Another good example of poor Romanian historiography

Was there a Romanian ethnicity in the source-silent 10th century? Prof. Victor Spinei thinks so and dismisses any charges of anachronism historians might level against him. Deplorable.

This review speaks for itself. Let it be known that Victor Spinei is member of the Romanian Academy and professor of history at the University of Iasi. I have highlighted the relevant passages that describe all too well this 19th century way of writing history still practised in the 21st. It is indeed shameful that such undocumented statements can still be upheld by many Romanian scholars.

Spinei, Victor. The Romanians and the Turkic Nomads North of the Danube Delta from the Tenth to the Mid-Thirteenth Century. East Central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 450-1450. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2009. Pp. 545. $226. ISBN 978-90-04-17536-5. . .

Reviewed by:

Nora Berend
Cambridge University

Why this book has been translated into English and published by an academic press is inexplicable. The author’s main thesis is that “Romanians,”–who according to Spinei are direct descendants of the Daco-Romans and enjoyed a continuous, albeit undocumented existence for about a thousand years before appearing in the written sources– cohabited with Turkic nomads for over four hundred years in the southern half of Moldavia without symbiosis, indeed without any kind of meaningful influence in either direction. In this, as in much else, the Romanians are represented as entirely singular in human history. The author detects only one type of nomad impact on the Romanians, and that is wholly negative: the nomads oppressed the Romanians, chased them away from the agriculturally productive lands,extorted tribute from them, raided them and in general disrupted their life, impeding state-formation. The Turkic nomads, in other words, are to blame for the “delayed” appearance of Romanians in the political arena (350). Spinei notes in passing that the relations between nomads and sedentary populations all around the region he investigates (thus in Bulgaria, Hungary, Rus’ and Georgia) were very different, producing interaction and often mutual benefit. Yet he dismisses any such comparison as “irrelevant” (354), claiming that Romanian nomad interaction was entirely distinct from that in any other area. Unfortunately, this conclusion remains a simple assertion, based on hypotheses and without any meaningful proof.

Of 360 pages of text, only 54 deal with contact and interaction. There are lengthy general introductory chapters, the first on the influence of the environment on humans, at best completely devoid of any specific relationship to the topic under investigation, at worst a vehicle for “scholarly” nationalism: “the unity of the land has much to do with the unity of the Romanian people” (13). The author draws on information about diverse historical periods and places for descriptions of the steppe, as well as on late medieval and modern evidence in order to characterize Moldavia. The second chapter is a detailed political history of the steppe regions, from the tenth to the mid-thirteenth century. This recapitulates on almost 130 pages already well-known events, from the ups and downs of Khazar political supremacy through the rise of Kievan Rus’ to the Mongol conquest, thoroughly analysed by scholars such as P. Golden, O. Pritsak, I. Zimonyi, and a host of others, whose works Spinei cites. Vlachs make a few fleeting appearances, which is all that even the most determined mining of the source-material will allow: Vlachs north of the Danube start to appear more often in the sources from the thirteenth century. There is a similar recapitulation of the main events of the history of the Pechenegs, Oghuz, and Cumans. This history of events is occasionally spiced up by the very free treatment of evidence, of which more below. These chapters presumably serve to pad out the otherwise meagre source-material. The author admits the “scarcity and ambiguity” of the written sources (4) as well as the problems in using the archaeological material, such as the lack of publications, and “incomplete” and “defective” records of excavations (287).

Chapter three contrasts the ways of life of agriculturalists, optimistically called “Romanians,” and Turkic nomads. Again, the information is mostly not new, and Spinei often generalizes in his descriptions of nomadic life, drawing on sources that do not specifically concern southern Moldavia. Another contrast emerges from the chapter: the discussion of agriculturalist communities is based on local archaeological evidence, while the vast majority of evidence used in the description of nomadic life is from written sources: the only exception is the analysis of burials. The only useful parts of the book consist of the information on archaeological finds and patterns of distribution in chapter three; however, as Spinei himself states, the evidence is incomplete, the “date and ethnic attribution for a considerable number of finds…remains controversial” (292). Spinei sometimes acknowledges that the agriculturalists were a mixed population of Slavs, Vlachs and Turkic people, but nonetheless often uses that evidence to talk about the “Romanian” local population (e.g. 193, 221, 279). Indeed, several times when the archaeological evidence points to a mixed population, he refers to “immigrants” (252) and “groups of foreigners living side by side with the native population” (283). Chapter four teasingly bears the title “Contacts and interactions between Romanians and Turkic nomads” (307), while its sole purpose is to prove the lack of such contacts, other than oppression and the extortion of tribute. Spinei discounts the efforts of previous scholars who tried to demonstrate the existence of Turkic toponyms, anthroponyms and loan-words in Romanian.

