Environmental History in Romania: The Travail of a Scientific Field. Part 2

In an expanded version of his ‘Notepad’, originally published in Environment and History 25.2 (May 2019), Stefan Dorondel of the Francisc I. Rainer Institute of Anthropology in Bucharest expores the field of environmental history in Romania. Part 1 of this blog was published on 23 July 2019 and covered the pre-socialist and socialist periods.

Post-socialist period

Marked by economic harshness, the post-socialist period meant first and foremost an opening to the world and the freedom to publish and to travel. As difficult economically as this period was, and still is, it has marked a reconnection of Romanian and Western academia. This connectedness is reflected in several attempts to ‘catch up’ with authors, theories, methods and topics that were, for a long time (during socialism) forbidden territory for Romanian scholars.

The closest book to environmental history was writtenby Paul Cernovodeanu and Paul Binder. The two authors are clearly influenced by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie and by the French School of Annales.[1]They explore catastrophic events such as locust invasions, floods, droughts or earthquakes in the Romanian Middle Ages, including Transylvania which was then part of the Hungarian Kingdom. Despite the dearth of documents, especially for the medieval period – a challenge all scholars of social and economic history of Romania face – the authors succeed in extracting enough information from the documents to offer conclusions about droughts or intensive rain in certain years. For instance, they track the production of grapes – a Mediterranean fruit loving sun and drought – to show that Transylvanian medieval chroniclers mentioned excellent wine quantity and quality in years following a drought whereas much poorer wine qualities following rainy periods.[2]This book might have served as a foundation for future Romanian research in environmental history, being the most thoroughly researched and richly insightful book of environment history published in post-socialist  Romania. Yet, appearing in the first years of post-socialist transformations, surrounded by political unrest, economic changes and institutional restructuration, the book did not reset Romanian historiography as one would have expected.

Lucian Boia, one of the most prominent contemporary Romanian historians, explores more in Omulşi clima[Man and the Climate] (2015[2005]) the way Europeans were imagining the climate than the way people experience the climate in practice.[3]The book focuses on Europe, starting with the ancient Greeks, and the author does not spend any words on the Romanian case. When he refers to great plans to changing nature drawn up by the socialist governments he refers to Stalin and the Soviet Union.

Constantin Ardeleanu, a young and very active international historian has published extensively on the Danube European Commission as well as on Danube navigation in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. He shows the importance of steamboat voyages from Vienna to Constantinople and the corresponding transformation of the Danube river to make it more easily and safely navigable.[4]He also focuses on the contribution of infrastructure, such as bridges and railways, to the modernisation of Romania at the end of the nineteenth century.[5]His work includes a strong environmental component, since the lower Danube is an important actor in modern Romania, but his emphasis is always on economic aspects. Ardeleanu’s work could be considered economic or environmental history. Yet his international affiliations, as a member of the International Maritime Economic History Association, Economic History Association, Economic History Society (London) – and not of the ESEH – speak ofr his preference to identify his work on the Danube as economic history.

Tudose Tatu, a non-professional yet very active historian, is also interested in the history of the Danube. His book, Tradiţia, promotoare a pescuitului gălăţean[Tradition – Promoter of the Fishing Activity in Galati City] is important rather for the historical documents published in the local archives than for the analysis per seof fishing activities in Galaţi, one of the largest Romanian cities laying on the banks of the river. The author extensively uses Grigore Antipa’s books but also original documents to remind the readership of tools, practices and species of fish found in the Danube but also in the backwaters and lakes along the river and their economic importance. The period covered by the book is fifteenth century up to the interwar period.[6]

In the last ten years, a new direction has developed in Romania to emphasise political ecology and environmental anthropology. Liviu Măntescu and Monica Vasile have carried out anthropological fieldwork in several provinces of Romania, focused on communal forest restitution. They engage ethnography and political economy to show the winners and losers of post-socialist forest restitution.[7]Măntescu explores the intersections between post-socialist agrarian questions and ecological crises. He traces the eighteenth century penetration of capitalist relations in the Vrancea region (Eastern Romania) and their ecological impact.[8]Vasile has published widely on political corruption as a driver of deforestation in the post-socialist period, as well as the rules of property revival and local practices concerning common forests.[9]More recently she has engaged in new research regarding animal-human relations and their impact on Romanian forests and wildlife, rewilding and villagers’ attitudes toward reintroducing bison.[10]

Liviu Chelcea, Călin Cotoi, Stefan Dorondel and Stelu Şerban have also focused on current sociopolitical developments, post-socialist transformations and their impacts on urban and rural ecologies, growing interests to establish national parks in Romania, and reactions of villagers who resent newly protected areas as top-down impositions.[11]

