István Vásáry's "Cumans and Tatars" - a reviewer's polemical dialogue with the author

The following three texts have been recently published in The Medieval Review (link here). The first one is Florin Curta's review of István Vásáry 's book; the second is István Vásáry's response; and the last is Florin Curta's response. The owners of this site would like to thank again Mrs. Deborah Deliyannis, Executive Editor of The Medieval Review, for her kind answer and for the permission to republish these texts.

 

Florin Curta

Review of Cumans and Tatars: Oriental Military in the Pre-Ottoman Balkans, 1185-1365, Vasary, Istvan, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005

Ann Arbor: University of Michigan University Library, Scholarly Publishing Office, The Medieval Review, 2006

link here for TMR page

Although several interesting books have emerged in recent years on the medieval history of the Balkans, far less has been written on the relations between the Balkan region and the lands north of the Lower Danube and the Black Sea, the westernmost segment of the steppe corridor from central Asia to Southeastern Europe. Istvan Vasary's book is thus a welcome addition to the study of this crucial yet much overlooked region of medieval Europe. The author, who earned his spurs in his pioneering research on pre-Mongol Inner Asia, pointedly sets out to teach established authorities on the history of Byzantium and medieval Southeastern Europe a trick or two by publishing a fully elaborated version of his views on the role of Cumans and Mongols in Balkan history that he presented in a more rudimentary form in an article for Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae in 2004.[1] He asks why Cumans, divided as they were into various clans and polities without any paramount chieftain, commanded as much respect as hey did and why they did not build any stable polity in the erritories they came to control on both sides of the Danube river. Why were Cumans hired by virtually all armies engaged in military confrontations in the Balkan region and how can one explain the military success of the Cumans? Vasary's questions have been asked before.[2] His answers, despite his preference for couching them in elaborate discussions of political and military history, do not differ significantly from earlier ones: the Cumans were nomads whose daily life involved being in a permanent state of warfare. "The nomadic light cavalry was practically invincible in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries" (p. 55). But the Cumans had no political goals, their primary and most important purpose for participating in so many military campaigns was plunder. This is why, although constantly employed by most Balkan states, the Cumans were never a real threat to any one of them. Yet, the Cumans "were the founders of three successive Bulgarian dynasties (the Asenids, the Terterids, and the Sismanids) and of the Wallachian dynasty (the Basarabids)" (p. 166). Moreover, the infiltration and rise to power of the Cuman elites in the Balkan countries took place in the political circumstances created by the expansion of the Golden Horde after 1241 and the imposition of its control over the northern and northeastern area of the Balkans. Vasary's intention in telling this story is to shed a new light on the subsequent Ottoman conquest of the Balkans: "the Ottoman conquest was not an accidental and uniquely tragic event in the Balkans." Instead, Cumans and the "Tatars" prepared the path for the Ottoman progress: "the northern nomadic warriors and old conquerors of the Balkans were passing the baton to the new, ambitious, nomadic warriors coming from the south" (p. 132).
Vasary divides his study into eight chapters following an introduction. Chapter 2, "Cumans and the Second Bulgarian Empire" (pp. 13-56) looks at the political and military involvement in the revolt of Peter and Asen (1185) and the subsequent events that led to the rise of the Second Bulgarian Empire as a major power in Southeastern Europe. Chapter 3, "Cumans in the Balkans before the Mongol invasion of 1241" (pp. 57-68) continues the investigation of the Cuman involvement in Bulgaria and Byzantium to the middle of the thirteenth century. Chapter 4, "The first period of Tatar influence in the Balkans (1242-1282)" (pp. 69-85) and chapter 5, "The heyday of Tatar influence in the Balkans" (pp. 86-98) constitute the best part of this book, in which Vasary analyzes the rise of the Golden Horde and the expansion of its power into the Balkans under Nogay. In chapter 6, "Cumans and Tatars on the Serbian scene" (pp. 99-113), the author presents ten vignettes on the participation of Cuman and Mongol troops in the military and political events of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century. Chapter 7, "Cumans in Byzantine service after the Tatar conquest, 1242-1333" (pp. 114-121), and chapter 8, "The Tatars fade away from Bulgaria and Byzantium, 1320-1354" (pp.122-133) take the story to the middle of the fourteenth century. The final chapter, "The emergence of two Romanian principalities in Cumania, 1330, 1364" (pp. 134-165), looks at the rise of Walachia and Moldavia and the involvement of both Cumans and Mongols in those events. The book closes with a conclusion of just two pages (pp. 166-167), followed by two appendices, one of geographical names, the other of maps
