Florin Curta

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

identifier.other: baj9928.0604.003 06.04.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Florin Curta

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Curta, Florin. Florin Curta, Response to Istvan Vasary's Response to 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 and 06.03.16. Pp.. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.04.03

Curta, Florin. Florin Curta, Response to Istvan Vasary's Response to 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 and 06.03.16. Pp.. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Florin Curta

Istvan Vasary's reply has raised a number of questions in reaction to my review of his book, Cumans and Tatars. Oriental Military in the Pre- Ottoman Balkans, 1185-1365. Reviewing the book, I followed the basic guidelines of scholarly criticism. I tried to assess Vasary's contribution to the subject of his research as well as the quality of his scholarship and presentation. I certainly had no intention to produce either calumny or a "pen of kindness". That was not my role as reviewer, though it seems to have been on Professor Vasary's mind. If my conclusions have some implications for the touchy debate on nationalism in historiography, they are entirely based on Vasary's book.

To reiterate what should be clear in my review, I think Vasary's work is of great value for anyone interested in such things as Nogay and the Golden Horde. When declaring my sympathy for his attempt to engage very large questions, I was by no means condescending. But the source of Vasary's irritation is not in any criticism of his book contained in my review. As a matter of fact, he even claims to have partially accepted my criticism. At the same he draws the attention away from arguments to "malevolence", "insinuation", and "calumny". At stake seems to have been my denouncing of Vasary's promotion of Roesler's idea that Romanians arrived in Romania through migration from the Balkans ca. 1200. In defending himself, Vasary seems to imply that, unlike him, I subscribe to "the official Daco-Romanian theory". I have no knowledge of any of Professor Vasary's writings showing that he rejects "certain theories concerning the appearance of the Hungarians in their present- day homeland," but I, for one, have been actively involved in denouncing nationalism in the Romanian historiography and archaeological literature, even before leaving my native country. [1] In doing so, I make no claims to be either the only, or the leading voice speaking against the political manipulation of history and archaeology. There is not much self-critical assessment of the historiography concerning the Middle Ages and produced in Hungary before 1989. By contrast, the last fifteen years have witnessed a lively debate in Romania on the impact of the Communist regime and its nationalist agenda on historiography. [2] The "official Daco-Romanian theory" has long been denounced, although not completely eradicated from the scholarly and political discourse. To speak of "established commonplaces of Romanian national historiography" is therefore misleading, if not altogether wrong. Romanian historiography is not a monolithic block, and while there is still much pernicious nationalism, there is by now no "official theory". Vasary's reply therefore shows that he is not familiar with the current debates about some of the most important issues discussed in his book. His tendency to paint only with a broad brush, dividing the world, as it were, between friends and enemies of Romania is completely misplaced. In any case, my criticism of Vasary's endorsement of Roesler's obsolete theory is not that it is anti- Romanian, but that it is not supported by any shred of evidence. Presenting a theory, obsolete or not, implies that some facts must be cited in its support before it can be accepted. In my review, I noted that no evidence exists of a migration across the Danube from south to north and that there is evidence for the presence of Vlakhs north of the Danube much earlier than Professor Vasary is inclined to accept. In other words, I am not in any way saying that the ancestors of modern Romanians lived in Transylvania (or anywhere else, for that matter) before the arrival of the Hungarians. But to say that they had come through migration from the Balkans is equally wrong, for no evidence exists for that. Given the breadth of this book, it is hard to imagine Professor Vasary not knowing that much. What, then, can be the reason for such statements as "the Vlakhs, as is well known (my emphasis) were Romanised (sic) shepherds of the Balkans" (p. 19)? On what scholarly basis does Vasary claim that "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)? What are the arguments on which he decides that "there is no compelling historical evidence that any serious Vlakhian (sic) settlement existed north of the Danube in this period" (p. 135)? What (current) Romanian scholars "extol that empire (i.e., the Second Bulgarian Empire; my note) as being the first (sometimes the second!) Romanian state in history" (p. 18)? Is it possible that Vasary, who apparently understands Romanian, does not know that the Vlakhs were not Christianized by the Bulgarians (p. 136), since the fundamental vocabulary of Christianity in Romanian (including dialects spoken south of the Danube River) is of Latin origin? What precisely is the "empty and bombastic vocabulary of Romanian nationalism" (p. 22 no. 28) and to what source can one go to find examples of that?

