Thursday, January 23, 2014

Book Review: The Early Slavs: Culture and Society in Early Medieval Eastern Europe

I chose to read/review P.M. Barford's 2001 The Early Slavs:  Culture and Society in Early Medieval Eastern Europe for the hearth culture reading requirement.  As someone dedicated to a Slavic hearth (and with a minor in Slavic Languages and Literature) it seemed a natural choice, as its focus is pan-Slavic and covers some of the earliest periods of known Slavic culture.

The scope of The Early Slavs covers the 5th through 11th centuries - specifically that time period when mention of the Slavs first appear in contemporary written accounts through the formation of Slavic states and nations.  The structure of the book consists of 13 chapters reviewing the material culture, daily practices and political activities of the South, West and East Slavs during the medieval period.

Many limitations exists for those studying the lives of early Slavs.  Because they were illiterate until well after their Christianization, the earliest references and descriptions of pagan Slavs come in the writings of contemporary politicians, ambassadors and missionaries.  Relatively few of these sources remain today and what there is leaves much to be desired.  Barford concisely reviews these sources both in the introduction and first chapters of The Early Slavs, while also noting their limitations.  He wisely cautions the use of these materials for making overarching conclusions about pre-Christian Slavs, reminding the reader that they most likely represent the interests and motives of the writer and their intended (and often elite) audience.

Barford's discussion of ethnogenesis and ethnicity is clear and concise.  He makes use of helpful analogies while avoiding semantic pitfalls and confusions that might deter the average reader.  In this way Barford's writing on the topic is much more accessible than Florin Curta's parallel coverage in The Making of the Slavs:  History and Archaeology of the Lower Danube Region c. 500-700.  Before delving into the archaeology of the Slavs Barford cautions, "We cannot talk of Slav ethnicity, just because we are dealing with Slav-speakers:  there have to be other elements linking the group together before we can refer to it as a ethnic group," (p. 30).

The middle section of the book covering the archaeology and material culture of the early Slavs is vast and is clearly Barford's forte.  Through these chapters he summarizes the cultural assemblages of each region over time, noting logical links of succession and breaks in continuity and technique.  While the weight of this entire work rests on archaeological findings and interpretation, Barford points out the limitations of archaeology and the importance of resisting assigning specific ethnicities to Bronze Age materials.  These chapters can be a bit overwhelming for the lay reader, as the author often uses technical language to describe materials (particularly pottery) that may be unfamiliar.  However, he does occasionally develop historical "scenes" to put all the pieces together into a cohesive whole.

The chapters that would most likely be of use to ADF members are those entitled "Daily Life" and "Pagan Ideologies."  Both of these chapters provide a brief overview but unfortunately lack the depth and exposition of the previous chapters (despite the availability of published, academic-quality material).  "Daily Life" provides a nice snapshot of a Slavic household in the early medieval period but is light on some important cultural practices, such as the evidence for fiber work, animal husbandry and cooking. Additionally, in future editions the section on the physical appearance of early Slavs could benefit from a refocus on the copious amount of research conducted in the past decade on the genetic composition of early Slavs and any isotopic analyses of human remains from the same time period.   "Pagan Ideologies" is at best a skimming of traditional views on the religion of the early Slavs.  It is disappointing that Barford does not make use of some of the cross-cultural comparisons in the academic literature for illumination.  Additionally, this chapter is considerably light on references which is concerning with some of the broad-sweeping conclusions Barford puts forth (i.e. Svarog was not just the god of celestial fire but also "probably the domestic hearth," p. 195).  In future editions, both of these chapters could greatly benefit from academic collaboration.

The last few chapters of The Early Slavs focus on the rise of state-nations and the emergence of Slavs onto the political map of late medieval Europe.  The pedantic nature of the text makes reading difficult and confusing at times, especially if the reader is not already familiar with the names and players of those in power during the time period. 

 Despite any shortcomings, The Early Slavs is a rare gem - a compendium written for the Western reader in a field where most research is published in scholarly, non-English journals. It serves as a thorough survey of early Slavs, from which the interested reader can take advantage of the citations and more recent academic publications to further their own personal research.

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