But I have also admired singers such as David Bowie and Lou Reed, artists such as Andy Warhol, and philosophers such as Michel Foucault. And I also have many historical figures on my list. Let me name one: Erasmus of Rotterdam.

What would you like to be remembered for?
For bringing Hungarian scholarship closer to the worldwide community of scholars. 


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