Cumans and Tatars: Oriental Military in the Pre-Ottoman Balkans, 1183-1365

Cumans and Tatars: Oriental Military in the Pre-Ottoman Balkans, 1183-1365

By István Vásáry

Cambridge University Press, 2005

Originally reviewed by Chris Deliso on May 9, 2005 here.

In terms of Balkan history, they could be called the Turks before the Turks – those hard-living nomad warriors from beyond the Ukrainian steppes who descended on horseback in their multitudes, pillaging as they went and changing the course of history in the process. In Cumans and Tatars: Oriental Military in the Pre-Ottoman Balkans, 1183-1365 (released very recently, on 24 April) we are treated to a fascinating and unmatched account of two Turkic peoples who played a large part in the political and military developments of their day – in the process contributing considerably to the creation of today’s Balkan Peninsula.

Drawing both on primary sources from the period in question and the latest scholarly investigations, author István Vásáry makes a persuasive case for how these enigmatic tribes who would later all but disappear from history actually played a major role not only in medieval military affairs, but also in establishing viable political entities in what are now Bulgaria and Romania. The Cumans and Tatars not only made their presence felt as troops under their own command, or as mercenaries in foreign armies, but were also assimilated by the societies with which they came into contact, in some cases inhabiting the uppermost reaches of government and society. They married into the nobility of all adjacent societies, including even that of the Latins who held Constantinople from 1204-1261.

An important point that Cumans and Tatars establishes is that while the Ottomans tend to get all the credit (or, all the blame) for wresting control of the Balkans, there were other Turkic peoples who had established a strong presence there far before they had ever dreamed of an empire in Europe.

At the same time, Vásáry makes a convincing case that the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans was neither accidental nor particularly tragic, in comparison with the prevailing anarchy of the time – a situation partially caused by the unpredictable military depravations of the transient Cuman and Tatar tribes that swept down from the steppes with unsettling (for the local inhabitants) regularity. In his retelling, the Pax Ottomanica finally brought a long period of peace and stability to a region that had been sorely lacking in these qualities for centuries.

And so in the end, the fate of the Balkans was somewhat a matter of pick your poison- the invasion of Turkic peoples from the northeast (Ukraine) or from the southeast (Anatolia). Had the former tribes been as ideologically motivated and driven to urbanization by geographical concerns as were the latter, then perhaps they and not the Ottomans would have established an empire in Europe. That they didn’t does not mean that the Tatars and Cumans and their legacy should be ignored.

Dueling Nationalisms

The author is a former Hungarian ambassador to Turkey and currently professor of Turkic and Central Asian Studies at the University in Budapest. Considering that his book focuses on Turkic nomads who operated largely on the terrain of modern-day Romania and Bulgaria, two historic enemies of Hungary and Turkey respectively, it might seem that certain implications could be drawn from these facts, and unfortunately this is the case, as the reader increasingly finds throughout the book.

Indeed, Vásáry’s third major quest is to prove that various medieval Bulgarian and Romanian dynasties were either established by or heavily involved Turkic Cumans and Tatars, as well as Vlachs from southern Macedonia, something that brings him into constant collisions with historians from the former nations. In addition, Vásáry aims to “…disperse the rosy clouds of nostalgia that hang over the medieval golden age of the pre-Ottoman Balkans, depicted with so much zeal by the historiographies of the Balkanic nation states” (p. 167).

A nice goal, but whether the author is the man for the job is questionable at best, as he himself displays latent nationalistic motivations. As anyone familiar with contemporary scholarly literature knows, Western authors have just learned to be more subtle in expressing their prejudices, a lesson that has not been lost on academics from nations eager to imitate them.

The Situation of Sources

In any case, Vásáry has an excellent command of the sources, many of which are written in obscure and intractably difficult languages. It is a rare polymath these days that can display such versatility. Cumans and Tatars is also very well-written, especially since it comes from a non-native writer of English.

Vásáry relies on Byzantine Greek accounts as the main basis of the narrative, for the simple reason that they are more plentiful and complete, while bolstering his treatment with Hungarian, Turkish, Arabic, Slavic, Latin and other medieval sources. A nice touch at the beginning is the inclusion of short biographies of these main Greek historiographers (Choniates, Akropolites, Pachymeres, Gregoras and Kantakouzenos), and the presuppositions and tendencies that characterized their writings. This is useful because for the general reader Byzantine scholars are little-known and some explication goes a long way.