The merit of this book hinges on the validity of Vasary's claim "to trace the historical fate [of the Cumans and of the Mongols] in the Balkans, the westernmost stage of their wanderings" and to deliver a comprehensive lesson on a neglected topic based on all available sources, not on secondary literature. However, this turns out to be much more a survey of historiography than an in-depth analysis announced in the title, since it leaves out a considerable amount of information produced by recent archaeological excavations in Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine. Moreover, closer scrutiny of what this book truly does left this reader with a strong impression that the "extensive examination" promised by the book's dustjacket is actually a cavalier treatment of an otherwise very important topic. In under 200 pages, Vasary gives the reader a taste of many things--the politics of the Asenid dynasty of the Second Bulgarian Empire, the rise of Nogay within the western lands of the Golden Horde, the involvement of Cuman and Mongol troops in military events in Serbia and Byzantium, the beginnings of the medieval Romanian states--but no single overarching framework to tie them all together.
What is new in the present book is the linkage between segments of history that have so far been commonly treated separately: the steppe lands north of the Lower Danube and the Black Sea; the Kingdom of Hungary; the Second Bulgarian Empire; Serbia; and the Romanian principalities. A second important contribution is the discussion of Nogay and his successors, to date the best survey available in English of thirteenth- and early fourteenth-century developments in the westernmost lands of the Golden Horde. Vasary insists upon the importance of the Danube Delta and of Dobrudja for understanding Mongol policies around 1300. He reaches the same conclusion suggested nearly fifteen years earlier by Virgil Ciocaltan and Serban Papacostea: that it was the ascension of the maritime and commercial power of the Genoa in the Black Sea area following the Treaty of Nymphaion (1261) that caused the re-orientation of Golden Horde policies towards the sea and the trade routes opening in its ports now visited by Genoese merchants. Moreover, it was the economic re-orientation of the Golden Horde that created not only the conditions for a gradual withdrawal of Mongol forces from the Lower Danube region, but also the circumstances for the rise of the Romanian principalities. [3]
Regrettably, Vasary's omission of relevant previous scholarship is not limited to a unique occurrence. Some of the many oversights include Andras Paloczi-Horvath and Svetlana A. Pletneva for the Cumans, Robert Lee Wolff and Nicolae Serban Tanasoca for the Second Bulgarian Empire, and Thomas T. Allsen for the Mongols. [4] Vasary has apparently not encountered the studies of Alan Harvey on the Byzantine economy and has no knowledge of the most impressive Dumbarton Oaks Economic History of Byzantium. He still believes, together with Ostrogorski, that the "Byzantine manufacture underwent serious decay [in the 1100s], and Byzantium's economic power decreased in every respect" (p. 13). His use of such slogans as the "economic exploitation of the peasantry" and "feudal anarchy" raging in late thirteenth-century Bulgaria indicate residual Marxism, if anything (p. 80). At several points in his book,Vasary insists that "the Vlakhs, as is well known, were Romanised shepherds of the Balkans," although very little, if any, contemporary evidence exists for pastoralist Vlachs. In fact, it is not true that the word Vlach initially designated a "Balkanic shepherd" (pp. 19-20). Transhumant pastoralism was indeed an economic strategy associated with mountains, and old preconceptions about "primitive" or "backward" mountain communities of shepherds may be responsible for the Ottoman-era shift in the meaning of the word "Vlach" from an ethnic label to social designation ("shepherd"). Clearly, Vasary has a very shaky grasp of the abundant literature on transhumance in the Balkans and his book only perpetuates ethnic stereotypes of the worst kind. This may well be because of Vasary's inability to read Romanian, which prevented his access to some important studies. In the bibliography, most articles or chapters by Romanian authors (Ion Minea, Alexandru Sacerdoteanu, E. C. Lazarescu, etc.) are, unlike all others, listed not with complete pages but with "f." or "ff.," a detail that does not inspire confidence. Together with several factual errors mentioned below, this detail leads one to believe that the author did not consult these works directly, but simply cited them from other works. Some sources, especially Niketas Choniates, are paraphrased at lengths of a page or more at a time, even though the author warns that Choniates' account "may be regarded as naïve or one-sided" (p. 15). Vasary apparently ignores the existence of H. J. Magoulias's translation of Choniates (Detroit, 1984) and instead uses a rather outdated German translation by Franz Grabler (Vienna/Cologne, 1958).
The book is also plagued by what strikes me as somewhat incoherent politics. On one hand, Vasary's purpose is to show that by 1200 the Cumans had already become a familiar presencein the Balkans. Strong connections between the Assenid rulers and Cuman chieftains, illustrated by several matrimonial alliances, suggest that the Cumans in question were not too far from the northern frontiers of the Second Bulgarian Empire. In fact, Vasary persuasively argues that Cumania mentioned in contemporary sources was in present-day Romania. However, at the same time and as if to mark a sharp distinction between the West and the East, Vasary's book is about "Oriental military." His Tatars are "oriental conquerors" (p. 146). Vasary's emphasis on the "Oriental military" is misplaced, as he is forced to acknowledge at several points in this book that the Cumans and Tatars involved in Balkan affairs came from the neighboring steppe north of the Lower Danube and the Black Sea, not from the "Orient." The stone statue represented on the dustjacket, which supposedly is the figure of a Cuman, is in fact from Crimea, not from Inner