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...