Aspects of the Balkans. Continuity and change

H. Birnbaum and S. Vryonis (eds.)







The field of Balkan studies constitutes a relative late-comer to the ranks of accepted academic endeavor in the university world. A sure indication of this is that though the 20th century is the century of scholarly congresses, the first international congress of Balkan studies took place (in Sofia) only in 1966. Smaller conferences and collaborative volumes on the Balkans had, of course, materialized earlier than the Sofia Congress. The two volumes of the Revue International des Etudes Balkaniques (1935-1936) set a meritorious example for scholars, an example which was imitated only in recent years, first in Germany and then in the United States. The Südosteuropa-Gesellschaft published two excellent volumes containing broad interpretative essays on the whole range of Balkan history, and in 1963 the University of California Press published the papers from the first American Balkan Conference, held at Berkeley in 1960.


The conference which the UCLA Russian and East European Studies Center sponsored in October 1969, is in the tradition of these earlier conferences and constitutes the second meeting to concentrate on a broad Balkan theme in the United States. In formulating the various subjects the organizing committee attempted to cover broad sectors of the experience and manifestations of civilized man: archaeology, language, ethnology, social evolution, religion, art, music, literature, oral poetry, economics, political ideology. To the degree that it was possible, an effort was made to deal with these broad categories, common to civilized men, rather than to view the area exclusively in terms of each distinct ethnic group. There are, of course, many aspects which were not covered, and some aspects were treated as manifested in one particular ethnic



*. Concluding remarks delivered at the closing session of the Coference.





group. In response to this, one can only plead the inevitable divergence between Utopia and reality. Limits of money, time, knowledge, and ability have ever stood as barriers to the attainment of the ideal.


These various aspects (discussed in the conference), along with others, constitute culture in the broadest sense. But what is culture, in specific reference to the papers of this conference? One should, perhaps, begin to define culture by saying what it is not. During the discussions one commentator remarked that "Balkan culture is something which will soon be relegated to museums". To him culture is represented by a series of physical artifacts which, when no longer utile, serve no other function than to amuse the idle museum visitors. This view of culture is a clear and classic illustration of the static concept of culture which has, too often, plagued the historian, classicist, and others. All such scholars see culture as a static phenomenon. The condition of a given society at a particular moment in time, e.g. Periclean Athens, Justinianic Byzantium, or medieval France under Charlemagne, represents the culture par excellence of that society. Because of their static concept of culture such scholars tend to see any fundamental change in some aspects of that culture as proof of the discontinuity and even of the death ofthat culture. They have, traditionally, inferred these cultural breaks in terms of the disruption of political institutions, the changes within a language, and/or the decline of ethnic 'purity'.


But as we all know, the present-day concept of culture is something much more comprehensive and complex, a concept for which we are primarily indebted to anthropology. From the time that Tylor, the renegade classicist turned anthropologist, founded this discipline and posited the definition of culture, this term has always implied a dynamic and holistic concept. Culture includes all the manifestations of human activity, which manifestations or aspects are in a constant state of adjustment. Obviously the adjustments demanded in one period may be more radical than those required in another. In this respect the organizers of the conference arranged the topics in a chronological order so as to span some of these periods when radical adjustments were necessary and when the tempo of change accelerated :


1. The period of the neolithic culture in the Balkans.


2. The arrival and evolution of the earlier Indo-European peoples (Greeks, and predecessors of the Rumanians and Albanians).


3. The coming of the Slavs and Bulgars (6th-7th centuries).


4. The transition from Byzantine to Ottoman hegemony.


5. The impact of western Europe.





All these periods represent fundamental transitions, accelerations of change, in the history of the inhabitants of the Balkan peninsula.


The title of the conference reads, "Aspects of the Balkans: Continuity and Change". Scholars who share the older, static view of culture, would either be amused or distressed at the inclusion of two such words in any description of these five chronological categories in Balkan history. They would find the two terms mutually exclusive within the context of the history and culture of the Balkan area, and would argue somewhat as follows. The language and peoples (and therefore the culture) of the Balkans today have nothing to do with those of late antiquity. There has been a brutal and complete cultural rupture in the Balkans between these two periods. All has changed — xà Ttdvra pet. A cursory glimpse at the contemporary Balkan situation would seem to confirm this view. The political, economic, and social institutions, literature, art, religion, and language today are quite different from those in evidence during the late ancient and early medieval period. Thus the older style scholarship posits 'continuity OR change'.


The conceptualization of historical and cultural phenomena as phenomena which result from EITHER change OR continuity is the traditional characteristic of the static view of culture. In such conceptualizations change excludes continuity, and continuity excludes change. Thus we are reduced to the dilemma of xà rcavxa pet, or xà râvxa uévev. But this is a false dilemma. Rarely does it occur that a historical culture changes suddenly and completely, and it occurs just as rarely that such a culture remains exactly as it is without any change. In the cultural evolution of the Balkans the historian is faced with a case of continuity AND change at the same time. Continuity and change constitute the seeming paradox of culture. Continuity represents the old, change the new ingredients. They are as two vector forces, and culture is the resultant force. One can transform this language from the realm of the physical to that of the metaphysical by saying that continuity is thesis, change is antithesis, and culture represents the synthesis.