Asia. Be that as it may, the present reader is still puzzled by this particular choice of cover image, since the book deals with the Balkans, not with the steppe lands. Orientalism aside, Vasary places the onus of alterity not on Cumans or Tatars, but on the Balkans themselves. In his two-page conclusion to the book, he pontificates: "The Balkans have yet to find the key and meaning of their historical existence and to decide whether they want to belong to the mainstream of European development or to insist on their Byzantine and Ottoman autocratic traditions" (p.167). Elsewhere, Vasary compares King Louis I of Hungary to Bogdan of Moldavia: "Louis was the greatest king of the region in his age, worthily called Great by posterity, whereas Bogdan was a provincial Romanian chief of Maramoros... He may be a Romanian national hero, but the two persons are not of the same stature" (p. 160). To this reader, Vasary's is a bizarre form of Orientalism: his Other is the Bulgarian, the Romanian, or the Serb, all of whom are depicted as eagerly waiting for the civilizing light coming from Hungary.
Many of Vasary's positions are demonstrably erroneous. The "constant Cuman incursions" did not leave southern Transylvania "totally deserted" (p. 32 with n. 76) and Kaloyan never "tried to unite the Byzantine Empire with the Bulgarian" (p. 54). Basarab, the first ruler of independent Walachia, was not Cuman only because his name was of Cuman origin. The brodniki were not "semi-nomadic Slavic elements," but most likely a group of Iranian origin,[6] while the border between Moldavia and Walachia was on the Milcov, not on the Buzau river (p.134). The Roman province of Dacia was abandoned in 271, not 257; Vicina is not in Isaccea; the eagle in the coat of arms of Walachia has nothing "totemistic"; and finally the "Basarabids" did not rule Walachia until the seventeenth century, for the Basarabid genealogy of Prince Matei Basarab (1632-1654) is entirely fabricated. Vasary's obvious bias against Romanians has led him to champion an obsolete nineteenth-century theory developed by Robert Roesler, which holds that Romanians arrived in Romania through migration from the Balkans ca. 1200. According to Vasary, "it is almost certain that vigorous waves of Vlakh immigration to the north of the Danube began only after the formation of the Second Bulgarian Empire" (p. 27). In fact, there is no evidence of migration across the Danube from south to north. By contrast, the presence of Vlachs north of the Danube is attested by an eleventh-century rune-stone from the Sjonhem cemetery on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. The inscription commemorates a merchant named Rodfos who was traveling to Constantinople through the land of the Vlachs (Blakumen), where he was robbed of his belongings and killed. In addition, in a passage that Vasary chooses to ignore, Niketas Choniates relates that when trying to escape, in 1164, to Iaroslav Osmomysl', the prince of Halych, Andronicus was intercepted north of the Danube by the Vlachs. An equally anti-Romanian bias led Vasary to deny any constructive historical role for the "Vlakhs in Cumania": their "small voivodates or kenezates... testify to Hungarian initiatives," not to local structures of power (p. 136). One is reminded of Vasary's own words: "Hungarian nationalism has tried to minimize the Romanian presence in history" (p. 29).
Unfortunately, there are a number of annoying minor errors as well. The author has a certain propensity for bombastic style. The Cumans "taste defeat at Tatar hand" (p. 9), while the Venetians in twelfth-century Byzantium were "signs of an imminent tempest" (p. 14). The Vlach rebels of 1185 were "exploited people living in desperate need" (p. 21), while in the thirteenth century, "the flame of Tatar influence flared up once more in Bulgaria" (p. 87). In the preface, Vasary explains that in dealing with place names for which multiple forms exist in various languages, he follows the principle of using "the geographical name in the dominant language of the polity to which the place belonged in the age in question." This is certainly understandable for such places as Brasso (now Brasov) and Szeben (now Sibiu), although "in the age in question" the names in use were most likely Kronstadt and Hermannstadt, respectively. But it makes absolutely no sense to list Hungarian names for places that never belonged to the Hungarian kingdom. For example, the reader learns, as if it were important, that the Romanian town of Iasi is called Jaszvasar in Hungarian (p. 94), while the Hungarian word for Maurocastro (now Belgorod Dnistrovs'kyi in Ukraine) is Nyeszterfehervar (p.163). Vasary shares an odd practice with the majority of Hungarian historians and archaeologists, who use pre-Trianon, Hungarian place- and river names that nobody would find on any current map of modern Europe. The spelling of other names does not even follow accepted rules: Nicaean becomes Nikaian, Cracow is Cracaw, Demetrius is Dmitriy, and the Mamluks turn into Mameluks. Romanian names or place names are routinely mangled (kneaz for cneaz, Moldva or Moldoa for Moldova, and Jara Birsei for _ara Birsei).
In this day and age, it is surprising to read a work of history that so uncritically adopts outdated theories and old ethnic stereotypes. While the book sketches some promising ideas, it only touches on them, and it never delivers on the promise. However, although the book fails on the whole, the present reader is left with a good deal of sympathy for Istvan Vasary's brave attempt to engage very large questions. Moreover, where he does succeed--in the chapters dedicated to Nogay and the Golden Horde--he provides a lot of hitherto unknown information which will be of use to historians of Southeastern Europe.

