12.05.04, Biliarsky, Word and Power in Mediaeval Bulgaria

Main Article Content

Cynthia Vakareliyska

The Medieval Review 12.05.04

Biliarsky, Ivan. Word and Power in Mediaeval Bulgaria. East Central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages 450-1450. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2011. Pp. x, 582. ISBN: 978-90-04-19145-7.

Reviewed by:
Cynthia Vakareliyska
University of Oregon

This volume, which is composed of an annotated glossary and analysis chapters, is the product of an ambitious interdisciplinary project to list and define all legal terms and terms related to power found in nine original medieval Bulgarian legal texts and in the earliest Slavic legal code, the ZakonЪ sudnyjь ljudьmЪ (ZSL), which was modeled on part of the Byzantine Greek Ekloga (or, in the author's latinate spelling, the Ecloga). The original Bulgarian texts consulted are the Vatopedi charter of Tsar Ivan II Asen, 1230; the Dubrovnik/Ragusa charter of Tsar Ivan II Asen, written after 1230; the treaty between Tsar Mikhail II Asen and Dubrovnik, 1253; the 13th-century inauthentic Virgino charter ascribed to Tsar Konstantin Asen; the Zographou charter of Tsar Ivan Alexander, 1342; the Mraka charter of Tsar Ivan Alexander, 1348; the Rila charter of Tsar Ivan Shishman, 1378; the Vitosha charter of Tsar Ivan Shishman (1378, date not given in the volume); and the letter to Braşov/Kronstadt by Tsar Ivan Sratsimir (apparently between 1369-80, although the time period is not given in the volume). The list of texts refers to all of these charters also as chrysobulls except for the Dubrovnik charter. The letter to Braşov/Kronstadt is not called a charter, although at least some other scholars refer to it as such. (Unfortunately for non-specialists in Byzantine or medieval Bulgarian history, the relationship between charters and chrysobulls is not explained, and the term "chrysobull" is not defined in the volume.)

The book begins with a foreword, followed by an introduction setting out the problem, tasks and objectives of the project. A short table of the abbreviations used for secondary sources follows the introduction. Chapter one is composed of a 154-page glossary of medieval Bulgarian legal vocabulary in what the author calls "the broadest possible meaning," covering "all words related in some way to law and to the linguistic expression of legal acts, institutes, persons, institutions, objects, etc." The glossary is divided into a general section containing terms found in the original Slavic-language legal texts, and a separate shorter section listing the "juridical lexis" (i.e., legal lexicon) in the ZSL. Sections one and two of chapter one discuss the structure of the glossary and its conventions, and list all texts that the glossary is based on, including 85 inscriptions and the texts on 18 coins.

The glossary headings for all terms are in Old Cyrillic without transliteration, followed by their locations in the texts, etymologies, English translation, and, in many instances, a brief explanation. Chapter two, "Law, Language, and Identity," after the glossary, is a general discussion of law as an instrument for ethnic and religious (self-)identity and maintenance of the community it governs. The chapter introduces the ZSL, whose title Biliarsky renders into English as "the Law for Judging People" but which better translates as "People's Judicial Law" and the concept of božьjь zakonЪ ("Law of God"), which is mentioned three times in the ZSL and which Biliarsky equates more or less with ecclesiastical law.

The next four chapters examine the concepts represented by the terms in the glossary within the context of the individual areas of medieval Bulgarian government and law in which they were used. The first of these, chapter three, focuses on supreme state power and its regulation by law; chapter four is on military and administrative institutions, chapter five is on taxation and fiscal law concepts, and chapter six is on the ecclesiastical lexicon, including terms for ecclesiastical orders and institutions. These analysis chapters are followed by a conclusion, a bibliography, an index of names and places, an index of Greek terms, and an index of Slavic terms, reproduced in Old Cyrillic.

The glossary is meticulously set out, and I noticed no typographical errors in the Old Cyrillic or Greek or in the references to page numbers in the indices. The analysis chapters are very instructive and provide a detailed picture of the legal and government apparati operating in medieval Bulgaria and their relationship to Byzantine antecedents.

Despite the interdisciplinary scope of the study, the book likely will be difficult for readers to use who are not historians specializing in Bulgarian or South Slavic history. Readers are expected to be familiar with the various Bulgarian kings and the time periods of their reigns, and they must be able to read Old Cyrillic in order to use the glossary, not only because the terms are listed only in Old Cyrillic, but also because they appear in Old Cyrillic alphabetical order. Modern Standard Bulgarian terms in the commentary chapters are also occasionally written in modern Cyrillic without transliteration, and many of the Greek terms used in the commentary appear in the Greek alphabet. An Old Cyrillic/Roman transliteration chart at the beginning of the volume would have been useful, in addition to a preliminary note explaining the Roman transliteration conventions used in the commentary chapters: these more or less follow Library of Congress norms rather than the international norms used in linguistics studies, but the author's transliteration system does not reproduce the jers, or reduced vowel letters, that appear in the Old Cyrillic spellings of the same words in the glossary.

Definitions would also be useful in the analysis chapters for the English variants of some relatively obscure terms that occur there, including "Ecloga" (4); corvée (unpaid labor as a form of taxation), which occurs in the glossary and in the analysis on numerous occasions; and, in chapter five on taxation terms, "tax cadaste", i.e. English "cadastral tax", or land tax (463).

The interdisciplinary nature of the book is sometimes a major weakness, as the author, a historian, forays regularly into law and linguistics. Being a Slavic linguist and a former lawyer, I am not qualified to assess the book from a historian's perspective, but I find that more consultation by the author with historical linguists and legal experts would have strengthened the analysis greatly in both the analysis chapters and the glossary itself.

Of course medieval Bulgarian law and legal documents cannot be treated from the same perspective as modern European Napoleonic code law, but from a jurist's standpoint, most of the terms in the glossary are not legal terms in the usual meaning: that is, apparently no definition of them appears in the texts where they are found and there is no indication that their intended meanings were consistent across legal documents. In this sense Biliarsky is correct to describe the terms that the book examines as having to do with hierarchies of power, and to avoid the term "law" in the title of the volume. Nevertheless, the analysis chapters regularly refer to "law" and "legal terms" without explaining the methodology for defining terms in the glossary that are undefined in the medieval law-related texts, and the issue of the consistency, or lack thereof, in the use of these terms, and its significance, is not raised. The closest the volume comes to the issue of consistent meanings is the elliptical explanation on page 5 for the quite justified decision to limit the data sources to original Bulgarian texts that are not translations from Greek: "Among other [sic], my interest is focused on the mutual dependence of specialised legal language, on the penetration of words and verbal formulae from one of these spheres into the other, a process that would not be adequately reflected in a translated legal text." (Apparently this sentence was inadvertently left over from a comparison of legal language and another "sphere" of language that was dropped from an earlier draft.)

It is unclear to me why it was found necessary to provide an etymology for each of the medieval Bulgarian legal/power terms in the glossary, even though Biliarsky argues that the etymologies are important because "in many cases we may judge of the legal importance of a specific word only by what we know regarding its origin" (18). The original historical meaning of a word, however, cannot be assumed to correspond to its meaning at any given later period in the history of the language, particularly in specialized legal terminology. Since the point of the glossary and the commentary in the following chapters is to provide the meaning of the terms as used in specific later legal texts, omission of the etymologies would have strengthened the book.

The analysis chapters usually provide etymologies for terms under discussion without references to the etymological sources the author used. The sources do usually appear in the glossary itself, but readers who do not know Old Cyrillic will be unable to find them there. Biliarsky relies primarily on the Etymological Dictionary of the Bulgarian Language (Bŭlgarski etimologičen rečnik, Sofia 1971-on, "BED") and, secondarily, on Vasmer's etymological dictionary of Russian (M. Fasmer, Etimologičeskij slovar' russkogo jazyka, Moscow 1986), which is the gold standard for Slavic etymology and covers not only Russian words but their equivalents in the other Slavic languages, including modern Bulgarian and Old Church Slavonic.

Some of the author's etymological statements are simply wrong and do not reflect what his etymological sources actually state. An example, on p. 490 in the analysis portion, is an unsubstantiated claim that the Slavic term ot(Ъ)rokЪ, which Biliarsky explains meant peasants and craftsmen dependent of the local lord in Middle Bulgarian legal documents, "originally meant 'a slave'." This statement is not supported by any of the etymological sources he cites in the glossary. Indeed, the derivation of the word that Biliarsky gives in the glossary itself cites the BED and Vasmer, who both in fact derive otrokЪ from ot(Ъ)-rokЪ (lit. "(away) from speech"), meaning very generally "not having the right to speak." In the glossary, Biliarsky interprets this derivation to mean "the people who were under a family power--the children and the slaves", acknowledging here that the word also has meant "boy" or "male adolescent" (as it still does in some modern Slavic languages). He does not mention this other meaning of the word in the analysis section, however (note that in Old Church Slavonic, the first written Slavic language (c. 800-1100), the term otrokЪ was used to refer, inter alii, to the boy Jesus), nor does he mention the opinion eminent historical linguist Meillet, cited by both Vasmer and BED (although the latter finds it "unacceptable") that Slavic ot(Ъ)-rokЪ was a calque of Latin infans.

More cringeworthy from a linguistic perspective is the assertion on p. 401 of the analysis that the deverbal noun emьstvo in the 1253 treaty of Tsar Mikhail II "comes from" the Modern Bulgarian verb emvam ("grab"). A historically earlier word obviously cannot be derived from a later one, and none of the etymological sources cited in the glossary itself remotely supports the author's derivation. The noun emьstvo in fact is directly derived from the Common Slavic verb *jьmati, *emljǫtЪ ("take") and literally means "taking", as the glossary section correctly notes.