The major problem a historian runs in to when studying nomadic peoples like the Cumans and Tatars, the author makes a point of mentioning, is these peoples’ failure to write their own histories. Being the kind of society that they were, the nomadic warriors of the Eurasian steppes could hardly be faulted for this, of course; but the lack of self-descriptive sources does make the researcher’s job more difficult. On this point, Vásáry reminds that contemporary descriptions of the Cumans and Tatars have to be filtered according to the prejudices and predilections of the people describing them. A Muslim Arabic account of nomadic deeds might stress different aspects than would, say, a Christian Hungarian one. And the Byzantines, with their habit for using archaic and sometimes confused terminology, have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis: when does a ‘Scythian’ really mean a ‘Cuman?’ Or when does a ‘Cuman’ really mean a Tatar?

That said, no matter how many sources a historian has at hand, they are useless he knows how to use them. With his great linguistic knowledge of obscure medieval Turkic dialects as well as the other relevant languages, Vásáry is well-equipped to tackle these problems of nomenclature and makes convincing arguments in the majority of cases regarding which peoples are/are not being described correctly at different periods in time. He does this by matching linguistic evidence with the historiography and with established knowledge regarding the Mongol and Turkic migrations to the west.

This leads us to one of the problems of the work. While extremely detailed and eminently lucid throughout, what is missing is a more basic understanding of who Cumans and Tatars were, and how they lived. We know that they were nomad pastoralists, were excellent horseback riders and fighters, and migrated seasonally in search of pasturage. We know that they were considered barbarians by their neighbors, and oftentimes lived up to the reputation. But what we don’t learn much about is how these qualities established limiting factors in Cuman and Tatar society.

With the exception of Vásáry’s assertion that these tribes did not fight in the summer because of their need to return to the crops, something which he uses to help in dating battles and other events, the brief survey given in the first chapter of Mark Whittow’s The Making of Byzantium is far more informative about the origins of the nomads and the prevailing factors that drove their social and political development. While Vásáry tells us of the importance of the clan structure, it is Whittow who quantifies the exigencies of nomad life by assessing the acreage required to sustain populations with an enormous livestock count – and the implications this had for the precise acentralized character of Cuman and Tatar political structures.

Other things we don’t hear about are the more revealing details of Tatar and Cuman social life. This is not to say that the author misses them altogether, of course. One of the most fascinating is the description, given in passing, of the burial rite for a Cuman prince who, “…being a pagan, was buried outside the city walls of Constantinople in a tumulus. In the pagan burial ceremony, eight volunteer warriors and twenty-six horses were sacrificed to his memory” (p. 66).

This is the kind of thing we would like to hear more of. The remarkable detail only increases the reader’s curiosity regarding other, unmentioned practices with a similar capacity to astonish.

A Compelling Narrative

All things considered, however, the author does a fine job in identifying and locating the Cuman and Tatar presence in very specific events and political metastases from the 12th-14th centuries. He sets this account within the wider context of Byzantium, the Crusades, Western and Ottoman expansionism, and the internal forces of kingdom-building among the Balkan peoples. Pages 4-12 of the introductory first chapter are indispensable for their linguistic explications of Tatar and Cuman origins and their relations with related Turkic tribes such as the Kipchaks, Pechenegs and Uz. The following chapters go on to discuss the effect that the former tribes had on their Bulgarian, Wallachian, Serbian, Byzantine and Hungarian neighbors during an extremely turbulent and complex period in the Balkans.

All of this is accomplished with a perspicacious attention to detail and a sense for narrative that is only tempered by the limitations of the primary source material. As such, Vásáry’s text makes for enjoyable as well as edifying reading. When he makes assertions that are sure to stir up controversy (such as the Cuman-Vlach roots of the Asenid Bulgarian dynasty in chapter 2 or the Tatar origins of the Romanian Basarabid dynasty in chapter 9), the author does so on the basis of sound reasoning and with diligent attention to the source material.