NOTES

1. Istvan Vasary, "Cuman warriors in the fight of the Byzantines with the Latins," Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 57 (2004), 263-70.

2. Petre Diaconu, Les Coumans au Bas-Danube aux XIe-XIIe siecles (Bucharest, 1978); Plamen Pavlov, "Po vuprosa za zaselvaniiata na Kumani v Bulgariia prez XIII v.," in Vtori mezhdunaroden kongres po bulgaristika, Sofiia, 23 mai-3 iuni 1986 g. Dokladi 6: Bulgarskite zemi v drevnostta Bulgariia prez srednovekovieto, ed. by Khristo Khristov et al. (Sofia,1987), pp. 629-37 ; Alexander Silaiev, "Frontier and settlement: Cumans north of the Lower Danube in the first half of the thirteenth century." M.A. Thesis, Central European University (Budapest, 1998); Victor Spinei, The Great Migrations in the East and South East of Europe from the Ninth to the Thirteenth Century (Cluj-Napoca, 2003), pp. 217-340.

3. Virgil Ciocaltan, "Geneza politicii pontice a Hoardei de Aur (1261-1265)," Anuarul Institutului de Istorie "A. D. Xenopol" 38 (1991), 81-101; _erban Papacostea, Between the Crusade and the Mongol Empire. The Romanians in the Thirteenth Century (Cluj-Napoca, 1998); Virgil Ciocaltan, Mongolii si Marea Neagra in secolele XIII-XV. Contributia Cinghizhanizilor la transformarea bazinului pontic in placa turnantaa comertului euro-asiatic(Bucharest, 1998).

4. Andras Paloczi-Horvath, Pechenegs, Cumans, Iasians: Steppe Peoples in Medieval Hungary (Wellingborough, 1990); Svetlana A. Pletneva, Polovcy (Moscow, 1990); Robert Lee Wolff, "The 'Second Bulgarian empire'. Its origin and history to 1204," Speculum 24 (1949), 167-206; Nicolae Serban Tanasoca, "De la Vlachie des Assenides au Second Empire Bulgare," Revue des etudes sud-est-europeennes 19 (1981), 581-93 ; Thomas T. Allsen, Conquest and Culture in Mongol Eurasia (Cambridge/New York, 2001).

5. O. B. Bubenok, Iasy i brodniki v stepiakh Vostochnoi Evropy (VI-nachalo XIII v.) (Kiev, 1997).

 

István Vásáry

Response to Florin Curta's review of Cumans and Tatars. Oriental Military in the Pre-Ottoman Balkans (1185–1365)

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005),

The Medieval Review 06.01.02.

link here for TMR page

Although it is not customary for authors to reply to reviewers of their work, on the present occasion I feel compelled to go against tradition to say a few words in my own defense.  Dr. Florin Curta, a fine and erudite historian at the University of Florida, attacked my recent monograph Cumans and Tatars. Oriental Military in the Pre-Ottoman Balkans (1185–1365) on a number of points. [1]  Some of his criticisms concerning the book I readily accept, others I dispute: this is the normal way of scholarly discourse. What I can never accept, however, is malevolence or insinuation, especially when in the guise of "objective" reasoning. When writing the book, I tried to be as balanced as possible. I was, therefore, somewhat taken aback when Dr. Curta, an American scholar of Romanian descent, informed me in his review that I was a Hungarian nationalist with a bias against Romanians. The label was a new one: never before had I been accused of prejudice against anybody or anything. In what follows I attempt to uncover what might have annoyed or angered Dr. Curta in the work, prompting him to pronounce the weighty charge that it exhibits anti-Romanian bias.

In his review, Dr. Curta claims that "Vasary's obvious bias[italic mine] against Romanians has led him to champion an obsolete nineteenth-century theory developed by Robert Roesler, which holds that Romanians arrived in Romania through migration from the Balkans ca. 1200." This, I think, is the key sentence, the one in which we can detect the origin and cause of Dr. Curta's accusation: I dared to subscribe to Roesler's "obsolete" nineteenth-century theory and, as a result, I oppose the theory of Daco-Romanian continuity, which, incidentally, lies at the very heart of Romanian nationalism. He who opposes this theory can only be an enemy of Romanians. Dr. Curta adds that "an equally anti-Romanian bias [italic mine] led Vasary to deny any constructive historical role for the 'Vlakhs in Cumania': their 'small voivodates or kenezates...testify to Hungarian initiatives,' not to local structures of power". So, if someone thinks other than in terms of the established commonplaces of Romanian national historiography, is he automatically guilty of anti-Romanian bias? Is it necessary to subscribe to a particular theory in order to be a serious historian? Dr. Curta then reminds me of my own words: "Hungarian nationalism has tried to minimize the Romanian presence in history" (p. 29). Yes, I fully agree with myself and with Dr. Curta, but this statement has nothing to do with my views concerning the origins of the Romanian ethnos. Likewise, I do not subscribe to those theories that try to date the Hungarian presence in the Carpathian Basin to before the conquest at the end of the ninth century. When I reject certain theories concerning the appearance of the Hungarians in their present-day homeland, it does not automatically mean that I am guilty of anti-Hungarian bias. Similarly, when I eschew particular theories with regard to the Romanians, including the official Daco-Romanian theory, I am not necessarily guilty of anti-Romanian prejudice.     

