Death of Croatian king Petar Svacic in the mountains near Gvozd, 1097

Medieval Croatia

Croatia joined the EU beginning July 2013. But from where does the idea of a separate Croat identity stem? 

On the first of July 2013 Croatia joined the EU. As part of the former Yugoslavia it might easily be overlooked that Croatia was in fact early on a distinct medieval kingdom from 925 – 1102, when it became first entwined with Hungary and at a later stage a more or less autonomous part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Ottoman Empire. After the WW1 Croatia became part of the Yugoslavic kingdom and after WW2 part of communist Yugoslavia. Since 1995 at the end of the Balkan Civil War, Croatia has been independent.

This very brief overview of the history of Croatia as an independent state highlights the fact that most historians today concede that Croatia was only for very short periods an independent sovereignty. Lacking this, however, it is no wonder that the stories about the many roots of Croatian Identity played such a significant part in Croatian historiography – and still continues to be able to raise the hackles of Croatian scholars and politicians.

These ideas can be divided into two competing schools – one migrationist and one autochthonist. According to the first, the Croats had Slavic – Gothic, Iranian or Turkish origin – and arrived together with other Slavs in post-Roman Illyricum. According to the other cultural construct, the Croats were an indigenous – Illyrian – people.

The latter idea stemmed – according to Džino – from renaissance times and developed amongst a humanist Croatian elite. Curiously enough the idea is still echoed even in modern politics, although it has long been known that the Illyrians did not speak a Slavic language. However, in a post-Yugoslav climate, the former idea – recognising the Slavic roots – were never quite as attractive, since this discourse had been ideologically imbued by the proponents of the Pan-Slavic romantic ideologists from the 19th century and onwards. In the 20th century this was amended by the idea that the Croats represented a distinctive migration of Goths or Iranians as opposed to the rest of the Slavs in the Balkans, who had arrived by bulk and as an indistinctive migrating people. Thus the new “Slavic” identity-formation was amended, corroborating the political needs of Croatian politicians and militia.

Today these questions are preferably answered through careful rethinking of the massive archaeological excavations, which have taken place in the 20th century. This has recently been done by Danijel Džino. His conclusion is that the idea of the Croats was the result of a political construction of an elite group in the 9th century, responding to the disappearance of the Avar khaganate . In time this “Croatness” became expressed inside the new kingdom of Croatia 925 – 1102; leaving a legacy for later politicians to build their own national identity-formation upon.

Becoming Slav, Becoming Croat: Identity Transformations in Post-Roman and Early Medieval Dalmatia.
By Danijel Džino
BRILL, 2010

See a list of recent publications on the medieval history of Croatia


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