When Ethnicity Did Not Matter in the Balkans: A Study of Identity in Pre-Nationalist Croatia, Dalmatia, and Slavonia in the Medieval and Early-Modern Periods

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University of Michigan Press, Feb 5, 2010 - History - 672 pages
"This is history as it should be written. In When Ethnicity Did Not Matter in the Balkans, a logical advancement on his earlier studies, Fine has successfully tackled a fascinating historical question, one having broad political implications for our own times. Fine's approach is to demonstrate how ideas of identity and self-identity were invented and evolved in medieval and early-modern times. At the same time, this book can be read as a critique of twentieth-century historiography-and this makes Fine's contribution even more valuable. This book is an original, much-needed contribution to the field of Balkan studies."
-Steve Rapp, Associate Professor of Caucasian, Byzantine, and Eurasian History, and Director, Program in World History and Cultures Department of History, Georgia State University Atlanta

When Ethnicity Did Not Matter in the Balkans is a study of the people who lived in what is now Croatia during the Middle Ages (roughly 600-1500) and the early-modern period (1500-1800), and how they identified themselves and were identified by others. John V. A. Fine, Jr., advances the discussion of identity by asking such questions as: Did most, some, or any of the population of that territory see itself as Croatian? If some did not, to what other communities did they consider themselves to belong? Were the labels attached to a given person or population fixed or could they change? And were some people members of several different communities at a given moment? And if there were competing identities, which identities held sway in which particular regions?

In When Ethnicity Did Not Matter in the Balkans, Fine investigates the identity labels (and their meaning) employed by and about the medieval and early-modern population of the lands that make up present-day Croatia. Religion, local residence, and narrow family or broader clan all played important parts in past and present identities. Fine, however, concentrates chiefly on broader secular names that reflect attachment to a city, region, tribe or clan, a labeled people, or state.

The result is a magisterial analysis showing us the complexity of pre-national identity in Croatia, Dalmatia, and Slavonia. There can be no question that the medieval and early-modern periods were pre-national times, but Fine has taken a further step by demonstrating that the medieval and early-modern eras in this region were also pre-ethnic so far as local identities are concerned. The back-projection of twentieth-century forms of identity into the pre-modern past by patriotic and nationalist historians has been brought to light. Though this back-projection is not always misleading, it can be; Fine is fully cognizant of the danger and has risen to the occasion to combat it while frequently remarking in the text that his findings for the Balkans have parallels elsewhere.

John V. A. Fine, Jr. is Professor of History at the University of Michigan.

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My sole criticism is that when Fine refers to the events of the Balkans conflict of the post Yugoslavia era (1990s-present) he regurgitates very biased Western portrayals of events which, in a book of this subject written by a historian, deserves a more thorough analysis. I don't get any impression that his mischaracterization of, the Croatian "ethnic cleansing of Krajina", for instance, is done deliberately in order to support any agenda. On the contrary he simply seems ignorant of the far more complicated events that took place there. In his defense, most "experts" on the subject are equally ignorant - probably because they rely too heavily on English language media accounts of those events, which are nearly all very simplistic and often biased against one or the other ethnic group in question. Some day someone will write an honest history of the Balkans Wars. It will be rejected by most established "experts" because it will inevitably expose them all as either too lazy or too biased themselves to write honest history.  

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Even though the book topic is extremely interesting (not just for those interested in the history of the region, but for anyone interested in development of national and ethnic feelings), the delivery in this book seems appalling at times.
One major problem being that the whole basis of the book is the very small amount of written (and easily available, as the author admits) sources verifying the feeling of ethnic belonging in medieval Croatia. For me this is only to be expected, since medieval times were obviously before the rise of romantic nationalism and the book offers no insight how this case is different than any other geographical area of the time.
Another major thing is that I simply can't trust a *historian* to get some facts from medieval times right if he can't even understand recent events. Book mentions the wars in Croatia and Bosnia as a side note and claims "ethnic cleansing of Bosnians from parts of Bosnia by Serbs and Croats". Surely someone discussing the ethnicity of the region should know the difference between Bosnians and Bosniaks/Muslims and that even though initially there were all kinds of conflicts (Serbs vs. Bosniaks, Croats vs. Bosniaks, Bosniaks vs. Bosniaks, all with different alliances in different parts of the country), Bosniaks and Croats were for most part allies and only the Serbian actions were classified as ethnic cleansing.
On the similar note the "[ethnic cleansing] of the Serbs from Krajina by the Croats" is mentioned. Surely this should say "ethnic cleaning of Croats from Krajina by the Serbs, later resulting in Serbian exodus when the Croatian military action to recapture that part of the territory started". These may simply be omissions, but this is not something to be taken lightly, since these are recent events. Especially not in a book that marks out Croatian (and Serbian and other south-Slavic) ethnicity as especially "invented".
All in all, interesting and thought-provoking though the book might be as a general read on developing of ethnicity, I can't really trust it's accuracy, research or understanding of the region it talks about.


The Setting Including the Slavic and Croat Migrations
Croats and Slavs to 1102
Slavonia Dalmatia and Velebitia after 1102
Perceptions of Slavs Illyrians and Croats 1500 to 1600
Perceptions of Slavs Illyrians and Croats in Dalmatia Dubrovnik and Croatia Proper 1600 to 1800
Slavonia 1600 to 1800
Monarchs of Croatia to 1800 by Ian Mladjov
SimpliAed Genealogy of the Frankapans Šubići and Zrinski

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