14.04.13, Rakova, The Fourth Crusade

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Denis Crnković

The Medieval Review 14.04.13

Rakova, Snezhana. Peter Skipp, trans.. The Fourth Crusade in the Historical Memory of the Eastern Orthodox Slavs. Sofia: Tendril Publishing House, 2013. Pp. vii, 292. ISBN: 9789549280944.

Reviewed by:
Denis Crnković
Gustavus Adolphus College

This work presents a valuable insight into how the Eastern Orthodox Slavs--Russians, Bulgarians and Serbs--viewed the political, social, and ecclesiastical impact that the Fourth Crusade had in their respective lands. The Introduction and first four chapters of this volume analyze the medieval Orthodox Slavic texts that describe, mention and react to, or ignore, the events during and following the sack of Constantinople in 1204. The appendices reproduce a selection of the primary sources in both Church Slavonic and Latin with English translations. A thorough bibliography and index follow.

The author presents the compelling thesis that the southern and eastern Slavs, although culturally and ecclesiastically subservient to Constantinople, were not totally aware of the widespread impact of the events surrounding the establishment of the Latin Empire of Constantinople (1204-1261) and that any sense of importance that these events might have had in the Orthodox Slavic lands waned with the growing self-awareness of their own history over the centuries.

For her research corpus Rakova chooses a wide variety of medieval texts that help trace the Slavs' burgeoning awareness of what she calls "the emergence of a historical memory of the Fourth Crusade in the literary traditions of the Orthodox Slavs" (30). This broad approach to selecting textual sources stands in contrast to the conclusion of some historians who have assumed the existence of now lost primary sources on which later medieval writers relied for information and interpretation. However, by choosing a wider array of source material than previous scholars, Rakova accesses a more complete and more realistic set of textual witnesses, allowing her to successfully trace her main argument over a broad spectrum of literary types and time.

Rakova organizes her discussion by literary types: memoirs, letters, the various Lives of south Slavic rulers and saints, historical-apocalyptic works, chronicles (letopisi), and chronographs. By relying on genres not always associated with the direct study of history, the author undertakes a wide-ranging assessment of the transmission of texts, their contents, and their themes and sets a challenging method for herself. She acknowledges that her approach poses not a few difficulties "...arising from the broad chronological scope of the sources and [the] literary, linguistic and textual complexities" of the project (5). For the most part, the author meets these challenges with impressive skill and erudition.

The time frame of Rakova's sources spans nearly five hundred years from the turn of the thirteenth century to the end of the seventeenth century. The author scrutinizes texts contemporary to the events of the Fourth Crusade and the Latin Empire, a considerable number of fourteenth century texts from the then flourishing Bulgarian literary culture, texts of the sixteenth century that were disseminated throughout Orthodox Slavdom and a few chronicle texts of later vintage. After a brief discussion of terminology and a short review of contemporary Western works on the fall of Constantinople, Rakova begins her examination with those Orthodox Slavic texts that describe events and conditions in early thirteenth-century Constantinople. Chief among these are two Russian memoirs, the anonymous Account of the Capture of Constantinople by the Franks, and the Kozhdenye [Pilgrimage] of Dobrinya Yakovlevich to Constantinople. The former is an eyewitness account of the events that provides both corroborating and unique information on the siege and sack of 1204. The latter text pre-dates the sack of the capital but contains valuable information, Rakova rightly asserts, about the city and its treasures immediately before the Crusader incursion. The author observes quite tellingly that the two most detailed Slavic accounts grant primary importance to describing the ecclesiastical riches of Constantinople and their ruin and only secondary importance to the capture of the city itself. Indeed, she shows that other direct accounts of contemporary events by Orthodox Slavic authors reveal little historical knowledge, political and doctrinal issues taking precedence over historical accuracy. Finding that these texts shed little light on her topic, the author looks into other genres, chief among them South Slavic hagiographies and Lives of rulers.

In her quest to identify what and how written information on the Fourth Crusade was preserved by the Orthodox Slavs, Rakova relies heavily on an analysis of the Lives of Serbian and Bulgarian rulers and saints. These works, she asserts, though "laconic" on the events of 1204, are closely associated with thirteenth-century "nation building" and allow the historian to "trace the process of transformation in the representation of the Latin Empire between the thirteenth and fifteenth century" (64). She finds it significant that, as the Lives are revised in the thirteenth century, the South Slavs, closest to the events and even directly involved in the Eastern Mediterranean wars of the thirteenth century, consciously rethink "each of the instances where the Latin empire would have had to appear as an actor" (80), and downplay or even remove them. Thus, she concludes, the hagiographical themes of the various Lives take precedence over historical detail, allowing the scribes to revise the texts by removing events that were no longer "important" or that might have granted too great a sense of importance to the reign of the Latins in the East. In Rakova's estimation, the Serbian biographers in particular refused de facto to recognize the Latin Empire, a practice that is often evident by conspicuous omission of any mention of the Latins in their works. These texts, then, are as valuable for what they omit as they are for what they include. While basing conclusions on omissions can lead at times to rather speculative assertions on the author's part, Rakova shows well enough how the scribes' conscious choices of what information to exclude often reflect their Orthodox Slavic ideologies.

