Oct 8, 2006

Book Review: East Central Europe in the Middle Ages, 1000-1500

Sedlar, Jean

Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994, 556 pages

Sedlar is a Professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown, and received her doctorate from the University of Chicago. A prolific author, Sedlar has published ten books covering a wide array of periods and topics, and has a manuscript that will be published in the next year on the activities of the Axis Empire in southeastern Europe during the Second World War. East Central Europe in the Middle Ages is part of a multi-volume series by the University of Washington Press that provides English syntheses of the history of the region for scholars and students. The author was primarily concerned with the areas today defined by Poland, Hungary, the Czech and Slovak republics, the former Yugoslavian republics, Romania, Albania, and Bulgaria.

Sedlar’s book attempts to address not only the paucity of English-language historical texts on east central Europe, but also the lack of comprehensive materials that examine the region as a comparative whole. The chapters are organized thematically, and the author includes information within each chapter that describes how a given sub-grouping fits within the context of the chapter’s theme. The book’s index is cross-referenced for many of the most common alternate names of people and places; a reader, for example who looked up the Adriatic town of “Ragusa” (as it was known while under the domination of the Venetians) is directed to “Dubrovnik.”

While not footnoted, the text contains appendices with a list of east central European monarchs, a lengthy chronology, and a useful collection of place name equivalents; one might begin reading the book with a review of the chronology appendix in order to refresh or acquaint oneself with the important events of the region in the period being discussed. Sedlar also included an informative bibliographical essay that discusses a number of the more noteworthy historiographical debates, while providing a starting point for future researchers.

Left: Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund

After brief discussions of the prehistoric, Roman, and Byzantine eras of east central Europe, the author composed a lengthy chapter on the historical importance of monarchy in the region, which she called “unquestionably the central secular institution” in the area’s medieval history. While dynastic families flourished in many states, individuals such as George Poděbrady in Bohemia and Matthias Hunyadi in Hungary occasionally rose to the throne. Sedlar argued that, while dynastic succession was the preferred method of governmental continuation, states in east central Europe exhibited a greater degree of willingness to anoint monarchs without “genuine” royal credentials. In addition, the mythology surrounding some dynastic families displayed “strikingly humble” beginnings, as noted in the examples of the reverence paid to the peasant bark shoes of Bohemian monarch Přemysl and the village priest origins of Sebia’s Nemanjic dynasty.

Sedlar provided a great deal of information about the historical presence and influence of the Ottoman Empire in east central Europe, unlike the tendency by Western-oriented historians to overlook Islam. Readers will learn, for example, that peasants in Ottoman-dominated areas were not subject to the arbitrary legal authority of landlords – as was the case with many serfs and peasants in other east central European areas – but rather found themselves under the jurisdiction of the local qadi (Islamic judge). The Ottoman political system, argued Sedlar, was also more centralized than many of the Balkan governments it had replaced, resulting in the development of stronger administrative units. Non-Muslim households paid head tax called the jizya, while Muslims did not pay taxes to the sultan unless military action took place in the area in which they lived. The fact that “many Balkan princes were evidently quite devoid of scruples,” argued Sedlar, prevented a rise of anti-Islamic sentiment in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries; this was a time when the political and military threat from the Turks was quite obvious.

Left: Map of Ottoman Empire detaling territorial losses between 1793-1923 (click to enlarge)

Sedlar devoted an extensive chapter to the conflict between the Orthodox and Roman branches of Christianity for dominance in east central Europe, which added another dimension to the Christianity-Islam struggle in the region. The author argued that the political strength of Catholic states led to religious intolerance against Orthodox believers, especially in Poland and Hungary. Sedlar depicted a region in which religious tension was a primary force in the movement of history, and in which phenomena such as the Hussite movement can be understood within the larger context of conflict between Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, and pagan traditions.

The period 1000-1500 witnessed the rise of regional and international commerce in east central Europe. Sedlar argued that the towns deriving the most benefit from trade were those situated on the Adriatic (such as Ragusa) or those along major rivers like the Danube (such as Vienna). Money economies were slow to develop in east central Europe, the author maintained, because the rise of centralized governments in the region occurred later than in other areas of Europe; pelts, animal hides, and salt were among the exchange media used by east central Europeans prior to the establishment of coinage systems in the late medieval/early modern period.

Commerce in the region was thus dominated by Venetian, Dalmatian, and south German merchants and bankers, whose connections to international markets and sources of investment necessitated their involvement in trade. Sedlar argued that the gold and silver production in Bohemia and Hungary “undermined the position of their own artisan classes,” as foreign goods could be purchased more cheaply than those produced domestically. The relative backwardness of east central Europe as compared with the West can be better understood within the context of the aforementioned economic quirks of commerce in the late medieval and early modern period.

East Central Europe in the Middle Ages is a first-rate survey of the region, and an especially useful text for students and non-specialist scholars. Sedlar writes with a lucid, uncluttered prose that is edifying as well as enjoyable to read. The book is best read slowly, chapter-by-chapter, as Sedlar’s style is impressionistic, and readers are advised to let a chapter simmer for a day before continuing. There is a certain duplicative tendency within the text, as Sedlar’s thematic approach inevitably necessitates the repetition of some material, but this can only serve to enhance the retention of material by readers; after all, the very purpose of digesting a book of this type is to bring the reader to a heightened level of historical understanding.


microdot said...

This sounds like a grand book. Your review sounds fascinating, the more so for me because I have just finished Jason Goodwins History of the Ottoman Empire, Lords of the Horizon which probably traces a lot of the same info from the other side....

Anonymous said...

The picture you identify as "George Podebrady of Bohemia" is in fact Emperor Sigismund.

historymike said...

Thanks, Anonymous. Brain spasm on my part, and it is duly corrected. You have a sharp eye.