Florin Curta

title.none: Vasary, Cumans and Tatars (Florin Curta)

identifier.other: baj9928.0601.002 06.01.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Florin Curta, University of Florida,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Vasary, Istvan. Cumans and Tatars: Oriental Military in the Pre-Ottoman Balkans, 1185-1365. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. xvi, 230. 85.00 0-521-83756-1. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.01.02

Vasary, Istvan. Cumans and Tatars: Oriental Military in the Pre-Ottoman Balkans, 1185-1365. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. xvi, 230. 85.00 0-521-83756-1. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Florin Curta
University of Florida

Although several interesting books have emerged in recent years on the medieval history of the Balkans, far less has been written on the relations between the Balkan region and the lands north of the Lower Danube and the Black Sea, the westernmost segment of the steppe corridor from central Asia to Southeastern Europe. Istvan Vasary's book is thus a welcome addition to the study of this crucial yet much overlooked region of medieval Europe. The author, who earned his spurs in his pioneering research on pre-Mongol Inner Asia, pointedly sets out to teach established authorities on the history of Byzantium and medieval Southeastern Europe a trick or two by publishing a fully elaborated version of his views on the role of Cumans and Mongols in Balkan history that he presented in a more rudimentary form in an article for Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae in 2004.[1] He asks why Cumans, divided as they were into various clans and polities without any paramount chieftain, commanded as much respect as hey did and why they did not build any stable polity in the erritories they came to control on both sides of the Danube river. Why were Cumans hired by virtually all armies engaged in military confrontations in the Balkan region and how can one explain the military success of the Cumans? Vasary's questions have been asked before.[2] His answers, despite his preference for couching them in elaborate discussions of political and military history, do not differ significantly from earlier ones: the Cumans were nomads whose daily life involved being in a permanent state of warfare. "The nomadic light cavalry was practically invincible in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries" (p. 55). But the Cumans had no political goals, their primary and most important purpose for participating in so many military campaigns was plunder. This is why, although constantly employed by most Balkan states, the Cumans were never a real threat to any one of them. Yet, the Cumans "were the founders of three successive Bulgarian dynasties (the Asenids, the Terterids, and the Sismanids) and of the Wallachian dynasty (the Basarabids)" (p. 166). Moreover, the infiltration and rise to power of the Cuman elites in the Balkan countries took place in the political circumstances created by the expansion of the Golden Horde after 1241 and the imposition of its control over the northern and northeastern area of the Balkans. Vasary's intention in telling this story is to shed a new light on the subsequent Ottoman conquest of the Balkans: "the Ottoman conquest was not an accidental and uniquely tragic event in the Balkans." Instead, Cumans and the "Tatars" prepared the path for the Ottoman progress: "the northern nomadic warriors and old conquerors of the Balkans were passing the baton to the new, ambitious, nomadic warriors coming from the south" (p. 132).

Vasary divides his study into eight chapters following an introduction. Chapter 2, "Cumans and the Second Bulgarian Empire" (pp. 13-56) looks at the political and military involvement in the revolt of Peter and Asen (1185) and the subsequent events that led to the rise of the Second Bulgarian Empire as a major power in Southeastern Europe. Chapter 3, "Cumans in the Balkans before the Mongol invasion of 1241" (pp. 57-68) continues the investigation of the Cuman involvement in Bulgaria and Byzantium to the middle of the thirteenth century. Chapter 4, "The first period of Tatar influence in the Balkans (1242-1282)" (pp. 69-85) and chapter 5, "The heyday of Tatar influence in the Balkans" (pp. 86-98) constitute the best part of this book, in which Vasary analyzes the rise of the Golden Horde and the expansion of its power into the Balkans under Nogay. In chapter 6, "Cumans and Tatars on the Serbian scene" (pp. 99-113), the author presents ten vignettes on the participation of Cuman and Mongol troops in the military and political events of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century. Chapter 7, "Cumans in Byzantine service after the Tatar conquest, 1242-1333" (pp. 114-121), and chapter 8, "The Tatars fade away from Bulgaria and Byzantium, 1320-1354" (pp.122-133) take the story to the middle of the fourteenth century. The final chapter, "The emergence of two Romanian principalities in Cumania, 1330, 1364" (pp. 134-165), looks at the rise of Walachia and Moldavia and the involvement of both Cumans and Mongols in those events. The book closes with a conclusion of just two pages (pp. 166-167), followed by two appendices, one of geographical names, the other of maps

