Paul Stephenson

title.none: Barford, Early Slavs (Paul Stephenson)

identifier.other: baj9928.0401.003 04.01.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Paul Stephenson, University of Wisconsin Madison,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Barford, P. M. The Early Slavs: Culture and Society in Early Medieval Eastern Europe. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001. Pp. xvi, 416. $39.95. ISBN: 0-8014-3977-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.01.03

Barford, P. M. The Early Slavs: Culture and Society in Early Medieval Eastern Europe. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001. Pp. xvi, 416. $39.95. ISBN: 0-8014-3977-9.

Reviewed by:

Paul Stephenson
University of Wisconsin Madison

Barford's The Early Slavs covers interesting ground where good syntheses are lacking. It was written, the author states, to be used "as an introductory text for students of history, archaeology and European Studies," and "for the general reader and western medievalist wanting an introduction to the history and archaeology of the area." The "area" is defined as those lands settled by peoples speaking Slav languages, and called Eastern Europe. Barford explains that this is shorthand for East-Central (including European Russia) and South-Eastern Europe. The book fails to provide a commendable synthetic introduction to the whole of "Slavdom" for three reasons: it is poorly written; its presentation of "history" is inadequate when compared with the far better treatment of "archaeology"; and it fails to cover the whole "area" equally or equally well. We may dispense with the first problem briefly: Barford writes in an awkward manner, partly conversational, partly densely academic, and appears on occasion to have a poor grasp of formal English grammar. He researched and wrote the book in Warsaw during the 1990s, and may have been out of an English-speaking milieu for long enough that one can understand his odd word choices or some poor sentence constructions. However, this can lead to significant problems in comprehension. For example: "When referring to the 'Early Slavs' here therefore, I intend to mean the people who we have good reason to believe speak spoke [sic] early versions of Slav languages, and it should be stressed that I do not mean the term to refer to a single ethnic group" (27). An editor at Cornell University Press should have read this text carefully and perhaps reduced the length of the book by about one-third. The general reader or western medievalist may find herself as frustrated as this Byzantinist at the more verbose passages. He may also grind his teeth at such facile observations as "Modern newspaper reports of the same event sometimes reflect the political bias of their writers for example" (5); or "Archaeology is not just about things, but about the people who once used the things we find and left the traces we interpret" (11).

Even in an introductory text, which should serve as a model to students, style is an issue of less consequence than content. The second problem, therefore, is more substantial. Barford is an archaeologist, and therefore cannot be faulted for stating that archaeology is the study of the past, and not merely a sub-discipline of history (4). Unfortunately, he proceeds to class history as a sub-discipline of archaeology. One can understand this as a reaction to text-driven archaeology, which has dominated the region in question, but few would agree with the blanket assertion that "written sources are equal and not superior to the unwritten ones, and have to be studied in a similar manner." On the contrary, written and unwritten sources are wholly unequal, depending on the questions one asks, and these questions differ between cognate disciplines concerned with the human past. Barford asks simplistic questions of his written sources, while handling the unwritten material with sophistication and care. This is not equal treatment. Moreover, it is clear that Barford lacks the necessary skills to tease greater insights from the written sources. He has not consulted the Greek originals of the texts he uses, and I doubt he has even a basic facility in Greek. For example, on p. 28 he provides a list of Greek words for "Slavs" but does not know that beta can be transliterated as either b or v. There is no difference in Greek between Sklavenoi and Sklabenoi, nor indeed the Sclavenoi of Procopius which he uses on p. 35 (but who are translated with a kappa on p. 36 as "Sklavenes", on p. 50 as "Sclaveni" and on p. 51 as "Sclavenes"). This does not inspire confidence in Barford's handling of crucial written sources, especially for the history of South-eastern Europe.

This raises the third and greatest problem with Barford's book: failure to cover all areas equally or equally well. Here I must break one academic convention to satisfy another, and reveal that I was asked to read the manuscript of this book for a press, not Cornell, and produced a report, which highlighted many historical inadequacies or inaccuracies relating to Byzantium and the Southern Slavs. Some have been addressed in the published version, but sometimes, where additional references have been added, the works cited have clearly not been read. Thus one finds, for example on p. 313 in footnotes to chapter 11, references lifted from my report and even misspelled. (Unfortunately for the author, I latched onto this because the last error was in citing my own book, which in any case had not been published when Barford submitted his manuscript.) I do not mean to suggest that such sloppiness is representative of the book, which is very well researched. Moreover, Barford did read and use, for example, Franklin's and Shepard's Emergence of Rus (1995) and George Majeska's essay on Byzantine perceptions of Slavs in Acta Byzantina Fennica (1997-8), both of which were missing from the manuscript treatment of the Eastern Slavs, and which were recommended. However, while he has bolstered his sections on East Slavs impressively, Barford's historical treatment of the Southern Slavs and Byzantium remains flawed. It is on this I will dwell briefly, for it is here that I can pretend to some slight expertise.

The summary treatment of early Bulgarian history is acceptable, and Barford refers to the relevant literature in English, largely older works by Runciman, Obolensky and Browning. He also cites more recent articles by J. Shepard, but fails to note that Shepard, following I. Bozhilov, has disputed the idea that Tsar Symeon was intent on creating "a united Slavo- Byzantine empire with him as the ruler" in Constantinople (94). This is important, as Symeon's reign is regarded as the apogee of Bulgarian power. Better is Barford's upbeat treatment of Tsar Peter's reign (228-9), following the interpretation of J. V. A. Fine, Jr. But he fails to cite Fine's important article on this in Byzantine Studies / Etudes byzantine (1978), instead providing a reference to The Early Medieval Balkans. The argument of Fine's article was certainly incorporated into his book, but Barford's failure to provide specific page references leads me to believe he merely lifted this paragraph from my report which suggested he had repeated "an old trope about the 'economic exhaustion' of Bulgaria during the reign of Tsar Peter which was debunked by John Fine more than twenty years ago."

