Southeastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 500-1250

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Medieval 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 withthough not necessarily incorporation within-superpowers like Byzantium, it has its merits. Some-but not all-of the groupings crystallized into durable 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 chap ter s are boldly title d " The fir st Byzantine c entur y (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. …