09.07.06, Curta/Kovalev, eds., The Other Europe in the Middle Ages

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Richard Hodges

The Medieval Review baj9928.0907.006


Curta, Florin and Roman Kovalev (eds.). The Other Europe in the Middle Ages: Avars, Bulgars, Khazars, and Cumans. East Central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 450-1450. Leiden: Brill, 2008. Pp. 492. ISBN: 9789004163898.

Reviewed by:
Richard Hodges
University of Pennsylvania, University Museum

In recent years Florin Curta has almost single-handedly brought new life to the archaeology and history of south-east Europe in the post-Roman world. Now, following a session at the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, he has turned his attention to the Avars, Bulgars, Khazars, and Cumans--the other Europe, as he provocatively describes it. The 12 essays in this volume attempt to re-introduce key peoples and some of their principal issues to an audience that since the sixth century regarded them as "literally beyond the pale" (1). Curta defiantly sums up modern research on these peoples as follows: "As Hungary and Bulgaria have now joined the European Union, Avar and Bulgar archaeology has moved away from Steppenfixierung of the old school, whose research agenda was often driven by questions formulated by Turkologists. Instead of yurts and horse gear, archaeologists have turned to "Germanic" assemblages from western Hungary...[which] thus testify to continuing relations with Western Europe at a time for which most historians assume that such relations did not exist" (3). The archaeology and history of these peoples, in other words, should not, in Curta's opinion, represent an East European form of Edward Said's "Other"--Orientalism--but, instead, belong to a contemporary European approach that draws the land-mass of Europe into one medieval narrative.

Curta diplomatically glides over this new European-wide approach. Correctly he defines it as a shift from a culture-historical paradigm, based upon notions of ethnicity, to one in which material culture and texts have meanings that have to be critically evaluated without preconceived standpoints. He tellingly omits to note that the ethnic issues which western Europeans have for some time found discomforting have their roots in nationalist and politically charged conditions, something the European Union is actively attempting to alter.

These essays are in many ways introductions, some taking new approaches, others addressing old issues for a contemporary audience. Given the surprisingly rare publication of essays on these themes in English in a synthetic form, there is merit in reviewing briefly the scope of this hefty volume.

The volume opens with Tivadar Vida's essay on the Carpathian basin in the sixth and seventh centuries when it was "under Avar rule." Making use of much new archaeological evidence this is a survey of the archaeology reviewing issues of conflict and coexistence between "Avar aliens(?)" and the extant populations in the region. Peter Stadler's chapter is an important reassessment of the chronology of the Avar cemeteries, and the concomitant question of the ethnicity of the Avar qaganate. As Stadler points out, this chronology has become confused by conflicting views--often rooted in determinist nationalist histories--on the medieval history of the region. This improved chronology will undoubtedly have far-reaching implications, given the western interest in the Avars as they posed a threat to south-eastern and central Europe.

Following convincingly from issues of cemetery chronology, Péter Somogyi reviews the flow of Byzantine coins in Avaria and Walachia during the later seventh century. Somogyi's new reading of the numismatic evidence challenges the 1970s migration model for the Onogur Bulgars into Avaria and associates it with the migration of Kuvrat's fourth son in the period 674-81, thereby presenting an entirely new view of "the burial assemblages with Byzantine coins or imitations" (145). Orsolya Heinrich-Tamaska provides further insight upon the Avars in a chapter dedicated to the metalworking technologies of the sixth to eighth centuries. Then Florin Curta brings the Avars fully into a western medieval historical medium with a new interpretation of the Avar "stirrup controversy." Beginning with Lynn White's argument that the stirrup must be associated with mounted shock, combat troops, and therefore a constituent component in the formation of feudalism, Curta reviews the subsequent historiography, history and archaeology. Not unsurprisingly he challenges White's (and more recently Bachrach's) association of the stirrup with shock troops. Instead, correcting recent chronological interpretations, Curta concludes: "the stirrup did certainly not make one a "professional" warrior; but in the Early Avar age, it was employed symbolically to mark that status in burial" (320).

Barthomiej Szymon Szmoniewski's chapter reviews bronze and silver hoards from the East European forest belt, and attempts to disentangle ornament from issues of tradition and contact, especially with Byzantium and the Sasanians. His essay provides some context for the two chapters dedicated to the Bulgars. Uwe Fiedler's immense review may well become the contemporary text for the subject. Fiedler provides a survey of the state of research in the lower Danube region, an area where--especially at the phenomenal urban site of Pliska--there has been an immense amount of recent archaeological research. Challenging the derogatory opinion of the Bulgars in the Byzantine texts, Fiedler proposes that these peoples have been wholly under-estimated by modern historians. Certainly, given this new urban history, there is already much to sustain his contention.

Swords, one of the diagnostic fossils of 9th-century Carolingian and Viking Europe, are the theme of Valeri Iotov's contribution. This essay succinctly surveys the so-called Hungarian sabres of medieval Bulgaria, traditionally associated with late ninth- and tenth-century burial assemblages. Whether these were the type fossils of the Hungarians who invaded central and western Europe is questioned; but Iotov asserts that these quickly became the favourite weapon of tenth-century warriors in south-eastern Europe.

Two further historical chapters provide the setting for Bulgaria close to the rim of Byzantium. Veselina Vachkova describes the Danube Bulgaria and Khazaria. Following this Tsvetelin Stepanov questions how Bulgaria between 800 and 1100 oscillated between being a steppe culture and a Christian state.

Finally, two further historical essays review a much later, high medieval world: Dimitri Korobeinikov examines the Kipçak world of the thirteenth century, and Victor Spinei provides a concise history of the genesis and evolution of the Cuman bishopric. Both essays describe epic episodes in the history of eastern Europe, involving many different ethnic communities in the sweep of the momentous late Byzantine era. Both really merit maps to help the reader through the sweep of their compelling narratives. As Curta explains in his introduction, Korobeinikov confronts histories based upon a collective memory. While the story of the Cuman bishopric resonates intriguingly with the origins of earlier bishoprics, for example, in north Germany, then Scandinavia, then western Hungary.

The approaches in this volume are varied. Essentially these essays, as Curta asserts in his introduction, provide a diverse range of authoritative perspectives. The earlier half of the book encompassing the Carpathian basin and lower Danube works well, providing parallel texts for Joachim Henning's massive two-volume congress report on towns and trade in early medieval Europe (Joachim Henning (ed.) Post-Roman Towns, Trade and Settlement in Europe and Byzantium; Vol. 1 The Heirs of the Roman West; Vol. 2 Byzantium, Pliska, and the Balkans, Millennium Studies in the culture and history of the first millennium C.E., Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2007). The medieval history chapters, of course, extend the scope of the book, providing a picture familiar to readers of the Dumbarton Oaks Papers. In sum, this book, while dense and often unfamiliar, is more important than the sum of its parts because it provides access, perhaps not in an entirely coherent fashion (this is the familiar failing of conference proceedings), to a great expanse of eastern Europe that deservedly belongs to the medieval tradition and because of contemporary historical circumstances has been marginalised. The wealth of material, especially from Bulgaria and the Carpathian basin, is extraordinary. Further research in this Other Europe, as most of the contributors assert, is certain to be very rewarding. Just as certainly, this Europe is beginning to re-shape our understanding of a medieval Europe which until now has been entirely concentrated upon western Europe (i.e. the 1945-89 non-communist bloc).

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Richard Hodges

University of Pennsylvania, University Museum