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[tmr-l@wmich.edu: TMR 06.01.02, Vasary, Cumans and Tatars (Curta)]

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  • Jadwiga Zajaczkowa / Jenne Heise
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      From: The Medieval Review <tmr-l@...>
      Subject: TMR 06.01.02, Vasary, Cumans and Tatars (Curta)
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      Vasary, Istvan. <i>Cumans and Tatars. Oriental Military in the
      Pre-Ottoman Balkans</i>. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge
      University Press, 2005. Pp. xvi, 230, 4 maps. $85. ISBN

      Reviewed by Florin Curta
      University of Florida

      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 <i>Acta Orientalia
      Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae</i> 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
      they did and why they did not build any stable polity in the
      territories 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

      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 <i>Economic
      History of Byzantium</i>. 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 na?ve 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 presence
      in 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 <i>brodniki</i>
      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
      (<i>Blakumen</i>), 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 <i>Nikaian</i>,
      Cracow is <i>Cracaw</i>, Demetrius is <i>Dmitriy</i>, and the
      Mamluks turn into <i>Mameluks</i>. Romanian names or place
      names are routinely mangled (<i>kneaz</i> for <i>cneaz</i>,
      <i>Moldva</i> or <i>Moldoa</i> for Moldova, and <i>Jara
      Birsei</i> 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.


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

      2. Petre Diaconu, <i>Les Coumans au Bas-Danube aux XIe-XIIe
      siecles</i> (Bucharest, 1978); Plamen Pavlov, "Po vuprosa za
      zaselvaniiata na Kumani v Bulgariia prez XIII v.," in <i>Vtori
      mezhdunaroden kongres po bulgaristika, Sofiia, 23 mai-3 iuni
      1986 g. Dokladi 6: Bulgarskite zemi v drevnostta Bulgariia prez
      srednovekovieto</i>, 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, <i>The Great
      Migrations in the East and South East of Europe from the Ninth
      to the Thirteenth Century</i> (Cluj-Napoca, 2003), pp. 217-340.

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

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

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

      ----- End forwarded message -----

      -- Jadwiga Zajaczkowa, Knowledge Pika jenne@...
      "America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on
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      -- Harry S. Truman
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