On p. 512 of the analysis, again without citing a reference, Biliarsky states that popЪ ("priest") "is believed to be of Latin origin," (his italics), while asserting further on, without citing any support, "[T]here is a dispute among linguists as to whether the word 'pop'...represents a heritage from the popular Latin of the Balkans." Correspondingly, in the glossary, the etymology of the word is given as "Etym.: Word of Latin origin, borrowed from the vernacular Latin in the Balkans"-again without bibliographic references, perhaps in this instance because neither the BED nor Vasmer mentions Latin, or even Balkan Latin, as a possible borrowing source for this word. In the glossary, the proposed Latin derivation is followed by the statement, "It could be also derivative [sic] from the Greek παππᾶς [pap(p)ãs 'grandfather'-CMV] = 'presbyter, priest'." The discussion in the analysis, however, adds Germanic to the mix in the unsubstantiated statement "We should also cite the view that it is a loanword from the Germanic languages or from the Greek word παππᾶς." The BED cites a number of disagreeing sources on how the word popЪ might have made its way indirectly or, less likely, directly from Greek, but Vasmer does not, and both Vasmer and the BED state that it is unlikely that that the word is a direct borrowing from Greek. Instead, Vasmer, whose view Biliarsky reproduces only in the analysis section, inaccurately and without crediting him, determined that the word was probably derived directly from Old High German pfaffo ("priest") and not from any other Germanic language.

A broader linguistic problem in the analysis chapters is the author's occasional failure to differentiate between words themselves and the concepts they represent. For example, on p. 510 in chapter six, he writes: "I believe we have reason to see it [the term sЪborЪ ("council")] as "bearing traces of a Greek archetype." It is unclear whether the institution of a council is actually meant here or the word sЪborЪ itself. The glossary portion of the book, citing Vasmer and the BED, identifies the noun sЪborЪ (lit. "with-take/gather") as probably a "loan translation" (i.e., a calque) of Greek synagogé or synodos. This may be somewhat true indirectly, in that the earlier attested Old Church Slavonic word for "assembly, council," sЪnьmЪ (lit. "with-take" and derived, like emьstvo, from *jьmati, *emljǫtЪ "take"), which was soon replaced by sЪborЪ in Bulgarian Church Slavonic ecclesiastical texts, probably was a calque of synagogé, but neither Vasmer nor the BED states that sЪborЪ itself is a calque. Similarly, on p. 511, Biliarsky claims that dědecь (or dedets, as he transliterates it), meaning a "high heretic (bogomil) religious leader" or "heretic bishop", is the only "purely Slavic word" among the terms that were used in the Church to refer to the heretical hierarchy. From an etymological perspective this can't be right, since the glossary itself indicates correctly that one of these terms, sЪborЪ, is etymologically a Slavic word, and two other terms listed in same paragraph of the analysis, starecь, and stroinikЪ, are also purely Slavic in origin. Apparently in both these instances the author means that the institutions these terms represent in ecclesiastical law are Greek in origin.

The only historical inconsistency I noticed in the book was between the statement "As it seems, there was no tax cadastre in Bulgaria", and the definition of pisьcь in the general glossary as "Employee, charger [sic] with the tax cadaste" (463). There are, however, a number of orthographic inconsistencies, and the book would have benefited from a preface explaining the principles behind the distribution of Old Cyrillic, Modern Cyrillic, Greek alphabet, and Roman transliteration spellings, particularly since some of the terms in the text appear in some places in one alphabet and in others in another: as just one example, on page 492 the Greek word pároikos is written in Roman transliteration, but on the following page it appears in the Greek alphabet. Another inconsistency is in the plural forms of the transliterated Slavic and Greek words: the Greek terms are written in the Greek plural form, but the Slavic terms appear with the English -s plural suffix (e.g. otroks on p. 491). Finally, pages 3 and 13 refer to "the proposed study" and page 507 refers to "the proposed glossary", suggesting that the sections in which these phrases occur were taken from a book proposal.

There are also a few oddities in English grammar, spelling and capitalization that the publisher should have caught. For example, while the word "Emperor" is always capitalized in titles, "king" routinely is not (e.g., "Emperor Basil II" but "king Milutin"). Minor English errors include "After Christianity was adopted as official religion", on the first page of the introduction, and, on p. 521, "there work" for "their work".

In summary, this volume contains a very useful glossary of law-related terms for those who can read Old Cyrillic, accompanied by informative analysis chapters that do not require from the reader a knowledge of Cyrillic, although it would be an advantage. Readers are advised, however, to view the etymological information on the glossary terms with skepticism and to focus instead on the analysis chapters, which discuss the meaning of the terms as used in the primary texts themselves and their implications for understanding the medieval Bulgarian legal structure and power hierarchy.

Article Details

Author Biography

Cynthia Vakareliyska

University of Oregon