The Making of the Slavs: History and Archaeology of the Lower Danube Region, c. 500-700

By Florin Curta | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
SLAVIC ETHNICITY AND THE ETHNIE OF THE
SLAVS: CONCEPTS AND APPROACHES

Our present knowledge of the origin of the Slavs is, to a large extent, a legacy of the nineteenth century. A scholarly endeavor inextricably linked with forging national identities, the study of the early Slavs remains a major, if not the most important, topic in East European historiography. Today, the history of the Slavs is written mainly by historians and archaeologists, but fifty or sixty years ago the authoritative discourse was that of scholars trained in comparative linguistics. The interaction between approaches originating in those different disciplines made the concept of (Slavic) ethnicity a very powerful tool for the “politics of culture. ” That there exists a relationship between nationalism, on one hand, and historiography and archaeology, on the other, is not a novel idea.1 What remains unclear, however, is the meaning given to (Slavic) ethnicity (although the word itself was rarely, if ever, used) by scholars engaged in the “politics of culture. ” The overview of the recent literature on ethnicity and the role of material culture shows how far the historiographical discourse on the early Slavs was from contemporary research in anthropology and, in some cases, even archaeology.


THE HISTORIOGRAPHY OF SLAVIC ETHNICITY

Slavic studies began as an almost exclusively linguistic and philological enterprise. As early as 1833, Slavic languages were recognized as IndoEuropean.2 Herder's concept of national character (Volksgeist), unalterably set in language during its early “root” period, made language the perfect instrument for exploring the history of the Slavs.3 Pavel Josef

____________________
1
See, more recently, Kohl and Fawcett 1995; Díaz-Andreu and Champion 1996.
2
Bopp 1833. See also Niederle 1923:4; Sedov 1976:69.
3
Herder 1994a:58. Herder first described the Slavs as victims of German warriors since the times of Charlemagne. He prophesied that the wheel of history would inexorably turn and some day, the industrious, peaceful, and happy Slavs would awaken from their submission and torpor to reinvigorate the great area from the Adriatic to the Carpathians and from the Don to the Moldau rivers (Herder 1994b:277–80). For Herder's view of the Slavs, see Wolff 1994: 310– 15; Meyer 1996:31.

-6-

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