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Realm of the Black Mountain: A History of Montenegro

January 4, 2009

Realm of the Black Mountain: A History of Montenegro

By Elizabeth Roberts

Cornell University Press (2007), 521 pp.

Reviewed by Christopher Deliso

Although released just in 2007, Realm of the Black Mountain: A History of Montenegro comes from a much older school of scholarship. With this much needed work, former diplomat Elizabeth Roberts has produced the newest and best introduction to the full history of a storied and sometimes inscrutable land the identity of which was formed equally by its forbidding mountains and balmy Adriatic coast- still the features most representative of Montenegro today and most enticing to its increasing number of foreign visitors.

While in essence a political history in the most conventional sense, Roberts’s study takes account of not only English-language secondary sources but also numerous secondary sources from Serb and Montenegrin historians, plus a few first-hand 19th and early 20th-century annals (the British Foreign Office, Carnegie Commission findings and so on).

Frequently throughout the proceedings, quotes are woven in from some of the many eminent personalities and writers to have crossed Montenegro and chronicled it in past decades, livening up the narrative and adding an occasional touch of humor. The selection of historic color photographs, illustrating everything from famous Montenegrins, medieval manuscripts, engravings and social conditions provides a welcome addition.

Realm of the Black Mountain: A History of Montenegro follows a fairly straightforward course, narrating the history of the country from pre-Slavic times through to the medieval princes of Duklja and Zeta, the Turkish occupation and resistance to it, and finally Montenegro’s fate during the Balkan Wars, the two Yugoslavias and its recent experience as an independent republic. The whole trajectory of this historical experience is explained in a condensed form in the long introduction (Montenegrin Identity in Time and Space), which is helpful in providing context for readers, who could run the risk of becoming lost in a book of over 500 pages.

As could be expected, the temporal coverage of the book is weighted towards the more contemporary history of Montenegro, with roughly half of the text dealing with prehistory through the 19th century, and the latter half concerned with the period from 1880 to the present. Given the turbulent events of the 20th century and Montenegro’s continuing ability to make history via its independence referendum in 2006, there is indeed plenty to cover, though it is also clear that the range of sources upon which the author draws is at its richest and most diverse regarding Montenegro’s modern history. So to some extent, the exposition is a reflection of the degree of attention given in the previous historiography.

Another important factor, however, is the simple truth that for the vast majority of its history, Montenegro was a humble place indeed. Rocky, desolate and poor, it underwent frequent declines in population matching the general wax and wane of national fortunes. Even in the early 20th century, foreign diplomats expressed their derision at the backwater nature of the place and trappings of greatness at odds with the stated stature of the head of state (the famous King Nikola).

Indeed, it is somewhat astonishing that a country numbering no more than 20,000 souls at various points could maintain its social and cultural cohesion over the centuries and become a modern state (with a population of over 600,000 at present).

Of course, it would not be possible to present Montenegrin history in isolation. The general narrative thus unfolds in the context of Montenegro’s relations with Byzantium in the east and Venice in the west, with the neighboring Serbs and Albanians, and with more distant powers such as Austro-Hungary and Russia.

All in all, Realm of the Black Mountain: A History of Montenegro is the single best introduction to Montenegro’s rich history available in English today. Although it can be slow going in parts and would benefit from further editing, this book does an admirable job in giving order to a chronically unruly, complex subject of research.

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