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22.06.24 Goina, The Use of Pragmatic Documents in Medieval Wallachia and Moldavia

22.06.24 Goina, The Use of Pragmatic Documents in Medieval Wallachia and Moldavia

Writing a book on pragmatic literacy in late medieval Wallachia and Moldavia is a daring and ambitious enterprise, but a much needed one. The two polities emerged around the mid-fourteenth century, at the intersection of three overlapping circles: the Mongol steppe world, the Slavo-Byzantine Commonwealth, and Latin Europe. From the mid-fifteenth century onwards, Wallachia and Moldavia were integrated, gradually and partially, into the Ottoman Empire. Undeniably, this tumultuous history left its mark on the local graphospheres, which included an impressive variety of languages and scripts. The extant corpus of Wallachian and Moldavian documents up to the end of the sixteenth century comprises thousands of Slavonic charters, hundreds of Latin diplomas, and dozens of vernacular letters (Greek, Hungarian, German, and Romanian). As for the Ottoman documents, one can only guess their exact number, given that only a small fraction of the archival material has been published so far. The intimidating amount and variety of primary sources has discouraged previous scholars from writing an overview of pragmatic literacy in late medieval Wallachia and Moldavia, let alone from putting these two case-studies into a larger comparative framework. Mariana Goina’s scholarly courage and determination to embark on such an ambitious research project should be praised. Unfortunately, the book’s ambitions are overwhelmed by its limitations and the end result is rather frustrating and disappointing.

Goina has a thorough knowledge of the scholarly literature on pragmatic literacy, from Michael Clanchy and Patrick Geary to Anna Adamska and Marco Mostert, which has helped her to structure the book in a logical and appealing way. After an introductory chapter that provides the readers with historical background, the book is divided into two parts: a survey of the sources and an analysis of the use and dissemination of pragmatic documents. The first part deals with archives, chanceries, and scribes, while the second focuses on the juridical, administrative, and social functions of pragmatic literacy. Goina’s overall analysis and specific inquiries are driven by stimulating questions, rarely addressed by Romanian scholars. However, while Goina’s scholarly grasp of late medieval pragmatic literacy is admirable, her knowledge of Moldavian and Wallachian sources and historiography is seriously deficient. The book suffers from three major shortcomings: an inadequately defined corpus of sources; a methodological haziness; and, last but not least, an ignorance of the scholarship.

Most of Goina’s book focuses on the Slavonic charters and Latin letters issued by the princely chanceries of Wallachia and Moldavia. There are some occasional references to the rise of vernaculars in the sixteenth century, but there is no mention whatsoever of Greek and Ottoman literacy. By reading this book one would never guess that throughout the sixteenth century thousands of Ottoman letters were pouring into Wallachia and Moldavia and, presumably, someone took the trouble to read and answer them. As early as 1512, two Wallachian opposing aristocratic factions were able to use Ottoman scribes to reach for the sultan’s court, while in the 1580s a former Wallachian prince in exile was keeping in contact with his protectors by sending them Ottoman written epistles. A Moldavian princess who played a key role in the Wallachian politics in the mid-sixteenth century was praised for her knowledge of Arabic and Turkish. As for the usage of Greek, this was the language of most of the letters written within the inner circle of the Wallachian princely family from the 1570s onwards. A former lord of Wallachia, turned Turk, was asking his Venetian aunt to use Greek when writing him, as he wanted to read the letters by himself. By ignoring Greek and Ottoman literacy, Goina distorts the whole image of the Wallachian graphosphere. Ironically, a more careful reading of a few Slavonic documents that Goina analyses in her book might have helped her to uncover the Ottoman influence on emergent Wallachian pragmatic writing. In her chapter on the documentary culture of the merchant milieu, Goina refers to some Slavonic letters sent by Wallachian princes to the neighbouring Transylvanian Saxon city of Kronstadt (today Brașov). The letters, written around 1500, mention trade receipts confiscated by the Saxons from some Wallachian merchants. Goina aptly concludes that records of transactions were held in high regard and were confiscated in case of a conflict. But although she mentions the receipts eight times over two pages (291-292), not once does she provide the original Slavonic word (if truth be told, the whole book is rather indifferent to source terminology). In this case, the Wallachian scribes used a Slavonic calque of the Turkish hüccet, pointing thus at an early Ottoman influence on the development of pragmatic literacy among local merchants. Obviously, scholars tailor their research subjects according to their own interests and skills, but Goina should have at least warned her readers of these limitations. Unfortunately, the book’s problems extend much further, even to the main corpus of sources used by Goina, the Slavonic charters.

