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Another good example of poor Romanian historiography

Was there a Romanian ethnicity in the source-silent 10th


century? Prof. Victor Spinei thinks so and dismisses any charges
of anachronism historians might level against him. Deplorable.

This review speaks for itself. Let it be known that Victor Spinei is
member of the Romanian Academy and professor of history at
the University of Iasi. I have highlighted the relevant passages
that describe all too well this 19th century way of writing history
still practised in the 21st. It is indeed shameful that such
undocumented statements can still be upheld by many
Romanian scholars.

Spinei, Victor. The Romanians and the Turkic Nomads North of


the Danube Delta from the Tenth to the Mid-Thirteenth Century.
East Central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 450-1450.
Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2009. Pp. 545. $226. ISBN 978-90-
04-17536-5. . .

Reviewed by:

Nora Berend
Cambridge University
nb213@cam.ac.uk
Why this book has been translated into English and published
by an academic press is inexplicable. The authors main thesis
is that Romanians,who according to Spinei are direct
descendants of the Daco-Romans and enjoyed a continuous,
albeit undocumented existence for about a thousand years
before appearing in the written sources cohabited with Turkic
nomads for over four hundred years in the southern half of
Moldavia without symbiosis, indeed without any kind of
meaningful influence in either direction. In this, as in much else,
the Romanians are represented as entirely singular in human
history. The author detects only one type of nomad impact on
the Romanians, and that is wholly negative: the nomads
oppressed the Romanians, chased them away from the
agriculturally productive lands,extorted tribute from them,
raided them and in general disrupted their life, impeding state-
formation. The Turkic nomads, in other words, are to blame for
the delayed appearance of Romanians in the political arena
(350). Spinei notes in passing that the relations between
nomads and sedentary populations all around the region he
investigates (thus in Bulgaria, Hungary, Rus and Georgia) were
very different, producing interaction and often mutual benefit.
Yet he dismisses any such comparison as irrelevant
(354), claiming that Romanian nomad interaction was entirely
distinct from that in any other area. Unfortunately, this
conclusion remains a simple assertion, based on hypotheses
and without any meaningful proof.
Of 360 pages of text, only 54 deal with contact and interaction.
There are lengthy general introductory chapters, the first on
the influence of the environment on humans, at best
completely devoid of any specific relationship to the topic
under investigation, at worst a vehicle for scholarly
nationalism: the unity of the land has much to do with the
unity of the Romanian people (13). The author draws on
information about diverse historical periods and places for
descriptions of the steppe, as well as on late medieval and
modern evidence in order to characterize Moldavia. The second
chapter is a detailed political history of the steppe regions, from
the tenth to the mid-thirteenth century. This recapitulates on
almost 130 pages already well-known events, from the ups and
downs of Khazar political supremacy through the rise of Kievan
Rus to the Mongol conquest, thoroughly analysed by scholars
such as P. Golden, O. Pritsak, I. Zimonyi, and a host of others,
whose works Spinei cites. Vlachs make a few fleeting
appearances, which is all that even the most determined
mining of the source-material will allow: Vlachs north of the
Danube start to appear more often in the sources from the
thirteenth century. There is a similar recapitulation of the main
events of the history of the Pechenegs, Oghuz, and Cumans.
This history of events is occasionally spiced up by the very free
treatment of evidence, of which more below. These chapters
presumably serve to pad out the otherwise meagre source-
material. The author admits the scarcity and ambiguity of the
written sources (4) as well as the problems in using the
archaeological material, such as the lack of publications, and
incomplete and defective records of excavations (287).
Chapter three contrasts the ways of life of
agriculturalists, optimistically called Romanians, and Turkic
nomads. Again, the information is mostly not new, and Spinei
often generalizes in his descriptions of nomadic life, drawing on
sources that do not specifically concern southern
Moldavia. Another contrast emerges from the chapter: the
discussion of agriculturalist communities is based on local
archaeological evidence, while the vast majority of evidence
used in the description of nomadic life is from written sources:
the only exception is the analysis of burials. The only useful
parts of the book consist of the information on archaeological
finds and patterns of distribution in chapter three; however, as
Spinei himself states, the evidence is incomplete, the date and
ethnic attribution for a considerable number of findsremains
controversial (292). Spinei sometimes acknowledges that the
agriculturalists were a mixed population of Slavs, Vlachs and
Turkic people, but nonetheless often uses that evidence to talk
about the Romanian local population (e.g. 193, 221, 279).
Indeed, several times when the archaeological evidence points
to a mixed population, he refers to immigrants (252) and
groups of foreigners living side by side with the native
population (283). Chapter four teasingly bears the title
Contacts and interactions between Romanians and Turkic
nomads (307), while its sole purpose is to prove the lack of
such contacts, other than oppression and the extortion of
tribute. Spinei discounts the efforts of previous scholars who
tried to demonstrate the existence of Turkic toponyms,
anthroponyms and loan-words in Romanian.
The author rarely seems to be troubled by the lack of
evidence, and resorts to ingenious sleights of hand to supply
information. The main source for an alleged ninth-century
Romanian state, which grows in importance throughout the
book, is the early-thirteenth century chronicle of the Hungarian
Anonymous. (The most recent edition with an English
translation is Anonymi Bele regis notarii Gesta Hungarorum, ed.
and tr. Martyn Rady and Lszl Veszprmy, Central European
Medieval Texts vol 5, Budapest and New York: CEU,
2010.) There is rich irony in the fact that a source whose status
as literary fiction has long ago been demonstrated by
Hungarian (and western European) scholars should become the
key evidence as an absolutely reliable historical source for
Romanian national history. The reason is that a fictional Gelou,
whom the Hungarian conquerors supposedly defeated, can be
turned into the ruler of a Romanian principality. Here is
incontrovertible proof, according to Spinei, that a long time
before the medieval states of Moldavia and Wallachia were
founded, the Romanian society had been in an advanced stage
of political organization (60). There is not a shred of evidence
for the existence of Gelou or any Romanian principality in the
ninth century; the sole basis of this castle in the air is the
thirteenth-century Hungarian chronicler. His is a fictionalized
account of the Hungarian conquest. The anonymous author
drew on classical and western literary sources, and on the
events and people of his own times; he also invented folkloric
interpretations of toponyms, and the work is a completely
unreliable source for the history of the ninth century it
purportedly recounts. Elsewhere, a seventeenth-century text
serves as equally incontrovertible evidence for events in the
eleventh century (117). John Kinnamoss mention of a barbarian
chieftain named Lazarus can, with a fertile imagination, be
transformed into a Romanian ruler: Lazarus is an obviously
Christian name. Lazarus may have been a Romanian ruler allied
with the nomads (129). Much is made of a papal bull (14
November 1234) of Gregory IX to Prince Bla (future Bla IV) of
Hungary concerning the Cuman bishopric. Spinei draws wide-
ranging conclusions from this one text: most inhabitants of the
Cuman bishopric were Romanians (Walathi) who were
Orthodox. The Romanians had their own bishops. Bishops
and bishoprics thus appear to have existed among the
Romanians of the outer-Carpathian lands well before the
Cuman Bishopric which raises the question what political
entities may have also existed in the area (155). Breathtaking
mental gymnastics, when one considers that all the papal bull
actually says is that Walathi living in the area of the Cuman
bishopric hold the Roman church in contempt and follow
pseudo-bishops of the Greek rite, whom the pope also labelled
schismatic bishops. Spinei rejects outright the much more likely
explanation that the bishops are from Bulgaria since There is
simply no basis for such an explanation in the evidence of the
papal bull (155). The Bulgarian Church, with its centre at
Tarnovo (modern Veliko Tarnovo), which had been trying to
achieve patriarchal status for a while and finally received it
from Nicea in 1235 is mentioned on page 273, but not
discussed in relation to the papal bull. That there is clear
evidence for the ambitions of the Orthodox Bulgarian Church in
the immediate vicinity does not count; in Spineis verdict it
seems more likely that an entire ecclesiastical structure of
bishoprics and a possible Romanian state have been somehow
erased from the historical record.
Spinei also presents much of the information in a very
tendentious manner. He consistently equates Vlachs with
Romanians although the latter term and identity simply did
not exist in the period he covers. He minimizes or obscures the
role of Slavs in the territories he discusses, and does not
address South Slav influence in the formation of what
eventually became the Romanian principalities. He consistently
speaks of Romanian lands even when its inhabitants are
clearly Cumans or others. Peter and Asen are unequivocally
Vlach brothers (138); Spinei fails to mention that the origin of
the brothers is disputed. More importantly, a comparison to
more nuanced accounts (for example, John V. A. Fine, The Late
Medieval Balkans, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1987,
paperback 1994, 10-17; and Paul Stephenson, Byzantiums
Balkan Frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900-
1204, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, 288-94)
highlights how Spinei obscures uncertainties and complexities
concerning the role of Vlachs in the so-called second Bulgarian
empire. On Spineis pen, the fact that contemporary authors
failed to mention the Romanians takes on the proportions of a
conspiracy: the name Cumania was applied to a territory
inhabited by Romanians and Cumans (145); the Hungarian
chancery of the thirteenth century consistently pretended that
lands were deserted and depopulated, when in fact they were
inhabited by Romanians (148); the narrative sources are
unreliable because they tend to underestimate the Romanian
element and exaggerate the number of Turkic nomads
(188). The author also has a tendency to footnote meticulously
the obvious, while making the wildest assertions without a
shred of evidence. For example: King Andrew II already ruled
over a number of territories previously under local Cuman and
Romanian chieftains (158) is not footnoted at all, presumably
because there is absolutely no evidence for such Romanian
chieftains, while a lengthy footnote testifies to Brodnik
presence at the battle of Kalka in 1223 (159).
Lack of evidence often bedevils medievalists, but the author is
determined to remove this obstacle from the path of
research. He notes that Hungarian kings relied on auxiliary
troops, yet the employment of Romanian [meaning Vlach]
auxiliaries is not attested before the early thirteenth century.
The explanation is obvious: During the twelfth century, the
Romanians in Transylvania were either not interested to fight
side by side with the Hungarians, or they were considered
untrustworthy because of living within a region in which [sic]
the Hungarian kings had not yet brought fully under their
control (134). That perhaps there were not enough of them to
serve is not even considered. The lack of earthworks cannot be
due to the level of development or technological inability; it
must have been due to a prohibition applied to the Romanian
communities by the nomads under whose rule they lived (200-
201). Anything is possible in the realm of the imaginary: there
is no evidence at all that writing was used in the region, yet
Spinei suggests that Some religious books may have been
rewritten [sic], but we do not know if this was done by the
Romanians, Bulgarians, Greeks or Russians (301). A potential
debate over the authorship of nonexistent books looms on the
horizon. Spinei also has a ready explanation for the fact that
Romanians are not mentioned in contemporary sources:
Peaceful events and historical characters tend to be ignored,
irrespective of their contribution to the society in which they
happen to live. This serves to exlain [sic] the paucity of
information reffering [sic] to the Romanian population in the
tenth to thirteenth centuries (188).
Self-contradictions do nothing to improve the text. For example,
in arguing that there could have been no real trade relations
between Romanians and nomads, Spinei writes that
Romanians engaged in trade with the neighboring polities
(355), but then on the next page questions the possibility of
the very existence of a surplus destined for exchange
given the subsistence character of the local economy (356).
Another example is the case of the Cuman bishopric. Spinei
categorically asserts that The name of the Cuman Bishopric
does not seem to correspond to the realities on the ground at
the time, for neither its location, nor its inhabitants had
anything to do with the Cumans. The Cuman Bishopric was in
fact located in an area inhabited by Romanians and marked by
hilly and mountain landscape, which was not suitable for
nomadic life. Consequently, the name of the new bishopric was
not a reflection of the achievements of the Dominican mission,
but an anticipation of future successes (155-6). It is with some
surprise, therefore, that one reads: The Cumans in the Cuman
Bishopric who had accepted to convert to Christianity must
have also been expected to adopt, at least in part, a sedentary
form of life, but had not in fact completely abandon [for
abandoned] a nomadic mode of life (357-8). The reader is left
to wonder whether the author forgot what he wrote previously,
or whether he changed his mind while he composed the
intervening 200 pages?
The translation is pedestrian at best, irritating and
incomprehensible at worst.Minor mistakes (some of which may
be typos) abound. On a single page for example (148), one
finds Cumans lived in communities scatter over a vast area,
their forces were engages simultaneously, and establishing
they own garrisonnot grammatical, but comprehensible. The
Cumans appear also in a number of late eleventh- and early
twelfth-century political developments in the lands his
headquarters in north of the Lower Danube (123) is more of a
poser. There is no space to list all mistakes of English, but here
are two more random examples: As they were diplomatically
lured by Jalal-al- Din, the Cumans eventually stopped fighting
against him (165). This information, like many other passages
in the Descriptio Moldaviae, a work Cantemir wrote in his
Russian exile, is simply inaccurate, written when the author was
far away from his native land, has proven to be accurate
(254).
The reasons for mythologizing in the guise of historical
scholarship, as well as for the hostility to any contrary opinion
are political. Spinei himself includes scattered references to
the enemies of the Daco-Roman continuity on the left side of
the Danube (74), that is, the Hungarians. He implies that only
blind anti-Romanian nationalism can lead people to question
the unsubstantiated assertions on which a purported Romanian
past has been built. Hungarian nationalists created a Hungarian
past that does not stand up to scrutiny either (as I hope to
demonstrate in a forthcoming book). But a debate based on
myths can lead nowhere, and hidden political agendas need to
be addressed. So let me be very clear: I have no objections to
the current political boundaries of the Romanian state. I do
most strongly object to their justification by wholesale
fabrications dressed up as scholarship. No French academic
would write and publish a book claiming the Trojan descent of
the French as fact in order to justify the existence of France
today. Nor would a British historian cite King Arthur in order to
claim that Romano-Celtic British identity survived intact the
Saxon and Norman invasions. Translations of works from East
Central and Eastern Europe should help disseminate the
results of scholarship to an English-speaking world, not foster
nationalist myths.
The reviewers conclusion ought to serve as a manifest against
current Eastern European historical scholarship. Nationalism,
ministering to a political agenda, unsubstantiated claims, poor
scholarship, academic xenophobia, sheer anachronism, all are
on display in this much detrimental work.

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