Finally, in the last couple of years, instead of being surrounded solely by geography, social anthropology and political ecology, an independent environmental history has made steps toward being more visible in Romania. One of the seeds for developing Romanian environmental history has been its involvement with the Rachel Carson Center of the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich. Stefan Dorondel and Monica Vasile were both fellows at the RCC and both benefited from its assistance at various times in promoting the discipline in Romania. Dorondel, Ursula Münster and Daniuel Münsterco-edited a special issue of RCC’s Perspectives that explores the interstices of forest and agriculture, as well as of conservation, state and agriculture.[12]In a monograph of the RCC’s book series, I explore the transformations of a socialist landscape into a post-socialist one. This work shows that land reform had consequences not only for humans but also for the natural world. De-collectivisation and forest restitution affected land tenure, local economy and local social relations as well as types of crops, quality of pastures, forests and wildlife.[13]The book was considered ‘one of the first monographs … that looks at the intermeshing of social, political, economic and ecological relations’, and a ‘stepping stone in the development of a multidisciplinary field exploring ecological themes in this part of the world’.[14]

Photo 4_Hills without forests
Hills without forest in Arges County, Romania. Illegal deforestation is one of the topics of the book Disrupted Landscapes by Stefan Dorondel.

Benefiting from knowledge accumulated while at the RCC, I won a research grant (€200,500)from the Romanian National Research Agency to study floods along the Lower Danube and riparian populations’ reactions in modern and contemporary period. Monica Vasile won a grant from the same agency (€100,000) in which she and her team attempted to map the commons (forest) and their history in Romania.

A second characteristic is that the Romanian historians seem to be rather reluctant in studying environmental history. Recent publications in Romanian environmental history come rather from anthropologists-cum-historians than from officially enrolled historians. Engaging a post-humanist perspective, Stefan Dorondel, Stelu Serban and Daniel Cain explore the history of two islands of the Danube and their transformation in order to show their power over human diplomacy, military actions and border establishment in modern times. The authors show how these highly volatile environments – the Danubian islands – have contributed in certain historical circumstances to human history.[15]Şerban surveys the rush for technological development and the establishment of a technocratic elite in Bulgaria and Romania as a way to understand the management of the Danube river and its political meanings at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries.[16]In a different paper, Şerban focuses on the context of building levees along the Lower Danube in Romania and Bulgaria in the socialist period. Engaging the theory of techno-nationalism, he is able to show how the nation-state uses hydraulic technology to strengthen its legitimacy.[17]

Linked to the observation that historians are rather uninterested in environmental history is the fact that at only a few historians attended the round table organised by Constantin Ardelean and myself at the New Europe College Institute for Advanced Studies Bucharest (NEC) with the title ‘Is an Environmental History Possible in Romania?’ The most active were anthropologist, sociologists and political scientists whereas professional historians were rather shy in expressing their perspective. The round table explored the possibility of an environmental history approach in Romanian history and how this would allow us to have a new perspective on various historical events. At an invited talk at the Faculty of History of the University of Bucharest I pleaded for looking at the non-human as a neglected actor in the Romanian history. The invitation to pay more attention to the environment was heard by rather a thin audience, mostly of professors and graduate students from the department of ancient history but none from medieval, modern or contemporary history – signalling the low interest in including environment in their studies. On the contrary, the same talk was extremely well attended and received by both students and professors at the Faculty of Sociology of the University of Bucharest.


By exploring some of the most important works that have engaged in the study of environment and history I strive to show that there is a good ground upon which to build Romanian environmental history. Without being presumptuous, I consider this paper as a sort of birth certificate of contemporary Romanian environmental history. I do not want to suggest that this is the momentwhen the environmental history in Romania emerges. Instead, I gingerly suggest that the excursion into the historiography of works that border environment history represents awareness of the existence of local models, theories and approaches that could be used for an advancement of this field.


I thank my friend and colleague Stelu Şerban for reading and commenting aptly on an earlier draft.


[1]Paul Cernovodeanu, Paul Binder, Cavalerii Apocalipsului. Calamităţile naturale din trecutul României (până la 1800)[The Knights of Apocalypse. Natural Disasters in Romanian History (until 1800)] (Bucureşti: Silex, 1993).

[2]Ibidem, op. cit., p. 21.

[3]Lucian Boia, Omul şi clima(Bucureşti, Humanitas, 2015) (originally published in English by Reaktion Books, London, 2005).

[4]Constantin Ardeleanu, ‘From Vienna to Constantinople on Board the Vessels of the Austrian Danube Steam-Navigation Company.’ Historical YearbookVI(2009): 187–202; idem, ‘Accidente de navigaţie la Dunărea de Jos (1856-1914)[Navigation Accidents on the Lower Danube (1856-1914)]’, in Andreea Atanasiu-Croitoru & Florin Stan (eds),Dunărea şi Marea Neagră în spaţiul euro-asiatic. Istorie, relaţii politice şi diplomaţie [Danube and the Black Sea within Euro-Asian Space. History, Political Relations and Diplomacy] (Lucrările celei de-a XVII-a ediţii a Sesiunii Naţionale de Comunicări Ştiinţifice a Muzeului Marinei Române, 2014), pp. 83-90.

