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Europe's Steppe Frontier, 1500-1800

Europe's Steppe Frontier, 1500-1800

by William H. McNeill

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In Europe’s Steppe Frontier, acclaimed historian William H. McNeill analyzes the process whereby the thinly occupied grasslands of southeastern Europe were incorporated into the bodies-social of three great empires: the Ottoman, the Austrian, and the Russian. McNeill benefits from a New World detachment from the bitter nationality quarrels of the


In Europe’s Steppe Frontier, acclaimed historian William H. McNeill analyzes the process whereby the thinly occupied grasslands of southeastern Europe were incorporated into the bodies-social of three great empires: the Ottoman, the Austrian, and the Russian. McNeill benefits from a New World detachment from the bitter nationality quarrels of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century which inspired but also blinded most of the historians of the region. Moreover, the unique institutional adjustments southeastern Europeans made to the frontier challenge cast indirect light upon the peculiarities of the North American frontier experience.

Editorial Reviews

Historical Journal
“To say that this is the best available introduction to the international history of Eastern Europe may sound to the author a left-handed compliment. . . . Perhaps McNeill himself will oblige us with a sequel.”-Historical Journal

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University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
Midway Reprint Ser.
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

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Europe's Steppe Frontier


By William H. McNeill

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1964 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-56152-3



Danubian and Pontic Europe comprises the westernmost portion of the Eurasian steppe. Before men altered the landscape by their agricultural and other activities, this broad ribbon of grass snaked its way across most of the Eurasian continent, extending from Manchuria in the east to the Hungarian plain in the west. To the north lay the forests; to the south through most of its length, the steppe grasslands shaded off into desert. The pattern broke up in the European portion of the steppe. A more abundant rainfall meant both a richer growth of grass and the possibility that topographic irregularities, by creating local water catchments, might increase ground moisture to a point at which trees could flourish. Hence in Danubian and Pontic Europe wooded hills and mountain slopes intersected the grasslands, and in the valley bottoms watercourses usually flowed through ribbons of forested land.

This more variegated natural landscape arose from the fact that Danubian and Pontic Europe is a region where the Eurasian steppe intersects the main mountain system of the earth—a system that runs from the Pyrenees and Alps, via the mountains of Asia Minor, Iran, and Tibet all the way to the Pacific coast and then sweeps in a great arc around the entire Pacific basin to Tierra del Fuego. To be sure, Europe's principal ranges run south of the Hungarian, Rumanian, and Ukrainian plains; but the spume of mountains thrown off to the north, constituting the Carpathians (together with their westerly extensions into Bohemia) and the similar spur that rises out of the Black Sea to constitute the mountains of the Crimea, differentiated our region from the wider steppe lands further east.

The mountain ranges are so arranged that, together with the Black Sea, they break up the region into a number of distinct plains, divided from one another by high and forested ground, and linked by waterways. Thus, if one follows the Danube from its Alpine sources downstream, through most of its length the plains it traverses are almost completely ringed round by mountains. Only after bursting through the Carpathian barrier at the Iron Gates does wider and more open country, characteristic of the Eurasian steppe, begin. Yet even here there is an anomaly, for the Danube flows into a sea which empties through still another narrow water gap that cuts southward through the earth's main mountain barrier—the straits of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles. The lengthy and, for the most part, slow-moving rivers that flow into the Black Sea from the forested zones of the north, together with the Danube itself, offered ready-made roadways for the transport of goods and men, and made possible trade and river-raiding, even across long distances, in early as in more recent times.

Movement along the major rivers cut across the width of the steppe. But the grass sea was itself a broad and almost undifferentiated highway for those who had mastered the arts of horse nomadry. Nomads could move to and fro at will, either peaceably in search of pasture for their flocks or with other purposes in view: flight, plunder, or trading, as the case might be. The general axis of this sort of movement was east-west, for horsemen had always to move within regions where adequate forage for their mounts could be found, i.e., had to stay within range of the natural grasslands of the steppe. Hence Danubian and Pontic Europe may also be defined as a region where the transcontinental gallop intersected the interregional river boat (in winter, sleigh).

These natural features gave Danubian and Pontic Europe its own unique character. Such an environment offered men a variety of possibilities. Pastoral parasitism on flocks and herds—the usual human adjustment to steppe conditions—could be supplemented (eventually even supplanted) by agriculture, since land well enough watered to sustain a thick cover of grass was also capable of producing excellent crops of grain. In the mountains, mining—the Carpathians became an important producer of silver in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries—and the extraction or collection of forest products was a third possibility. Transhumance between high mountain pastures and the bottom lands offered yet another pattern of human life well attuned to the local differences of landscape. Trade, warfare, and varying forms of political mastery and subjugation linked these economic communities to one another in complex and persistently unstable fashion; but until 1500, a rough if fluctuating balance between the different elements in the human and animal population of the region maintained itself.

