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  • Southeastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 500–1250
  • Jonathan Shepard
Southeastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 500–1250. By Florin Curta. [Cambridge Medieval Textbooks.] (New York: Cambridge University Press. 2006. Pp. xxviii, 496. $90.00 hardback; $34.99 paperback.)

Curta's survey of the vast area he terms Southeastern Europe appears in the Cambridge Medieval Textbooks series, which is designed to introduce students to important topics in medieval history. But "textbook" is something of a misnomer in this instance. Curta offers a magisterial study of the groupings and microsocieties that merged or, more often, were forcibly merged into larger political units in the region between the Adriatic, the Aegean, the Black Sea,Transylvania, and, to the northeast, the steppes reaching from the Lower Danube to the Dnieper and the wooded zone that skirts them. Whether "Southeastern Europe" is particularly appropriate for denoting this assortment is open to question. What emerges is the dearth of fixed territorial, tribal, or linguistic coordinates of the groupings under study. In light of this, "Southeastern Europe" conveys rather too insistent a notion of territorial space, and the label hardly fits the Dniester and Dnieper basins better than "Balkans" does. The latter term is arbitrary, loose, and carries varied connotations; but in so far as these evoke both fragmentation and associations with—though not necessarily incorporation within—superpowers like Byzantium, it has its merits. Some—but not all—of the groupings crystallized into durable [End Page 326] polities, such as those of the Bulgarians, Hungarians, Croats, and Serbs. But these were mostly volatile, depending heavily on the cohesion of ruling families and on masterful individuals, and even the strongest of them, Bulgaria, could not withstand the resurgence of Byzantine power at the end of the tenth century, and was absorbed within Basil II's empire. Curta makes the impact of Byzantium on other populations of southeastern Europe a principal theme: two chapters are boldly titled "The first Byzantine century (1000–1100)" and "The second Byzantine century (1100–1200)," in line with his emphasis on the empire's wealth, power, and diplomatic reach at that time. The book's earlier chapters reprise Curta's monograph The Making of the Slavs, including the thesis that the Slavs only jelled into a kind of ethnic entity in the later sixth century, essentially in response to the obstacles that Justinian's massive fortifications program had placed in the way of lucrative pillaging expeditions. The other great empire impinging on the Balkans was that of the Carolingian Franks, and this, too, is given due weight. Curta uses his archaeological expertise to great effect, both for his presentation of social and economic life and to address questions such as where "Moravia" was located. On the latter issue he presents what is, in my view, a strong case for retaining the traditional placing of Moravia on the eastern approaches to the Frankish empire, rather than shunting it south of the Danube to a location in present-day Serbia. It is a measure of Curta's presentational skills that he integrates such knotty historiographical problems and detailed treatment of complex archaeological data within the sweep of a general survey. Well-known episodes such as the adoption of Christianity by Khan Boris of the Bulgars are covered, and Boris' oscillations between alignment with the Byzantine and Latin churches are recounted clearly. Of particular value is Curta's collation of archaeological data and epigraphy to highlight the roles of nobles and others below the level of "ruler" in adopting and furthering Christian ritual and observance. Good use is also made of recondite literary sources to demonstrate the effervescence of piety, both within and outside of the cloister wall, in the eleventh-century western Balkans. Yet for this period,Curta notes, there is very little evidence of clashes between the eastern orthodox and Latin church organizations, and these functioned side by side in Dalmatia and southern Hungary. This magisterial survey will serve as a work of reference (with remarkably full and up-to-date bibliographic citations), and it comes perhaps as close as is feasible to a synthesis of such a contrasting assortment of embryonic sociopolitical organisms. Overall, this is a thoroughly impressive contribution to...


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