The Making of Modern Romanian Culture. Literacy and the Development of National Identity

TitleThe Making of Modern Romanian Culture. Literacy and the Development of National Identity
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsHariton, Silviu
Author(s) of reviewed materialDrace-Francis, Alex


PublisherLondon, New York: Tauris Academic Studies
ISSN ISBN 1-84511-066-8
IssueInternational Library of Historical Studies nr. 41.
Review year


Full Text

The Making of Modern Romanian Culture represents an ambitious attempt to use the development of education, literacy, book market and literature in order to trace the rise and spread of the Romanian nationalism in the nineteenth century Moldavia and Wallachia against the background of the previous developments of the eighteenth century. Nations and nationalism in the Balkans are topics that received a great deal of attention since 1989 and the continuous debates on the causes of conflict in the area significantly contributed to the re-conceptualization of keywords like nation and nationalism. But most of these debates have concentrated either only on the various intellectual representations of the nation or on the reception of the intellectual discourses in different local social contexts, the mutual aspect of the relationship between the intellectual and social backgrounds being many times less emphasized. As Drace-Francis points out, “numerous article- or chapter-length summaries try to explain the formation of a Romanian national identity […] but few of these allow for a detailed examination of the various institutional loci in which cultural and national identities might be fostered” (p.6) and this observation could be extended to the whole South-Eastern Europe.

The book is chronologically divided in three parts, the first one dealing with a ‘long eighteenth century’ (from around 1700 to the Treaty of Adrianople, 1829), the second with the first part of the so called ‘period of transition’ (1829-1848), when a socio-political vocabulary was observed to form, while the last part concentrates on the period between 1848 and 1890, when the system of education supported by the state started to be developed. The first part represents almost a half of the book, while the remaining two quarters are equally devoted to the second and the third chapters. For each of these periods, Drace-Francis has designed special chapters on the development of the educational institutions, the spread of literacy, the book circulation and the rise of a Romanian literature which all culminated in the affirmation of certain political ideas, movements and debates: ‘the discovery of Europe’, the revolution of 1848, and, respectively, the Maiorescu-Gherea debate. To some extent, this structure is similar to Pompiliu Eliade’s way of suggesting the spread of Enlightenment ideas in the Danubian Principalities and the subsequent social changes, but Drace-Francis does not connect the information from these chapters in an explicit framework. While he stated that “[m]y focus is more particularly on the identities fostered by print and education than on the political ideology of nationalism [and] my real question is how books were said to make Romanians who they were” (p.8), literacy and book circulation are not exactly his main and direct points of interest but they are rather used as a background for the development of the modern Romanian literature in the two Principalities.

The Danubian Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia represented for most of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth centuries one of the main battlegrounds for the Tsarist, Habsburg and Ottoman empires, and the fate of the local population knew many twists and turns before becoming a protectorate of St. Petersburg and an area for political experiment at the margins of the Tsarist and Habsburg empires. Drace-Francis starts from the observation on the importance of ‘culture’ and the (supposed) lack thereof in the eighteenth century discussions on the social condition of the populations ruled by the Ottoman Empire in the Balkan. The author’s main suggestion is that efforts of the boyars and of the local intelligentsia to demonstrate their ability to become a ‘civilized’ European nation with the ultimate aim to have recognized from the Great Powers the legitimacy of self government for the Romanian speaking population have represented the background and one of the main causes for the formation and the affirmation of a modern Romanian culture, with literature representing its most important aspect and component. As the author emphasizes, ‘statements about Romanian cultural identity in the early nineteenth century derived from a particular impulse to define the rights and status of Principalities’ and also from a ‘struggle to distinguish themselves from immediate neighbors’ (p. 27)

Drace-Francis discusses the eighteenth and early nineteenth century developments in literacy, writing and book circulation, which were largely confined to the realm of the Orthodox Church and only accidentally in connection with the developments from Western and Central Europe. One of the smallest rates of literacy in that time Europe, clerks’ and priests’ inability to read and write, the lack of regularly attended schools that were using Greek as their teaching language have represented daily realities of then Principalities which started to be combated in a more systematic way since the end of the eighteenth century and in the first decades of the nineteenth one. Another important observation of Drace-Francis is that observations and discussions on the existing ‘lack of ‘culture’ and ‘backwardness’ of the eighteenth century Principalities were made not only by Western travelers, but also by travelers from Central and Eastern Europe or by Romanian themselves who traveled in Western Europe (Dimitrie Cantemir and, the most known example, Dinicu Golescu) and therefore they cannot simply catalogued as examples of orientalism. By employing the vernacular language in practical courses (the engineer courses taught by Gheorghe Asachi in Iasi and Gheorghe Lazar in Bucharest) and sending youngsters to study in France, Germany and Italy, the beginnings were modest. Only the treaty of Adrianople and the subsequent establishment of the Organic Regulations created the framework that made possible the flourishing of a public sphere where ‘culture’ and ‘literature’ were linked more and more explicit with ‘nation’ and the necessity to belong to ‘the European family.’ Later, these ideas became almost a norm in the minds of the forty eighters who took charge of the modern Romanian state after 1860 administrative unification of Moldavia and Wallachia.

