A Dark Discovery At Spiš Castle – Personalizing History

Wikipedia has become the go to source regarding historical information. Regardless of whether or not the information is valid or even relevant a Wikipedia entry about an historical event, personage or place is often taken as the truth. There are plenty of naysayers when it comes to Wikipedia, especially in the academic community. Critics of Wikipedia argue that the information lacks validity because it does not undergo a rigorous review process by professional historians. That is a valid point but let’s face it, Wikipedia has millions of entries. Do professional historians have the time or inclination to review all of these, the answer is quite simply no. For a large and diverse global audience Wikipedia has done a good job of providing pertinent information to its readers, certainly much better than any other digital medium promoting historical knowledge.

Spiš Castle as seen from the entrance road - the castle concealed a dark secret beneath it for over 1,800 years

Spiš Castle as seen from the entrance road – the castle concealed a dark secret beneath it for over 1,800 years

The Limits of Information – Spiš Castle: A Search for Relevance
That being said there are major limitations to what Wikipedia offers readers and researchers, especially those who are looking to gain in-depth information about people, places and events in Eastern Europe. The limitations of Wikipedia were once again revealed to me while searching for historical information prior to a visiting Spiš Castle (Spišský hrad) in Eastern Slovakia. This sprawling hilltop fortress rises spectacularly amid the surrounding hills and mountains of the Spiš Region. The castle is quite famous and rightfully so, due to its size, stunning appearance and five centuries of history. I assumed (wrongfully) that because of its fame the Wikipedia entry would be highly engaging. It turned out to be anything but. The  Spiš Castle entry in Wikipedia stuck to a just the facts approach, focusing on two things, a chronology of the aristocratic families that once owned it and the castle’s architectural history. I should probably not have expected much more, after all Wikipedia is about information, not interpretation.

Compounding my problems was the fact that I could only read the English language entry. Surely Spiš Castle’s Hungarian (the ethnicity of the aristocrats who owned the castle) or Slovakian language entries would have been more informative. Then again, a Wikipedia entry was not the lone source available for Spiš Castle on the internet. A link from the Wikipedia entry for the castle led me to a Slovakian website with a long English language write-up on the castle. The article contained a great deal of background information, but still left me wanting. After two and a half long pages of architectural details and a shifting cast of aristocratic owners I began to lose interest. The paragraphs were laden with one dry historical fact after another. This article told me all the facts that I supposedly needed to know, but in essence nothing that was really memorable or engaging.

Late afternoon sunshine radiates off the limestone walls of Spiš Castle

Late afternoon sunshine radiates off the limestone walls of Spiš Castle

More Questions Than Answers – Spiš Castle Beyond The Details
The main problem with both the Wikipedia entry and the article I stumbled upon was that they lacked compelling narratives and few stories concerning people. They were filled with chronology and hard facts. Of course narrative and stories are not the mandate of Wikipedia or the article I read. On the other hand, people make history, not buildings. People created the architecture of Spiš Castle, the buildings did not create themselves. There was a reason that Spiš Castle was built in such an imposing manner, namely to protect its inhabitants. The questions I really wanted answered included what battles were fought in and around the castle? Surely there were some titanic struggles. Who built, reconstructed and refurbished the castle across five centuries of history? By this I do not mean who were the architects or the aristocratic owners of Spiš Castle, but instead was it slave labor, master craftsmen or whoever could be commandeered into service. No one person could have built, designed or planned such a castle. One of my greatest frustrations was not being able to learn more about its owners. Of course I learned their names, but this information either told me nothing or left me with questions that I was unable to find the answers to.

A representative sentence in the Wikipedia entry offers a prime example of my dilemma: “Before 1464, it was owned by the kings of Hungary, afterwards (until 1528) by the Zápolya family, the Thurzó family (1531–1635), the Csáky family (1638–1945), аnd (since 1945) by the state of Czechoslovakia then Slovakia.” This sentence intrigued me, why did the castle pass from one family to the next. Did the existing owners die out, fall out of favor with their royal overlords or were they involved in political and military intrigues?  The other article on Spišský Hrad offered many intriguing details that led to even more questions. For instance, “the Csáky family owned the castle till 1945. They lived in the castle only till the end of the 17th century, because they rather built several manor-houses in Hodkovce, Bijacovce, Kluknava etc. For the manor-houses they many times used the stone material from the castle. Just a small military unit stayed at the castle. They left in 1780 after it burned down.”  I wanted to know what or who burned the castle down? Why the transition from castles to manor-houses? I assumed it was because of both comfort and the changing nature of security. One only needed to live in a castle such as Spiš if one was under constant threat. By the late 18th century those days had passed. I knew that from my background knowledge of the Kingdom of Hungary’s history, not from the article.