The merit of this book hinges on the validity of Vasary's claim "to trace the historical fate [of the Cumans and of the Mongols] in the Balkans, the westernmost stage of their wanderings" and to deliver a comprehensive lesson on a neglected topic based on all available sources, not on secondary literature. However, this turns out to be much more a survey of historiography than an in-depth analysis announced in the title, since it leaves out a considerable amount of information produced by recent archaeological excavations in Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine. Moreover, closer scrutiny of what this book truly does left this reader with a strong impression that the "extensive examination" promised by the book's dustjacket is actually a cavalier treatment of an otherwise very important topic. In under 200 pages, Vasary gives the reader a taste of many things--the politics of the Asenid dynasty of the Second Bulgarian Empire, the rise of Nogay within the western lands of the Golden Horde, the involvement of Cuman and Mongol troops in military events in Serbia and Byzantium, the beginnings of the medieval Romanian states--but no single overarching framework to tie them all together.

What is new in the present book is the linkage between segments of history that have so far been commonly treated separately: the steppe lands north of the Lower Danube and the Black Sea; the Kingdom of Hungary; the Second Bulgarian Empire; Serbia; and the Romanian principalities. A second important contribution is the discussion of Nogay and his successors, to date the best survey available in English of thirteenth- and early fourteenth-century developments in the westernmost lands of the Golden Horde. Vasary insists upon the importance of the Danube Delta and of Dobrudja for understanding Mongol policies around 1300. He reaches the same conclusion suggested nearly fifteen years earlier by Virgil Ciocaltan and Serban Papacostea: that it was the ascension of the maritime and commercial power of the Genoa in the Black Sea area following the Treaty of Nymphaion (1261) that caused the re-orientation of Golden Horde policies towards the sea and the trade routes opening in its ports now visited by Genoese merchants. Moreover, it was the economic re-orientation of the Golden Horde that created not only the conditions for a gradual withdrawal of Mongol forces from the Lower Danube region, but also the circumstances for the rise of the Romanian principalities. [3]

Regrettably, Vasary's omission of relevant previous scholarship is not limited to a unique occurrence. Some of the many oversights include Andras Paloczi-Horvath and Svetlana A. Pletneva for the Cumans, Robert Lee Wolff and Nicolae Serban Tanasoca for the Second Bulgarian Empire, and Thomas T. Allsen for the Mongols. [4] Vasary has apparently not encountered the studies of Alan Harvey on the Byzantine economy and has no knowledge of the most impressive Dumbarton Oaks Economic History of Byzantium. He still believes, together with Ostrogorski, that the "Byzantine manufacture underwent serious decay [in the 1100s], and Byzantium's economic power decreased in every respect" (p. 13). His use of such slogans as the "economic exploitation of the peasantry" and "feudal anarchy" raging in late thirteenth-century Bulgaria indicate residual Marxism, if anything (p. 80). At several points in his book,Vasary insists that "the Vlakhs, as is well known, were Romanised shepherds of the Balkans," although very little, if any, contemporary evidence exists for pastoralist Vlachs. In fact, it is not true that the word Vlach initially designated a "Balkanic shepherd" (pp. 19-20). Transhumant pastoralism was indeed an economic strategy associated with mountains, and old preconceptions about "primitive" or "backward" mountain communities of shepherds may be responsible for the Ottoman-era shift in the meaning of the word "Vlach" from an ethnic label to social designation ("shepherd"). Clearly, Vasary has a very shaky grasp of the abundant literature on transhumance in the Balkans and his book only perpetuates ethnic stereotypes of the worst kind. This may well be because of Vasary's inability to read Romanian, which prevented his access to some important studies. In the bibliography, most articles or chapters by Romanian authors (Ion Minea, Alexandru Sacerdoteanu, E. C. Lazarescu, etc.) are, unlike all others, listed not with complete pages but with "f." or "ff.," a detail that does not inspire confidence. Together with several factual errors mentioned below, this detail leads one to believe that the author did not consult these works directly, but simply cited them from other works. Some sources, especially Niketas Choniates, are paraphrased at lengths of a page or more at a time, even though the author warns that Choniates' account "may be regarded as naïve or one-sided" (p. 15). Vasary apparently ignores the existence of H. J. Magoulias's translation of Choniates (Detroit, 1984) and instead uses a rather outdated German translation by Franz Grabler (Vienna/Cologne, 1958).

