The Making of Silliness

The only book in the last twenty years in the English language providing new theories regarding the early history of the Slavs is Curta’s “The Making of the Slavs”.

Haven’t written about it (people have asked) because there is not much to write about.  Curta, who seems like a bright, nice fellow, wrote a highly academic book that is, depending on what you think Curta says, either banal or just plain silly in its thesis, seems suspiciously in tune with the current deconstructive work on nation states and on top of that is not very original (compare the theory that it was the Romans who “created” the “Germanic” (Nordic) tribes).

Early reviewers of the work were excited (particularly Slovenes but also Poles) because Curta seemed to be saying (he wasn’t – but they misread him) that Slavs were autochtonous to Europe  (versus the allochtonous theory that deems them late arrivals from somewhere else).  But what he actually said was simply that there were no Slavs until the Byxantines created a barbarian political taxonomy in their heads that included a new subcategory called “Slav”.  In that sense, the ancestors of the Slavs may well have lived in Europe before but not as Slavs.  Put differently, the question of whether the “Slavs” were “always here” or “came from somewhere else” was, in Curta’s view, the wrong question.  What he said is that, basically, at least as a group, there were no Slavs before the Byzantine writers such as Procopius chose to identify them as such.  The name assigned to the Slavs, in Curta’s view, seems to have been a label for a political group because the Byzantines did not view ethnicity as a linguistic or cultural concept but a political or military one.

This is basically the application of similar theories that were previously used to “deconstruct” the concept of “Germanic” tribes to the Slavs.  In that its originality exists only in the selection of a new object (target?).

Further, the theory seems, as noted, to be basking in the currently favored climate of “ethnicities as merely political constructs”.  The popular idea here is that you can mold “new peoples” solely through politics.  There is, as in most anything, some truth to that too but, in general, one might observe that the better of these projects are not really projects but rather a natural coming together of free will (how this can go wrong you can see in “Iraq” or “Yugoslavia” or the “Soviet Union” – nothing good usually comes from forced associations – pay attention “Europe”).

Most importantly, the idea is bull.  Yes, Byzantines saw Slavs as a threat and so the “Slavs” become first noticed by the Byzantines.  But the Byzantine authors did not act in some sort of Schroedingerian God-Observer function.  At best what can be said is that absence of proof is not proof of absence.

And proof depends on whether you’re willing to open your eyes. The idea, for example, that the Slavs have nothing to do with the Suevi strikes one as willful blindness.  The idea that Slavs or Antae have nothing to do with the Veneti strikes one as deranged (charitably put).  Curta seems to implicitly accept the former and actually tries to promote the latter.

To be fair, one assumes that Curta would, consistently with the above, also claim that since Deutsch did not appear – even in an approximate form – until the 10th century (diutsch), neither did the Germans exist prior to that time.  At that point we could all agree that communication is not possible since we refuse to use the same dictionary.

Most significantly the Byzantines themselves did not act as Curta would have them do.  They did recognize the Slavs as a political group but also recognized them as a cultural and linguistic group.  It is culture and language that most of today’s anthropologists would define as some of the basic components of an “ethnie.”

But the Byzantines went one further because they were not anthropologists.  They were humans. And so they also defined the Slav ethnie the same way that most people would define it – by looks or “race”.  Slavs are large, hardy and white/pinkish (from Arabs we learn that Slavs do not suffer heat well).  Their hair is neither dark nor pure blonde but tends to be “ruddy”.  And so on.  Politics is irrelevant here.  Of course, Curta’s Balkan Slavs may be slightly different in looks due to pre-existing populations being Slavicized (and Slavs later being Bulgarized) but the exception cannot become the rule.

What recent genetic studies have shown (you don’t really need “studies”, just need to open your eyes and not lie) is the remarkable homogeneity of the Slavs (at least northern ones).  Did the Byzantines implant the specific “Slavic” variants of R1a/R1b/I/or other haplogroups typically found among male Slavs?

In any event, at least the “Balkan” Slavs spoke one language (whether that was “Common Slavic” or something else) – we have this much information from Procopius at least.  That too was a defining characteristic of an ethnic group for the Byzantines (but obviously neither a necessary characteristic nor a sufficient one).  Curta later tries to suggest (seems unconvinced himself) that the Slavic language was the “lingua franca” of the Avar khaganate.  That it may well have been and the Avars may well have contributed to its spread so that that may explain why some people in the Balkans speak Slavic but there is no reason to believe that the language is “Avar” in its origin.   Moreover, the Avars did not conquer vast swaths of Eastern Europe – there is little evidence of Avars anywhere north of the Carpathian mountains.

Curta may have better luck with Hunnic which may well have been imposed on the Goths as well as those who had earlier been conquered by the Goths (if we are to believe Jordanes) though even here, given the short time which the Huns spent in Europe, the presumption may well be the opposite – that they became Slavicized (perhaps after the Goths became Slavicized), the same way the Rus were later Slavicized.  Each of the three words that we know of “Hunnic” appears to have a possible Slavic equivalent (to the extent we can rely on Priscus’ and Jordanes’ reports) .

Curta’s an archeologist and “The Making of the Slavs” is basically a book about archeological finds but his moonlighting as a historian produces mostly silliness.

His archeological observations, on the other hand, are worth noting – for example the similarities between “fibulae” in the Balkans and the Masurian region.  But those would suggest a connection between the Slavs/Veneti of the Danube and the “Vistula” or “Baltic Veneti – a connection that Curta wants to deny and treats as an invention of Jordanes’.

Beyond that, this seems to be a case where he had to have a “thesis” in order to publish something and so took a thesis that had been applied to other folk (Nordics making their appearance as “Germanics”) and used the same recipe on the Slavs.  The problem with painting a VW pink is not the VW so applying the same coat to a Skoda, just repeats the mistake.

So did the Byzantines create the Slavs?  Of course not.  The Slavs were likely a group (whether they recognized themselves as such or not) separate from other “peoples” hundreds of years before the Byzantines jotted down their appearance on Justinian’s frontier.  Did they exist from “forever”?  Of course not.  Did the Byzantines recognize the Slavs as Slavs and placed them onto pages of history which no one disputes as Slavic?  Yes, and for that we should be thankful to Procopius, Jordanes and company.

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July 27, 2017

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