The author rarely seems to be troubled by the lack of evidence, and resorts to ingenious sleights of hand to supply information. The main source for an alleged ninth-century “Romanian” state, which grows in importance throughout the book, is the early-thirteenth century chronicle of the Hungarian Anonymous. (The most recent edition with an English translation is Anonymi Bele regis notarii Gesta Hungarorum, ed. and tr. Martyn Rady and LÁszló Veszprémy, Central European Medieval Texts vol 5, Budapest and New York: CEU, 2010.) There is rich irony in the fact that a source whose status as literary fiction has long ago been demonstrated by Hungarian (and western European) scholars should become the key evidence as an absolutely reliable historical source for Romanian national history. The reason is that a fictional Gelou, whom the Hungarian conquerors supposedly defeated, can be turned into the ruler of a Romanian principality. Here is incontrovertible proof, according to Spinei, that “a long time before the medieval states of Moldavia and Wallachia were founded, the Romanian society had been in an advanced stage of political organization” (60). There is not a shred of evidence for the existence of Gelou or any Romanian principality in the ninth century; the sole basis of this castle in the air is the thirteenth-century Hungarian chronicler. His is a fictionalized account of the Hungarian conquest. The anonymous author drew on classical and western literary sources, and on the events and people of his own times; he also invented folkloric interpretations of toponyms, and the work is a completely unreliable source for the history of the ninth century it purportedly recounts. Elsewhere, a seventeenth-century text serves as equally incontrovertible evidence for events in the eleventh century (117). John Kinnamos’s mention of a barbarian chieftain named Lazarus can, with a fertile imagination, be transformed into a Romanian ruler: Lazarus is “an obviously Christian name. Lazarus may have been a Romanian ruler allied with the nomads” (129). Much is made of a papal bull (14 November 1234) of Gregory IX to Prince Béla (future Béla IV) of Hungary concerning the Cuman bishopric. Spinei draws wide-ranging conclusions from this one text: “most inhabitants of the Cuman bishopric were Romanians (Walathi)” who were Orthodox. “The Romanians had their own bishops.” “Bishops and bishoprics thus appear to have existed among the Romanians of the outer-Carpathian lands well before the Cuman Bishopric” which raises the question “what political entities may have also existed in the area” (155). Breathtaking mental gymnastics, when one considers that all the papal bull actually says is that Walathi living in the area of the Cuman bishopric hold the Roman church in contempt and follow pseudo-bishops of the Greek rite, whom the pope also labelled schismatic bishops. Spinei rejects outright the much more likely explanation that the bishops are from Bulgaria since “There is simply no basis for such an explanation in the evidence of the papal bull” (155). The Bulgarian Church, with its centre at Tarnovo (modern Veliko Tarnovo), which had been trying to achieve patriarchal status for a while and finally received it from Nicea in 1235 is mentioned on page 273, but not discussed in relation to the papal bull. That there is clear evidence for the ambitions of the Orthodox Bulgarian Church in the immediate vicinity does not count; in Spinei’s verdict it seems more likely that an entire ecclesiastical structure of bishoprics and a possible Romanian state have been somehow erased from the historical record.

Spinei also presents much of the information in a very tendentious manner. He consistently equates Vlachs with “Romanians” although the latter term and identity simply did not exist in the period he covers. He minimizes or obscures the role of Slavs in the territories he discusses, and does not address South Slav influence in the formation of what eventually became the Romanian principalities. He consistently speaks of “Romanian lands” even when its inhabitants are clearly Cumans or others. Peter and Asen are unequivocally “Vlach brothers” (138); Spinei fails to mention that the origin of the brothers is disputed. More importantly, a comparison to more nuanced accounts (for example, John V. A. Fine, The Late Medieval Balkans, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1987, paperback 1994, 10-17; and Paul Stephenson, Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900-1204, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, 288-94) highlights how Spinei obscures uncertainties and complexities concerning the role of Vlachs in the so-called “second Bulgarian empire”. On Spinei’s pen, the fact that contemporary authors failed to mention the Romanians takes on the proportions of a conspiracy: the name “Cumania” was applied to a territory inhabited by Romanians and Cumans (145); the Hungarian chancery of the thirteenth century consistently pretended that lands were deserted and depopulated, when in fact they were inhabited by Romanians (148); the narrative sources are unreliable because “they tend to underestimate the Romanian element and exaggerate the number of Turkic nomads” (188). The author also has a tendency to footnote meticulously the obvious, while making the wildest assertions without a shred of evidence. For example: “King Andrew II already ruled over a number of territories previously under local Cuman and Romanian chieftains” (158) is not footnoted at all, presumably because there is absolutely no evidence for such Romanian chieftains, while a lengthy footnote testifies to Brodnik presence at the battle of Kalka in 1223 (159).