View from the heights of Spiš Castle

View from the heights of Spiš Castle

Into The Depths – A Secret Revealed
Of course it was easy to be critical and pick apart the efforts of others. I was certainly thankful for what I did learn from Wikipedia and the Spišský Hrad article. Someone had taken the time and effort to make this information available in multiple languages. My real problem was twofold: 1) I wanted information that was just as spectacular and fascinating as the castle itself and; 2) I wanted historical context. Both were lacking. Of course, those who authored the articles could have easily rebutted my criticisms by saying that if you want it done better, than do it yourself.  That is a legitimate point, but I did not just want to add more factual information. Perhaps there needs to be a site that puts the story back in history. Of course it has always been there, but His-STORY seems to have been lost. My last hope for discovering the human side of Spiš Castle was whatever interpretation and information I might discover when I visited the actual site. I was cautiously optimistic that I could learn a more interesting and relevant history there.

On a Tuesday afternoon in late October I was finally able to visit Spiš Castle. It was the realization of a dream that had begun a decade before when I first learned about the castle in the 2002 Rough Guide to the Czech and Slovak Republics. On page XIX in the 29 Things Not to Miss Section was a color photo owith #16 Spišský Hrad. Beneath the photo was a caption that stated, “This sprawling medieval castle is quite simply the most stunning hilltop ruin in Slovakia.” That photo and caption fascinated me for years, capturing my imagination. After a lung bursting hike from the lower parking lot to the entrance I entered the grounds. The vistas were just as I expected them to be, magnificent. The castle area was expansive, with limestone walls crisscrossing the jagged rocky outcrop. There were several towers and ramparts which stirred the imagination. It was easy to see that the castle had been situated to take advantage of an impregnable defensive position.

The historical information on offer at the castle consisted of displays and museum exhibits in several rooms. I was disappointed, but not shocked to find that the text on these offered information rather than interpretation. Once again architecture, chronology and names trumped human interest stories. I read all of the text which could best be summed up as: facts, facts, facts and more facts.  Now several weeks since that visit, I am able to recall one thing, the only exhibit that told a story that involves a person. A display titled “Unique Dark Cave Discovery” stated, “An entrance into the Dark Cave is situated on the northwest of the Castle hill. A marvelous underground world that may be explored straight below the castle disclosed an interesting secret…At the end of a narrow cleft they (speleologists and archaeologists) traced human bones, leather money bags. Some coins as well as remains of ceramic shards dating back to the 1st or 2nd century A.D.…At the end of the 2nd century, an unpredictable incident happened to the owner of these coins, who was probably a respectable merchant. The man in his 30’s or 40’s was looking for a safe place. He finally took a shelter in the interior of the Dark Cave, which was then available from the upper side. He entered the cave with a serious gash injury of his right thigh and he could possibly suffer an incidental fall. It is hard to tell. However, we certainly know that he never made his way out of the cave. The man remained there for the rest of his life and he passed away due to deathly injuries he had sustained. For long centuries, he maintained his considerable property. As in a fairy tale, silver Roman coins spilled out of his leather money bags. That is how caves under the Spiš Castle reveal their secrets and bear witness to importance of the region since prehistoric times.” There were some coins and shards of pottery on display from this find. The objects hardly mattered without the story.

A window into the past at Spiš Castle

A window into the past at Spiš Castle

Of Human Interest – Life & Death Beneath Spiš Castle
I suddenly saw myself as that unfortunate man, suffering, starving and finally succumbing in the Dark Cave. How long had he been able to survive there? Why had he crawled in there and what were his final thoughts. These were just a few of the many questions that entered my mind while I read the exhibit. The Dark Cave discovery was morbidly fascinating, still something of a mystery and spoke of survival, life, death and personal security. For this alone, a visit to Spiš Castle was certainly worth it. The massive castle walls, the magnificent vistas, the soaring, austere beauty of the structure and five hundred years of haughty aristocratic families at Spiš Castle all paled in comparison to a man without a name, who accidently fell into his death and then was brought back to historic life 1,800 years later. This was like the most memorable kinds of history that which forgets the facts and focuses on a uniquely human experience.  Humans make history and in this case, tragically astonishing history.

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