Goina’s knowledge of Moldavian and Wallachian Slavonic documents is based on a selective reading of the editions published by Romanian scholars throughout the last century. She mentions some volumes of the Hurmuzaki series, but ignores others; she uses Iorga’s collection of merchants’ epistles, but not the anthologies of letters sent by princes and boyars; [1] she does not seem familiar with the Urkundenbuch zur Geschichte der Deutschen in Siebenbürgen series or with the numerous publications by Petronel Zahariuc of Wallachian and Moldavian documents preserved in the Athonites archives. [2] In fact, Athos is mentioned only once in the whole book, as, apparently, the close connections between Wallachia, Moldavia and the Athonite monasteries had no impact on local literacy. Some of the book’s statements are groundless, even considering Goina’s own selectively picked bibliography. For instance, she states (28) that only 23 Wallachian and Moldavian letters survived in the urban archives of Hermannstadt (today Sibiu). The figure is based on an assessment given by Ioan Bogdan in 1905, but in the late 1920’s, a considerable new corpus of Wallachian letters was discovered, increasing the number of extant documents fourfold. The 70 documents edited by Silviu Dragomir in 1927 were sent by Wallachian princes and princesses, by high dignitaries, by nobles, clerics, and merchants, and even by a monastery. Although their content is highly relevant for late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Wallachian pragmatic literacy, there is not a single reference to these documents throughout the whole book. [3] Unfortunately, this is only one example of many.

More than once, Goina makes unsubstantiated claims that fail to stand up to further scrutiny. In an attempt to date the beginnings of Wallachian literacy, Goina refers to an interpolation (actually a transumpt) from a 1618 charter of a mid-fourteenth-century document, allegedly recorded on a religious icon (44). What Goina fails to notice is that the 1618 charter was preserved in an eighteenth-century monastic cartulary and that the reference to the earlier document was, quite obviously, a late forgery. A few other examples: the 1368 Wallachian trade privilege for Kronstadt was written not by a Hungarian scribe (69), but by a Saxon-speaking one, as Radu Manolescu convincingly argued a few decades ago; the first extant Wallachian urban letter dates not from the 1520s (99), but from the 1480s; and Petriman was not a nobleman (131), but a well-known Saxon townsman from the Wallachian city of Câmpulung, whose biography has been meticulously reconstructed by Daniel Barbu. [4]

From a methodological point of view, Goina tries to combine a quantitative approach and a qualitative one, but each method has its own set of pitfalls and challenges. For a sound quantitative analysis, one has to take into account all the extant sources, to question the ratio of surviving and lost documents and, not in the least, to count carefully. I am afraid Goina does neither of these. The numerical comparison of Moldavian and Wallachian documents included in the first table of the book is hardly relevant as long as Goina does not consider all the extant charters (she only counts those included in the two most well-known series of edited documents). In addition, the table contains a gross error for the Wallachian extant documents issued between 1551 and 1560, which are not 71, but more than 300. As to the key question of how many Wallachian and Moldavian documents have been lost, Goina is rather vague. On the one hand, she repeatedly states that the scant surviving records might be due to poor storage and that many charters and whole archives had been lost. But on the other hand, she makes no attempt whatsoever to assess this documentary loss. She could have followed the example set by Marius Chelcu and Cătălina Chelcu, who painstakingly gathered all later mentions to lost documents issued during the reigns of Alexander the Good and Stephen the Great, [5] providing a far more comprehensive image of the Moldavian chancery production in the fifteenth century. But, although these studies were published twenty years ago, Goina does not mention them. Or, she could have paid more attention to locally produced documents, of which only some miraculously survived by ending up in an urban or monastic archive (e.g., the answer sent by the Wallachian borderland nobles to Stephen the Great in 1481, quite similar in tone and style to the infamous Zaporozhian Cossacks’ letter to the sultan or the 1530s message sent by a Wallachian boyar to a Romanian speaking village in Transylvania). However, these unique documents are unknown to or ignored by Goina, as she prefers to take well-trodden paths. Most of her case studies are based on charters discussed by previous scholars and a warning should have been placed to caution the reader that this pre-selection was, sometimes, biased. Many examples used by Goina have been inspired by the iconoclast Marxist sociologist Henri H. Stahl, who had a formidable knowledge of late medieval sources. Nevertheless, Stahl viewed charters as merely legal fictions, largely unusable when it came to grasping the social history of Wallachia and Moldavia. Goina should have warned the reader, both of Stahl’s influence on her choice of case-studies and of the sociologist’s own reading of the same sources. [6]

