Q&A with UTP Author Florin Curta

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Medieval Eastern Europe, 500–1300 offers a selection of fascinating primary sources pertaining to the history of East Central, Southeastern, and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages. Read the full Q&A by editor Florin Curta, here.

What was your process for selecting sources for this important new collection? In attempting to cover eight hundred years of history, how did you choose what to include?

I have taught a course on the medieval history of Eastern Europe for many years at the University of Florida. In the absence of a reader, I began to look for ready-made translations of primary sources that my students could use in the classroom. Where none was available, I began to translate myself from Greek, Latin, and Old Church Slavonic. In time, a substantial collection was formed, and that became the basis of the reader now published by the University of Toronto Press. In some cases, I had to go for a different translation, either because of the permission rights or because I realized in the meantime that some translations are better than others. Because of that, I have translated myself an even larger number of sources and asked for the assistance of colleagues with translations from Arabic and Hebrew.

The coverage was dictated by the structure of the course, but I multiplied the number of sources available, in several cases, in order to illustrate as many situations as possible. For example, knowing that a characteristic of the medieval history of Eastern Europe is the presence and significant impact of nomadic populations, instead of relying on just one text, the “classical” account of the eleventh century, Pecheneg invasion of the Balkans in John Scylitzes, I added three more texts – two from Arab authors – pertaining to other nomads, such as the Magyars, the Oghuz, and the Cumans. Similarly, in Chapter 10, instead of relying just on one lawcode, e.g., Russkaia Pravda, I included the lawcode of Vinodol, as well as the laws of King Coloman of Hungary. In Chapter 5, my selection of sources was based on the idea of illustrating key aspects of political life (e.g., the battle of Dyrrachion, 1081), as well as of economic and social organization (e.g., the cadastre of Thebes, a much neglected, but extraordinarily important source on eleventh-century Greece). While in some chapters (for example, Chapter 9 on the Crusades), the coverage was dictated by the desire to be comprehensive (at least one source for each one of the relevant crusades), in Chapter 7 and 8 on economy and society, as well as faith, religion, and heresy, the choice was more difficult. In both cases, I was looking for “typical,” and not for multiple cases. That is why some texts (such as the fragments from the Henryków Book or from Jewish responsa) are typically short, while others have more colour than others (for example, the fragment from the Life of St. Nikon Metanoiete or the excerpt from the Questions of Kirik).

Medieval Eastern Europe, 500–1300: A Reader edited by Florin Curta

Finally, I tried to offer as many perspectives as possible on the same event or problem. For example, attitudes towards the Vlachs in the Balkans varied, where I brought two Byzantine points of view (Kekaumenos and Nicetas Choniates), both hostile, as well as a Jewish perspective associated with the travelogue of Benjamin of Tudela. Similarly, the war between Samuel and Emperor Basil II is reflected in three sources – Byzantine (Scylitzes Continuatus), Frankish (Ademar of Chabannes), and Arabic (Yahyia of Antioch). The undeclared goal here is to invite students to discuss differences between those various points of view. The same is true for the inclusion of no less than seven letters written on birchbark. There is a great variety of topics and concerns in each one of those letters, and they can be compared among themselves, as well as to other examples of the epistolary genre included in the collection, such as Pope Nicholas I’s long letter to the Boris of Bulgaria or Johannitsa Kaloyan’s letter to Pope Innocent III.

Is there a particular source or text in this edited collection that stands out to you?

I am particularly fond of St. Clement of Ohrid’s eulogy of St. Cyril, an attachment that is linked to my teaching experience. I used the text in the classroom for seminar-like discussions of the primary sources. Every time I get to the sophisticated construction of the eulogy, particularly to the effective employment of anaphora and of poetic passages, I witness an extraordinary reaction from students. On one hand, their understanding of the work of medieval missionaries changes completely. Moreover, they gain appreciation of the skills educated churchmen put to work in communicating with simple, non-educated people. But students also discover rhetoric and begin to see it in a very different light, usually drawing comparisons between the use of figures of speech in sermons and narrative sources, such as Anna Comnena’s Alexiad.

What was the most challenging aspect of this project?

Obtaining permission for republishing fragments of texts in translation was a long and often frustrating process. Anyone going through that process will recognize the importance of putting together a reader, but few will understand that it is sometimes easier to do the translation anew than to obtain permission to republish an existing one.

What do you hope students will take away from reading this book?

I hope that the book will accomplish at least three goals. First, I want those primary sources to stimulate discussion, especially on a comparative basis. It is with that idea in mind that I have added a few questions at the end of each unit, to “break the ice.” Second, I want students to distinguish between categories of sources and be able to approach them with clear notions of genre and audience in mind. Third, my intention is to open a new area of medieval history, which has until now largely been neglected in higher education, especially in North America. Eastern Europe offers some fascinating insights and a wide variety of sources.

Learn more about Medieval Eastern Europe, 500–1300 by Florin Curta, here.


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