A key point frequently emphasized is that though they lacked permanent state structures such as their more sedentary neighbors enjoyed, the Cuman and Tatar were indispensable to all of them because of their martial skills. In the age before gunpowder, the fast, concentrated force of light cavalry bowmen was the most devastating weapon any army could wish to have, and here the battle-hardened Cumans and Tatars were the best in the business. Vásáry embellishes the point with a vivid description by the Byzantine writer Niketas Choniates:

 ”…They [i.e. the Cumans] fought in their habitual manner, learnt from their fathers. They would attack, shoot their arrows and begin to fight with spears. Before long they would turn their attack into flight and induce the enemy to pursue them. Then they would show their faces instead of their backs, like birds cutting through the air, and would fight face to face with their assailants and struggle even more bravely. This they would do several times, and when they gained the upper hand over the Romans [Byzantines], they would stop turning back again. Then they would draw their swords, release an appalling roar, and fall upon the Romans quicker than a thought. They would seize and massacre those who fought bravely and those who behaved cowardly alike” (p. 56).

That said, it is easy to understand that when they weren’t running in headlong panic from them, all of the neighboring Balkan states found it sensible to employ these warriors in their service. As mercenaries, such nomads were responsible for many decisive victories and indeed, as Vásáry reminds, it was all but impossible for a state to prevail without their help.

This brings us to another important point the author makes in his bid to wipe out the “rosy clouds of nostalgia”- the fact that every state in the region was dependent on large numbers of mercenaries, not always steppe nomads, but who in all cases shared with the latter the characteristics of unpredictable and erratic behavior and a tendency towards brigandage. There was no such thing as national or ethnic armies fighting patriotically for states, as latter-day historians sometimes read anachronistically back into past events.

This dependence on mercenaries often invited disaster. As Byzantine power ebbed away throughout the 13th and 14th centuries, for example, large numbers of mixed mercenaries were required for any major operation, oftentimes incurring unexpected results. Thus we hear of Catalan mercenaries in Byzantine service who, after liberating Anatolian Philadelphia in 1303, went on the rampage, sacking Byzantine towns and even Mt. Athos (pp. 108-109) together with Tatar and other mercenary elements. And we also hear of the time when in 1275 the Byzantines, looking to put down a rebellious Thessalian lord, sent a huge army of Greeks, Cumans and Turks under the command of the brother of Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologos. Everything was going fine until “something unexpected happened.” In Vásáry’s retelling, the Cuman “mischief” acquires comic dimensions:

“…The Cumans began to plunder the churches and monasteries and set them on fire. They seized the nuns and made them their slaves, and desecrated the holy objects, using the icons as tables for eating” (p. 117).

But it was not all fun and games to be a barbarian pagan warrior in the Middle Ages. Another Byzantine campaign, this time against the Serbs in 1282, saw the unfortunate, accidental mass drowning of Tatar mercenaries in the River Drim in Kosovo (p. 102). Then there was always the chance of group deportation. To lessen the chances of more Thessaly-style “mischief” in the form of a palace coup, the Byzantine emperor in 1327 relocated 2,000 Cuman warriors to three Greek islands in order to minimize their potential for trouble-making (p. 117). And while being a feared member of medieval society had its advantages, the dictum about there always being a bigger fish held true, as was seen by the waves of Cuman refugees that swept south through Bulgaria on the heels of the Tatar invasion of 1236.

Of course, even though they were refugees in true nomad style the Cumans carried on pillaging as they went (p. 64). Finally, Vásáry describes scenes where Cuman mercenaries, hired by opposing sides, were actually fighting one another. Small wonder that the price Cumans and Tatars would pay for establishing viable political entities was, according to the author, assimilation by the dominant ethnic group, whether Bulgars, Romanians or Greeks.

Some Missing Info: Maps

Considering that Cumans and Tatars assumes a certain amount of prior knowledge on the part of the reader, and especially concerning the origins of the Turkic peoples in Central Asia and Mongolia, it would have been nice to have more maps. For the general reader, and even for scholars of the Balkans or Byzantium, this is very remote territory and a little bit of visual orientation would help the reader considerably.

First of all, the inclusion of only political maps is unfortunate, considering that Cuman and Tatar movements were dictated largely by geography. While the 4 maps that are included (Balkans general, northwestern Balkans/Hungarian Kingdom, northeastern Balkans, and southern Balkans/Aegean) are very useful, they are not dated. Considering that the author is talking about frequently changing borders over a 200-year period, adding more and specifically dated maps would be useful.