The differences in the culture of the Balkan peoples of today and of antiquity are, naturally, very great. This is also true of the cultures of other peoples when one compares their state at two chronological periods widely separated by time. Rather one must follow the changes in the various cultural manifestations at every chronological step, and particularly at great junctures, such as those which we have tried to span in this conference. When one proceeds to an examination of cultural conditions in successive phases, rather than in two widely separated periods, the





examination reveals less change and stronger elements of continuity in cultural evolution. When the historian examines Balkan culture in the time of Diocletian and then compares it with the culture of the Balkans in the period after the Second World War he must take into account the accumulated effect of 1,700 years of development.


One may conceive of this long cultural evolution in the Balkans as a complex series of smaller evolutions within the spheres of ethnology, languages, literature, political institutions, etc.


The conference papers have not only presented substantial evidence in support of the thesis of 'continuity AND change', in the historical evolution of the peoples inhabiting the Balkans, but they have pushed back in time the starting point of elements in this culture. The establishment of a much longer neolithic epoch (sixth-seventh millennia) with a culture which was not merely derivative of the Near Eastern neolithic culture, suggests that the economic bases of this cultural evolution in the Balkans are older than formerly imagined. By a reconsideration of the linguistic evidence it seems likely that the Indo-Europeanization of the Balkan peninsula is a phenomenon of the fourth or third millennium, and not of the second millennium. Thus basic constituents in the linguistic and ethnic components of the Balkan cultural evolution were, in all likelihood, present at a very early date. In the realms of language and ethnography there were of course, two major changes. These resulted from the migration of the Slavs and Bulgars in the 6th-7th centuries of the Christian era and from the invasion of the Turks in the 14th-15th centuries. Of these newer peoples in the Balkans it was the Slavs who effected the most significant changes as they imposed their language upon the inhabitants and regions of the north and central Balkans. But in the areas of present-day Rumania, Greece and Albania, the Slavs were absorbed and almost completely transformed linguistically. Thus there was no complete ethnic or linguistic rupture in the Balkans as a whole. In addition the Slavs and Bulgars were gradually transformed by the religious, economic, political, and other cultural institutions of the older Balkan populations, especially by those institutions and influences emanating from Byzantium. Thus, despite the significant linguistic and ethnic change in the central and northern Balkans, which the Slavs effected, cultural continuity was assured not only by the survival of the pre-Slavic peoples in Greece, Rumania, and Albania, but also by the Byzantinization of the life of the new-comers.


In the sphere of religion we witness the same type of amalgamation. Christianity, in its external appearance, is markedly different from





paganism, and its triumph in the Balkans might lead one to believe that it brought a complete break with the pagan past. But though Christianity did triumph it did so only through compromise which incorporated, on a large scale, Graeco-Roman, Slavic, and other pagan elements on the folk level, and the tools, language, and concepts of pagan Greek philosophy on the formal level. Balkan Christianity remained, throughout, a remarkable hybrid. At the next stage Islamization affected only a minority of the Balkan population and even there the resultant Islam was heavily colored by elements from the pagan and Christian pasts of the Balkan converts.


The same type of evolution, containing old and new elements and therefore embodying both continuity and change, is discernible in literature, painting, and folk poetry. Byzantine literature and painting, with discernible roots in the Graeco-Roman past, became the models for literature and painting throughout the Orthodox Balkans. The removal of the Orthodox political hegemony and appearance of a Muslim state did not break the continuity in these domains of intellectual and artistic production. The style and conceptualization of western Europe was first accommodated to these of the Balkans via Balkan artists and literati who integrated them into the Byzantino-Balkan traditions of religious painting and literature. Even the late 19th century South Slavic Modernist poetry retained indigenous elements in its adaptation of western poetic movements and genres. In the realm of South Slavic poetry it has been argued that the Balkan Muslim epic is an outgrowth of the Slavic ballads.


Enough has been said about the dynamics of cultural evolution in the Balkans over the centuries to illustrate that alongside the many and great changes there were strong elements of continuity. In the broadest sense it is not possible to posit a brutal rupture in the cultural development of the Balkan peoples in the long period from late antiquity to the present. There was never a time, in the long period we are considering, when the changes in all these aspects or facets of culture coincided and coincided in such a fashion as to obliterate completely all significant traces of that which preceded.


The validity of such a view will always rest on what you and your colleagues will think and ascertain, collectively, in your research.



All intense intellectual endeavor takes on the character of an intellectual Odyssey. But it is not only the goal (Ithaca) itself which is important. This is best illustrated by the differing symbolism of Ithaca which one finds in Kavafis and Kazanzakis. Kavatis, in his poem Ithaca, exhorts





the reader not to hurry his trip to Ithaca. Rather, he says, you should stop and linger at all the mysterious ports, savoring their exotic goods. If, at the end of the journey, you find Ithaca poor, rocky, and barren, do not be disappointed. Ithaca gave you this adventure. The purpose of all Ithacas will thus become clear to you.


In Kazanzakis the arrival of Odysseus at Ithaca is only the beginning of the hero's adventures. He found Penelope old, ugly, and frigid. Ithaca was boring and too small to contain his energies and ambitions. So Odysseus, having slain the suitors, set out for other lands and even more grandiose advantures.


Our own Balkan conference can be substituted for Ithaca in either of the versions of Kavafis or Kazanzakis with results differing according to the desires of each of us.



Speros Vryonis, Jr.

University of California, Los Angeles



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