Seminar CLIII: how ‘Great’ Moravia got that way then stopped

One seminar I don’t make it to as often as would be good is the UCL Institute of Archaeology and British Museum Joint Seminar, but on 11th December 2012 I did make it there so as to hear Ivo Štefan speak. This was because Dr Štefan is one of a fairly select band of people working on Eastern Europe in the early Middle Ages who make an effort to get their findings out to English-speaking audience, and given how few of us learn Slavic languages these folk are our gateways to a really very large area. So there was he, speaking with the title, “Great Moravia and its Collapse: early medieval polity on the edge of Carolingian world”, and thus there so was I, and it was a tremendously informative and thoughtful paper.

Map of the alleged extent of Great Moravia c. 869

As you can see, expansive claims have been made for the ‘Greatness’ of Great Moravia! Image from Wikimedia Commons

Those who study the Carolingian world may already be aware that one thing about Moravia in the period is that its location, or at least its extent is disputed: the main problem this creates is maybe that it’s not clear to what modern state ‘its’ archaeology pertains, which shouldn’t be an issue but of course is.1 There’s also an issue about how one defines it, of course. Something called Moravia was out there, but maybe not for very long: Frankish sources mention Moravians for the first time in 822, the same year that they last mention the Avars, Dr Štefan told us, and they last mention them in 907 after which Magyars are the order of the day for cross-frontier threats. In the course of that less-than-a-century emerged a proto-state that could take on the Carolingians and then disappear so much that we can now argue about where (and what) it was. Dr Stefan was telling us about the what, which is after all something of a prerequisite for the ‘where’.

Aerial view of the heritage site now at Mikulčice

Aerial view of the heritage site now at Mikulčice

Part of the problem here is that the written sources and the archæology don’t really meet up. The written sources are mostly Frankish annals and the various materials arising out of the jurisdictional disputes provoked by the mission of Saints Cyril and Methodius (the better choice for celebration on February 14th!), and are thus very much an outside view; the archæology, when sounded for a core area around western Slovakia and the River Morava which most people can agree must have been ‘in’ Great Moravia, speaks to different connections and for much of the eighth and early ninth century shows almost no social stratification: the Frankish documents thus tell us about élites in this area whom we can’t find. Over the ninth century, however, there seem to have developed the kind of castle-towns that readers here may remember from the work of Hajnalka Herold (whose picture is somewhat different), some of which are very large—Mikulčice was an 80-hectare island-and-mainland complex with at least thirteen churches, to pick the largest—and were presumably sustained somehow from their hinterlands.2 These show a fairly consistent style of rampart-building but are otherwise very variable, and as those churches imply are also centres where the ongoing conversion of the Slavs was made manifest in architecture, though burial continued to be furnished, with warrior goods of Frankish type for men or fine clothing of Byzantine type for women (“men are from Bavaria, women from Byzantium”, as someone I didn’t know put it in questions), and burial also continued in rural cemeteries whose links to the culture are indicated by similar grave-goods.

Gold rings and jewellery found at Mikulčice, now on display in its museum

Gold rings and jewellery found at Mikulčice, now on display in its museum

This presumably all joined up, of course, and it’s in the how that any definition of what sort of polity Great Moravia was must be located. The Franks could name its rulers, and since the polity was undergoing change throughout the time we can see it these men must have been those who could best position themselves aboard those changes as much as anything, and may even be blamed for some of them even if the one we can see intervention in most clearly is Rastislav, who tried to shake off cultural Frankish encroachment through missions from Bavaria by getting a separate mission in from Constantinople in the form of the troublesome script-inventors already mentioned. What those rulers could do is less clear, but it certainly included being able to raise quite large armies with substantial cavalry components, meaning that a network of smaller leaders responded to their call. (Dr Štefan made the intriguing suggestion that the number of churches in the towns might indicate that each leader’s group had its own small area of the town for when they and the rulers were ‘in residence’, which sounds oddly like Notker’s description of Charlemagne’s Aachen at assembly time with nobles’ chalets all round the palace.3)

Reconstruction drawing of the Moravian settlement at Pohansko

Reconstruction drawing of the Moravian settlement at Pohansko, just south-west of Mikulčice

It must have been worth their while to do so, and while booty would be one obvious reason, trade might be another; the towns were market centres shipping slaves up and down the Danube (we have many shackles), as well as amber and other things and bringing the precious metal the area lacks in, for purchase and/or distribution one assumes which is how the material culture by which ‘Moravian’ is and maybe was signified was presumably disseminated. There was even a single ‘market of the Moravians’ that the Frankish sources know about, and they also record render collection points suggesting some basic kind of fiscal apparatus. All this must have been either going up very fast or else somehow leftover from Avar rule to be reactivated, and it must also have been done pretty much in kind: there are no coins in this area at all, suggesting that any that came in were recycled into goods, the manufacture of which is certainly very present in the archæology.

