Interview with Florin Curta

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Florin Curta is the Associate Professor of Medieval History and Archaeology at the University of Florida.  After working as an archaeologist in Romania, Florin did his Ph.D. at Western Michigan University.  He has written dozens of articles and several books, focusing on southeastern Europe.  For more information about him, and to read several of his articles, please visit his website.

I will begin by asking how you became interested in medieval history and in particular the Early Middle Ages of Southeastern Europe?

Before getting my Ph.D. from Western Michigan University, I worked for three years as archaeologist in the Institute of Archaeology in Bucharest. I was a member of a section of that institute called “Archaeology of the First Millennium,” a title which reminds one of that of one of Klavs Randsborg’s books. Anyway, in East Central Europe, the “first millennium” is code for the Early Middle Ages, a notion that is more often employed by historians than by archaeologists. My experience as archaeologist led me to envisage a book on the early medieval Southeastern Europe.

You work in two fields, history and archaeology, which is somewhat unique. I was wondering how you are able to combine these two disciplines for your research and what are the advantages you see in this approach?

Combining history and archaeology is not at all unique, at least not in the European tradition in which I was educated in Bucharest. Unlike the United States, archaeology in many European countries still deals with the national past, and as a consequence is perceived as “history,” not “anthropology.” As a consequence, the discipline was and still is taught in departments of History, in combination with other auxiliary disciplines which are more commonly associated with the job of an historian. There are of course dangers in associating history and archaeology under the same umbrella of the “national past.” Separating the two disciplines (as in America) also led to some remarkable developments in the last fifty years or so, which would not have been possible within the intellectual environment of European archaeologies. But by now, American archaeologists are also turning to a more sophisticated concept of “history,” one which includes archaeology. Historical archaeology in the US has pioneered some of the most interesting methods of combining documentary evidence and material culture. To cite just one example from my own university, Kathleen Deagan’s work on Isabella in the Dominican Republic (Columbus’s first settlement in the New World) and St. Augustine in Florida (the oldest city in North America) is a powerful illustration of that approach. Its greatest advantage is that it allows the historian-archaeologist to have a much more comprehensive view of any society at any given moment in time. Indeed, while the written evidence may offer a remarkably detailed perspective, material culture is the “voice” of those whose presence is often muted by the surviving documentary sources.

You note in Southeastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 500-1250 that books in English about this region and period are almost non-existent [p. 28]. I was wondering how difficult it was to create a textbook like this and how did you go about arranging your subject matter? [For example, your book follows a chronological pattern instead of going from one country to the next or by focusing on particular subjects for each chapter].

To say that nothing was written in English on medieval Southeastern Europe is a bit exaggerated. I certainly did not say/write that, as the reference to John Fine’s books on that same page that you cite clearly shows. Fine wanted to write a history of the medieval Balkans, and in doing so, he approached the topic from an exclusively political and constitutional point of view. As a consequence, he had to deal with each country separately, although he too attempted to follow developments in (a chronological) parallel. My intention was somewhat different. First, Southeastern Europe is a geographically more inclusive notion than the Balkans. Second, I wanted to bring to the fore economic and social developments, without for that matter excluding the political emphasis. I therefore had to insist more on archaeology, because very few sources survive for the earlier period of the time span covered in my book. As a consequence, political boundaries (either in the past or in the present) did not matter that much to me, and I chose to deal with broad chronological slices (roughly, centuries) in order to capture not just parallel developments, but also interactions between various sub-regions of Southeastern Europe. There was no other way to reveal the importance in the history of the region of, say, nomads in the steppe lands north of the Lower Danube and the Black Sea.

Doing history about the Balkans presents some challenges that other medievalists would not have to deal with. For instance, I would think that a lot of the previous research has a very nationalist slant to them, and where event like the battle of Kosovo 1389 retain huge symbolism for some peoples. I was wondering if this is a serious problem for academic scholarship, or would you say that these concerns are overblown?

First off, I do not think that the Balkans represent a special case. Just take a look at how research in Anglo-Norman Ireland developed in the past four or five decades and you will notice similar challenges. A recent book by Derek Fewster chronicles the rise of Finnish medieval archaeology: there is much in that book that medievalists specializing in the history of the (narrowly defined) West would call “Balkan(ic).” On the other hand, the symbolism attached to such events as the 1389 battle of Kosovopolje has much more to do with the modern history of the region. In other words, that symbolism needs to be explained in terms of the changes taking place in the area during the last two centuries or so. Too often, dealing with the medieval history of the Balkans is taken to mean that we only need to understand the “stories” and “symbols” behind the more or less nationalistic claims of more or less recent times. But that presenteist approach is as detrimental to an understanding of what happened as, say, detaching the Joan of Arc episode from the entire history of the Hundred Years War. The medievalist who read Duby’s Dimanche de Bouvines knows that there is more to a key episode than just the symbolism attached to it in later times. He or she must therefore be aware of the true meaning of medievalism.

What advice would you give to up and coming graduate students who might be interested in doing research in Southeastern Europe? What kinds of topics would be ripe for a possible PhD dissertation?

First, learn the language(s). There is an enormous amount of highly-specialized literature, often of great quality, which remains inaccessible because no translations into English are available. Second, if you plan to deal with the earlier period (ca. 500-ca. 1200), learn archaeology. There is currently an explosion of interest in that field, although most American universities are somewhat behind the wave (see Helena Hamerow’s remarks in one of the last issues of the Medieval Academy Newsletter). The last chapter of my book on Southeastern Europe (pp. 415-437) includes a comprehensive list of topics inviting future research, neatly divided into three sections: “Economy,” “Society,” and “Religion.”

Finally, what are some of the future projects you are working on? Judging from your website, it looks as if you are planning to have a busy summer of 2007 in Poland.

The visit to Poland is just my regular Medieval Archaeology Field Practicum course. (The site of the archaeological summer school this year will be Wolin, a major trade-center of the Viking Age; we will participate in the excavation of burial mounds in one of the large cemeteries of the town).

I am currently working on two book projects. One of them is a social and economic history of Greece between 500 and 1050 for a multi-volume series on the history of Greece to be published by the Edinburgh University Press. The other is a book on Moravia and Bulgaria during the ninth century and in the context of the Carolingian encroachment into (South-)Eastern Europe. I am also working on a number of smaller projects: a re-evaluation of the “stirrup controversy” in light of the archaeological evidence of the Avar age; a paper on the sixth- to seventh-century Olsztyn group of cemeteries in northeastern Poland; and a (perhaps) longer paper on cave monasticism in tenth-century Bulgaria, Cappadocia, Italy, and Spain.

 

We thank Professor Curta for kindly answering our questions.  This interview was conducted in January 2007.

Sharan Newman