Mühle, Die Slaven im Mittelalter
Annotation author: Guthier, Sophia Sonja
Book author: Mühle, Eduard

Eduard Mühle, Die Slaven im Mittelalter, Wien, Köln, Weimar 2020

The German historian Eduard Mühle was the director of the Herder Institute of Marburg from 1995 to 2005. Mühle is Professor of Eastern European History at the University of Münster since 2005. Between 2008 and 2013 he was the director of the German Historical Institute in Warsaw. He is a leading expert in the field of early and high medieval history of cities and the realms of the eastern and western Slavic people.

Eduard Mühle begins his book Die Slaven im Mittelalter by criticizing the general western European perception of eastern Europe and its population. He mentions that the term Slavs was an ‘invention’ of the Enlightenment and Romanticism. Without going into further details, Mühle then focusses on the Middle Ages. He investigates how Slavs were perceived in the medieval world and, in particular, what concepts and beliefs western European sources used in order to present the Slavs.  Mühle’s main question is in which way the medieval world perceived the “Slavs”, more specifically what concepts and beliefs the western European sources present of them. To this end, Mühle investigates Byzantine, Latin and Arabic sources written between the sixth and fourteenth centuries. This review will focus on the part of the study that focuses on Byzantine sources, since this examination proved to be particularly useful for the GRK 2304, as well as for my own research. The other two parts are, however, analogous in detail to the Byzantine chapter of the book.

The author notes that until the seventh century, only Byzantine chroniclers used the term “Slavs”. The chronicler Procopius of Caesarea (died c. 562) called the “Slavs” the “Sklabenoi” (Σκλαβηνοί), John Malalas (died c. 578) and Agathias (died c. 582) named them the “Sklaboi” (Σκλαβοί). Moreover, Mühle analyses the depiction of the “Slavs” in the so-called Strategikon of Maurice (Στρατηγικόν). The dating of this source has been strongly debated. Mühle follows the traditional interpretation, and states that it was written under emperor Maurice in the seventh century, while omitting the fact that many historians favour a later date. The Strategikon depicts the “Sklaboi” as devious, unreliable opponents who live a life of robbery. In the tenth century, this topos would no longer be of importance in the Byzantine sources. According to Mühle, the Byzantine texts presented the Slavic speaking barbarians as one group, which lived along the bank of the northern Danube. However, in the tenth century, the Byzantine sources stopped mentioning the “Sklaboi”. Another manual of war, written by an anonymous writer, recited only Bulgars, Hungarians, the Rus, and the Pechenegs. Other sources mentioned different Slavic groups and territories, especially the textbook “De administrando imperio”, which named Turkia (Τουρκία), Russia (Ρωσία), Chazaria (Χαζαρία), and Pechenegia (Πατζινακια).

Mühle concludes his work by calling for further studies, which should investigate the perception of Slavs of all regions in order to differentiate the historical groups still commonly referred to as Slavs.

This book is of interest for our Research Training Group 2304 “Byzantium and the Euro-Mediterranean Cultures of War. Exchange, Differentiation and Reception”, which inter alia focuses on conceptualizations of persons and groups.  Mühle’s work is a useful introduction for any project that engages with the different peoples commonly called “Slavs”, as does the reviewer’s own research project (The representation of military disputes between Varangian-Slavic warrior societies and Byzantium from the 9th to 12th centuries produced in different media of the textual and pictorial culture of Early Modern Russia).

“Die Slaven im Mittelalter” gives a valuable overview of the different perceptions of the Slavic peoples in Byzantine, Latin, and Arabic sources. The book should be understood as an introductory work. Accordingly, details on research debates, such as the difficulties of dating the Rus’ Primary Chronicle, are missing. Mühle states that the Kievan Rus’ so-called Primary Chronicle (Povest vremennych let) was composed in 1115. He questions the frequently mentioned oral transmission as intended to express ethnical Slavic self-awareness but does not go into further details on the different versions of the source and their history, and he also omits the ongoing discussion of their dating.

This book may be recommended to a general audience as an introduction to broaden the perception of the Slavs. It is a good first entry point to the topic written by a leading expert with a very good overview and grasp of the field.