P.M. Barford

title.none: Barford, RESPONSE: Barford on Stephenson's review of Barford (P.M. Barford)

identifier.other: baj9928.0401.035 04.01.35

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: P.M. Barford,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Barford, P.M. THE SLAVS FROM MADISON: A REPLY TO STEPHENSON. Pp.. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.01.35


Reviewed by:

P.M. Barford

It was with some bewilderment that I read Paul Stephenson's review of my book The Early Slavs: Culture and Society in Early Medieval Europe (British Museum Press/Cornell, 2001) published by TMR, for it raised a number of questions, not all of which however concern either my book, or the Early Slavs. This is less a book review than a polemic article. It starts off with a few broad generalisations, but omits to present the contents of the reviewed work. Having disposed of that convention, it quickly becomes a stinging criticism of parts of its contents which gets more bizarre as it progresses. A few lines into the text, it becomes clear that the review is less an attempt to present and discuss the work, but merely to demonstrate its faults, moving on to personal comments on the book's author himself.

The reviewer is obviously most comfortable pronouncing on this book from the position of a historian of Byzantium and of those Slavic polities which impinge on it. His main preoccupation is with written sources and he seems to have been faced with difficulties assessing the parts of my text which were based on the archaeological evidence. He also has little interest in the parts of my book that concern regions far away from the eyes and interest of the Byzantine authors. In order to dispose of the difficulty, he wrote to an unnamed colleague [archaeologist ?] in Cracow, Poland, to ask for advice. A substantial fragment of the reply of this anonymous Polish "advisor" concerning my book is thus incorporated as a review-within-a-review. Unfortunately this strategy prevents an appreciation of the context of this extract in the original document the reviewer received.

The form of the review prompts doubts on the degree to which it is in fact based on a thorough and objective reading of the entire published text. One cannot avoid the impression that the reviewer has based his overall assessment of the book on the basis of a selective perusal of the unpublished text of an earlier version to which he had privileged access (see below). These conclusions seem to have been bolstered by reading parts of the text in which he felt he would be most likely to be able to find quotable mistakes. It is noticeable that the comments which he makes almost entirely concern the preface, the two introductory chapters and two sections on the South Slavs (most of the latter from just five of the book's 405 pages). The last chapter and a section on social organization are mentioned in passing. This manner of 'reading' of the book, however, has prevented him from judging even the veracity of certain comments made by his Polish colleague on what the book contains (see below).

However, the most fundamental issue here is that it surely generates a situation which is (at least) ambiguous, as the book is reviewed by a person who was previously engaged as a consultant by a rival publisher to asses an earlier draft. In early 1999 I approached a British publisher with the proposal of publication of what became The Early Slavs (though it then had a slightly different title and internal organization). Stephenson was engaged by them as an anonymous consultant to assess the proposal and an early draft version of the book made available to him by the publishers. As a result of a selective reading of that text, as he tells us, he "produced a report, which highlighted many historical inadequacies or inaccuracies relating to Byzantium and the Southern Slavs" and urged rejection of the proposal. In accepting Stephenson's advice the publisher generously made the reader's report they had commissioned available to me, allowing the recommendations which it contained to be taken into account in further revisions of the draft. The book was shortly afterwards accepted for publication by the British Museum Press on the basis of another consultant's report (which also contained criticism and recommendations for revision). When the manuscript was nearing completion Cornell became a co-publisher--again after a third reader's report. The first two anonymous readers are acknowledged in the book (on p. xiv) for their comments which were utilised in the revision of my text.

The reviewer seems to be aware of the ambiguity inherent in this situation when writing candidly: "here I must break one academic convention to satisfy another". It is not clear which particular "academic convention" he perceives himself as satisfying--unless it's to secure in some way an imagined right to discuss in his review an unpublished draft manuscript which came into his hands without the knowledge or consent of its author. Neither is it clear under what contractual arrangements he now discusses in this manner my unpublished manuscript that was made available to him for another purpose by a third party (or the contents of the report he wrote for the internal use of that third party).