[5]Constantin Ardeleanu, ‘Efectele construirii căii ferate Cernavodă-Constanţa asupra navigaţiei dunărene (1859-1860)’ [The Effects of Building the Railway Cernavodă-Constanţa on the Danube Navigation (1859-1860)], Analele Universităţii Ovidius – Seria Istorie3(2006): 41–54; idem, ‘Comisia Europeana a Dunării şi modernizarea infrastructurii de transport a României: Calea navigabilă a Dunării (1856-1914)’ [The European Commission of the Danube and the Transport Infrastructure of Romania: Danube as Roadway], in Daniela Buşă and Ileana Căzan (eds),Curente ideologice şi instituţiile statului român modern – secolele XVIII – XX. Modelul european şi spaţiul românesc[Ideological Theories and the Modern Romanian Institutions] (Bucureşti: Oscar Print, 2007), pp. 169–188.

[6]Tudose Tatu, Tradiţia, promotoare a pescuitului gălăţean(Galaţi, 2015).

[7]Monica Vasile and Liviu Măntescu, ‘Property Reforms in Rural Romania and Community-based Forests’, Sociologie Românească2(2009): 95–113.

[8]Liviu Măntescu, ‘The Ecology of an Agrarian Question. Ecological Crises and the Coming of Age of Capitalism in Vrancea’, in S. Dorondel, S. Serban (eds), At the Margins of History. The Agrarian Question in Southeast Europe. A special issue of Martor19(2004): 97-113.

[9]Monica Vasile, ‘Règles de propriétéet pratiques locales dans les forêts communes villageoises de Vrancea : l’Obşteau d’aujourd’hui (Roumanie),’ Options MéditerranéennnesA 82(2009): 94–105 ; idem, ‘Corruption in Romanian Forestry – Morality and Local Practice in the Context of Privatization’, Revista Română de SociologieXX(1-2), (2009) : 105–120.

[10]Nicole Bauer, Monica Vasile and Maria Mondini, ‘Attitudes Towards Nature, Wilderness and Protected Areas: A Way to Sustainable Stewardship in the South-Western Carpathians’, Journal of Environmental Planning and Management61 (5–6), (2018): 857–877; Monica Vasile, ‘The Vulnerable Bison: Practices and Meanings of Rewilding in the Romanian Carpathians’, Conservation and Society16 (3) (2018): 217–231.

[11]Liviu Chelcea, ‘Postindustrial Ecologies: Industrial Rubble, Nature and the Limits of Representation’, Parcours anthropologiques10(2015): 186–201; Stefan Dorondel, ‘Environmental Disasters, Climate Change and Other Big Problems of Our Times. A View from Southeast Europe’, Ethnologia Balkanica19(2016): 11–32. Stefan Dorondel and Stelu Serban, ‘Dissuading the State: Food Security, Peasant Resistance and Environmental Concerns in Rural Bulgaria’, Canadian Journal of Development Studies(2018). https://doi.org/10.1080/02255189.2018.1498326. Calin Cotoi, ‘The Making of a National Park: Ruins of Nature and History in Northern Dobrudja’, East European Politics and Societies and Cultures31(3) (2017): 596–614; Stefan Dorondel, ‘Tenure Rights, Environmental Interests and the Politics of Local Government in Romania’, in T. Sikor and J. Stahl (eds),Forests and People. Property, Governance and Human Rights(London & New York: Earthscan, 2011), pp. 175–186.

[12]Ursula Münster, Daniuel Münster and Stefan Dorondel (eds), Fields and Forests: Ethnographic Perspectives on Environmental Globalization. RCC Perspectives 5(2012).

[13]Stefan Dorondel, Disrupted Landscapes: State, Peasants and the Politics of Land in Postsocialist Romania(Oxford and New York: Berghahn Books, 2016).

[14]Stefan Voicu, ‘Review of Disrupted Landscapes: State Peasants and the Politics of Land in Postsocialist Romania’, Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe(2018). https://doi.org/10.1080/25739638.2018.1511118

[15]Stefan Dorondel, Stelu Şerban and Daniel Cain, ‘The Play of Islands: Emerging Borders and Danube Dynamics in Modern Southeast Europe (1830-1900),’ Environment and History(2018). Fast Track, DOI https://doi.org/10.3197/096734018X15254461646413

[16]Stelu Şerban, ‘State, Technology and Environment on the Lower Danube: Bulgaria and Romania before the Balkan Wars,’ Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies21, 2 (2018): 204-221.

[17]Stelu Şerban, ‘Techno-nationalising the Levees on the Danube: Romania and Bulgaria after World War II,’ Nationalities Papers, 2019 (in print).

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