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Evguenia Davidova, Balkan Transitions to Modernity and Nation-States: Through the Eyes of Three Generations of Merchants (1780s–1890s). Leiden and Boston: Brill. 2013. Pp. xvii + 223. Cloth $138.

Scholars of nineteenth-century Southeastern Europe have approached the history of trade and commerce from a number of directions: statistical analyses, legal and diplomatic studies, and cultural histories based on travel accounts by Western Europeans. The stories of Balkan merchants themselves, however, are conspicuously absent from the literature; Evguenia Davidova strives to supply readers with this perspective in her book Balkan Transitions to Modernity and Nation-States: Through the Eyes of Three Generations of Merchants (1780s–1890s). Davidova uses merchants’ personal and professional archives in conjunction with published sources from the era to provide a fuller picture of traders as social actors in the central Balkans (particularly in Rumelia, the region stretching from the Danube and Sava rivers to the Adriatic Coast and the Morea). This is a potentially useful exercise, as merchants were consummate “border-crossers” (1), transgressing not only geographic, but also professional, ethnic, religious, linguistic, social, and political frontiers. Consequently, Davidova uses their records to explore a number of themes relevant to the historiography of the area and the particular social landscape—the construction of personal identities, the rise of nationalism, gender relations, and social practices.

Davidova’s monograph comprises two parts. The first three chapters present a chronological story, surveying the period from 1780 to 1890 through the experiences of three successive generations of Balkan merchants. Situating the lives of these men, often fathers and sons, in the context of local, regional, and European political and economic events, Davidova charts the changing venues available for financial and social advancement. From the 1780s through the 1820s, she demonstrates how Southeastern European merchants maintained a portfolio of commercial interests that included running taverns and warehouses, operating putting-out systems, usury, and tax farming (tax collection by private individuals on behalf of the state). Orthodox Christians mobilized vast networks of religiously, ethnically, and linguistically diverse partners, patrons, and clients across and beyond the Ottoman Empire to further their endeavors. The sons of these traders, who came of age between the 1820s and 1860s, continued many of their fathers’ ventures but also collaborated more closely with the Porte through an increased emphasis on tax farming and deliveries of agricultural products and other goods to the state. Like their fathers, these merchants relied on a web of professional contacts that crossed religious and ethnic lines. The third and final generation of men, the grandsons, were active from the 1860s to 1890s, a period that straddles the creation of an independent Bulgaria in 1878. A significant number of these men began their professional lives in family commercial enterprises. As nation-states began to enact protectionist economic measures, however, they often entered newly formed bureaucracies as a means of ensuring economic stability and social prestige.

Davidova’s text then builds on the generational analysis presented in the first half of the book through a series of thematically driven chapters. In an examination of women’s economic activities during the period, Davidova argues that while over the course of the nineteenth century merchants’ wives and daughters became more educated on the whole, opportunities to directly participate in commerce grew increasingly scarce. [End Page 177] Davidova then changes gear to explore modernization and nationalism. She claims that by the time that the grandsons’ generation came of age, a fundamental cultural reorientation had taken place in Southeastern Europe: while the fathers and grandfathers (and to a lesser extent mothers and grandmothers) of these men undertook pilgrimages to the Holy Lands in order to enhance their social status, for instance, later generations obtained distinction and stature through travel in modern Western Europe. This was the same cohort that eventually entered national bureaucracies and turned away, largely out of necessity, from the cross-regional, multiethnic, and multireligious networks that had once allowed their fathers’ commercial interests to flourish.

Balkan Transitions to Modernity and Nation-States furnishes the reader with an abundance of information about the daily lives and the social and professional trajectories of nineteenth-century Balkan merchants. While her copious examples often obscure the text’s narrative and argument, they breathe life into the image of the Southeastern European trader, dramatizing and personalizing the experiences of this understudied socioeconomic group, a goal Davidova sets for herself in the introduction. Admirably, Davidova compiles facts, anecdotes, and figures from archives in four countries and several languages. This diversity of sources not only allows her to let Balkan merchants speak for themselves—rather than through the intermediaries of Western European observers, government officials, and statistical data—but also demonstrates how truly transnational historical research ought to be done.

Unfortunately, the monograph as a whole fails to live up to its potential. The sheer quantity of examples, the convoluted prose, and the text’s structure detract from the richness of Davidova’s materials. The book undoubtedly would have benefited from a vigorous editor. The thematic chapters offer analyses that have become somewhat commonplace in the European historiography—a critique of the separate-sphere ideology, a discussion of the confrontation between tradition and modernity, a conception of the rise of nationalism as a negotiated process of adaption and accommodation—without thoroughly engaging with the recent literature on the Adriatic Coast, the late Hapsburg Empire, or the Italian Peninsula, among other regions. Perhaps the thematic chapters could have been more fruitfully integrated into the chronological narrative presented in the first half of the book. In doing so, Davidova’s real contribution—a more nuanced appreciation of how nineteenth-century Balkan merchants understood themselves and their political, social, and economic contexts—would have shone through more clearly. After all, the arc of the chronological/generational story that she tells depends largely on how gender roles, identity, and political allegiances shifted over time.

Overall, Balkan Transitions to Modernity and Nation-States gives readers new insights into the world of nineteenth-century merchants in Southeastern Europe. Davidova’s prosopographic study reveals how traders participated in social and professional networks, perceived governments and ideologies, consumed commodities and cultural goods, and how these practices changed during the period. The book’s weaknesses lie in an attempt to do too much in so few pages, burying the narrative and central argument under unnecessary examples and extended digressions. For the patient reader, nonetheless, there is much to be learned from Davidova’s text. [End Page 178]

Alex Tipei
Indiana University-Bloomington
Alex Tipei

Alex Tipei defended her dissertation, “For Your Civilization and Ours: Greece, Romania, and the Making of French Universalism,” in the History Department at Indiana University–Bloomington in the spring of 2015 and is currently revising the manuscript for publication. Her research focuses on networks of intellectual and political elites in post-Napoleonic Europe. In 2015–2016, she is teaching at Indiana University and offering a MA course in the Higher Education Learning Program at Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis.