Some years elapsed, since Curta\'s milestone work The Making of the Slavs was written. The question however was if prof. Curta is going to maintain enough courage to keep his position against mainstream ideas. Last year he published a paper: "The Making of the Slavs between ethnogenesis, invention, and migration." Studia Slavica et Balcanica Petropolitana (2008), no. 2: 155-172, where his book and some of its reviews were being revisited. And the result? Well as one can see, Curta somehow managed to keep away from being always directly indicative, additionally he seemed to be to much engaged with peripheral discussions. Nevertheless it is a noteworthy paper we have to take a closer look at.
Author: Robert Petrič
First of all, the author remains firm about revisiting the theoretical basis of research works. Ethnogenesis is a strong term, which necessarily needs a basic redefinition. Such change has obviously been made by many scholars already, as Curta states:
"In the meantime, it bears emphasizing that more nuanced approaches to ethnogenesis and unexpected evidence keep emerging from studies from several countries and in several languages. Ethnicity is now viewed by both archaeologists and historians as fundamentally performative, which explains the emphasis placed on identity as a category of historical analysis (for the absence of an archaeology of identity in Russia, see my paper in this volume). The critique of the ethnogenesis model embraced by many German and Austrian scholars inspired by Reinhard Wenskus’s work has now drawn attention to the need to treat written sources as texts, using traditional means of textual analysis, as well as current theoretical approaches to literary analysis (e. g., narratology) in order to establish the cultural context and to define authorial purpose. Much has recently been written in that vein about Jordanes, but there are already signs of change in scholarly approaches to the works of other authors mentioning the Slavs, especially Procopius."
To our interest it is the usage of stereotypes about Slavic ethnogenesis that should be reconsidered. Authors suggestion for that is to use new approaches for material culture, especially militaryzation. The question where did the common denominator - the Slavic language - come from, should not remain unanswered:
"The implications of such a «literary turn» for the analysis of written sources remain to be seen, but it has already become clear that in order to make any progress the research on (Slavic) ethnogenesis needs to distance itself from the practice of perpetuating the stereotypes embedded in the late antique ethnography. Meanwhile, new approaches to the construction of ethnicity through material culture and ethnicity have also transformed our understanding of the relations between the late antique Empire and the barbarians. Ongoing research should clarify how the militarization of the sixth-century Balkans affected the rise of new ethnic groups on the northern frontier of the Empire. A hitherto neglected approach to language contact promises dramatic changes in the study of early medieval languages and their relation to ethnic identities. And, as some now maintain, throughout the early Middle Ages (Common) Slavic may have been used as a lingua franca, that too would have obvious implications for the notion of a Slavic ethnogenesis and migration."
Following is the most important part of Curta\'s paper, where he tries to understand missinterpretations connected with the so called Era of great migrations. The solution offered is not to label ethnicity with a name solely, but rather consider the background (language, archaeology) for the research basis, which is obligatory with the study of the early Medieveal Slavic ethnos:
"Historians are now moving away from the idea that there ever was such a thing as the Great Migration9. Barford still believes that since «this was after all the Völkerwanderungszeit », «some Slavic speaking groups … moved south and southwest to the areas faced by Justinian’s frontiers». Again, no evidence of migration from the north exists for the «areas faced by Justinian’s frontiers», a point that Barford himself acknowledges. Nevertheless, the problem with Barford’s idea is even deeper. It has long been noted that for an ethnic group to exist, a name must be attached to it, which represents two concomitant processes taking place in any ethnogenesis: self-identification and recognition by others. For the Slavs to exist anywhere, one would expect a certain group of people to call themselves by that name or be called as such by others. We do not know anything about how the inhabitants of the «areas faced by Justinian’s frontiers» called themselves in their own language. All we have is the testimony of sixth-century authors, such as Procopius, who claim that those were Sclavenes. Whether or not the Sclavenes spoke a Slavic language, we at least know who those people were, even though our only source of knowledge about that is what is reported by outsiders. What about the regions of Europe, for which there is no such report? The problem, as Barford rightly notes, «is that “the Slavs” is as much a linguistic concept as an ethnic or archaeological one».
9 See, for example: Goffart W. Barbarian Tides: The Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire. Philadelphia, 2006."
The source in the footnote might be interesting for a review in future.
So far so good. So why did I mention that "Curta somehow managed to keep away from being always directly indicative, additionally he seemed to be to much engaged with peripheral discussions"? Although not negating slavophonic existance in the territory of present Poland (in the 6th C.), he starts to seek for firm evidence for such a claim, which of course can not be found to his desired extent or quality:
"But let us return to Barford’s paper about the Polish lands. According to him, «linguistic and other types of evidence seem to show that Slavic languages were being spoken over a wide area of east-central Europe by the ninth century at the latest». What about the sixth century? Do we know anything for sure about the language(s) spoken in what is now Poland? Honest scholars have long given a negative answer to such questions . It would be a mistake, as Barford is right to point out, to associate river names of archaic Slavic type with any specific archaeological culture. If so, then it would be equally mistaken to associate such names with the Slavs as known from the written sources. Barford writes: «We are therefore faced with the paradoxical situation that the area may have been occupied by Slavs who were not in the slightest interested in wearing so-called “Slavic fibulae”». In the light of my remarks above, it is curious that Barford did not see a much simpler explanation for his paradoxical situation: those rejecting «Slavic fibulae» were not Slavs, at least not like those who not only wore «Slavic fibulae», but were also called Slavs (Sclavenes) by contemporary, early Byzantine authors. This remains true even if, as Barford invites us to do, one shares the widespread belief that Slavic was spoken in what is now Poland during the sixth century (a belief otherwise based on no evidence whatsoever). «Slavs did not become Slavs because they spoke Slavic, but because they were called so by others»."
But let us not forget: with such analitic approach not even the presence of most known ethnicities can be perceived. So maybe it is only a tactical manoeuvre, isn\'t it?
It seems that (unfortunately) for a historian ethnicity is the key to his understanding of history, since Curta offers an extensive explanation on this term:
"As The Making of the Slavs states (P. 18), the transactional nature of ethnicity resides in that, «in the practical accomplishment of identity, two mutually interdependent social processes» are at work, «that of internal and that of external definition (categorization)». The argument is that the Slavs cannot be recognized by others as such, without knowing themselves that they are Slavs. Conversely, there is no point for any group of humans to affirm being Slavs, if by doing so, they are not going to be distinguished from, and recognized by others who are not Slavs. In this typically social interactionist perspective, objective cultural difference is always a by-product of something else, largely to be explained with reference to social interaction. It is important to understand, however, just how the «others» come to perceive «us» as Slavs when «we» declare ourselves to be Slavs. In other words, for ethnic identity to be visible (literally), the very process of ethnic formation must involve the manipulation of material culture, be that dress, food, house architecture, or pottery decoration. The self-conscious use of specific cultural features as diacritical markers distinguished an ethnic group from others. Ethnic boundaries are therefore created in specific social and political configurations by means of material culture styles."
Language, Procopius, Ivanov
Diminishing Procopius\' report seems not to be constructive, as we read on:
"/.../ in a bilingual situation, when one switches from one language to another, one always conceptualizes that transition in some way, even if the name attributed to one or the other of the two languages is simply «our language». But one could not speak any language without calling it by some name, and thus applying to the linguistic map the same categories of classification as those used for the ethnic map. Be as it may, the question again is how to take Procopius’ statement about Sclavenes and Antes having «the same language, an utterly barbarous tongue». This Ivanov interprets to mean that «the Antes were not initially speakers of Slavic, [but] ultimately adopted the Slavic language». There is, however, no mention in Procopius of what was the language that both Sclavenes and Antes spoke /.../. That Procopius had knowledge of at least some of those languages is beyond any doubt. He described a horse whose body was dark gray, except for this head, which was white: «Such a horse the Greeks call “phalius” and the barbarians “balan”». The barbarians in question are the Goths, for Procopius explains that the Goths understood that they needed to shoot at that particular kind of horse, since it was Belisarius’. By contrast, nothing suggests that he knew the linguistic value of «barbarous», when applied to the language spoken by Sclavenes and Antes. To claim that the language referred to by Procopius was what we now call (Common) Slavic is an over-interpretation, at the very least, and a gross mistake, at most. All that Procopius tells us is that, to his ears, the language that both Sclavenes and Antes spoke was «utterly barbarous»."
It is only a matter of the wrong term being used. Common Slavic is not at all appropriate, but it does not simply mean that Ivanov\'s thinking is not correct. The arguments against just do not seem to be persuasive.
