Feasting with “Kings” in an Ancient Democracy:On the Slavic Society of the Early Middle Ages (Sixth to Seventh Century A.D.)
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 15 (19998)
One of the most persistent stereotypes about the early medieval history of Eastern Europe holds that the Slavs, at the time of their migration, were a “polyarchic tribal society with no elevated notion of sovereignty.” No Theodoric arose among the Slavs to gather their scattered communities into a state and attempt a symbiosis with the Greco-Roman civilization of Byzantium.1 My intention in this paper is to take a fresh look at the early Slavic society in the light of written evidence. I will then focus on the applicability of the modern concept of chiefdom to Slavic society and compare Slavic leaders with “classical” examples of big-men and great-men, on the basis of a theory of symbolic power. By emphasizing the mechanism of the accumulation of power in the hands of the Slavic “kings,” I will consider the archaeological evidence and how feasting may have promoted the growth of social inequality. I shall raise the question of whether current historiographical models are appropriate for understanding early medieval societies.