This is, however, another insinuation: I am not only "biased" and "nationalistic", but also susceptible to "Orientalism": Vasary persuasively argues that Cumania mentioned in contemporary sources was in present-day Romania. However, at the same time and as if to mark a sharp distinction between the West and the East, Vasary's book is about "Oriental military." His Tatars are "oriental conquerors" (p. 146). Vasary's emphasis on the "Oriental military" is misplaced, as he is forced to acknowledge at several points in this book that the Cumans and Tatars involved in Balkan affairs came from the neighboring steppe north of the Lower Danube and the Black Sea, not from the "Orient." The stone statue represented on the dustjacket, which supposedly is the figure of a Cuman, is in fact from Crimea, not from Inner Asia. Be that as it may, the present reader is still puzzled by this particular choice of cover image, since the book deals with the Balkans, not with the steppe lands.       

The sub-text of the label "Orientalism" is that I look at history from a European ("Western") angle. Consequently, I despise the Orient, since I made a distinction between West and East. This is simply foolishness and I shall not waste time refuting it. Plagued with "nationalistic" propensities and burdened with obsolete views associated with "Orientalism" I can only be a "bad guy". The world is that simple. I can reassure my reviewer that I was fully aware of the connotation of the stone statue from the Crimea represented on the dust jacket, and my choice was deliberate. I would readily have selected a Cuman stone statue from the Balkans had there been one. In the absence of such an artifact, the statue from the Crimea stands as a symbol of the Cumans' culture. There is, however, more. According to my reviewer, my "Orientalism" is of a strange kind in that it sees the Bulgarian, the Romanian and the Serb as the Other:  

Orientalism aside, Vasary places the onus of alterity [italic mine] not on Cumans or Tatars, but on the Balkans themselves. In his two-page conclusion to the book, he pontificates: "The Balkans have yet to find the key and meaning of their historical existence and to decide whether they want to belong to the mainstream of European development or to insist on their Byzantine and Ottoman autocratic traditions" (p. 167). Elsewhere, Vasary compares King Louis I of Hungary to Bogdan of Moldavia: "Louis was the greatest king of the region in his age, worthily called Great by posterity, whereas Bogdan was a provincial Romanian chief of Maramoros... [sic] He may be a Romanian national hero, but the two persons are not of the same stature" (p. 160). To this reader, Vasary's is a bizarre form of Orientalism: his Other is the Bulgarian, the Romanian, or the Serb, all of whom are depicted as eagerly waiting for the civilizing light coming from Hungary [all italic mine].

The last sentence is sheer malevolence and speculation: never have I written or thought anything slightly resembling this. Dr. Curta seems to be following the old logic of calumny: once made, any accusation, even one that is fully unfounded, remains in the collective memory.  

Having leveled the above charges, Dr. Curta goes on to make a fourth. He writes: "Clearly, Vasary has a very shaky grasp of the abundant literature on transhumance in the Balkans and his book only perpetuates ethnic stereotypes of the worst kind. This may well be because of Vasary's inability to read Romanian." To begin with, it was not my purpose to deal with transhumance in the Balkans: I devoted just a few sentences to this phenomenon. Secondly, despite the reviewer's conjecture to the contrary, I am able to read Romanian, a knowledge of which, incidentally, was not absolutely necessary for the writing of the book. In fact, I read every source used for the work in the original language.     

Dr. Curta's next allegation is the following: "Vasary shares an odd practice with the majority of Hungarian historians and archaeologists, who use pre-Trianon, Hungarian place- and river names that nobody would find on any current map of modern Europe." In one way or another, for almost one thousand years Transylvania was part of the Kingdom of Hungary. For a shorter period, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was an independent principality, before the Habsburgs annexed it to their empire. Finally, from 1867 until 1920, it was again an integral part of the Kingdom of Hungary. Consequently, Hungarian place-names and hydronyms relating to Transylvania are not just memories from pre-Trianon times, but are the standard names for these places and rivers in present-day Hungarian usage. Since in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the whole Carpathian Basin belonged to the Kingdom of Hungary, it was only natural to cite geographical names in their Hungarian form (although German and Romanian equivalents, where they existed, are always given in the text and also separately in a list at the end of the book.) I do not quite understand what Dr. Curta wants. Does he wish to prohibit the use of Hungarian historical names? Transylvania became part of Romania in 1920 by the terms of the Treaty of Trianon, but the historical heritage of that region belongs equally to the Hungarians, Romanians and Saxons living there. Transylvania's past cannot be expropriated by any one nation.     

Dr. Curta's attempts to discredit my competence in languages amount to little short of malice. Among dozens of Romanian words and names, all correctly written, the reviewer succeeded in finding three printer's errors. Instead of referring to them as misprints at the end of his review, the usual practice, he generalizes triumphantly: "Romanian names or place names are routinely mangled [italic mine] ('kneaz' for 'cneaz', 'Moldva' or 'Moldoa' for Moldova, and 'Jara Birsei' for 'Tara Birsei')." I do not know whether three misprints can be termed "routine mangling". This is rather like saying that owing to a few misprints in the Hungarian words, I "routinely mangle" Hungarian names, and thus ignore Hungarian orthography and/or usage.