Taking the time the account was written in in consideration, also claiming following is no firm argument at all:
"This is to be read as an ethnic stereotype («barbarians cannot speak but barbarous languages»), not as a bit of information resulting from Procopius’ «long and detailed conversations» with Sclavene and Antian mercenaries in Italy. This is further confirmed by what he has to say about further similarities between Antes and Sclavenes: «Nay further, they do not differ at all from one another in appearance. For they are all exceptionally tall and stalwart men, while their bodies and hair are neither very fair or blonde, nor indeed do they incline entirely to the dark type, but they are all slightly ruddy in colour. And they live a hard life, giving no heed to bodily comforts, just as the Massagetae do, and, like them, they are continually and at all times covered with filth; however, they are in no respect base or evil-doers, but they preserve the Hunnic character in all its simplicity.»"
To much engagement with peripheral discussions is obvious in the part where Procopius\' clear statement becomes torn apart in pieces which do not make any sense anymore:
"Simplicity was a typically barbarian feature to Procopius. That he mentioned the Sclavenes and the Antes as neither base, nor evil-doers raises a red flag as to his intentions. /.../ What about the physical features? The ruddy complexion of the Sclavenes and the Antes looks more like Procopius’ direct reference to the Budini of Herodotus , while his comment about them being «exceptionally tall and stalwart» is nothing but a stereotype, which he had already applied to the «Gothic nations», all of which were «tall and handsome to look upon». The «Gothic nations» — Goths, Vandals, Visigoths, and Gepids — although distinguished from one another by their names, «do not differ in anything else at all». Like Sclavenes and Antes, they all «use the same laws and practice a common religion». Similarly, they all speak «one language called Gothic». The parallel is too important to be ignored: in describing the Sclavenes and the Antes—including their language — Procopius does not look over his reporter notes of interviews with Sclavene and Antian mercenaries, but applies the same stereotypes about barbarians that he uses for the description of the «Gothic nations». Moreover, the parallel implies that, like the «Gothic nations», the Sclavenes are not one single «nation», but a multitude of tribes, which he specifically mentions as such when narrating the return of the Heruli to Thule. Similarly, the Antes were not a single «tribe», but «many and countless». Far from «boldly affirming their relation to the Sclavenes», as Sergei Ivanov would have us believe, the Antes had their own country, clearly separate from that of the Sclavenes. Were then Procopius’ Antes «also Slavs», as claimed by Ivanov? And what exactly is the relation between Procopius’ Sclavenes and Ivanov’s Slavs? Ivanov takes issue with my conclusion that the «Slavs did not become Slavs because they spoke Slavic, but because they were called so by others». He states that «the Slavs became Slavs, because they called themselves Slavs». This is to turn again to the realm of «linguistic beliefs», rather than facts, for no evidence exists that any Slavic-speaking people in the early Middle Ages called themselves «Slavs». Nor do we know what was the name which Procopius’ Sclavenes used for themselves, although most historians presume that Procopius employed that very name, with which the Sclavenes called themselves. As I conceded in the Making of the Slavs, «it might be that “Sclavene” was initially the self-designation of a particular ethnic group» (P. 119). It is nonetheless significant that in Romanian and Albanian, two languages for which we may safely presume an early contact with the idiom in use among the Sclavenes, ºchiau and Shqâ derive not from Sclavenus, but the shorter form Sclavus, which is undoubtedly of Byzantine origin . Be as it may, naming and classifying a group of people as Sclavenes was a Byzantine, not Sclavene practice.
An overstatement maybe? And what if? What if Goths, Vandals etc. were indeed partly of Sclavenic origin? What if Procopius really new what he was writing about? There is just no strong reason not to believe him.
But Curta makes also a very reasonable conclusion, which I already interceded years ago. The specimen taken for DNA research is likely very questionable, since to little has been invested into studying older skeletal remains:
"/.../ the study of haplotypes of any modern population cannot inform about any other populations in the past, especially since no data have so far been collected from the skeletal remains of medieval populations."
Unfortunately the genetic research situation remains similar until today (2009).
Again an important claim what the Sclavenic "migration" is concerned:
"There is no contesting of the possibility that the Sclavenes may have in fact participated in barbarian raids across the Danube before 545."
So Sclavenes might have been part of "barbarian" culture already a large period before that day, since similar barbarian activities in Europe have been known already from the Antique.
Curta closes his 18 pages long paper with a very optimistic ascertainment:
"The hope indirectly expressed in the Making of the Slavs that the model of analysis proposed there could be brought to bear on the great question of early medieval ethnicity, to test and improve our understanding of later periods, is becoming reality far more swiftly and broadly than I would have ever dared to imagine."
Let us only hope that researchers of the world will move away from philosophy when trying to rewrite history. There is just no need to be elegant in combating some obvious mistakes made in the past and wipeing them off from history records.