Lack of evidence often bedevils medievalists, but the author is determined to remove this obstacle from the path of research. He notes that Hungarian kings relied on auxiliary troops, yet “the employment of Romanian [meaning Vlach] auxiliaries is not attested before the early thirteenth century.” The explanation is obvious: “During the twelfth century, the Romanians in Transylvania were either not interested to fight side by side with the Hungarians, or they were considered untrustworthy because of living within a region in which [sic] the Hungarian kings had not yet brought fully under their control” (134). That perhaps there were not enough of them to serve is not even considered. The lack of earthworks cannot be due to “the level of development” or “technological inability”; it must have been due to a “prohibition applied to the Romanian communities” by the nomads under whose rule they lived (200-201). Anything is possible in the realm of the imaginary: there is no evidence at all that writing was used in the region, yet Spinei suggests that “Some religious books may have been rewritten [sic], but we do not know if this was done by the Romanians, Bulgarians, Greeks or Russians” (301). A potential debate over the authorship of nonexistent books looms on the horizon. Spinei also has a ready explanation for the fact that Romanians are not mentioned in contemporary sources: “Peaceful events and historical characters tend to be ignored, irrespective of their contribution to the society in which they happen to live. This serves to exlain [sic] the paucity of information reffering [sic] to the Romanian population in the tenth to thirteenth centuries” (188).

Self-contradictions do nothing to improve the text. For example, in arguing that there could have been no real trade relations between Romanians and nomads, Spinei writes that “Romanians engaged in trade with the neighboring polities” (355), but then on the next page questions the possibility of “the very existence” “of a surplus destined for exchange” “given the subsistence character of the local economy” (356). Another example is the case of the Cuman bishopric. Spinei categorically asserts that “The name of the Cuman Bishopric does not seem to correspond to the realities on the ground at the time, for neither its location, nor its inhabitants had anything to do with the Cumans. The Cuman Bishopric was in fact located in an area inhabited by Romanians and marked by hilly and mountain landscape, which was not suitable for nomadic life. Consequently, the name of the new bishopric was not a reflection of the achievements of the Dominican mission, but an anticipation of future successes” (155-6). It is with some surprise, therefore, that one reads: “The Cumans in the Cuman Bishopric who had accepted to convert to Christianity must have also been expected to adopt, at least in part, a sedentary form of life,” but “had not in fact completely abandon [for abandoned] a nomadic mode of life” (357-8). The reader is left to wonder whether the author forgot what he wrote previously, or whether he changed his mind while he composed the intervening 200 pages?

The translation is pedestrian at best, irritating and incomprehensible at worst. Minor mistakes (some of which may be typos) abound. On a single page for example (148), one finds “Cumans lived in communities scatter over a vast area,” “their forces were engages simultaneously,” and “establishing they own garrison”–not grammatical, but comprehensible. “The Cumans appear also in a number of late eleventh- and early twelfth-century political developments in the lands his headquarters in north of the Lower Danube (123)” is more of a poser. There is no space to list all mistakes of English, but here are two more random examples: “As they were diplomatically lured by Jalal-al- Din, the Cumans eventually stopped fighting against him” (165). “This information, like many other passages in the Descriptio Moldaviae, a work Cantemir wrote in his Russian exile, is simply inaccurate, written when the author was far away from his native land, has proven to be accurate” (254).

The reasons for mythologizing in the guise of historical scholarship, as well as for the hostility to any contrary opinion are political. Spinei himself includes scattered references to “the enemies of the Daco-Roman continuity on the left side of the Danube” (74), that is, the Hungarians. He implies that only blind anti-Romanian nationalism can lead people to question the unsubstantiated assertions on which a purported Romanian past has been built. Hungarian nationalists created a Hungarian past that does not stand up to scrutiny either (as I hope to demonstrate in a forthcoming book). But a debate based on myths can lead nowhere, and hidden political agendas need to be addressed. So let me be very clear: I have no objections to the current political boundaries of the Romanian state. I do most strongly object to their justification by wholesale fabrications dressed up as scholarship. No French academic would write and publish a book claiming the Trojan descent of the French as fact in order to justify the existence of France today. Nor would a British historian cite King Arthur in order to claim that Romano-Celtic British identity survived intact the Saxon and Norman invasions. Translations of works from “East Central and Eastern Europe” should help disseminate the results of scholarship to an English-speaking world, not foster nationalist myths.

The reviewer’s conclusion ought to serve as a manifest against current Eastern European historical scholarship. Nationalism, ministering to a political agenda, unsubstantiated claims, poor scholarship, academic xenophobia, sheer anachronism, all are on display in this much detrimental work.

The review was published in the Medieval Review at

The book is available on at 188 euro. Can you believe it?
Prof. Victor Spinei’s CV can be found here

5 thoughts on “Another good example of poor Romanian historiography

Add yours

  1. I bet they used my tax money to print this “All your base are belong to us” madness. Amazing how those nationalists have survived and thrived.


  2. It’s still a good thing historians react to this sort of work when they could just as well dismiss it as irrelevant. Personally I would not have not gone to all that length to hammer it as this lady did.


  3. Might be fair to paste Spinei’s response to said criticism, if you’re going to step out here. Frankly, having read both, Spinei hands Berend (whose work is usually better than this) her ass on a plate.


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