The book is also plagued by what strikes me as somewhat incoherent politics. On one hand, Vasary's purpose is to show that by 1200 the Cumans had already become a familiar presencein the Balkans. Strong connections between the Assenid rulers and Cuman chieftains, illustrated by several matrimonial alliances, suggest that the Cumans in question were not too far from the northern frontiers of the Second Bulgarian Empire. In fact, Vasary persuasively argues that Cumania mentioned in contemporary sources was in present-day Romania. However, at the same time and as if to mark a sharp distinction between the West and the East, Vasary's book is about "Oriental military." His Tatars are "oriental conquerors" (p. 146). Vasary's emphasis on the "Oriental military" is misplaced, as he is forced to acknowledge at several points in this book that the Cumans and Tatars involved in Balkan affairs came from the neighboring steppe north of the Lower Danube and the Black Sea, not from the "Orient." The stone statue represented on the dustjacket, which supposedly is the figure of a Cuman, is in fact from Crimea, not from Inner Asia. Be that as it may, the present reader is still puzzled by this particular choice of cover image, since the book deals with the Balkans, not with the steppe lands. Orientalism aside, Vasary places the onus of alterity not on Cumans or Tatars, but on the Balkans themselves. In his two-page conclusion to the book, he pontificates: "The Balkans have yet to find the key and meaning of their historical existence and to decide whether they want to belong to the mainstream of European development or to insist on their Byzantine and Ottoman autocratic traditions" (p.167). Elsewhere, Vasary compares King Louis I of Hungary to Bogdan of Moldavia: "Louis was the greatest king of the region in his age, worthily called Great by posterity, whereas Bogdan was a provincial Romanian chief of Maramoros... He may be a Romanian national hero, but the two persons are not of the same stature" (p. 160). To this reader, Vasary's is a bizarre form of Orientalism: his Other is the Bulgarian, the Romanian, or the Serb, all of whom are depicted as eagerly waiting for the civilizing light coming from Hungary.

Many of Vasary's positions are demonstrably erroneous. The "constant Cuman incursions" did not leave southern Transylvania "totally deserted" (p. 32 with n. 76) and Kaloyan never "tried to unite the Byzantine Empire with the Bulgarian" (p. 54). Basarab, the first ruler of independent Walachia, was not Cuman only because his name was of Cuman origin. The brodniki were not "semi-nomadic Slavic elements," but most likely a group of Iranian origin,[6] while the border between Moldavia and Walachia was on the Milcov, not on the Buzau river (p.134). The Roman province of Dacia was abandoned in 271, not 257; Vicina is not in Isaccea; the eagle in the coat of arms of Walachia has nothing "totemistic"; and finally the "Basarabids" did not rule Walachia until the seventeenth century, for the Basarabid genealogy of Prince Matei Basarab (1632-1654) is entirely fabricated. Vasary's obvious bias against Romanians has led him to champion an obsolete nineteenth-century theory developed by Robert Roesler, which holds that Romanians arrived in Romania through migration from the Balkans ca. 1200. According to Vasary, "it is almost certain that vigorous waves of Vlakh immigration to the north of the Danube began only after the formation of the Second Bulgarian Empire" (p. 27). In fact, there is no evidence of migration across the Danube from south to north. By contrast, the presence of Vlachs north of the Danube is attested by an eleventh-century rune-stone from the Sjonhem cemetery on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. The inscription commemorates a merchant named Rodfos who was traveling to Constantinople through the land of the Vlachs (Blakumen), where he was robbed of his belongings and killed. In addition, in a passage that Vasary chooses to ignore, Niketas Choniates relates that when trying to escape, in 1164, to Iaroslav Osmomysl', the prince of Halych, Andronicus was intercepted north of the Danube by the Vlachs. An equally anti-Romanian bias led Vasary to deny any constructive historical role for the "Vlakhs in Cumania": their "small voivodates or kenezates... testify to Hungarian initiatives," not to local structures of power (p. 136). One is reminded of Vasary's own words: "Hungarian nationalism has tried to minimize the Romanian presence in history" (p. 29).

