Istvan Vasary

title.none: Vasary, Response to Curta (Istvan Vasary)

identifier.other: baj9928.0603.016 06.03.16

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Istvan Vasary

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Istvan Vasary. Response to Florin Curta's review of Cumans and Tatars. Oriental Military in the Pre-Ottoman Balkans (1185-1365) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), TMR 06.01.02. Pp.. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.03.16

Istvan Vasary. Response to Florin Curta's review of Cumans and Tatars. Oriental Military in the Pre-Ottoman Balkans (1185-1365) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), TMR 06.01.02. Pp.. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Istvan Vasary

Although it is not customary for authors to reply to reviewers of their work, on the present occasion I feel compelled to go against tradition to say a few words in my own defense. Dr. Florin Curta, a fine and erudite historian at the University of Florida, attacked my recent monograph Cumans and Tatars. Oriental Military in the Pre-Ottoman Balkans (1185-1365) on a number of points. [1] Some of his criticisms concerning the book I readily accept, others I dispute: this is the normal way of scholarly discourse. What I can never accept, however, is malevolence or insinuation, especially when in the guise of "objective" reasoning. When writing the book, I tried to be as balanced as possible. I was, therefore, somewhat taken aback when Dr. Curta, an American scholar of Romanian descent, informed me in his review that I was a Hungarian nationalist with a bias against Romanians. The label was a new one: never before had I been accused of prejudice against anybody or anything. In what follows I attempt to uncover what might have annoyed or angered Dr. Curta in the work, prompting him to pronounce the weighty charge that it exhibits anti-Romanian bias.

In his review, Dr. Curta claims that "Vasary's obvious bias [italic mine] 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." This, I think, is the key sentence, the one in which we can detect the origin and cause of Dr. Curta's accusation: I dared to subscribe to Roesler's "obsolete" nineteenth-century theory and, as a result, I oppose the theory of Daco-Romanian continuity, which, incidentally, lies at the very heart of Romanian nationalism. He who opposes this theory can only be an enemy of Romanians. Dr. Curta adds that "an equally anti-Romanian bias [italic mine] 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". So, if someone thinks other than in terms of the established commonplaces of Romanian national historiography, is he automatically guilty of anti-Romanian bias? Is it necessary to subscribe to a particular theory in order to be a serious historian? Dr. Curta then reminds me of my own words: "Hungarian nationalism has tried to minimize the Romanian presence in history" (p. 29). Yes, I fully agree with myself and with Dr. Curta, but this statement has nothing to do with my views concerning the origins of the Romanian ethnos. Likewise, I do not subscribe to those theories that try to date the Hungarian presence in the Carpathian Basin to before the conquest at the end of the ninth century. When I reject certain theories concerning the appearance of the Hungarians in their present-day homeland, it does not automatically mean that I am guilty of anti-Hungarian bias. Similarly, when I eschew particular theories with regard to the Romanians, including the official Daco-Romanian theory, I am not necessarily guilty of anti-Romanian prejudice.

This is, however, another insinuation: I am not only "biased" and "nationalistic", but also susceptible to "Orientalism":

Vasary persuasively argues that Cumania mentioned in contemporarysources was in present-day Romania. However, at the same time andas 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 "Orientalmilitary" is misplaced, as he is forced to acknowledge at severalpoints in this book that the Cumans and Tatars involved in Balkanaffairs came from the neighboring steppe north of the Lower Danubeand the Black Sea, not from the "Orient." The stone statuerepresented on the dustjacket, which supposedly is the figure of aCuman, is in fact from Crimea, not from Inner Asia. Be that as itmay, the present reader is still puzzled by this particular choiceof cover image, since the book deals with the Balkans, not withthe steppe lands.

The sub-text of the label "Orientalism" is that I look at history from a European ("Western") angle. Consequently, I despise the Orient, since I made a distinction between West and East. This is simply foolishness and I shall not waste time refuting it. Plagued with "nationalistic" propensities and burdened with obsolete views associated with "Orientalism" I can only be a "bad guy". The world is that simple. I can reassure my reviewer that I was fully aware of the connotation of the stone statue from the Crimea represented on the dust jacket, and my choice was deliberate. I would readily have selected a Cuman stone statue from the Balkans had there been one. In the absence of such an artifact, the statue from the Crimea stands as a symbol of the Cumans' culture. There is, however, more. According to my reviewer, my "Orientalism" is of a strange kind in that it sees the Bulgarian, the Romanian and the Serb as the Other:

Orientalism aside, Vasary places the onus of alterity[italic mine] not on Cumans or Tatars, but on the Balkansthemselves. In his two-page conclusion to the book, hepontificates: "The Balkans have yet to find the key and meaning oftheir historical existence and to decide whether they want tobelong to the mainstream of European development or to insist ontheir Byzantine and Ottoman autocratic traditions" (p. 167).Elsewhere, Vasary compares King Louis I of Hungary to Bogdan ofMoldavia: "Louis was the greatest king of the region in his age,worthily called Great by posterity, whereas Bogdan was a provincialRomanian chief of Maramoros... [sic] He may be a Romanian nationalhero, but the two persons are not of the same stature" (p. 160). Tothis reader, Vasary's is a bizarre form of Orientalism: hisOther is the Bulgarian, the Romanian, or the Serb, all ofwhom are depicted as eagerly waiting for the civilizing lightcoming from Hungary [all italic mine].

