A remarkable story of medieval parchments, popes, and 13th century monarchs

Neal Pease, right, presents a box containing 17 letters dating back to the 13th century to Professor Wladyslaw Stepniak, deputy head of Poland's National Archives, photo: AP/Alik Keplicz

A professor from the University of Wisconsin in the United States arrived in Poland recently - with some very precious hand luggage. In fact they were parchments - documents written by popes and Polish monarchs in the 13th century. Michal Kubicki has the remarkable story of how they found their way to the United States and then back to Europe:

Professor Neal Pease, who teaches history at the University of Wisconsin, came to Poland with his Polish-born wife on what looked like a sensational mission. He breathed a sigh of relief when the plane landed at Warsaw airport.

'I will admit that it was a relief when I handed the documents over to the officials of the Archives at the airport. I was a little nervous that something might happen to them en route but we are just happy that we were able to complete the mission and that they are now where they belong.'

Professor Neal Pease brought with him over a dozen parchment documents, including papal bulls and documents written in Latin by Polish kings, Henry the Beared and Ladislas Lokietek in the 13th century. He handed them over to the archives in Wroclaw. He explains why the documents will be kept in that city in the south-west of Poland.

'Because they belonged to the pre-war archive in Wroclaw, when Wroclaw was German Breslau. The documents were evacuated from Breslau in 1945 and they were found by an American soldier in Austria at the end of the war and he took them back to the United States as a souvenir. After his death a few years ago, the soldier's son wanted to return the documents to the rightful owner and gave them back to the archdiocese in Milwaukee where we live and so by a roundabout way my wife and I became involved in the project as translators and now couriers of these documents'

The name of the American soldier who took the documents out of the mud near a burning train in 1945 was George Gavin. When he died in 2003, his son had their authenticity checked and then decided to return them to Wroclaw. Professor Neal Pease again:

'They are written by popes and princes of Silesia. They deal with everyday matters, matters of property, land ownership, things of that nature. There are letters to religious orders and noblemen. We're told by scholars who've looked at them that the contents themselves are not enormously sensational but the fact that they are of such age and that they can reveal to historians many things about the Middle Ages in Silesia and in Poland makes them of capital importance.'

The documents will now be examined and researched by Polish scholars. Up till now, Polish state archives had only eight documents dating from the 13th century. The collection which has just been brought from the United States is therefore an exceptional event for Polish historians.