It is particularly notable that comparison of Stephenson's report on the draft and the published review reveals a number of fragments of the two texts which have wording in common. This raises doubts on the extent to which the review really is based on a thorough reading of the published text, rather than on the impressions gained from a perusal of an earlier draft version. He repeats almost verbatim many of his earlier reservations as though the text itself had remained basically unchanged since he last saw it. This creates the impression that Stephenson's review is largely a protestation of the type of "I told them so", justifying his earlier decisions and attitudes expressed in that earlier report; his earlier criticisms went unheeded, and against his strongly-worded advice the book was published. The review has every appearance of being a petulant attempt to show us all that he had been right all along.


Although the aims and scope of the book were stated in its preface and introduction, there seem to be several misconceptions over what the book sets out to present. The reviewer seems unwilling to concede that not all potential users of a book require the same kind of product. Before reaching the publisher who engaged Stephenson, the original draft of The Early Slavs had been written at the behest of a publisher seeking a book which was both for "the general reader" as well as possessing the possibility of use as an introductory text in general academic courses of several varieties. A text written for a non-specialist market will inevitably have to introduce complex issues in a way that the layman will understand. The reviewer may "grind his teeth" at comments about the biases inherent in texts (and try to provoke the reader into dental self-destruction by pulling a sentence out of context to attempt to expose its 'facile' nature), but the point being made is by no means so obvious to all members of the English-speaking general public, or indeed it might be added all undergraduate students. Neither, sadly, is the point concerning the real subject of archaeology--a cognitive trap into which the reviewer himself falls later in his text. This information is of course mostly contained in the introductory chapter, on which the reviewer concentrated much of his attention.

The criticism that the book contains too little original research on the written or other sources seem also to be a misunderstanding of its stated aims. It is intended as an overview of the topic, and not an in-depth study of any one aspect (for which however it could provide a broader context). I could not set myself the task of the personal examination of all the original evidence (even archaeological) or visit every single place I write of. Even in the sections dealing with the archaeology I am not personally engaged in any palynology or dendrochronology studies. The book makes (acknowledged) use of other people's work in these and many other fields (final comment on p. xv).

The reviewer comments several times on my "failure to cover all areas equally or equally well", and seems unwilling to concede that although regrettable, it is inevitable in any attempt at broad synthesis of this type (it is also a feature of his own text discussing my book). There are going to be facets on which a single author will write more or less depending on a number of factors. Any reviewer from a number of different fields can point to omissions (but Stephenson himself remarks elsewhere that the book is already some 100 pages too long, a feeling with which I concur). However careful an author is, any reader from a number of specialist fields and approaches will find errors of fact or infelicities of expression not spotted by others. The book was carefully proof read, but it is regrettable that there are still a number of misprints--one of which Stephenson found and incorrectly assumes is simply due to my inadequate command of the English language.

In particular, Stephenson considers that the author: "lacks the knowledge [...] 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." The reviewer is of course entitled to his opinion on the author's "abilities" (and indeed to set his own standards of politeness in expressing them), but before attempting to presenting a pars pro toto argument about the book based on these aspects, should have noted that (pp. vii and 1) the focus of the book is the so-called "early" Slavs up to the period of the formation of stable states. The rationale behind this was to bring the story from somewhat abstract beginnings to a situation where the reader can recognise the emerging outlines of entities significant to the medieval and later history of Europe. The problem of writing a broad synthesis of a large region is complicated by the fact that different groups within it reached such a stage of their development earlier than others. The prime example is of course the South Slavs, while these developments took place much later among the more shadowy Polabian Slavs. Inevitably, in looking at the broader region, one will find some areas in which there are records from which quite detailed 'history' can be written, while elsewhere at the same period the past can be accessed only through other kinds of evidence. Obviously one could have written considerably more on the early history of many of these groups, filling the narrative with the rich detail the written sources offer (and indeed expand on the controversies of modern historiography), but this would not have been in keeping with the aim and layout of my book. The issues concerning these later and well-documented periods are surely best explored in more detailed regional surveys, such as those referred to in the bibliography. I do not think there is anything in the text of my book which suggests I set out to replace these works on the scholar's bookshelves.

