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21.04.05 Dzino et al., Migration, Integration and Connectivity on the Southeastern Frontier of the Carolingian Empire

The Medieval Review

21.04.05 Dzino et al., Migration, Integration and Connectivity on the Southeastern Frontier of the Carolingian Empire


At first glance, one word in the title of this collection of articles is almost conspicuous by its absence. In highlighting "migration", "integration", and "connectivity", the editors have managed to avoid that perennial hot topic, "identity". This is a good thing, as it makes clear that the contributors to this volume are aware that the southeastern frontier of the Carolingian Empire cannot and should not be reduced to a number of easily identifiable characteristics. Instead, they focus their efforts on trying to comprehend the dynamics in the region, and how observers (contemporary authors and modern historians/ archaeologists alike) attempted to come to terms with the many options they had to identify the people living there. In doing so, the authors explain how studying the Adriatic (Istria, Dalmatia, Pannonia, etc.) is never easy, and should involve taking into account both the described past and the perceived history of the region. The result is a book that serves as a stimulating introduction to a complicated part of European history, while simultaneously showing that the past, while being "a foreign country", can never be truly called "distant" as long as there are people passionate enough to make it part of their identity.

That this interest in the region's past persists is clear from the fact that the articles in this book are framed by comments--explicitly at the beginning and the end, implicitly throughout--on the impact and legacy of the exhibition Croats and Carolingians, organized in Split in 2000-2001. This exhibition, was both heralded as a "prevalent new historiographic paradigm" and seen as "just an example of applied ideology", as pointed out by Trpimir Vedriš in the conclusion to the volume. Ironically, both interpretations stem from the direction it took, tying Dalmatia and the Adriatic arc closer to the Carolingian west than was hitherto presumed. As Danijel Dzino explains in his introduction, the "Croatian return to Europe" symbolised by the exhibition stood in the shadow of the turbulent last decade of the twentieth century, during which the manifold identities in former Yugoslavia were forcibly reinvented. The question was also informed by the complicated reception of a 1977 paper by Lujo Margetić, in which he proposed that the origins of the Croats as explained in the tenth-century Byzantine treatise De Administrando Imperio should be re-interpreted and placed much later than local academic tradition assumed. That paper kickstarted a still-ongoing (and at times familiar) debate about the nature and the scale of post-Roman migrations and the role these played in the establishment of ethnic, national, social or political communities.

The papers gathered in this volume take stock of this debate. It is, in the words of Vedriš, a meeting of researchers with three distinct outlooks: "the original Croats and Carolingians-crew" (or "Croatian baby boomer scholars"), those for whom this exhibit marked the start of their career, and a group of "international scholars...incorporating the results of the [exhibition] into wider early medieval perspectives" (287-288). Their contributions are bookended by an admirably self-aware introduction (Dzino, Milošević and Vedriš) and conclusion (Vedriš), explaining why an understanding of the recent history of the region and its relation to "Europe" is needed in order to understand the historiography about the early medieval history of the region (and, indeed, its relation to "Europe"). While not every contribution shares this self-awareness, the book, thanks to this framing, becomes more than a mere collection of data points. Under the surface of the volume simmers a historiographical meta-narrative that needs to be brought to the surface for anyone to whom this book presents an introduction to the study of the early medieval Adriatic. The treatment of this historiographical bagage serves as an example--or even a cautionary tale--for researchers working on other regions.

The book is organised thematically. Part one deals with the "Historiography" of the region; parts two to four with the other three elements in the title: "Migrations", "Integration" and "Networks". "Historiography" (17-39) starts with a solo article by Danijel Dzino, in which he self-confidently explains how this book is a culmination of two decades of scholarship following the aforementioned exhibition, and announces the volume as an English-language introduction to this new school of regional studies. This is followed by a chapter by Neven Budak who sheds light on the study of the Carolingians in the region since 1991, arguing that it is less fruitful to search for a "Carolingian Renaissance" in the region than it is to trace evidence of influences from both empires to the east and west of Dalmatia. Between his and Dzino's article, the reader is immediately aware of the complexities that stirred social and intellectual developments in the region--complexities that should not be reduced to singular models.