As though references to nationalism, Orientalism, ethnic bias, predilection for obsolete theories, use of ethnic stereotypes, and linguistic incompetence were not enough, Dr. Curta aims yet another barb: "His [Vasary's] use of such slogans as the 'economic exploitation of the peasantry' and 'feudal anarchy' raging in late-thirteenth-century Bulgaria indicate residual Marxism, if anything (p. 80)." This was the first time in my long life that I was accused of Marxism. I do not know whether these terms are in fact indicative of "residual Marxism". In any event, I was somewhat amused by the fact that an American academic born and raised in the Romania of Nicolae Ceaucescu should make such a claim.

Once I had forfeited Dr. Curta's sympathy (i.e. when he identified me as a Hungarian nationalist), I could do nothing to escape his ire and over-critical remarks. He seems not to like my English, since I have "a certain propensity for bombastic style. The Cumans 'taste defeat at Tatar hands' (p. 9), while the Venetians in twelfth-century Byzantium were 'signs of an imminent tempest' (p. 14). The Vlach rebels of 1185 were 'exploited people living in desperate need' (p. 21), while in the thirteenth century, 'the flame of Tatar influence flared up once more in Bulgaria' (p. 87)." Of course, it is up to him whether he likes or dislikes my English style. In any event, the book's native British copy-editors at the CUP had nothing against it. My own view is that the judging of good English style is something best left to native speakers of English.   

Thus far, Dr. Curta did not call into question my academic correctness, but the following remark is one that I wish to refute absolutely. He writes: "Regrettably, Vasary's omission of relevant previous scholarship is not limited to a unique occurrence. Some of the many oversights include Andras Paloczi-Horvath and Svetlana A. Pletneva for the Cumans, Robert Lee Wolff and Nicolae Serban Tanasoca for the Second Bulgarian Empire, and Thomas T. Allsen for the Mongols." I declare unequivocally that I did not omit any "relevant previous scholarship", although a bibliography can of course never be complete. Dr. Curta mentions five missing authorities but actually there are only four, since Wolff's paper ("The Second Bulgarian Empire: Origin and History to 1204," Speculum 1949, pp. 167–206) is indeed cited (p. 215). Of these four authorities, three (Paloczi-Horvath, Pletneva and Allsen) are known to me personally. The reason I did not cite works by them was that I felt that their contributions did not strictly fall within the scope and/or timeframe of my book.  The omission of Tanasoca was my mistake, and one that I regret.      

Towards the end of his review, Dr. Curta writes as follows: "In this day and age, it is surprising to read a work of history that so uncritically adopts outdated theories [italic mine] and old ethnic stereotypes [italic mine]." Rather condescendingly, he adds at the end: "However, although the book fails on the whole, the present reader is left with a good deal of sympathy for Istvan Vasary's brave attempt to engage very large questions." In response to this, I would simply say that I am someone who prefers collaboration to professional and personal enmity, and who prizes modesty above arrogance. Academics should not look at each other as enemies who fight on the battlefield of thought where the ultimate goal is to trample down and annihilate the other (or Other?). In the Middle Ages, the devoted study of which is our common pursuit and passion, scholars treated each other with due consideration. The Sanglakh, the best Chagatay-Persian dictionary compiled in the eighteenth century, invites its readers to correct errors and defects with the "pen of kindness". [2]  I miss this "pen of kindness" in Dr. Curta's review, although I miss the pen of fairness much more.   

NOTES:

[1] Florin Curta, The Medieval Review, 06.01.02, University of Florida, [email address].

[2] Sanglax. A Persian Guide to the Turkish Language by Muhammad Mahdi Xan. Facsimile text with an Introduction and Indices by Sir Gerard Clauson (E. J. W. Gibb Memorial Series, New Series XX), London, 1960, p. 32 and f. 2v, line 6 of the facsimile.

 

Florin Curta

Response to Istvan Vasary's Response to Curta's review of
Cumans and Tatars. Oriental Military in the Pre-Ottoman Balkans (1185–1365)

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005),

The Medieval Review 06.01.02 and 06.03.16.

link here for TMR page

Istvan Vasary's reply has raised a number of questions in reaction to my review of his book, Cumans and Tatars. Oriental Military in the Pre-Ottoman Balkans, 1185-1365.  Reviewing the book, I followed the basic guidelines of scholarly criticism.  I tried to assess Vasary's contribution to the subject of his research as well as the quality of his scholarship and presentation.  I certainly had no intention to produce either calumny or a "pen of kindness".  That was not my role as reviewer, though it seems to have been on Professor Vasary's mind.  If my conclusions have some implications for the touchy debate on nationalism in historiography, they are entirely based on Vasary's book.