Further, the author is unclear in his map methodology, seeming to utilize a combination of modern understandings of territory (i.e., ‘Macedonia’ conforms roughly to the territory of the modern-day Macedonian Republic, not to the boundaries of the various medieval Serbian or Bulgarian states, nor to the borders of the previous Byzantine thema of Macedonia) and medieval ones (i.e., the identification and location of tiny banates in the Serbian-Hungarian borderlands). These issues open up on to the topic of nationalism and politics, which we return to presently.

The Bitter End

Despite his impressive erudition and engaging treatment of the source material, the way the author chooses to conclude the book leaves a rather sour taste. Unfortunately, like so many Western authors writing on the Balkans, Vásáry can’t resist the temptation to pontificate. This would not be so questionable were the author not tacitly involved in undermining rival nationalistic claims in historiography partially to propagate those of his own nation.

Of course, the 19th century creation of nation-states that did not correspond with any previous historical model – and the scholarly “justifications” for this practice – are rightly seen as anomalies with regrettably destructive legacies. The author does well to point out that life in the Middle Ages was, in the Balkans as elsewhere, still nasty, brutish and short, filled with the uncertainties of plagues, crop failure, anarchic political leadership and the constant threats of plunder and pillage from steppe nomads and other marauders.

It would have been one thing had the author left things having made this observation. However, Vásáry draws the now tired conclusion of so many American and British writers assured of the Balkanians’ obdurate backwardness:

“…the Balkans have yet to find the key and meaning of their historical existence and to decide whether they want to belong to the mainstream of European development or to insist on their Byzantine and Ottoman autocratic traditions. This process of clarification will be the chief task of the third millennium.” (p. 167)

This is heady stuff indeed. It could almost be another EU directive.

This resounding conclusion is actually foreshadowed long before, in the introductory description of the Balkans. Here specifically excluded from the peninsula are Croatia “…which surely belonged to Western European civilization” (p. xiii) and Romania. However, the Balkans has always been characterized by diversity, which for better and for worse is a defining trait that has always driven the fate of the region. In the broad cultural, social and historical view, Croatia and Romania cannot be extricated from their certifiably Balkan neighbors.

Yet these omissions serve another purpose, too. After all, despite the stylistics and mindset, the author is not American, British, German or French. He belongs to the subject matter he is discussing, and whether or not Croatia may have always “belonged to” Western European civilization, in a tangible sense it once belonged to Hungary. And the Croats chafed under the Hapsburg Empire – especially hating the chauvinistic and assimilatory nature of Hungarian rule.

Hungarian nationalism today has retained a soft and sentimental spot for the “true” Hungary, which would see the “return” of Transylvania and Vojvodina (conveniently if subtly affirmed by the author’s inclusion of a map of the medieval Hungarian Kingdom). Of course, the author does not extol the rosy glow of Hungary’s past, but neither does he try to extinguish it as he does with the luckless Bulgarians and Romanians. We can suppose that EU and NATO member Hungary has through these institutions somehow found the “key and meaning” of its historical existence – as we can assume by implication – even if it has come at the expense of its Balkan neighbors.

Yet by taking Romania and Croatia out of the Balkans, Vásáry forfeits in advance; he withdraws from entering into rougher terrain, from opening up issues that would spawn arguments that could hit very close to home- and prove that the Hungarians can hardly claim to be above the fray. Unfortunately for the author, despite the pontification and the strenuous attempts at discretion, it is not hard to see through it. Despite the appearance of being an objective history (as if such a thing were possible) written by the detached academic, it is the lurking nationalism of the former civil servant that really jumps out in this abrasive conclusion, one that mars what is otherwise an excellent and informative treatment of a little-known but vital topic.

With that excepted, there is still plenty to be recommended in Cumans and Tatars. It will appeal to a wide-range of readers with interests in Byzantium, the Turkic world, and the Balkans in general. It does a service in providing a whole new dimension on one of the most exciting and turbulent, though obscure, periods of European history, and the mysterious nomadic people who fueled its evolution.

Readers of this book will also like:

Pananos Sophoulis, Banditry in the Medieval Balkans, 800-1500

Mark Whittow, The Making of Orthodox Byzantium, 600-1025

Barry Cunliffe, The Scythians: Nomad Warriors of the Steppe

Walter Pohl, The Avars: A Steppe Empire in Central Europe, 567-822