"Migrations" (43-99) treats this point in greater detail. It starts with a polemical article by Mladen Ančić, a veteran of the inciting exhibition, in which he criticises the points-of-view of international scholars like Patrick Geary, Walter Pohl, and Francesco Borri--the latter of whom draws his particular ire. He raises some valid points, not the least of which is to draw attention to the discrepancies between "local knowledge" and "outsiders' perspectives" when it comes to reconstructing what happened on the basis of what was written. Unfortunately, however, his argument, about the scale and nature of the migrations that made Croatia what it was, is undercut and muddied by the vitriolic (by academic standards) rhetoric and his ambiguous stance vis à vis concerns over the nationalist discourse in the region in the present day. In so doing he strengthens the case he makes for more international communication about such issues--but one wonders if he realises that this implies heeding the interpretations of others and taking into account the way history is being (re)written in the 21st century.

The remaining articles in this part are less confrontational but no less thought-provoking. Ante Milošević offers a fresh look at regional archaeological data. Specifically, he raises the question if the "Germanic" swords found in Northern Dalmatia should be seen as a sign of integration into the world to the North and West, or if they point towards trade networks and a desire by the elites to import or borrow the outward markers of their status. The chapter by Goran Bilogrivić, also on Carolingian weapons, continues this line of reasoning. He conjures up the image of a world in which goods moved more easily than people, concluding that materials from the Migration Period might provide a "key element" in the "formation of early medieval Croat identity", but that these objects also "had hardly anything to do with the presumed migration of the Croats" (99).

The contributors to the next part, "Integration," use this observation to treat identity in the region not as a product of migration but of a frontier mentality. Peter Štih looks at the question of integration in its broadest sense, and posits that this was a mutual process in which the Carolingin rulers had to ingratiate themselves into local politics by giving the existing elites a voice within the empire. This process was simultaneously hastened and hampered by parallel developments, such as Christianisation (a "prerequisite" for, not a consequence of integration) or the persistence of Roman traditions. He presents a nuanced view of this frontier while still leaving open the question what the role played by monasticism was in all this. Additional insights to his findings are provided by Miljenko Jurković and Krešimir Filipec, who look at the material record in Istria and Pannonia respectively, in order to gauge the impact of the Carolingians in those regions. Jurković, who bases his arguments mainly on church architecture, posits that building projects were definitely part of Carolingian attempts to integrate the region, also by connecting the newly conquered areas to the bishopric of Aquileia: a positive interpretation of the imperialisation of the Adriatic arc, which nonetheless conjures up images of colonialisation as we are left to ponder who would eventually have to pick up the bill for these imposing yet imposed building programmes. Filipic cautiously comes to similar conclusions for Lower Pannonia, where a demographic collapse after the Frankish-Avar war facilitated integration while also, once again, showing that Carolingian influence was not always unequivocally positive. Between them, Jurković and Filipec (as well as the other archaeologists) highlight the many gaps in our knowledge, which goes to show that closer collaboration between archaeology and history might not solve everything, but definitely would change our perspective on things. Finishing the theme of "integration", Ivan Basić's analyses of the remarks made by Gottschalk of Orbais on the theme of imperium and regnum in his description of his sojourn in Dalmatia: an interesting insight into the way people at the time made sense of the relations between centre and periphery. In a careful comparative reading of the sources, he concludes that Gottschalk's statements reflect lingering Byzantine institutional rhetoric he encountered, not local speech patterns that indicated how people felt about their Carolingian neighbours. It is, in short, an interesting reminder that Dalmatia was more than a Carolingian frontier--it was also the border of the Byzantine Empire, and a link between these two powers. People at the time realised this was not an either/or question.