This balance was in part sustained by the comparatively weak and inefficient agricultural tools then known in Danubian and Pontic Europe. Deep-rooted sod offers stout resistance to a plow, and unless the turf can be effectively turned over and buried deeply enough to smother the native vegetation entirely, grass roots will send up fresh shoots in the spring to crowd out the young grain. By contrast, deciduous woodland was easy to cultivate with very simple tools. Girdling the bark with an ax sufficed to kill the trees. This let sunlight through to the ground, where, once the leaf mould had been scraped away or turned under, unencumbered soil awaited the seed. After a few years of such cultivation, fertility could be renewed by burning the dead trees and scattering their ashes on the soil.

This style of slash-and-burn agriculture was very ancient, dating back to neolithic times. As long as virgin forest land remained available, it constituted an effective mode of exploitation of the environment. The fact that stumps and tree roots cumbered such fields did not hamper operations seriously, for the plow was small and light and merely broke the surface (like a modern disk plow) without turning a furrow (as does a modern mouldboard plow). Hence there was no great difficulty in plowing around and between the tree trunks in a soil that, as anyone who has ever walked through a forest knows, was already soft and loosely compacted.

But the sort of plow suited for forest use was completely inadequate to the much heavier work of breaking sod. Only a mouldboard plow, capable of turning a deep furrow completely over, was equal to that task; and to pull a heavy mouldboard plow through tough, matted grass roots required a force several times as great as did the small scratch plows of the forest fields. Thus the agricultural techniques of the mountain woodland were quite unsuited to large-scale cultivation of the grassy plains.

Plows technically capable of penetrating the grasslands were not unknown in Pontic and Danubian Europe. In the thirteenth century, for example, pioneers from western Europe who settled in Transylvania, mainly in the mining districts of the Carpathians, brought the mouldboard plow into the region. But the long acres and open fields of the Saxon towns of Transylvania remained exceptional. Magyars, Slavs, and Rumanians found no compelling reason to imitate the German settlers' far more expensive implements, particularly when altered field shapes, new property concepts, and much larger plow teams had to be found if the new agricultural technology were to be put into operation. Since arable or potentially arable land was not yet critically short, such an enlarged capital outlay scarcely made sense.

Nevertheless, virgin forest land was not infinite, and the traditional modes of tillage in Danubian Europe used up the forests rather rapidly. Whenever they could, slash-and-burn farmers shifted their scene of operations every few years, for repeated cropping with grain rapidly reduced the initial fertility of their woodland plots. Whenever suitable virgin woodland could no longer be found, it became necessary to return (and at gradually shortened intervals) to land which had already been cropped to exhaustion and then abandoned. As thicker populations formed, therefore, a more settled type of agriculture, based upon fallowing (i.e., a cyclical return to once exhausted fields) established itself. Periodically renewed cultivation held back the forest and eventually led to the disappearance of old stumps, which simply rotted. The repeated action of the plow tended also to smooth out small irregularities in the surface of the ground. Hence, in the course of a single human generation, the tidy, leveled fields which we so firmly associate with the cultivation of grain could develop where primeval forest formerly had stood. Until quite modern times, no comparably simple technique for taming grasslands to agriculture lay at hand, though men could always make grain grow in the steppe if they weeded out competing grasses diligently enough. But this required careful work with hoe and hand, and tended to keep grassland grain fields to the proportion of gardens.

These limitations of traditional agricultural techniques were powerfully reinforced by the military superiority nomad herdsmen enjoyed over scattered agriculturalists. Nomads had horses and could raid and run over long distances with small risk, since their mobility allowed them either to concentrate superior forces at one spot, more or less at will, or to flee to safety if unexpected opposition developed. Cultivators, on the contrary, were strongly tempted to disperse whatever force they brought together in time of emergency, for each man was always eager and anxious to see what had happened to his own family, house, and fields. Hence only a professional military force could successfully cope with the nomad danger; but given the primitive character of agriculture in Danubian and Pontic Europe, both before and after 1500 A.D., the costs of such an establishment were a very heavy burden for the peasantry to bear. Herein lay the principal reason for the weakness of the medieval kingdom of Hungary, demonstrated so spectacularly on the field of Mohacz in 1526.

The defeat of Magyar chivalry at Mohacz was not the first such peripety in the history of the Hungarian, Rumanian, and Ukrainian plans. Cimmerians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Goths, Huns, Gepids, Avars, and Petchenegs had also in their time met disastrous defeat after varying periods of political dominion; and their empires, which had once looked most impressive on the map, each time dissolved almost at a blow into dispersed bodies of desperate fugitives. A formidable fragility was inherent in all steppe empires. Built, characteristically, on the strength of some great war captain's successes, they were capable of almost instantaneous fragmentation into the ultimate units of pastoral life: the small, dispersed, patriarchal kindreds whose flocks and herds pastured together the year round.