One certainly cannot argue with the view that my use of the written material would be inadequate to make The Early Slavs usable (for example) in any course on Byzantine historiography. From such a narrow viewpoint I am sure that Stephenson's criticisms are completely justifiable. Whether these are criteria by which the book may as a whole be helpfully judged is, however, another matter, since (as should be clear from the title and stated aims) it was not the aim of the author to set out to write such a book. The "pedantic quibbles" about tenth-century Bulgarian history (pages 227-31) therefore are entirely warranted in a review written by a specialist in this field, but the informed readers can judge for themselves whether they justify his more general conclusions about the worth or otherwise of the whole book and the overall intellectual and personal qualities of its author. If the reviewer feels that the book has so many shortcomings, then (as I mention on my page xiii) the field is surely still wide open for him and others to write in English the comparable syntheses which will vastly improve on mine. I for one would welcome them.


The reviewer perceives my book as an archaeological text to which some 'history' and other material has been tacked-on. He adds that the presentation of 'history' is inadequate when compared with the far better treatment of 'archaeology'. This accusation is partly answered above. Such comments seem however to involve a simplistic and false dichotomy between archaeology and history. Stephenson continues that: "while Barford's desire to address the whole of 'Slavdom' is worthy, he lacks the knowledge to handle original written sources...". The main problem here is that for most of the area and period covered by the book there is quite simply a severe paucity of "original written sources" in Greek, Latin or any other language. This raises the question whether the knowledge or the ability to "handle original written sources" is the only valid criterion by which one may judge the author of such a work. Many historians have great difficulties appreciating the complexities of the interpretation of the "original archaeological sources" and their attempts to do so usually generate criticism of the archaeological milieu. Indeed, Stephenson's own "handling" of the archaeological evidence (coins and seals i.e., inscribed archaeological artefacts) in his Byzantium's Balkan Frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900-1204 has, as I recall, been criticised in a previous TMR review. The abundant pitfalls and critical comments however surely do not mean that no attempts should be made to consider and attempt to incorporate the evidence generated by neighbouring disciplines. One can neither cover the topic discussed by my book purely on the basis of the written (or any other) sources, nor indeed by ignoring them.

Stephenson however then passes to more personal issues, he remarks: "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". I would have thought attempting an assessment of the quality of my English grammar school education was beyond the brief of a book reviewer. I quite clearly state (p. 320-1) which edition of the Greek sources I made use of. Stephenson presumably is aware that Brzostowska and Swoboda's Testimonia... have the original Greek text on the one page and facing translations with very extensive footnotes concerning the recent discussions (including those in the west). An author does not necessarily have to personally "tease" information from the written sources (any more than a tree-ring sequence) when there are people who have spent their working lives doing just that who make the results of their work available in such a form so that others can use it. Stephenson's comment on the knowledge of Greek as a criterion of authorship of a book on "the Early Slavs" ignores the fact that for most of the area, the scant contemporary written sources we do possess are in Latin, and the vast majority of the secondary literature about the Slavs is in languages other than Greek.

One may draw attention to the apparent significance of Stephenson's attitude that one "teases insights" from the written evidence, but (as he infers elsewhere in the text) merely "describes" archaeological material. Stephenson calls into question some of my comments in the introductory chapter concerning the relationship between archaeological evidence and other forms of evidence for the past including the written sources. He remarks: "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." These comments, fundamental to the reviewer's position, for reasons of space cannot be fully discussed here. The belief in the primacy of a view of the past based on the written records is typical of scholars engaged in the study of those regions of Europe where there is an abundance of such records, while other views are encouraged by those situations where for various reasons the written record is less full or missing. Surely one cannot argue that there are two quite separate human pasts, that of the historian and that of the archaeologist (or that there is also for example a linguistic past and a genetic one); there was surely one past which we attempt to investigate through different media. Stephenson seems to fail to recognise that the subject of the book he was reviewing is a very good example of this phenomenon. The written sources are singularly uninformative about what was happening north of the Carpathians, but the fact that we have so few written records does not mean that nothing significant was happening there. Neither, as shown very clearly by Florin Curta's recent book (The Making of the Slavs), does the fact that nearer the Danube, we have much fuller written sources about 'the Slavs' for the period 500-700 AD negate the need to use the archaeological evidence. Even for that region, one cannot argue that either the interpretation of the written accounts, or the interpretation of the excavated remains is of paramount importance.


