Banditry in the Medieval Balkans, 800-1500

Note: this book review was originally published in the Society for the Promotion of Byzantine Studies in the March 2021 Bulletin of British Byzantine Studies. Click here to read that version (scroll down to the second review).

March 25, 2021

Panos Sophoulis, Banditry in the Medieval Balkans, 800-1500 (Palgrave, 2020)

Reviewed by Christopher Deliso

This engaging study, a part of Palgrave’s New Approaches to Byzantine History and Culture series, investigates an important aspect of Byzantine social life that is both well-known and yet understudied: that is, the role played by highwaymen, brigands, pirates and other semi-professional enemies of law and order in the medieval Balkans.

Author Panos Sophoulis is an acknowledged academic expert in the Byzantine Balkans, having received his DPhil from Oxford and subsequently specializing in the empire’s relations with medieval powers like the Bulgarians and Serbians. Currently Assistant Professor of History at the University of Athens, his 2012 book (Byzantium and Bulgaria, 775-831, Brill) won the John Bell Book Prize in 2013.

With his follow-up effort, Dr. Sophoulis approaches the complex issue of banditry over a 700-year period in an ethnically, linguistically, religiously and topographically diverse region, and attempts to draw some conclusions that are generally applicable, in consideration of what he concedes are limiting factors- chief of all being the paucity of surviving written and archaeological source material.

The author also deals with some concerns over potentially outdated methodological approaches affecting studies of banditry in general. Chief amongst these is Eric Hobsbawm’s very influential concept of ‘social banditry’ formulated in the 1960s, and supposedly applicable to all pre-industrial societies. However, Hobsbawm’s Marxist-influenced project that assigned bandits a role in dispending social and economic justice (in the most romanticized sense of the Robin Hood legends) does not, at least in the case of medieval Balkan source material, find anything to support such a conclusion, the author notes. However, he does credit Hobsbawn with sparking an interest in the stody of banditry in general, which led to other metholodical developments that are also discussed in the work.

Stripped of ideological pretensions, the question of banditry on the medieval Balkan Peninsula becomes defined by empirical data with which the historian can more soberly engage. To do this, the author establishes several key parameters. These include the primary and secondary road and river networks, and the specific geography (banditry was particularly prevalent at key choke-points in rugged terrain, and near areas that were frequently traveled by merchants, monks and emissaries).  

Sophoulis also identifies three main sources of banditry (shepherds, soldiers and peasants), and explores their varied motivations for part-time brigandry. This is one of the book’s most interesting aspects. Byzantine soldiers, for example, were as a rule retired without pension, meaning that many sought to augment wages earned through farming or other means with occasional plunder. The author consistently notes the thin line separating banditry from paramilitary (or organized military) activity, as attested in the primary sources. But even so, the existence of military men as national heroes – even in the folk ballad tradition, which Sophoulis also discusses – seems to be a development more associated with the post-Byzantine Balkans and later independence movements.

Others with similar physical conditioning for launching armed attacks included the shepherd class, which is where the author devotes considerable attention to the Vlach pastoralists who traversed hundreds of miles in their seasonal migrations from summer pasturages the mountains of Macedonia and Bulgaria into the lowlands (for example, the plain of Thessaly) in winter. Both Byzantine and Western primary sources attest that the Vlachs were some of the most formidable bandits one could encounter, and their range of activity also was geographically the most extensive, stretching from Greece as far north as Dalmatia and Romania.

The final typical Balkan bandit, the peasant farmer, seems to have been the least capable and the most susceptible to economic exigencies driven by phenomena such as crop failure to explain their actions. In all three categories, however, Sophoulis notes that the sources find that economic gain was the primary motivation for the turn to banditry.

Interestingly, the author argues that the relative economic recovery in the Balkans under the Macedonian dynasty following the Byzantine-Bulgarian wars made the region (particularly Macedonia and Thrace) more prosperous and thus more appealing to robbers and highwaymen. Similarly, the wealthy trading city-state of Ragusa (Dubrovnik) on the Adriatic was another place nearby which brigandry was common. In both cases, the author advances the subject by citing new research from the archives of Mt. Athos in Greece and of the Dubrovnik City Archive, the latter of which records hundreds of medieval court cases over banditry.

As the main conduit for Venetian trade into the Balkans, Dubrovnik’s Adriatic hinterland was unsurprisingly a popular place for bandits. But the fact that the city-state had such solid institutions and such an advanced legal system may also help explain why its records on banditry are so rich. The relative lack of similar information from powerful contemporaneous states like, for example, Bulgaria is an oddity that leaves it unclear as to whether a proportionately accurate picture of Balkan banditry can ever really be generated.

Nevertheless, the author does his best to illustrate within what the sources provide all of the groups active across the region. Thus we learn of the infamous Narentine pirate – the scourge of Venice for several centuries, controlling several Croatian islands and Dalmatian ports – as well as the Albanian and Montenegrin gangs that were characterized chiefly by extended kinship networks and that in one case, created conditions for territorial expansion in Epiros.

While the author does not discuss it in any detail, it is highly likely that the phenomenon of Balkan land brigands and maritime pirates had a decisive influence both on military innovation and strategy. For example, the above-mentioned Narentines of Croatia drove Venice to upgrade its naval capacities, which in turn would help the Republic to establish itself as the premier maritime power economically and militarily in the Adriatic and Mediterranean thereafter. And the experience of the German knights of the Third Crusade, who were chronically harassed by bandits while crossing the Balkans, would have surely influenced the decision of crusade planners to travel more safely by sea, when the time came for the epoch-shifting Fourth Crusade and capture of Constantinople in 1204.

Another contribution Sophoulis makes is to assess the official response of the state to banditry. In this, he includes Byzantine legal texts dating as far back as Justinian the Great, as well as the legal codes of Dubrovnik and of Serbian kings like Stefan Dušan. Here again the author is able to weave the specific issue of brigandage into the bigger political-economic issue of international relations: seeking to guarantee good trade relations with wealthy powers like Venice, and increasingly wealthy itself due to export of salt and precious metals, Serbia assigned severe penalties to bandits, like blinding or the death penalty. One amusingly medieval legal condition recited from the Serbian code is the proof of innocence, by which an accused thief would have to carry a super-heated piece of metal from the doorframe of the village church and place it on the prayer-book. Should he do so successfully, he would be pronounced innocent.

Sophoulis argues convincingly that medieval Balkan rulers, who often outsourced protection of vital rural trade roads to untrustworthy local lords, may have actually made the situation worse by legislating draconian punishments. He also notes that the lack of evidence regarding convictions means that cases of banditry were probably oftentimes tit-for-tat feuds solved outside of the official legal system, and in any case pointed to a type of law that was very difficult to actually enforce.

In conclusion, it can be said that this is a recommended work of social history that should be included as a complementary text in several strands of political, social, military and economic history. While specialists will doubtless be familiar with most of the sources and the overarching issues, there are a number of unusual and unexpected inclusions, from textual to archaeological citations, that indicate the author has done a very comprehensive job of investigating a topic that has barely even been identified by the larger Byzantine research community.