This book by I. Vásáry is not totally focused on the study of the Cumans and Tatars’ military organisation, as is suggested by its title. The author goes well beyond this theme, putting the stress on the prevailing military role played by the Cumans and the Tatars in the history of Eastern Europe between the formation of the second Bulgarian Empire in 1185 and the death of Berdibeg, the Khan of the Golden Horde, in 1359. (It is to be noticed that a misprint has crept into page 69 as to this date: 1359 must be read instead of 1259.) The author considers that the anarchy that followed this khan’s death in the Qipchaq Khanate was a signal that marked in some sort the end of Tatar interference in the Balkans. In his preface (p. xiii), I. Vásáry provides a definition, geographical and cultural, of the territories constituting the “Balkans”: Bosnia, Valachia, Moldavia, the territories situated on the Lower Danube, the Eastern Carpathians—all regions included into Byzantium’s zone of cultural influence.
In a short introductory chapter (p. 1-12), I. Vásáry explains that the main difficulty for the study of these ethnic groups, as for many of nomadic populations, is the lack of indigenous sources (cf. his “Remarks on the Sources”, pp. 1-4). His study is based for the most part upon Greek and Latin, as well as Slavic, Hungarian, Turkic, and Arabic sources. This part on the sources is rather poor, however, the author satisfying himself with the introduction of biographic notices on the authors of the main Byzantine sources that he has been perusing through. A reflection on the best way to use these sources would have been much welcome. As far as the historian remains dependent on outer sources, for the most part mutually contradictory and rather tendentious, one must take into account the conditions of their elaboration: the authors’ origins and their intellectual milieu, their relations or lack of relations with political power, the historical context of every source’s writing, etc. In other terms, one has to decipher their hidden meanings through their inner critique and the confrontation of mutually differing testimonies. In this same introductory chapter, the author also proposes a clarification of the meaning of the very terms “Cuman” and “Tatar”. The first is the name employed by Latin sources for the denomination of the populations of a region called in Islamic sources Dasht-i Qipchaq. As to the term “Tatar”, it is interchangeable with that of “Mongol”, and must be understood in a political meaning: It comprises all the steppe peoples who have invaded Western Asia and Eastern Europe in the thirteenth century. I. Vásáry explains that the utilisation of these terms “Cumans”, “Tatars” and “Qipchaq” for the designation of ethnic entities is not correct since they refer to polities formed by different tribal confederations ethnically and linguistically varied.
The two following chapters (“The Cumans and the Second Bulgarian Empire,” 13-56 and “The Cumans in the Balkans before the Tatar Conquest, 1241,” 57-68) trace the progression of the Cumans westward. The author shows the crucial role played by these populations in this region’s history, and how they have infiltrated local elites before the arrival of Mongols and the creation of the Qipchaq Khanate, i.e. the Ulus of Jöchi (or Golden Horde). With the Mongol invasion the Tatars succeeded politically the Cumans in the Balkans. This is why the heart of the book (chapters 4 to 7) is made by a history of their relations with different major political entities in the region: Byzantium, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Hungary. The complex chronology of political events, the detailed depictions of a number of battles that spangle the course of history, as well as the ephemeral alliance games between the varied protagonists make sometimes difficult the reading of this part. However, far from limiting his work to a history of events, I. Vásáry conducts a meticulous reconstruction of ethnic and social history during more than two eventful centuries. No understanding of the ethnic and social history of the Balkans during that period of time would be possible without such a detailed analysis of political turmoil based on a considerable amount of sources of different origins.
Along his work, I. Vásáry often refers to place names difficult to localise in spite of the presence of four maps (pp. 172-5). Explanatory notes after the appearance of each would have considerably helped the reader. Nevertheless, the index of place names (pp. 168-70) with their linguistic variations according to different sources shows extremely useful, as well as the chronological table of varied dynasties with which Cumans and Tatars have been in contact. A list of bibliographical abbreviations (pp. 176-96) precedes the bibliography (pp. 197-216), and the index (pp. 217-30). One can regret that the author did not plan the publication of a glossary of the numerous technical terms mentioned in the text, which would have been extremely useful. However, despite its rare density and the efforts asked to the reader for following the course of the events, the present book will for sure remain for long a reference work for the historical study of this vast region before the Ottomans.