The scholarly debates addressed by the author are those centered around Benedict Anderson’s thesis on print capitalism as a cause for the spread of nationalism and the highly contested thesis on the role of literacy in the processes of modernization. Against both these middle range theories, rather Marxian in their mechanical emphasis on print and, respectively, schooling, Drace-Francis aims to reveal the complexity of the cultural contexts and the multiplicity of factors which may vary in their importance from a context to another: indeed, one can hardly understand why and how literature developed in a certain context without paying attention to printing and book circulation and, similarly, one can hardly understand why and how book production and newspaper circulation flourished without paying attention to literacy and its agencies. Furthermore, one can hardly understand the development of the literature, book circulation and literacy without paying attention to their social, political and economical uses and especially to the role of the political and social elites. Still, generally speaking, while questions like ‘who’ and ‘when’ are present in Drace-Francis’s analysis, others like ‘why’ and ‘how’ were not systematically approached.

Extremely valuable are the tables on printing statistics by locality, region, subject and by period. For the case of Transylvania, the statistics show a prevalence of the religious books over the different categories of laic books only up to the first decades of the nineteenth century, while in Moldavia and Wallachia they continued to remain largely dominant well after 1820s. Still, for the case of the nineteenth century, religion is rather suggested than integrated in his analysis by Drace-Francis and I would emphasize two important aspects. On the one hand, while the lack of reading practices in the Orthodox Church was a barrier against the dissemination of literacy in the rural areas, the seminaries (Socola etc.) were the source not only for priests but also for lower clerks and teachers for a great part of the nineteenth century. Many of these people like Ion Creangă constituted a significant part of the readers and disseminators of the modern Romanian literature. On the other hand, the secularization process has affected only a thin part of the population for most of the nineteenth century in a time when the Orthodox Church, with the help of the authorities, pursued a series of policies similar to the earlier Central European politics of ‘confessionalization’ which reached most of the population through visual and, to some extent, through printed materials that (re)fostered the religious culture of most of the population.

There are also other ignored factors that once taken into account may broaden our understanding on the spread of literacy and hence the development of a reading market for those works addressing the popular culture (Drace Francis calls them ‘paraliterary’). Besides the school network, the army has represented an agency of spreading reading and writing practices that deserves being mentioned, the graduating rates of the regimental schools being higher than those of the urban and especially rural schools. Also, while for the eighteenth century, the Romanians of Transylvania are integrated in the analysis, they are largely ignored for the case of the nineteenth century. The wave of intellectuals who went to Walachia for a better life are discussed indeed (p. 102), but the analysis of literacy and of the reading and writing practices in Walachia and Moldavia is not put in comparison with similar data from Transylvania in order to better understand why print capitalism and schooling are not enough for the development of the Romanian literature.

While a high number of primary and secondary sources are cited and discussed, one cannot avoid thinking that the empirical material provided is not quite sufficient to support the claims made in the concluding part of the book that the offered information is too thinly supporting the claims made in the conclusive part of the book and that a more detailed explanation would have been necessary. The author should expand his arguments in a more consistent way in case of a Romanian edition. To some extent, there is a difference between some of these claims and the proper body of the analysis, a difference that may be the result of the use of literacy rather as background information for book circulation instead of approaching the uses of literacy by different social groups. For example, claims like “‘culture’ became an instrument of clientelism, a site for personal competition for resources…” and “literary development and increased reading, where it did happen, did not in itself lead to the restructuring of the social relations on more rational bases” (both on p. 198) look more like assumptions, especially since they are not so much documented in the body of the book. In spite of these relative shortcomings, The Making of Modern Romanian Culture represents a significant contribution to the understanding of the formation of the modern Romanian culture and a wonderful survey on the development of the literacy, printing and book circulation and educational networks in eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Moldavia and Walachia while its careful investigation of the most important sources and its extensive use of the Romanian scholarship of 1960s and 1970s on printing and the development of a ‘literary language’ turn it into a must read for any student who want to approach the Romanian cultural history in its early periods.