Barford displays an acute awareness of the impacts of national and nationalist agendas in eastern European history and archaeology, devoting an excellent final chapter to "The Early Slavs and the Modern World" (268-85). However, his own pronouncements occasionally appear chauvinistic or misguided. Not only Greeks will take umbrage at the bald statement that Saints Cyril and Methodius were Slavs (109). It seems clear that their mother tongue was Greek, and that that the brothers were educated in a Greek-speaking milieu. So much is demonstrated by the ease with which the young Constantine, later Cyril, absorbed the complex language and concepts employed by Gregory of Nazianzus. Similarly, it is hard to see why, in this context, Barford makes no reference to the debate over the location of (Great) Moravia. Perhaps this discussion falls into the category of things which Barford felt obliged to omit (xiii). That would be a shame, as this debate is an excellent teaching topic. Students are intrigued by the notion that so much has been lost of the medieval past that the location of entire peoples often cannot be determined with certainty. Thirdly, Barford implies (229) that the ruler of Bulgaria between c. 976 and 1014, Samuel Kometopoulos, was the son of a boyar, a Bulgarian noble. Scholarly consensus outside Bulgaria and Macedonia favors an Armenian origin for the Kometopoloi, being sons of a Byzantine administrator resident in Macedonia. However, Samuel is still considered a) Bulgarian in Bulgaria or b) Macedonian in the Republic of Macedonia. Evidently, this is another heated debate which Barford has determined to side-step, but not without a misstep. The same paragraph allows several further pedantic quibbles: Samuel's realm was not called the "West Bulgarian Empire"; it was not at the end of a "cruel war" that Basil II blinded 15,000 Bulgarians, but at the start of an intensified four-year period of fighting; Basil was not called the Bulgar-slayer at this time; Bulgarians did not disappear from the political map until the thirteenth century.

This review has been rather unfair to Barford and his book, for it addresses only perceived flaws, some very minor and peripheral, which are the consequences of his ambitious attempt to cover the whole of "Slavdom." I apologize to the author for this, and admit that I have neither the linguistic nor archaeological expertise to judge his extensive treatment of western Slavic archaeology. This appears to be extraordinarily fine, and I am inclined to offer nothing but praise. Other reviewers with greater expertise in Slavic linguistics and archaeology have addressed the finer points of Barford's synthesis. It has been called "the best general summary of early Slav culture yet available", and I am in no position to refute this.[[1]] Being uninformed, however, I sought advice from a colleague in Krakow, who offered the following observations from a Polish perspective. "Generally speaking, there are two camps among Polish scholars investigating the origins of the Slavs. The 'allochthonists' or followers of the late Kazimierz Godowski, and the 'autochthonists'. The point of view of the 'autochtonists' is not represented by any substantial volume. They have practically abandoned the ideas of their old protagonists Jozef Kostrzewski and Witold Hensel and concentrate on criticizing the methods applied by the 'allochthonists' from a theoretical point of view. Mr Barford devotes to this discussion a chapter of his work, which seems natural given the popular character of the book. However, one should compare the information he provides with the publications of Polish authors, since some of his statements seem questionable. E.g. With the greatest surprise we learn from one of his maps (p. 332) that Godowski had placed the original territory of the Slavs on the Upper Dniestr, thus apparently (?) connecting it with the Przeworska or Cherniakhova culture, a thesis hardly compatible with his 'allochthonist' point of view.

Barford is at his best when dealing with the material culture of the West Slavs, and his descriptive passages are useful summaries of the state of research in Polish archaeology for an English-reading audience. However, even here he lacks the style and powers of analysis required to write a successful general introduction. Moreover, while Barford's desire to address the whole of "Slavdom" is worthy, he lacks the knowledge to handle original written sources or to synthesize scholarship relating to the South Slavs, and has little to add to recent general histories of the Rus'. The task Barford set himself was beyond his abilities. It is a shame he did not produce a monograph on West Slavic society and material culture in the Early Middle Ages, which would have complemented Florin Curta's recent The Making of the Slavs. Curta is warmly thanked in the acknowledgements, and his recommendations are evident throughout (most obviously in the sections dealing with "The formation of Slav identity" and "Big men and chiefs"). For historical introductions to the Southern and Eastern Slavs, I would continue to recommend Fine's Early Medieval Balkans and Franklin's and Shepard's Emergence of Rus, neither of which is superseded for classroom use by this book. For a general archaeological introduction to "Slavdom" I would recommend Barford, but only with the foregoing reservations.


[[1]] Florin Curta tells me he has written a review for the European Journal of Archaeology. I have seen two very favorable reviews in Antiquity (Dec. 2002, 76, pp. 1149- 51) and Canadian Slavonic Papers (Dec. 2001, 43, pp. 579-80). Both consider the book clear and well written, although the former notes that "the text is frequently dense and requires a degree of devotion on the part of the reader to keep abreast of the argument". Support for my complaints about sketchy treatment of the Southern Slavs can be found in a short note in The Virginia Quarterly Review (Summer 2002, 78/3, pp. 79-80).