Rakova also examines, albeit in a minor way, the texts of medieval Slavic prophecies and apocalyptic texts to underscore her conclusion that the Latins (known mainly as "Franks" in the Slavic texts) are presented minimally and/or in a negative light. More extensive are her analyses of the strictly "historical" accounts presented in chronicles (the Slavic letopisi) and chronographs. While acknowledging that the Bulgarians and other Orthodox Slavs might or might not have been cognizant of "history in the full sense of the term" (115), she nonetheless affirms that the Orthodox Slavs did possess an "outline of history" (115) in the form of chronicles and chronographs. Thus she uses these texts to support her assertion that later historical events in the eastern Mediterranean had a much greater impact on the Orthodox Slavic historical imagination than the events of the thirteenth century. She further argues that this is the result of a growing adoption in the Orthodox Slavic lands of a sense of "history" and how to understand their own history apart from the history of the patriarchy at Constantinople. As the Orthodox Slavs developed a more sophisticated approach to historical analysis in the later middle ages their perception of the "minor" events of the thirteenth century was overshadowed by the fall of Constantinople to Mehmet II in 1453.

Rakova concludes that the paucity of direct information in the Orthodox Slavic literary corpus of the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries shows that Balkan and Russian Slavs were generally "not aware of the precise nature of the events at Constantinople in 1204 and their aftermath" (161), most likely because the eastern Latin kingdom was temporally and geographically limited and there was a continuous "Greek" imperium at Nicaea to which the Orthodox Slavs could appeal. She also rightly concludes that this lack of a textual tradition is in and of itself an important feature of the Orthodox Slavic attitude toward the Latin incursions into the Christian East. Indeed the Orthodox Slavs saw the year 1204 as peripheral to their own relationship with both Eastern and Western rulers, as they strove to consolidate or maintain their own power. Thus, downplaying, ignoring or incorrectly recounting the historical facts of the Fourth Crusade and its aftermath led them later to misunderstand events. As a consequence, the fall of Constantinople and the establishment of the Latin Empire reveals to how great an extent the Orthodox Slavs saw their history as tied to Byzantium. Since the Latin empire lasted only until 1261, the larger picture reflected in the Orthodox Slavic texts shows the Latin Empire as no more than a minor event in Byzantine and Slavic Orthodox history.

Rakova's nicely reasoned conclusions are well organized, well presented and well served by Peter Skipp's translation of the main, expository text from the modern Bulgarian. In addition, the translations of the primary texts (from the Church Slavonic and Latin) as found in appendices are invaluable sources for those wishing to have a more complete picture of the topic although they present a few minor difficulties. Except for the English text of The Anonymous Russian Account of the Capture of Constantinople by the Franks in Appendix I the English translations are not directly credited so that one can only assume that they have been provided by the main translator. That being said, the quality of the translations is generally good and accurate, although the overuse of the English periphrastic do is particularly awkward at times, especially since it is often unnecessarily repeated. For example, one reads in the addendum to the Narrative on the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople, "They set fire on four sides and did burn the city...And did the narthex of Hagia Sophia burn, where the patriarchs were recorded, and from the Hippodrome to the sea, and to the court-house by the city gaol did [the city] burn" (34). Here, the auxiliary "do"--used, it appears, to translate the Church Slavonic aorist forms--coupled with the ungainly word order is stiff and would be better rendered with the English simple past tense. This apparent attempt to give an archaic flavor to the text is unnecessary in its frequency: although the "do" periphrasis was a growing feature of early modern English, its use here and unfortunately in many places throughout the book is unsuccessful. These drawbacks in the English style, however, do not undermine the basic value of having these texts available in English. There are regrettably a fair number of typographical errors in the expository section of the work as well as in the texts and translations; while they are a distraction, they are not so intrusive as to detract from the overall value of this volume. Otherwise, the volume contains a very complete bibliography that will be of use to anyone wishing to research the topic further and a thorough index of authors and sources. The book is hard bound and sewn in signatures and although the quality of the paper is middling, the book should be durable.

Dr. Rakova has produced a praiseworthy book on the attitudes of the Orthodox Slavs toward the Fourth Crusade. Setting her investigation within the broader supranational framework of Orthodox Slavdom enables her to see the larger picture both geographically and temporally and gives credence to her conclusion that the Orthodox Slavs as a cultural entity developed a mutual sense of history over the middle ages. This in turn helps support her arguments on the importance of the individual genres and texts she brings into evidence. Moreover, she makes skillful use of her expertise in working with the primary texts and masterfully commands an impressive collection of Eastern and Western secondary sources in supporting her ideas. One of the great values of this volume is the insight it gives into non-Western views of the impact that the upheavals of the Fourth Crusade generated among the Orthodox Slavs, underscoring the value of these Slavic resources to a scholarly audience that is often little aware of the high level of cultural achievement attained by the Orthodox Slavs in the middle ages. It will be of value to any scholar, Western or Eastern, whose interests touch on the Crusades and on the political, social, cultural and ecclesiastical history of the Byzantine and Slavic worlds.

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Author Biography

Denis Crnković

Gustavus Adolphus College