The world of the ancient Slavs

Zdeněk Váňa





In the dramatic struggles where gains alternated with losses, the Slavs held a strong place in European history during the early Middle Ages. They emerged in the sixth century as an unknown third wave of colonists after the Celts and the Germans and spread across almost half of the continent in the course of a few generations. Their immense pressure shook the walls of ancient cities, broke down the frontiers of Roman provinces and scattered the original population. The Slavs arrived on the scene with a unified but not very striking culture of simple peasants, of cattle breeders seeking new pastures. To begin with, all the strength of the Slavs was exhausted by these endeavours, so that they did not form any powerful political organization nor important cultural centres. They remained split up into a number of groups for a long time and only temporarily formed tribal unions. Like other barbarian tribes in Europe they first assumed the role of pupils who on settling in new places eagerly adopted the ways of their new environment, particularly where they came into contact with the ancient seats of culture — the Black Sea, the Mediterranean region, the Danube valley and the Rhineland.


It did not take long before a change occurred. The pupils matured into independent masters, who actively re-created the influences they had adopted. A decisive turning point took place in the ninth and tenth centuries when the first Slav states arose in Central, South-Eastern and Eastern Europe. All of them had ambitions to compete with the great powers of the time. New cultural centres grew up where Slavonic literature was written, an original form of architecture was adopted, craftsmen created a style of their own and other forms of culture developed. Certain common features can be traced all over the Slav world deriving from a roughly equivalent social and economic level and linguistic and cultural relations. At the same time, certain signs of differentiation appeared which led to the emergence of individual Slav nations. These differences came to the fore roughly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It might be said that since that time the Slav nations have gone their own way and made their own specific contribution to European history.


The preconditions for this later development were established in the early Middle Ages as we have tried to show in giving a picture of this process.





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