The last sentence is sheer malevolence and speculation: never have I written or thought anything slightly resembling this. Dr. Curta seems to be following the old logic of calumny: once made, any accusation, even one that is fully unfounded, remains in the collective memory.

Having leveled the above charges, Dr. Curta goes on to make a fourth. He writes: "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." To begin with, it was not my purpose to deal with transhumance in the Balkans: I devoted just a few sentences to this phenomenon. Secondly, despite the reviewer's conjecture to the contrary, I am able to read Romanian, a knowledge of which, incidentally, was not absolutely necessary for the writing of the book. In fact, I read every source used for the work in the original language.

Dr. Curta's next allegation is the following: "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." In one way or another, for almost one thousand years Transylvania was part of the Kingdom of Hungary. For a shorter period, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was an independent principality, before the Habsburgs annexed it to their empire. Finally, from 1867 until 1920, it was again an integral part of the Kingdom of Hungary. Consequently, Hungarian place-names and hydronyms relating to Transylvania are not just memories from pre-Trianon times, but are the standard names for these places and rivers in present-day Hungarian usage. Since in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the whole Carpathian Basin belonged to the Kingdom of Hungary, it was only natural to cite geographical names in their Hungarian form (although German and Romanian equivalents, where they existed, are always given in the text and also separately in a list at the end of the book.) I do not quite understand what Dr. Curta wants. Does he wish to prohibit the use of Hungarian historical names? Transylvania became part of Romania in 1920 by the terms of the Treaty of Trianon, but the historical heritage of that region belongs equally to the Hungarians, Romanians and Saxons living there. Transylvania's past cannot be expropriated by any one nation.

Dr. Curta's attempts to discredit my competence in languages amount to little short of malice. Among dozens of Romanian words and names, all correctly written, the reviewer succeeded in finding three printer's errors. Instead of referring to them as misprints at the end of his review, the usual practice, he generalizes triumphantly: "Romanian names or place names are routinely mangled [italic mine] ('kneaz' for 'cneaz', 'Moldva' or 'Moldoa' for Moldova, and 'Jara Birsei' for 'Tara Birsei')." I do not know whether three misprints can be termed "routine mangling". This is rather like saying that owing to a few misprints in the Hungarian words, I "routinely mangle" Hungarian names, and thus ignore Hungarian orthography and/or usage.

As though references to nationalism, Orientalism, ethnic bias, predilection for obsolete theories, use of ethnic stereotypes, and linguistic incompetence were not enough, Dr. Curta aims yet another barb: "His [Vasary's] 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)." This was the first time in my long life that I was accused of Marxism. I do not know whether these terms are in fact indicative of "residual Marxism". In any event, I was somewhat amused by the fact that an American academic born and raised in the Romania of Nicolae Ceaucescu should make such a claim.

Once I had forfeited Dr. Curta's sympathy (i.e. when he identified me as a Hungarian nationalist), I could do nothing to escape his ire and over- critical remarks. He seems not to like my English, since I have "a certain propensity for bombastic style. The Cumans 'taste defeat at Tatar hands' (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)." Of course, it is up to him whether he likes or dislikes my English style. In any event, the book's native British copy- editors at the CUP had nothing against it. My own view is that the judging of good English style is something best left to native speakers of English.

Thus far, Dr. Curta did not call into question my academic correctness, but the following remark is one that I wish to refute absolutely. He writes: "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." I declare unequivocally that I did not omit any "relevant previous scholarship", although a bibliography can of course never be complete. Dr. Curta mentions five missing authorities but actually there are only four, since Wolff's paper ("The Second Bulgarian Empire: Origin and History to 1204," Speculum 1949, pp. 167-206) is indeed cited (p. 215). Of these four authorities, three (Paloczi-Horvath, Pletneva and Allsen) are known to me personally. The reason I did not cite works by them was that I felt that their contributions did not strictly fall within the scope and/or timeframe of my book. The omission of Tanasoca was my mistake, and one that I regret.

Towards the end of his review, Dr. Curta writes as follows: "In this day and age, it is surprising to read a work of history that so uncritically adopts outdated theories [italic mine] and old ethnic stereotypes [italic mine]." Rather condescendingly, he adds at the end: "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." In response to this, I would simply say that I am someone who prefers collaboration to professional and personal enmity, and who prizes modesty above arrogance. Academics should not look at each other as enemies who fight on the battlefield of thought where the ultimate goal is to trample down and annihilate the other (or Other?). In the Middle Ages, the devoted study of which is our common pursuit and passion, scholars treated each other with due consideration. The Sanglakh, the best Chagatay-Persian dictionary compiled in the eighteenth century, invites its readers to correct errors and defects with the "pen of kindness". [2] I miss this "pen of kindness" in Dr. Curta's review, although I miss the pen of fairness much more.


[1] Florin Curta, TMR 06.01.02, University of Florida, Published in idx?c=tmr;cc=tmr;q1=vasary;rgn=main;view=text;idno=baj9928.0601.002

[2] Sanglax. A Persian Guide to the Turkish Language by Muhammad Mahdi Xan. Facsimile text with an Introduction and Indices by Sir Gerard Clauson (E. J. W. Gibb Memorial Series, New Series XX), London, 1960, p. 32 and f. 2v, line 6 of the facsimile.