This becomes the cornerstone of the final part, on "Networks" (213-286). The chapter by Marko Petrak links up to Basić's observations. In a complex argument that requires a thorough grounding in the material, he, too, sees an amalgamation of local, Carolingian and Byzantine customs in his tracing of the Slavonic reception of various legal traditions through the depictions and availability of the Liber Methodius. Nikola Jakšić then takes over and re-assesses the evidence for something that was long thought to be a proof of Byzantine influence in Dalmatia: the patron saints of Zadar, who are usually thought to have arrived on the island from Constantinople. Jakšić, however, convincingly argues that the cults of Anastasia and Chrysogonus might have Byzantine roots, but arrived in Zadar following their appropriation by the Carolingians in Northern Italy. The consequences of this realignment should not be underestimated, as they add a layer of complexity to the idea of a frontier region: not the site of a clash of larger powers and subsequent melding together of their influences, but also a place where the complex way in which empires influenced each other becomes visible. The final two articles add to this complexity. Florin Curta, first, compares the practice of child burial in England, Bulgaria and Croatia, concluding that here, the evidence shows that Christianization acted as the main integrating factor--which implies a turn towards the West once more. Richard Hodges, in an article that is bound to raise some eyebrows, starts from the maxim by Colin Renfrew that "trade cannot be assumed; it has to be proved", and uses that observation to question the assumption that the monastery of San Vincenzo al Volturno was a central point in a large Mediterranean trading network. Instead, he argues, we should take the lack of trade goods as seriously as did Pirenne and Braudel, and the monastery should be seen as a communications and diplomatic hub. To Hodges, the Mediterranean does not need to be analysed in terms of trade alone. While his argumentation in this single chapter seems to lack some necessary nuance, the other chapters in this book back his argument that focusing on a single issue inadvertently leads to an all-too-limited view of the world in all its complex glory.

While each article thus has strengths and weaknesses, some overall points may be raised, which would have made this book an even more engaging addition to a field that is indeed in need of internationalization and diversification. First and most obviously, one cannot help but notice that all the authors are men. This probably is more of a reflection on the field than the preferences of the editors, but it is unfortunate nonetheless. This reviewer hopes that the book may help solve this issue by attracting the attention of a more diverse group of scholars. Its at times deliberately polemical nature may actually help here, as it open up vistas onto larger debates, for instance on post-colonial approaches to history. On that note, one subtle issue with many chapters is the distinction drawn between a dynastic presence--the Carolingians--on the one hand, and ethnic identities--Croats, Bulgars, etc.--on the other. This highlights how powerful the Carolingian penchant for self-promotion still is, as it creates a false dichotomy between those in power (a family) and the ethnicised groups being researched, which could have been treated more carefully. The question to what extent "Frankish" (or, for that matter, Byzantine) influences reflect conquest, integration, colonialisation, or acceptance is implied throughout, but hardly ever made explicit. More critical engagement with the question exactly how "Carolingian" the empire really would have undoubtedly strengthened some of the points made about the Carolingian nature of this particular frontier zone. This becomes even more salient when looking at the way the "reforms" are treated--some authors heavily imply that supposedly Carolingian influences should be seen as local initiatives instead, but overall the chapters still work within the paradigm of the Carolingian Reforms as an all-encompassing top-down process. This is a shame, as the material points towards a more subtle treatment of this question, and it is increasingly clear that these reforms are a product of modern historiography as well. Finally, it should be noted that, while the historiographical framing and self-awareness in this book is excellent, it could do with a bit more general, historical contextualisation so as to make the stated goal of opening up Dalmatian studies to a wider audience even more attainable. Not just a general, encyclopedic overview of the history of the region in the Carolingian Era would help, but especially also more explicit engagement with the history of South-Eastern Europe in the second half of the 20th century. This would ensure that the many historiographical arguments could be picked up by those for whom this book serves as an introduction to the material.

When all is said and done, after all, this volume makes readers want to study the region in greater detail. Reading these articles will probably help instill a sense of self-confidence in the readers to tackle the available sources anew, or even attempt a comparative venture, for instance by measuring these conclusions against observations about identity formation in other frontier zones like Frisia, Catalonia, or Bretagne: also regions primarily described by enemies and overlords, but interpreted by "insiders". This may be the biggest achievement of this book: it shows that the "Southeastern Frontier of the Carolingian Empire" should be seen not as an Other, but as an equal.