The Medieval Review 12.05.11

Biliarsky, Ivan. Response to TMR 12.05.04, Cynthia M. Vakareliyska's review of Ivan Biliarsky. 2012.

Reviewed by:

Ivan Biliarsky
Free University of Varna "Tchernorizets Khrabar"

I am very grateful to Cynthia Vakarelyiska for her attentive reading of my book. I strongly believe that scholars can benefit from comments from colleagues in other disciplines, provided that they are made with good intention and without any prejudice. Particularly important for me is Vakareliyska's appreciation for my historical interpretation, as I am not a historian. Like her, I studied law (and later anthropology) and I currently teach legal history in a law school in Bulgaria. I therefore feel quite qualified in the domain of law and did not need special consultation with any lawyers when dealing with juridical terminology, as Vakareliyska recommends. However, I was in permanent contact with specialists in Slavic philology, some of whom are actually mentioned in the book's foreword. This does not mean, however, that any of my mistakes could be attributed to them. For those, I take full responsibility.

There are several issues raised in Vakareliyska's review that require clarification, if not refutation. First, she complains about the lack of historical context in my book. One of her concerns is the explanation of certain terms, such as "chrysobull", "Ecloga", "corvée", and "tax cadaster". My book was published in a Brill series, the declared purpose of which is to provide "a forum for high-quality scholarly work." The series is definitely not one of introductory volumes or surveys for the use of those who have no knowledge of the field. In other words, the audience is expected to have previous knowledge of at least some of the fundamental concepts employed by those studying East Central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages. It is hard to believe that anyone interested in that study would not know the meaning of "chrysobull" or "corvée." The Medieval Review published last year Kiril Petkov's review of Jirí Machácek's Rise of Medieval Towns in East Central Europe. In his review of this book on archaeology, Petkov wrote of "highly technical exploration," "mathematical and statistical approaches," and principal component analysis, but at no point complained about the author's use of such apparently esoteric terms or phrases as "manor," "central place," or "secondary state formation." Petkov understood very clearly that Machácek's book was not a work of vulgarization. It is not altogether clear why Cynthia Vakarelyiska thinks otherwise about my book. She also misunderstands my reference to "tax cadaster" as "cadastral tax," or "land tax." In reality, the cadaster is a not a tax, but a detailed list of people under taxation, which is used in the process of tax collection. In other words, a cadaster is a fiscal register. That, in fact, was what the famous eleventh-century Cadaster of Thebes actually was (cf. Leonora Alice Neville, "Information, ceremony and power in Byzantine fiscal registers: Varieties of function in the Cadaster of Thebes," Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 25 (2001), 20-43). My use of the almost pleonastic phrase "tax cadaster" is justified by my desire to show that, although no true cadaster is known to existed in medieval Bulgaria, fiscal concerns must have been in place for the "pisets" to be in charge with drawing up lists of population.

Vakareliyska suggests the transliteration of Old Slavonic terms written in the Cyrillic into the Latin alphabet. This may work indeed for a book in which such terms are mentioned only occasionally, but not for one in which they play such a central role as they do in mine. Moreover, it is doubtful that the transliteration would help anyone not familiar with Old Church Slavonic (and therefore with the Cyrillic script) to make any more sense of those terms. Leaving aside complicated matters of the precise rendering of the sounds of Old Church Slavonic by means of Latin characters, a series dedicated to the history and culture of Eastern Europe, including Slavia Orthodoxa, must do justice to the Cyrillic (and Glagolitic) writing in the same way as, for instance, a series dedicated to Byzantine studies needs to use the Greek alphabet or another dedicated to Islam employs Arabic scripts.

Vakareliyska also complains that the readers of my book "are expected to be familiar with the various Bulgarian kings, and the time periods of their reigns." To be sure, medieval Bulgaria had tsars ("emperors"), but not kings. What Vakareliyska requires here is a different book than the one I intended to write. My goal was not an introduction to the basics of Bulgarian medieval history. To add the detail that Vakareliyska desires would have meant doubling the size of a book almost six hundred pages long. Many introductions to the medieval history of Bulgaria have been written in English and may be consulted by interested readers. My book is definitely not one of them.

Vakareliyska's main criticism concerns the etymology of certain terms presented in the glossary. She goes as far as to suggest that "omission of the etymologies would have strengthened the book." Not being a linguist by training, I obviously had to rely on the work of specialists for this particular part of my book, mainly on the seven volumes of the Bulgarian Etymological Dictionary and on Max Vasmer's Etymological Dictionary of the Russian Language. I am not qualified to judge whether an etymology presented in any of those sources is wrong, but I do not know that different linguists favor different etymologies. As etymology in the glossary is a secondary aspect of my research, I have not consulted the work of Meillet--as Vakareliyska believes I should have done--for I was happy with the etymologies offered by the sources I have mentioned. It remains unclear to me what, if anything, would change in my interpretation of the terms in the glossary, if in those cases indicated by Vakareliyska I would have preferred her etymologies, assuming that I knew about them and that they are absolutely correct (as opposed to just different). Etymology, for me, is a research tool which I have adopted from linguists; my interest is not in developing my own interpretation of the linguistic material, but in using the results of linguistic research. The origin of the terms included in the glossary matters a lot for their interpretation. In some cases, etymology is the only way to get to the juridical (including in the sense of "public law") and historical meaning of the term. I therefore do not understand how my book would have been "strengthened" by omitting the etymological aspect. At the same time, my goal was obviously not to offer a comprehensive analysis of the terms from a linguistic point of view. In a number of cases, etymology is actually not that important for the understanding of the term. For the sake of consistency, however, I had to include an etymological section for every term in the glossary, and not just for those, the understanding of which depended upon etymology.

I wish to express my gratitude to Cynthia Vakareliyska for her detailed review. I can only hope that my reply will be taken in the spirit it was written, namely that it is imperiously necessary for specialists in different fields (in this case, law and linguistics) to approach topics of medieval history from their respective points of view. This can only enrich the detail and subtlety of the historical analysis.

Copyright (c) 2012 Ivan Biliarsky

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