Stephenson remarks "Barford writes in an awkward manner, partly conversational, partly densely academic". He goes on patronisingly to say that the author "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." I wonder at the implied but false assumption that Warsaw is such a God-forsaken backwater that there cannot possibly be an English-speaking milieu here at all. The sole evidence, however, Stephenson cites in his review to substantiate this derogatory statement is obviously a mistake of completely different origin.

It is notable that Stephenson here repeats almost the same wording as in his consultant's report. He implies by this that after the rewriting entailed by his comments, those resulting from the second reader's, my own revisions, the editing done at BMP by the editor, and the very thorough work of the BMP copy editor (who was merciless), not to mention any comments of the Cornell reader, these fundamental characteristics of the language of the text remain unchanged. While nobody is more aware than myself of the number of misprints and infelicities which regrettably remain in the ultimately published text despite all this work, I fail to see why Stephenson should consider himself a better arbiter of academic denseness or the rules of formal English grammar than the professional staff of my book's publisher. Despite the fact that my acknowledgements (p xv) make quite clear where the editing was done and by whom, Stephenson adds: "an editor at Cornell University Press should have read this text carefully". I assume that an editor or two from Cornell would have seen this text before they agreed to add their imprint and money. Maybe not. The overall message of Stephenson's review, however, seems clear: they should have asked him first, shouldn't they? But they did not, did they?


A substantial quantity of the text of the review is, rather unconventionally, a discussion on a certain stage in the early history of the production of the draft manuscript, and quite a lot of it seems motivated by the desire to stress the reviewer's personal involvement in the process. Furthermore he alleges that comments contained in the consultant's report were allegedly surreptitiously (and sloppily) misappropriated. A remark is made about some footnotes to chapter 11 ("State formation: the South and East Slavs") on page 313 which benefited from the recommendations of Stephenson's consultant's report. The reviewer comments on "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.)" Perhaps more unfortunate for the author was the fact that the consultant recommended using for the amendment of the draft a book which was not available in any library to which he had access (and here, rather than the lack of people to whom one can speak English, lie the main constraints on a researcher working outside the better equipped and much more efficient libraries available in US and UK academic establishments). It is unclear why the reviewer now regards it such a triumph that he can point out that he gave me the incorrectly spelt title of a book which was unavailable because it was then non-existent. Since the consultant had specifically recommended this book, I added it to the bibliography assuming that my foreign readers would have better luck finding it. In such a situation I probably did take its title from the document which recommended it so wholeheartedly, even to the extent of trusting its odd rendition of its title.

In continuing this topic, the reviewer adds the comment that, in relationship to the unpublished draft, in the published book the author "has bolstered his sections on East Slavs impressively" (a statement apparently at odds with another that this chapter "has little to add to recent general histories of the Rus'"). I find this comment puzzling , because this particular chapter (then Chapter 10) was specifically noted in 1999 as one of those which he did not read in compiling the report. Even so this did not prevent him from writing that I failed to cite Franklin and Shepard's book (The Emergence of Rus...) in the original draft, an accusation for some reason repeated in his review. This was incorrect, in the copy of this draft that I retained and have before me, it is indeed--as one might have expected--cited in the footnotes to the chapter on the East Slavs. In point of fact, the external impetus for much of this work on this section of the chapter came not from Stephenson's report but mainly from the comments of the other "anonymous" reviewer.

Although my acknowledgements and footnotes mention the help of many colleagues, Stephenson specifically notes: "[Florin] 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")." It is not clear why (given the number of people thanked in my acknowledgements for help and advice) he specifically draws attention to the fact that at some time in the writing of the text, two people working on the same topic in different academic environments should actually discuss some aspects of these problems together. In the case of Chapter 1 it is hardly a discovery that there has been such a discussion (three acknowledgements on pages 287-9 make this clear). Indeed, it was Stephenson himself who (though he misquoted it) in his 1999 report first drew my attention to the importance of the unpublished Western Michigan University dissertation (as it then was) of Florin Curta to the discussion of this topic. The "big men and chiefs section" (and indeed most of chapter 6 containing it) is however based largely on part of a larger text I wrote in Warsaw in 1996. Perhaps Stephenson did not look far enough beyond the mere use of the term "big men" to perceive that there are some differences between my interpretation of the anthropological literature about big men and Curta's.