To reiterate what should be clear in my review, I think Vasary's work is of great value for anyone interested in such things as Nogay and the Golden Horde.  When declaring my sympathy for his attempt to engage very large questions, I was by no means condescending.  But the source of Vasary's irritation is not in any criticism of his book contained in my review.   As a matter of fact, he even claims to have partially accepted my criticism.  At the same he draws the attention away from arguments to "malevolence", "insinuation", and "calumny".  At stake seems to have been my denouncing of Vasary's promotion of Roesler's idea that Romanians arrived in Romania through migration from the Balkans ca. 1200.  In defending himself, Vasary seems to imply that, unlike him, I subscribe to "the official Daco-Romanian theory".  I have no knowledge of any of Professor Vasary's writings showing that he rejects "certain theories concerning the appearance of the Hungarians in their present-day homeland," but I, for one, have been actively involved in denouncing nationalism in the Romanian historiography and archaeological literature, even before leaving my native country. [1]  In doing so, I make no claims to be either the only, or the leading voice speaking against the political manipulation of history and archaeology. There is not much self-critical assessment of the historiography concerning the Middle Ages and produced in Hungary before 1989.  By contrast, the last fifteen years have witnessed a lively debate in Romania on the impact of the Communist regime and its nationalist agenda on historiography. [2]  The "official Daco-Romanian theory" has long been denounced, although not completely eradicated from the scholarly and political discourse.  To speak of "established commonplaces of Romanian national historiography" is therefore misleading, if not altogether wrong.  Romanian historiography is not a monolithic block, and while there is still much pernicious nationalism, there is by now no "official theory".  Vasary's reply therefore shows that he is not familiar with the current debates about some of the most important issues discussed in his book.  His tendency to paint only with a broad brush, dividing the world, as it were, between friends and enemies of Romania is completely misplaced.   In any case, my criticism of Vasary's endorsement of Roesler's obsolete theory is not that it is anti- Romanian, but that it is not supported by any shred of evidence.

Presenting a theory, obsolete or not, implies that some facts must be cited in its support before it can be accepted.  In my review, I noted that no evidence exists of a migration across the Danube from south to north and that there is evidence for the presence of Vlakhs north of the Danube much earlier than Professor Vasary is inclined to accept.  In other words, I am not in any way saying that the ancestors of modern Romanians lived in Transylvania (or anywhere else, for that matter) before the arrival of the Hungarians.  But to say that they had come through migration from the Balkans is equally wrong, for no evidence exists for that.  Given the breadth of this book, it is hard to imagine Professor Vasary not knowing that much.  What, then, can be the reason for such statements as "the Vlakhs, as is well known (my emphasis) were Romanised (sic) shepherds of the Balkans" (p. 19)?  On what scholarly basis does Vasary claim that "it is almost certain that vigorous waves of Vlakh immigration to the north of the Danube began only after the formation of the Second Bulgarian Empire" (p. 27)? What are the arguments on which he decides that "there is no compelling historical evidence that any serious Vlakhian (sic) settlement existed north of the Danube in this period" (p. 135)?  What (current) Romanian scholars "extol that empire (i.e., the Second Bulgarian Empire; my note) as being the first (sometimes the second!) Romanian state in history" (p. 18)?  Is it possible that Vasary, who apparently understands Romanian, does not know that the Vlakhs were not Christianized by the Bulgarians (p. 136), since the fundamental vocabulary of Christianity in Romanian (including dialects spoken south of the Danube River) is of Latin origin?   What precisely is the "empty and bombastic vocabulary of Romanian nationalism" (p. 22 no. 28) and to what source can one go to find examples of that?

It was certainly not my intention to "prohibit the use of Hungarian
historical names".  In my review, I specifically noted that the procedure is understandable in cases such Brasso (now Brasov) and (Nagy)Szeben (now Sibiu).  This is true even if it remains unclear whether or not such names were truly in use during the period covered by Vasary's book, when both cities were primarily inhabited by speakers of German, not of Hungarian.  Moreover, I see a problem of consistency with employing place names in use during the Middle Ages.  During the late 1200s, the name of the most important city in southern Dalmatia was Ragusa, yet Vasary uses Dubrovnik instead (p. 100).  Similarly, by 1286, present-day Lviv was within the borders of the Rus' principality of Galicia-Volhynia.  Following Vasary's own logic, it is therefore not "natural" to mention the city by its German (Lemberg) or Polish (Lwow) name (p. 88).  In the face of such inconsistencies indicative of Vasary's bias, one begins to question the very principle of using "medieval" place names.  Who, among those writing about the history of al-Andalus in English, refer to Sevilla as al-Isbili or to Cordoba as al-Qurtubiyya?  Be it as it may, to use a Hungarian name (Jaszvasar) for a city (Iasi), which "in one way or another" was never part of the Kingdom of Hungary is a very different matter.  There can be only two explanations for that.  Either Vasary sees the entire geography of Southeastern Europe as Hungarian, or his book was initially written for a Hungarian audience (who might supposedly know more about Jaszvasar than about Iasi) and sloppily translated into English.  In both cases, to declare emphatically that "Transylvania's past cannot be expropriated by any one nation " does not respond to the precise point of my review. Iasi is not in Transylvania, and Maurocastro was never part of Hungary. But there is more to Vasary's sloppy use of place names.  On page 104, n. 21, Vasary lists four place names derived from Dorman, the name of a nobleman of supposedly Cuman origin mentioned in the late 1200s.  We learn that the old Hungarian name of the village of Darmanesti, "c. 25 km north of the Ojtoz Pass (Pas Oituz - sic!), near the Tratos (sic) river" is Domanyfalva.  Vasary then adds, "in the middle of the nineteenth century 250 Hungarian Catholics inhabited the village".  One is left wondering about the relevance of this addition for the topic of this book.  It is hard to believe that Vasary would suggest that the 250 Hungarians who lived in the 1800s in Darmanesti were the descendants of Dorman.  Could the mention of the village's old (my emphasis) Hungarian name in this context have any other meaning?  Unable to solve the conundrum, I am forced to follow Vasary's own advice:  this is "something best left to native speakers of English" to judge.