It was certainly not my intention to "prohibit the use of Hungarian historical names". In my review, I specifically noted that the procedure is understandable in cases such Brasso (now Brasov) and (Nagy)Szeben (now Sibiu). This is true even if it remains unclear whether or not such names were truly in use during the period covered by Vasary's book, when both cities were primarily inhabited by speakers of German, not of Hungarian. Moreover, I see a problem of consistency with employing place names in use during the Middle Ages. During the late 1200s, the name of the most important city in southern Dalmatia was Ragusa, yet Vasary uses Dubrovnik instead (p. 100). Similarly, by 1286, present-day Lviv was within the borders of the Rus' principality of Galicia-Volhynia. Following Vasary's own logic, it is therefore not "natural" to mention the city by its German (Lemberg) or Polish (Lwow) name (p. 88). In the face of such inconsistencies indicative of Vasary's bias, one begins to question the very principle of using "medieval" place names. Who, among those writing about the history of al-Andalus in English, refer to Sevilla as al-Isbili or to Cordoba as al-Qurtubiyya? Be it as it may, to use a Hungarian name (Jaszvasar) for a city (Iasi), which "in one way or another" was never part of the Kingdom of Hungary is a very different matter. There can be only two explanations for that. Either Vasary sees the entire geography of Southeastern Europe as Hungarian, or his book was initially written for a Hungarian audience (who might supposedly know more about Jaszvasar than about Iasi) and sloppily translated into English. In both cases, to declare emphatically that "Transylvania's past cannot be expropriated by any one nation" does not respond to the precise point of my review. Iasi is not in Transylvania, and Maurocastro was never part of Hungary. But there is more to Vasary's sloppy use of place names. On page 104, n. 21, Vasary lists four place names derived from Dorman, the name of a nobleman of supposedly Cuman origin mentioned in the late 1200s. We learn that the old Hungarian name of the village of Darmanesti, "c. 25 km north of the Ojtoz Pass (Pas Oituz - sic!), near the Tratos (sic) river" is Domanyfalva. Vasary then adds, "in the middle of the nineteenth century 250 Hungarian Catholics inhabited the village". One is left wondering about the relevance of this addition for the topic of this book. It is hard to believe that Vasary would suggest that the 250 Hungarians who lived in the 1800s in Darmanesti were the descendants of Dorman. Could the mention of the village's old (my emphasis) Hungarian name in this context have any other meaning? Unable to solve the conundrum, I am forced to follow Vasary's own advice: this is "something best left to native speakers of English" to judge.

Having spent much time as ambassador of Hungary in Ankara, Vasary may have failed to notice that (vulgar) Marxism was by no means a feature unique to Ceausescu's Romania. The same brand of dialectical materialism was fed to students at all levels of the education system in his native country. It is most likely to that education that "residual Marxism" can be attributed. On page 80, note 49, Vasary mentions "a popular monograph, with a primitive Marxist bias" (my emphasis) namely Petar Petrov's 1988 German translation of his monograph on Ivailo's revolt. Vasary's dismissing remark is puzzling, given that he had apparently taken the concepts of "feudal anarchy" and "economic exploitation of the peasantry" from Petrov's book. Needless to say, there is absolutely no evidence for such an interpretation, and both ideas are most likely "index fossils" of the "wooden tongue" of the 1950s and 1960s.

Vasary claims that instead of the Romanian names routinely mangled there are only "three misprints". Here is a complete list: "Jara Birsei" (instead of Tara Barsei) and "Jara Fagarasului" (instead of Tara Fagarasului) on page 28 and 168; "Moldoa" (instead of Moldova) on pages 134 and 143; "Moldva" (instead of Moldova) on pages 136, 143, 156, and 158; "Seret" (instead of Siret) on page 138; "Tratos" (instead of Trotus) on page 104. The entire title (translated into Romanian on page 142) that the Wallachian metropolitan used during the Middle Ages is misspelled: "archiepiscopu si metropolit Ungro-Vlachiei" (instead of "arhiepiscopul si mitropolitul Ungro-Vlahiei"). For someone who not only claims to be able to read Romanian, but also cites Uspenskii and Zlatarski in the original (albeit transliterated) language (e.g., on p. 32 with nn. 74 and 75), the pattern of "misprints" is quite surprising, given that it seems to concern almost exclusively Romanian names. In fact, in his own reply, Vasary manages to mangle even the name of the Communist dictator who ruled Romania for over twenty years ("Ceaucescu," instead of Ceausescu). I was ready to believe Vasary that he had read "every source used for the work in the original language". But misspellings (which should in any case have been corrected at the first page proof) and the listing of articles and chapters in the bibliography with either "f." or "ff." instead of actual page number do not inspire any confidence in his treatment of the Romanian sources.

Historical phenomena, such as the intrusion of the Cumans and the Mongols in Balkan politics, are always complex and full of nuances and subtleties. However, there are also proven facts and ascertainable verities. I sympathize with Vasary's objections to my review of his book. No author likes to put great effort in his or her work, only to have it grotesquely misinterpreted by a reviewer. However, I plead not guilty and still believe the review was a fair assessment of this book.


[1] See, for example, "The changing image of the Early Slavs in the Rumanian historiography and archaeological literature. A critical survey," Suedost-Forschungen 53 (1994), 235-276. For a critique of both Romanian and Hungarian archaeologists, see also my "Transylvania around A.D. 1000," in Europe Around the Year 1000, ed. Przemyslaw Urbanczyk (Warsaw, 2001), pp. 141-165.

[2] Excellent surveys of the debate can be found in Serban Papacostea, "Captive Clio: Romanian historiography under Communist rule," European History Quarterly26 (1996), 181-208, and Lucian Boia, History and Myth in Romanian Consciousness (Budapest, 2001). Papacostea's article was published in the year of the 1100th anniversary of the Hungarian "conquest of the homeland". In Hungary, the event was celebrated, among other things, by the publication of The Magyars. Their Life and Civilization by Gyula Laszlo, the most prominent advocate of the "second conquest", and of such papers as those of Istvan Fodor, "Das ethnische Bewusstsein der Ungarn," Acta Ethnographica Hungarica 41 (1996), 1-4, and Kalman Magyar, "Who is the Hungarian? What is the Hungarian?" in Az oshazatol Arpad honalapitasaig, ed. by Kalman Magyar (Budapest, 1996), pp. 293-300.