Unfortunately, there are a number of annoying minor errors as well. The author has a certain propensity for bombastic style. The Cumans "taste defeat at Tatar hand" (p. 9), while the Venetians in twelfth-century Byzantium were "signs of an imminent tempest" (p. 14). The Vlach rebels of 1185 were "exploited people living in desperate need" (p. 21), while in the thirteenth century, "the flame of Tatar influence flared up once more in Bulgaria" (p. 87). In the preface, Vasary explains that in dealing with place names for which multiple forms exist in various languages, he follows the principle of using "the geographical name in the dominant language of the polity to which the place belonged in the age in question." This is certainly understandable for such places as Brasso (now Brasov) and Szeben (now Sibiu), although "in the age in question" the names in use were most likely Kronstadt and Hermannstadt, respectively. But it makes absolutely no sense to list Hungarian names for places that never belonged to the Hungarian kingdom. For example, the reader learns, as if it were important, that the Romanian town of Iasi is called Jaszvasar in Hungarian (p. 94), while the Hungarian word for Maurocastro (now Belgorod Dnistrovs'kyi in Ukraine) is Nyeszterfehervar (p.163). Vasary shares an odd practice with the majority of Hungarian historians and archaeologists, who use pre-Trianon, Hungarian place- and river names that nobody would find on any current map of modern Europe. The spelling of other names does not even follow accepted rules: Nicaean becomes Nikaian, Cracow is Cracaw, Demetrius is Dmitriy, and the Mamluks turn into Mameluks. Romanian names or place names are routinely mangled (kneaz for cneaz, Moldva or Moldoa for Moldova, and Jara Birsei for _ara Birsei).

In this day and age, it is surprising to read a work of history that so uncritically adopts outdated theories and old ethnic stereotypes. While the book sketches some promising ideas, it only touches on them, and it never delivers on the promise. However, although the book fails on the whole, the present reader is left with a good deal of sympathy for Istvan Vasary's brave attempt to engage very large questions. Moreover, where he does succeed--in the chapters dedicated to Nogay and the Golden Horde--he provides a lot of hitherto unknown information which will be of use to historians of Southeastern Europe.


1. Istvan Vasary, "Cuman warriors in the fight of the Byzantines with the Latins," Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 57 (2004), 263-70.

2. Petre Diaconu, Les Coumans au Bas-Danube aux XIe-XIIe siecles (Bucharest, 1978); Plamen Pavlov, "Po vuprosa za zaselvaniiata na Kumani v Bulgariia prez XIII v.," in Vtori mezhdunaroden kongres po bulgaristika, Sofiia, 23 mai-3 iuni 1986 g. Dokladi 6: Bulgarskite zemi v drevnostta Bulgariia prez srednovekovieto, ed. by Khristo Khristov et al. (Sofia,1987), pp. 629-37 ; Alexander Silaiev, "Frontier and settlement: Cumans north of the Lower Danube in the first half of the thirteenth century." M.A. Thesis, Central European University (Budapest, 1998); Victor Spinei, The Great Migrations in the East and South East of Europe from the Ninth to the Thirteenth Century (Cluj-Napoca, 2003), pp. 217-340.

3. Virgil Ciocaltan, "Geneza politicii pontice a Hoardei de Aur (1261-1265)," Anuarul Institutului de Istorie "A. D. Xenopol" 38 (1991), 81-101; _erban Papacostea, Between the Crusade and the Mongol Empire. The Romanians in the Thirteenth Century (Cluj-Napoca, 1998); Virgil Ciocaltan, Mongolii si Marea Neagra in secolele XIII-XV. Contributia Cinghizhanizilor la transformarea bazinului pontic in placa turnantaa comertului euro-asiatic(Bucharest, 1998).

4. Andras Paloczi-Horvath, Pechenegs, Cumans, Iasians: Steppe Peoples in Medieval Hungary (Wellingborough, 1990); Svetlana A. Pletneva, Polovcy (Moscow, 1990); Robert Lee Wolff, "The 'Second Bulgarian empire'. Its origin and history to 1204," Speculum 24 (1949), 167-206; Nicolae Serban Tanasoca, "De la Vlachie des Assenides au Second Empire Bulgare," Revue des etudes sud-est-europeennes 19 (1981), 581-93 ; Thomas T. Allsen, Conquest and Culture in Mongol Eurasia (Cambridge/New York, 2001).

5. O. B. Bubenok, Iasy i brodniki v stepiakh Vostochnoi Evropy (VI-nachalo XIII v.) (Kiev, 1997).