The Bavarian Geographer and the Cities of the East

Bavarian Geographer, Description of Cities and Lands on the North Bank of the Danube, ed. E. Herrmann, Slawisch-germanische Beziehungen im südostdeutschen Raum (Munich: 1965), pp. 220-1.

[Part 1]

(1) Those who live closest to the borders of the Danes are called North Abodrites (Nortabtrezi), which is a land where there are 53 cities divided between their leaders. (2) The Wilzi (Uuilzi) have 95 cities and four lands. (3) The Linones (Linaa) are a people who have 7 cities; near them dwell those called Bethenici, and Smeldingon, and Morizani, who have 11 cities. (4) Next to them are those called Hevelli (Hehfeldi) who have 8 cities. (5) Next to them is the land called Surbi. In this country there are many smaller countries that have 50 cities. (6) Next to them are those called Talaminzi, who have 14 cities. (7) The Bohemians (Becheimare) have 15 cities. (8) The Marharii have 11 cities. (9) The country of the Bulgars (Uulgarii) is immeasurably large and has 5 cities, because for the vast majority of them it is not the custom to have cities. (10) There is a people called Moravians (Merehani) who have 30 cities.

These are the countries that are adjacent to our borders.

[Part 2]

These are those who settle next to their borders.

(11) The East Abodrites (Osterabtrezi), where there are more than 100 cities. (12) The Miloxi, where there are 67 cities. (13) The Phesnuzi have 70 cities. (14) The Thadesi have more than 200 cities. (15) The Glopeani, where there are 400 or more cities. (16) The Zuireani have 325 castles. (17) The Busani have 231 castles. (18) The Sittici have a land that is immeasurable in people and fortified cities (urbibus). (19) The Stadici, which have 516 cities and an immense people. (20) The Sebbirozi have 90 cities. (21) The Unlizi have a numerous people and 318 cities. (22) The Nerivani have 78 cities. (23) The Attorozi have 148 cities and are the wildest people. (24) The Eptaradici have 273 cities. (25) The Uuillerozi have 180 cities. (26) The Zabrozi have 212 cities. (27) The Znetalici have 73 cities. (28) The Aturezani have 104 cities. (29) The Chozirozi have 250 cities. (30) The Lendizi have 98 cities. (31) The Thafnezi have 257 cities. (32) The Zerivani is such a great kingdom that all the peoples of the Slavs arose and derive their origin from it, as they affirm. (32) The Prissani [possibly Prussians] have 70 cities. (33) The Uuelunzani have 79 cities. (34) The Bruzi [also possibly Prussians] [whose territory is] bigger on each side [than the distance] from the Enns to the Rhine. (35) The Uuizunbeire. (36) The Khazars (Caziri) have 100 cities. (37) The Rus (Ruzzi). (38) The Forsderen. (39) The Liudi. (40) The Fresiti. (41) The Seravici. (42) The Lucolane. (43) The Hungarians (Ungare). (44) The Vistulans (Uuislane). (45) The Sleenzane have 15 cities. (46) The Lusatians (Lunsici) have 30 cities. (47) The Dadosesani have 20 cities. (48) The Milzane have 30 cities. (49) The Besunzane have 2 cities. (50) The Uuerizane have 10 cities. (51) The Fraganeo have 40 cities. (52) The Lupiglaa have 30 cities. (53) The Opolini have 20 cities. (54) The Golensizi have 5 cities.

This catalogue of cities and lands compiled by an anonymous figure known as the Bavarian Geographer is at first glance a pretty dull text. If the names it lists are recognisable, it is only by squinting, and most are entirely unknown (the identifications I have offered are informed guesses and ought to be treated with caution). The information it provides is decidedly thin, limited to the counting of cities in a manner that is simultaneously both worryingly precise and worryingly round; and to offering a vague sense of geographical interrelation, spiced only with the occasional detail. That such meagre gruel has been seized upon so eagerly by scholars from Germany to Russia is a testament to how poor the source base otherwise is for the lands east of the Carolingian empire. Even as archaeology is giving us ever greater insights into this part of the past, any opportunity to attach names to the places we discover is seized upon. For modern people in central and eastern Europe desperate to find a history for themselves, the mysterious labels have been decoded in numerous ways since the eighteenth century.

The primary interest of this list for me is as a Carolingian text. It is preserved in a single manuscript, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Clm 560 f. 149v–150r. It was compiled in Bavaria, probably in Reichenau Abbey, possibly linked to the Bavarian court at Regensburg. For all that it is presented as looking north across the Danube, it reads as a catalogue gazing east, with its first part starting with the peoples closest to the Frankish world and then moving farther east. Its dating is uncertain, although almost certainly ninth century, probably between the 830s and the 890s. Given this background, the Descriptio is inevitably as interesting for what it says about Frankish views of the east as it does about those people themselves.

Interested as I am in early medieval foreign relations, I find this text fascinating as evidence for how the Franks thought about external peoples, with some of whom they had very intensive dealings (sometimes of the peaceful type, sometimes of the sack your cities and murder every single member of your family type). The reference to spoken information suggests that at least some of the information came from talking to members of these people. As a practical basis for war and peace it is clearly lacking, despite the little snippets of ethnographic and cultural detail. At a glance it resembles Roman geographies such as the Notitia Dignitatum. But if it is an encyclopaedia and taxonomy, designed to showcase Carolingian mastery of geography and inheritance of Roman learning, it contains an alarming number of gaps and admissions of ignorance. The overwhelming impression is of a vast multitude of peoples, some of whom are very mighty indeed.

Mikulčice-Valy, IV. kostel (1).jpg
One of the churches at Mikulčice (source)

The Descriptio also appeals to me as someone interested in ideas about the city. The Bavarian Geographer counts the civitates of different peoples (or in the case of the Sittici, urbes). I have chosen to translate this word as ‘cities’, although other scholars render this as ‘fortresses’. I believe that city is the more natural reading and that doing so allows us to see through our own assumptions of what central and eastern Europe was like in the period. Viewing all of these places as fortresses implies a world of small-scale settlements organised entirely for war in an unstable world, which may not match reality. The area was not heavily urbanised in our sense of the word, although archaeological digs at places such as Mikulčice, Staré Město at Uherskě Hradište and Pohansko at Břeclav in the Czech Republic are revealing sites that compare well to the cities of the Carolingian world. Fortified cities were an important part of Frankish warfare in the east, and the listing of cities may be designed to convey some sense of how hard a people would be to conquer. But the word civitas did not just mean an urban settlement. In ancient and early medieval Latin, it meant something more like community of people bound together by shared law and custom (see for example, Isidore’s Etymologies 15.2.1, which says that, ‘a civitas is a multitude of people united by a bond of community, named for its citizens (civis)…now urbs is the name for the actual buildings, while civitas is not the stones but the inhabitants’; a formulation later used by Hrabanus Maurus, with similar sentiments expressed by Frechulf of Lisieux and Ratramnus of Corbie.) By using the word city, the Bavarian Geographer may have been describing not armed anarchy, but a world of peoples with recognisable laws and societies. The Franks were not averse to describing their own territories as assemblages of civitates, particularly for the purpose of constructing itineraries, or dividing them up between warring Carolingians. In writing about cities therefore, the Bavarian Geographer may have sought to make the peoples he described resemble those of his own lands.

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