Having spent much time as ambassador of Hungary in Ankara, Vasary may have failed to notice that (vulgar) Marxism was by no means a feature unique to Ceausescu's Romania.  The same brand of dialectical materialism was fed to students at all levels of the education system in his native country.  It is most likely to that education that "residual Marxism" can be attributed.  On page 80, note 49, Vasary mentions "a popular monograph, with a primitive Marxist bias " (my emphasis) namely Petar Petrov's 1988 German translation of his monograph on Ivailo's revolt.  Vasary's dismissing remark is puzzling, given that he had apparently taken the concepts of "feudal anarchy" and "economic exploitation of the peasantry" from Petrov's book.  Needless to say, there is absolutely no evidence for such an interpretation, and both ideas are most likely "index fossils" of the "wooden tongue" of the 1950s and 1960s.

Vasary claims that instead of the Romanian names routinely mangled there are only "three misprints".  Here is a complete list: "Jara Birsei" (instead of Tara Barsei) and "Jara Fagarasului" (instead of Tara Fagarasului) on page 28 and 168; "Moldoa" (instead of Moldova) on pages 134 and 143; "Moldva" (instead of Moldova) on pages 136, 143, 156, and 158; "Seret" (instead of Siret) on page 138; "Tratos" (instead of Trotus) on page 104.  The entire title (translated into Romanian on page 142) that the Wallachian metropolitan used during the Middle Ages is misspelled: "archiepiscopu si metropolit Ungro-Vlachiei" (instead of "arhiepiscopul si mitropolitul Ungro-Vlahiei").  For someone who not only claims to be able to read Romanian, but also cites Uspenskii and Zlatarski in the original (albeit transliterated) language (e.g ., on p. 32 with nn. 74 and 75), the pattern of "misprints" is quite surprising, given that it seems to concern almost exclusively Romanian names.  In fact, in his own reply, Vasary manages to mangle even the name of the Communist dictator who ruled Romania for over twenty years ("Ceaucescu," instead of Ceausescu).  I was ready to believe Vasary that he had read "every source used for the work in the original language".  But misspellings (which should in any case have been corrected at the first page proof) and the listing of articles and chapters in the bibliography with either "f." or "ff." instead of actual page number do not inspire any confidence in his treatment of the Romanian sources.

Historical phenomena, such as the intrusion of the Cumans and the Mongols in Balkan politics, are always complex and full of nuances and subtleties. However, there are also proven facts and ascertainable verities.   I sympathize with Vasary's objections to my review of his book.  No author likes to put great effort in his or her work, only to have it grotesquely misinterpreted by a reviewer.  However, I plead not guilty and still believe the review was a fair assessment of this book.


NOTES

[1] See, for example, "The changing image of the Early Slavs in the Rumanian historiography and archaeological literature. A critical survey," Suedost-Forschungen 53 (1994), 235-276.  For a critique of both Romanian and Hungarian archaeologists, see also my "Transylvania around A.D. 1000," in Europe Around the Year 1000 , ed. Przemyslaw Urbanczyk (Warsaw, 2001), pp. 141-165.

[2] Excellent surveys of the debate can be found in Serban Papacostea, "Captive Clio: Romanian historiography under Communist rule," European History Quarterly 26 (1996), 181-208, and Lucian Boia, History and Myth in Romanian Consciousness (Budapest, 2001). Papacostea's article was published in the year of the 1100th anniversary of the Hungarian "conquest of the homeland".  In Hungary, the event was celebrated, among other things, by the publication of The Magyars. Their Life and Civilization by Gyula Laszlo, the most prominent advocate of the "second conquest", and of such papers as those of Istvan Fodor, "Das ethnische Bewusstsein der Ungarn," Acta Ethnographica Hungarica 41 (1996), 1-4, and Kalman Magyar, "Who is the Hungarian? What is the Hungarian?" in Az oshazatol Arpad honalapitasaig, ed. by Kalman Magyar (Budapest, 1996), pp. 293-300

 

 

Cumans and Tatars: Oriental Military in the Pre-Ottoman Balkans, 1185–1365

István Vásáry

Cambridge University Press (2005)

Contents:

- Introduction

- Cumans and the second Bulgarian empire

- Cumans in the Balkans before the Tatar conquest (1241)

- The first period of Tatar influence in the Balkans (1242–1282)

- The heydays of Tatar influence in the Balkans (1280–1301)

- Cumans and Tatars on the Serbian scene

- Cumans in Byzantine service after the Tatar conquest (1242–1333)

- The Tatars fade away from Bulgaria and Byzantium (1320–1354)

- The emergence of two Romanian principalities in Cumania (1330, 1364)

- Conclusion.

 

Read Christopher Deliso's review on Balkananalysis.com here

Read more from the editor or buy the book here

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