As one might have realized by now, most of the book’s shortcomings could have been prevented by a better acquaintance with the scholarship. Unfortunately, Goina’s knowledge of Romanian historiography is inadequate. There is a long list of scholars that published extensively on the Wallachian and Moldavian late medieval Slavonic and Latin literacy, whose studies are completely ignored: Lucia Djamo-Diaconiță’s book on the language of Wallachian Slavonic charters; Mihaela Paraschiv’s monograph on the Latin Moldavian documents; Matei Cazacu’s synthetic article on the chanceries; Silviu Văcaru’s contributions on the Moldavian scribes; Klára Jakó’s studies on the Hungarian-writing scribes; Dan Mohanu’s analysis of the cultural milieu of chancery scribes. [7] And the list could go on with Aurelian Sacerdoțeanu, Nicolae Grigoraș, Traian Ionescu Nișcov, Emil Vârtosu, Damaschin Mioc, Gheorghe T. Ionescu, Violeta Barbu, Gheorghe Lazăr, Maria Magdalena Székely, Ovidiu Cristea, Radu Păun and many, many others, whose writings on scribes, chanceries, literacy, and letter circulation are completely ignored. Goina seems to make no distinction between H. H. Stahl and his father, H. Stahl, and more than a few names of scholars are misspelled: Giurescu becomes Giurăscu; Hurmuzaki turns into Hurzumachi (dozens of times); Drace-Francis is misspelled Drake. Some of the book’s footnotes are bizarre, to say the least: the role of customary law in Wallachia and Moldavia is justified by a reference to the written culture in the Low Countries (23); while the meaning of a controversial Wallachian diplomatic formula is settled by invoking Michael Clanchy’s authority (186). However, the most disturbing failure of this book is not its deficient knowledge of historiography, but rather its extremely narrow approach to the subject. Throughout the whole book not a word is said about manuscript production and circulation in Wallachia and Moldavia, although, more than once, the same scribes who wrote charters also copied biblical or liturgical manuscripts and compiled chronicles. Not a single reference is made to the Genoese notarial practices documented in the Moldavian cities of Kilia and Cetatea Albă (which are not even included on the sketchy and largely erroneous map placed at the beginning of the volume).

Given all the shortcomings of the book, Goina’s main contention that late-medieval Wallachian and Moldavian written culture was mainly state-driven is hardly convincing. One might safely assume that Romanian reading scholars will largely ignore this book, as it contributes little towards a better understanding of late medieval Wallachia and Moldavia. As for the English reading scholars, they will get an incomplete and misleading view of Wallachian and Moldavian pragmatic literacy. At least they will be able to read a few translated charters (Goina’s translations are reliable) and to see how the actual documents appeared (although the low-resolution printed photos are largely useless, as most charters are now available on-line, at high-resolution scans, at detail the book fails to mention). A half-thought out and less than half-documented book, The Use of Pragmatic Documents in Medieval Wallachia and Moldavia is disappointing, falling significantly below the scholarly standards of the Utrecht studies in medieval literacy series. [8] And yet, this was perhaps my most surprising finding when reading the book: Goina was not served well by Brepols or her reviewers before the publication of this monograph. Many of my critiques here could have been assuaged had the author been made aware of the various studies cited above. This is unfortunate, because the sketchy picture Goina paints of the vivid and multilingual cultural milieu of late medieval Wallachia and Moldavia would have been much the richer.



1. N. Iorga, ed., Scrisori de boieri. Scrisori de domni [Letters sent by Nobles. Letters sent by Princes], 2nd ed. (Vălenii de Munte: Datina Românească, 1925).