Reconstruction drawing of a 'prince's court' within the Pohansko settlement complex

Reconstruction drawing of a ‘prince’s court’ within the Pohansko settlement complex, from the same site as previous

So what went wrong? Canonically, the Hungarians are the irresistible destructive force on which Western and Eastern scholars alike have blamed the collapse of early medieval states in formation, but in 902 at least the Moravians were beating the Hungarians in battle but still disappear from the record after 907. Nor did the Hungarians occupy the area of Moravia, and while Magyar-style graves are found at Mikulčice there’s not much more. Dr Štefan therefore suggested that the area was already in trouble when the Hungarian attacks started, with parts breaking away cutting back the tribute on which the ruler could call and the new Hungarian presence limiting his ability to get more by warfare, as well as cutting the trade routes to the Mediterranean. This would disable quite a lot of the redistributive machinery that kept a ruler and being and dressing ‘Moravian’ important to his followers, resulting in more and irrecoverable breakaways and in the end a Frankish conquest and a new rival polity rising in Bohemia. As Dr Stefan said, this is all quite Richard Hodges, but none the less plausible for that, I felt.4 Now, a bit of cursory websearching reveals that what we were getting here was a pitch that Dr Štefan has had worked out for a while, in as much as he had more or less published it a year before.5 That always irks me slightly, when I could have read the paper rather than go to it, but of course I hadn’t, and I might still rather have heard it live anyway, so a mission to inform was still appropriate as far as I’m concerned and of course it means that you now know where you might be able to find out more…


1. When I briefly learnt about this stuff, uselessly long ago, almost the only work in English was A P. Vlasto, The Entry of the Slavs into Christendom (Cambridge 1970), still not worthless but as you can see from the title kind of chronologically limited. The argument over the location of Moravia was subsequently started by I. Boba, Moravia’s History Reconsidered: a reinterpretation of medieval sources (The Hague 1971) and has been brought up to date in English by Charles R. Bowlus, Franks, Moravians, and Magyars: the struggle for the Middle Danube 788-907 (Philadelphia 1995). There’s a useful round-up of that and the German literature to be found in Matthew Innes, “Review Article. Franks and Slavs c. 700-1000: the problem of European expansion before the millennium” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 6 (Oxford 1997), pp. 201-216, of which Matthew kindly gave me an offprint a long time ago. There is now also Jiří Macháček, “Disputes over Great Moravia: chiefdom or state? the Morava or the Tisza River?” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 17 (Oxford 2009), pp. 248-267 and Maddalena Betti, The Making of Christian Moravia (858-882): Papal Power and Political Reality (Leiden 2013), though I haven’t yet seen this latter and can’t tell you anything about it that the web doesn’t. Dr Stefan is obviously of the Morava River school of thought.

2. I’ve plugged it before and I will plug it again: have a look at Hajnalka Herold, “Fortified Settlements of the 9th and 10th Centuries AD in Central Europe: Structure, Function and Symbolism” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 56 (Leeds 2012), pp. 60-84.

3. Notker, Gesta Karoli, printed as Notker der Stammler, Taten Kaiser Karls des Großen, ed. Hans Haefele, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi) Nova series 12 (Hannover 1959, repr. 1980), translated now in David Ganz (transl.), Einhard and Notker the Stammerer: Two Lives of Charlemagne (Harmondsworth 2009), I. 30; for more on Aachen and its layout see Janet L. Nelson, “Aachen as a Place of Power” in Frans Theuws & Mayke de Jong with Carine van Rhijn (edd.), Topographies of Power in the Early Middle Ages, Transformation of the Roman World 6 (Leiden 2001), pp. 217-241.

4. Referring to Richard Hodges, Dark Age Economics: the origins of towns and trade A. D. 600-1000 (London 1982, 2nd edn. 1989).

5. I. Štefan, “Great Moravia, Statehood and Archaeology: the ‘decline and fall’ of one early medieval polity” in Jiří Macháček & Šimon Ungerman (edd.), Frühgeschichteliche Zentralorte in Mitteleuropa: Internationale Konferenz und Kolleg der Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung zum 50. Jahrestag des Beginns archäologischer Ausgrabungen in Pohansko bei Břeclav, 5.–9.10.2009, Břeclav, Tschechische Republik, Studien zur Archäologie Europas 14 (Bonn 2011), pp. 333-354.

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3 responses to “Seminar CLIII: how ‘Great’ Moravia got that way then stopped

  1. Thanks for this informative overview of a glimpse into a still very much overlooked area (at least in Anglophone scholarship).

    If you’re interested, there is a review of Maddalena Betti’s ‘The Making of Christian Moravia’ in the latest issue of the journal ‘Networks and Neighbours’: http://www.networksandneighbours.org/index.php/n/issue/view/2

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