The Early Slavs. Culture and Society in Early Medieval Eastern Europe

By Smith, T Allan | Canadian Slavonic Papers, December 2001 | Go to article overview
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The Early Slavs. Culture and Society in Early Medieval Eastern Europe


Smith, T Allan, Canadian Slavonic Papers


P.M. Barford. The Early Slavs. Culture and Society in Early Medieval Eastern Europe. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001. xvi, 416 pages. Figures. Maps. $39.95, cloth.

The book under review admirably captures the history of the early Slavs from the fifth to the eleventh centuries. The intended readers, undergraduates in history, archaeology and European studies, are well served by P.M. Barford's clear, up-to-date exposition of the various methodological approaches used to construct history and the balanced and insightful application of those methodologies in his own construction of the history of the early Slavs. The introduction provides a helpful survey of recent historical writing about the Slavs, offers sound cautionary advice for budding historians about "sources," and alerts readers to current archaeological and linguistic theories of use to the historian.

In Chapter One, Barford looks at the formation of a Slav identity and uses the concept of "communication communities" (p. 31), the well-known process of migration, and the less familiar notion of accretion, to demonstrate that by the end of the fifth century a Slav identity had taken on recognizable contours. In Chapter Two, he examines the sixth century, during which the Slavs successfully expanded into Central Europe and nearly completely obliterated the pre-existing cultures in favour of their own, still poorly defined, culture. The seventh century was a period of consolidation, when the first fortified settlements appeared and more ostentatious forms of metalwork and personal ornamentation were created. The conclusion of Chapter Three is that Slav culture showed a remarkable consistency across the territories settled by Slavs.

The situation changed in the eighth and ninth centuries, which Barford terms "decisive decades." Here, in Chapter Four, he examines the emergence of the three major divisions of Slavdom-south, east and west-and acknowledges the thorny interaction of contemporary politics in the modern construction of each group's history. Chapters Five through Eight look at the social conditions prevailing among the early Slavs, with special attention paid to daily life, social organization, warfare and the production and exchange of commodities. Here the author distances himself from the classical Marxist analysis of economic history and offers a more nuanced description of conditions prevailing among the early Slavs. He raises some serious questions about the usefulness of the notion of feudalism for interpreting the social history of the early Slavs. The reader will find a helpful discussion of the formation of Slav states (pp. 135-38), a topic to which he returns in Chapters Eleven and Twelve.

Having examined in some detail the material dimension of early Slavdom, Barford turns to examine the religious component in Chapters Nine and Ten.

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