After what seemed to be a few concluding--almost--conciliatory remarks--as an apparent afterthought in this text, Stephenson inserts some comments "from a colleague in Krakow, [sic PMB] who offered the following observations from a Polish perspective." Shielding this writer under a cloak of anonymity, Stephenson allows his review to be the mouthpiece of this person's sly comments, presumably in the process vouching for the trustworthiness of the statements it contains. Unfortunately, the lack of a quotation mark denoting the end of the direct citation, renders the authorship of the last paragraph of the review unclear (one assumes it is by Stephenson).

This is not the place for an extensive discussion of the selected critical comments of an anonymous Polish author and their "Polish perspective". Nevertheless, one or two comments may be made. I find the statement "the point of view of the 'autochthonists' is not represented by any substantial volume" a bit puzzling, given the nature of much of the archaeological and historical literature published in Poland in the 1940s to 1980s. This comment requires clarification; on the contrary there have been many presentations of the Polish autochthonous point of view of Slavic origins, not a few in the form of "volumes".

I am surprised by the statement of somebody claiming to be reviewing my book that "Mr Barford devotes to this discussion [between Polish autochthonists and allochthonists] a chapter of his work, which seems natural given the popular character of the book." The first part of this statement (as anybody who has actually read the book would be well aware) is simply not true; there is no such chapter devoted to this issue in my book. The second part of the statement is puzzling, for I see no "natural" connection between this alleged fact and a so-called "popular" book produced for the English-speaking market. Maybe the reviewer understands this comment, but I do not.

The comment that "one" should compare the information in my book with the publications of Polish authors is indeed sound advice--for those readers of TMR who can read Polish. Unfortunately the availability of recent Polish scholarship on these questions in western languages is limited. I for one would be very happy if my Polish colleagues would expose more of their ideas to the scrutiny of the English-speaking world.

The key example of the "questionable statements" cited by the author of this passage is telling. I quote: "With the greatest surprise we learn from one of his maps (p. 332) that Godowski [sic PMB] 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." The cited page is a map (fig. 8). If before he appended these comments to his review Stephenson had actually opened the book to this page and read what the caption says he might have had the "greatest surprise." The caption explains that figure 8 presents in schematic form not the point from which "Godowski" thought the Slavs spread into neighbouring regions, but the migration theories of both K. Godlowski and V.D. Baran. [*] In the relevant text (to which Fig. 8 is merely an illustration) I warn the reader that the brief overview I present is the barest outline of a very complex problem (for the full discussion of which one would need to write another book). Nevertheless the area shown on my fig. 8 is consistent with what Godlowski wrote in the work cited in the footnote appended to that section of the text (pp. 41-2). It is not at all evident either why this should be "inconsistent" with a Polish allochthonous view--the area concerned has not been part of the Republic of Poland since 1939. The phrase concerning the apparent connection "with the Przeworska or Cherniakhova culture" indicates quite clearly that the Polish scholar--quite apart from their obvious problems with turning Polish terms into acceptable English ones--has simply not read the text of my book, merely contenting themselves with looking at the pictures.

[* Note: In this paragraph, in order to avoid the sort of problem which appears in Stephenson's text, the Polish character in Godlowski's name has deliberately been substituted by an "l" as the nearest equivalent readily available in HTML.]


As a review, Stephenson's text is unlikely to satisfy its readers, not only because they fail to find out what the book he presents actually contains, but also because they are treated mainly to a loosely-structured series of critical and embarrassingly personal remarks about bits of the the book's text and their author, as well as to the reviewer's own contribution to its writing. Some of the reviewer's comments for some reason refer to an unpublished draft version of the book and its subsequent revision, some of the bizarre criticisms contained in the text are not even written by the stated author of the review. It is often unclear whether reviewers are writing for the author of the reviewed work, the reader, or the potential buyer. In this case it seems quite clear that the text is addressed to none of these. As I read it, I could not help wondering how the disinterested reader--who had not seen the original consultant's report--would perceive it, what overall message it would be seen to convey, and whether this would in fact be the one the reviewer intended. The reviewer may have intended it as an exposition of the fruits of his erudition. To me, it looks more like a case of sour grapes. I suspect that many of its readers will conclude that this sad text reflects as much as, if not more, on its author than it does on its subject.