2. Petronel Zahariuc co-edited three volumes comprising Wallachian and Moldavian documents preserved in the Athonite monasteries of Xeropotamou (Iași, 2005), Xenophontos (2010), and Simonopetra (Iași, 2016). He also edited a number of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Wallachian and Moldavian documents in several studies published in well-known Romanian historical journals (Studii și Materiale de Istorie Medie in 2008 and 2010; Revista Istorică in 2011; Analele Putnei in 2008; Anuarul Institutului de Istorie “A.D. Xenopol” in 2010).

3. Nonetheless, Dragomir’s edition is listed in the final bibliography of the book; Silviu Dragomir, Documente nouă privitoare la relațiile Țării Românești cu Sibiul în secolele XV și XVI [New Documents on the Relations between Wallachia and Hermannstadt during the 15th and the 16th centuries], Anuarul Institutului de Istorie Națională din Cluj IV (1926-1927): 3-80

4. Daniel Barbu, Formarea elitelor din Tara Româneasca în secolul XV. Un studiu de caz: Peterman din Câmpulung [The Making of the Wallachian Elites in the 15th Century. A Case-study: Peterman from Câmpulung], Arhiva genealogică 2.3-4 (1995): 5-9.

5. Marius Chelcu, Menţiuni documentare privitoare la acte emise de cancelaria lui Alexandru cel Bun [Late References to Lost Documents Issued by Alexander the Great’s Chancery], in In honorem Ioan Caproşu, ed. Lucian Leuştean et al. (Iaşi, 2002), 110-130; Marius Chelcu and Cătălina Chelcu, ‘Din uric de la bătrânul Ştefan voievod’. Întregiri documentare [‘From a Charter Issued by the Elder Stephen Voevod’. Addimenta], in Ştefan cel Mare la cinci secole de la moartea sa, ed. Petronel Zahariuc and Silviu Văcaru (Iaşi: Editura Alfa, 2003), 107-161.

6. For Henri H. Stahl’s challenge of the historical interpretations of medieval Wallachian and Moldavian charters see Controverse de istorie socială românească [Controversies of Romanian Social History] (București: Editura Științifică, 1969), 5-61.

7. Lucia Djamo-Diaconiță, Limba documentelor slavo-române emise în Țara Românească în secolele XIV și XV [The Language of the Slavonic Documents Issued in Wallachia throughout the 14th and the 15th centuries] (București: Editura Academiei, 1981); Mihaela Paraschiv, Documentele latine de cancelarie din Moldova (sec. XIV-XVIII) [The Moldavian Latin Chancery Documents (14th-18th c.)] (Iași: Junimea, 2004); Matei Cazacu, La Chancellerie des principautés valaque et moldave (XIVe-XVIIIe siècles), in Kanzleiwesen und Kanzleisprachen im östlichen Europa, ed. Christian Hannick (Köln, Böhlau, 1999), 87-127; Silviu Văcaru, Diecii Țării Moldovei în prima jumătate a secolului al XVII-lea [Scribes in Moldavia in the first half of the 17th c.] (Iași, Junimea, 2006); Silviu Văcaru, Scribi în cancelaria domnească a lui Ștefan cel Mare [The Scribes in the Princely Chancery during Stephan the Great’s reign], Limba română 14.4-6 (2004): 90-100; Klára Jakó, “Aspects of the Hungarian Correspondence of Wallachian and Moldavian Voivodes in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century,” Colloquia XVII (2011): 196-211; Klára Jakó, Mihály vajda magyar secretariusairól [About the Hungarian Scribes of Voievod Mihai of Wallachia], Erdélyi Múzeum 77.1 (2015): 113-127; Dan Mohanu, Calea grămăticilor de la Argeș [The Scribes’ Path in Argeș], in Izvoare istorice, artă, cultură și societate. În memoria lui Constantin Bălan (1928-2005), ed. Constantin Rezachevici (București: Editura Speteanu, 2010), 45-91.

8. A few years ago, in a book published by the same Brepols series, Geoffrey Koziol, The Politics of Memory and Identity in Carolingian Royal Diplomas. The West Frankish Kingdom (840-987) (Turnhout, Brepols, 2012), 17, suggests thinking of medieval charters as the bones of history. Taking over this metaphor, one might say that Mariana Goina’s book is a feeble reconstruction, unable to stand on its own feet.