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Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages: What, Where, When

By Alice Isabella Sullivan

Throughout the medieval period, Eastern Europe stood at the crossroads of different traditions—among them Latin, Greek, Slavic, and Islamic—which informed local political, military, economic, cultural, and artistic developments. Whereas the medieval West has established its footing in scholarship and the popular imagination, relatively little is known about the countries, peoples, cultures, and histories of Eastern Europe during the Middle Ages outside of local communities and circles of academic specialists.

Inconsistencies in the definition of what actually is Eastern Europe, or Southeastern Europe, or Central Europe, or East-Central Europe at any given moment have been responsible for the marginalization of these lands. At times, certain regions of the Balkan Peninsula, the Carpathian Mountains, and further north were included in geographies and the conversations; at other times, they were excluded and ignored altogether. For much of the medieval period, Eastern European territories—like the Hungarian and Polish-Lithuanian kingdoms, the principalities of Wallachia, Moldavia, and Transylvania around the Carpathian Mountains (which later formed the country of modern Romania), the powers of Kievan Rus’, Muscovy, Serbia, and Bulgaria—experienced shifting political borders that complicate the picture.

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Today, these lands are located in many different countries, each with its own language and customs. The history is shifting and complex but enriching as well and could offer much to our understanding of the interconnectedness of the medieval world and the different traditions that contributed to the development of local customs.

The specificities of each region that constitutes Eastern Europe, and, in modern times, politics and nationalistic approaches, have reinforced the tendencies to treat them separately, preventing scholars from questioning whether aspects of local developments could be considered as expressions of shared histories. For much of the twentieth century, ideological agendas, prejudices in historical writing, and difficulties in gaining physical and intellectual access to Eastern Europe have contributed to this issue.

The Iron Curtain also created actual and ideological barriers, separating Eastern Europe from much of the rest of the continent. Access to people, sites, and knowledge was limited. But ever since the events of 1989 and the fall of Communist regimes, a more prismatic picture of the lands in the east is beginning to emerge, although much work remains to be done.

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In parts of Eastern Europe, different religions took center stage. But for the territories of the Balkans, the Carpathians, and further north, the spiritual power of Byzantium and Eastern Orthodoxy helped shape aspects of political, economic, religious, and cultural facets well after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. In certain ways, medieval customs continue in regions of Eastern Europe well into the eighteenth century, posing problems to the artificial periodizations that have long defined the fields of medieval and Byzantine studies.

For instance, the art, architecture, and visual culture produced in the crucible of the post-1453 world is equally rich and dynamic as the late Palaiologan artistic production. Yet it has long been dismissed as “inferior” and relegated to the margins of inquiry. The collapse of the Byzantine Empire, however, did not put an end to creativity and cultural developments. On the contrary, it contributed to the movement of people, objects, and ideas across established borders, which facilitated cross-cultural contacts and informed local production and ways of life.

In this regard, the material evidence examined together with the written historical record can enhance the picture of local uniqueness and the interconnectedness of the Eastern European world during the medieval period. As such, aspects of the local ought to be considered on their own terms and in relation to other traditions, such as those derived from Latin, Greek, Slavic, and Islamic models, among others. Just like the Mediterranean established connections across the medieval world, the lands to the east of the former Iron Curtain—what I define as Eastern Europe—emerged at the intersection of different traditions especially in the period between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries. To these territories, I would also add Serbia and regions of the Adriatic coast that also stood at the crux of dynamic interactions during the Middle Ages.

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As a historian of art, architecture, and visual culture specializing in the artistic production of Eastern Europe and the Byzantine-Slavic cultural spheres, the dialog between the textual and material evidence sits at the foundation of my work. Although I have been trained in the histories of western medieval art and Byzantine art, I realized that much can be gained from looking at the lands that developed at the crossroads of Byzantium and the west, along the eastern borders of Europe. And so, I turned by attention to the lesser-studied histories, arts, and cultures of the Balkans, the Carpathians, and further north, which have been by and large absent from the grander and more established academic narratives. Medieval and Byzantine studies have long operated within particular parameters that have excluded the Eastern European cultural contexts from their geographic, thematic, cultural, and temporal purviews.

My background, training, and scholarly interests have allowed me to engage in new ways with recent debates in the field of art history, medieval studies, and Byzantine studies as I seek with my work to expand the conversations and make known the sophisticated cultural production in frontier zones and in cultural spaces that engage in dialogues with multiple “centers.” I aim to put the medieval history and artistic production of Eastern Europe on the map of art history.

But this is not the work of an individual; rather it is through collaborations between scholars in various disciplines and working on both sides of the Atlantic that strides could be made in this regard. The effort should certainly be a collaborative one, as evident through the North of Byzantium initiative and its proposed plans for events, publications, and resources aimed to connect scholars, students, and the wider public.

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My interests in the material and textual evidence and its ability to reveal nuanced facets of the historical past will be evident in my forthcoming contributions, through which I will tackle various aspects of the rich history, art, and culture of regions of Eastern Europe during the long Middle Ages.

Alice Isabella Sullivan is an art historian specializing in the medieval history, art, and culture of Eastern Europe and the Byzantine-Slavic cultural spheres. She has authored award-winning publications and is co-founder of North of Byzantium.

Further Reading:

F. Curta and D. Zupka, eds., East Central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 450–1450 (Brill, 2007–2020).

R. Ousterhout, Eastern Medieval Architecture: The Building Traditions of Byzantium and Neighboring Lands (Oxford University Press, 2019).

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M. A. Rossi and A. I. Sullivan, “Late Medieval Visual Culture in Eastern Europe,” Encyclopedia of the Global Middle Ages, Thematic Overview (Bloomsbury Academic, 2020).

Top Image: Detail of Eastern Europe from a 16th century map by Abraham Ortelius

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