We may perhaps detect a natural ecological cycle in the political history of Danubian Europe between the eighth–seventh centuries B.C., when men first fully mastered the arts of steppe nomadry, and the sixteenth–seventeenth centuries A.D., when firearms, standing armies, and the supporting elements of modern civilized warfare reversed the age-old balance between steppe and sown and drove the nomads into permanent retreat. Prior to this reversal in roles—whose more detailed analysis will be the theme of this essay—a pastoral conqueror was likely to celebrate his victories by brutal harassment of any pre-existing human inhabitants who were so imprudent as to await his coming. Most of whatever agricultural population might have crept out into the plains under an earlier regime was thereby uprooted. Refugees crowded into the mountain valleys or fled northward to take cover in forested ground where nomad arrows and horsemen lost most of their effectiveness.

In the course of time, however, relations between hunter and hunted tended to stabilize themselves. Nomad conquerors badly needed agricultural products to supplement the yield of their flocks and herds, and found ways to acquire grain and other such commodities—sometimes by trade, but more usually by a successful transfer of nomadic parasitism from animal herds to human population. As this occurred, descendants of nomad conquerors became a species of landlord, exacting goods and services from an alien peasantry. But since farmland and granaries were as immobile for a noble lord as they were for a poor peasant, in proportion as the heirs of conquerors settled down to dependence on agriculture, they lost their mobility. They tended also to lose habits of prowess. Wealthy masters of a sullen peasantry were less eager to leave their estates for distant military adventure than their nomadic ancestors had been. Hence war-band discipline and cohesion tended also to disintegrate until the effective military strength of the ruling community waned to such a point that some fresh body of invading warriors could burst like a sudden storm upon the land and start the whole cycle over again.

After 1000 A.D., two factors complicated the operation of this cycle. Political weakness in the civilized regions of central Asia and northern India deflected the main thrust of nomad expansion southward, thus substantially reducing the pressure from the east on Danubian Europe. Simultaneously, the rise of western Europe as a center of a very vigorous and formidable civilization supplied the masters of the Hungarian plain with a new cultural model. The conversion of the Magyar monarch, St. Stephen, to Christianity in 1000 A.D. aptly symbolizes the new power Latin and German Europe had begun to exercise; and the subsequent dynastic history of the Kingdom of Hungary, which brought scions of the house of Anjou to the throne, enlarged the cultural connections of the Magyar aristocracy to encompass French as well as German and Italian Europe.

Another factor, whose importance cannot be satisfactorily determined, was the fluctuation of population density resulting from epidemic diseases. Dramatic and thoroughly drastic consequences could and sometimes certainly did result when a previously isolated community, among whose members no inherited or acquired immunities to a particular strain of disease germs existed, was for the first time exposed to a new infection. In a world composed of such isolated communities, unusual movements of large numbers of human beings were likely to trigger sudden and disastrous outbreaks of epidemic; and a general churning of peoples like that which accompanied the Mongol conquests of the thirteenth century may well have provoked outbreaks of plagues of different kinds in different places.

No satisfactory record of the virulence of really drastic epidemics can be expected, since in a time of general disruption, chroniclers are likely to be among the first to disappear. Hence, for example, the depopulation of the Ukraine after the breakdown of Kievan hegemony may have resulted less from the immediate rapine and bloodshed of conquest by the Polovtsi than from epidemics incident to such conquests. Since the rivers and open steppe of the Ukraine were peculiarly suited to long-distance communication, disease may have struck communities there much harder than happened further west, where secluded mountain valleys, bypassed alike by disease germs and by plundering conquerors and tax collectors, continued to sustain agricultural populations from which, in times of peace and in the absence of epidemic, repopulation of the plains could and did occur.

The consequences of these (and no doubt of other) factors was to create a distinct, cultural gradient within Danubian and Pontic Europe. In 1500, for example, a plain like the Marchfeld, where Vienna is located, belonged fully within the circle of western Christendom. The plain sustained peasant, noble, and burgher classes, united by governmental and ecclesiastical institutions and sharing all the other traits of European civilization. The Little Alföld, whose natural capital is called Pressburg by Germans, Pozsony by Magyars, and Bratislava by Slovaks, was less fully developed, but also clearly belonged to the circle of west European society.

The next plain, the Great Alföld, was transitional. The land was thinly occupied by Magyar lords and a peasantry partly Magyar, partly Slavic, partly Rumanian. Towns were less developed than in western Europe and were inhabited mainly by foreigners, mostly Germans. Spring flooding created extensive marshes along the rivers and streams, so that the ground could only be used for summer pastures. These marshes obstructed access to the rivers so severely that the value of the natural waterways for transport was practically nil except in winter, when the ice made movement to and along the riverways comparatively easy. Relations between nobles and commoners were unstable. Aristocrats' efforts to squeeze more money, goods, and services from the peasantry met with limited and local successes, but also inflamed hostilities between the two classes to a point seldom equaled in western Europe.


Excerpted from Europe's Steppe Frontier by William H. McNeill. Copyright © 1964 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author

William H. McNeill (1917-2016) was the Robert A. Millikan Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Department of History and the College at the University of Chicago. In 2009 he was awarded the National Humanities Medal for his work as a teacher, scholar, and author. His many books include The Pursuit of Power, The Rise of the West, and Mythistory and Other Essays, all published by the University of Chicago Press. His most well-known work, The Rise of the West, became a best seller and won the National Book Award for history and biography in 1964.

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