12.05.25, Bell, Fremde in der Stadt

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Albrecht Classen

The Medieval Review 12.05.25

Bell, Peter, Dirk Suckow, Gerhard Wolf, eds.. Fremde in der Stadt: Ordnungen, Repräsentationen und soziale Praktiken (13.-15. Jahrhundert). Inklusion/Exklusion. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang GmbH, 2010. Pp. 540. ISBN: 978-3-631-61247-7.

Reviewed by:
Albrecht Classen
University of Arizona

Xenology is a very fruitful field of research, both in the Middle Ages and beyond, and until today. Perhaps the great influx or movement of migrants/foreigners into many different countries especially today, which results into many social, cultural, religious, and economic problems for both sides, motivates scholars to turn their attention to parallel cases in the premodern world. The present, really exciting volume consists of papers that were delivered at an international conference held at Trier, Germany, from February 15 to 16, 2008. The focus rests on late-medieval Italy, mostly in the fifteenth century, and on both the larger cities and smaller communities. The central question addressed throughout pertains to the issue of how foreigners were perceived and treated during that time period, as far as mostly visual objects can reveal to the critical eye.

The papers are divided into the following, somewhat amorphous sections: At first the editors offer an introductory study by Bell und Suckow on the appearance and role of foreigners in late-medieval Italian cities, and Arnold Esch's paper on the specific function of foreigners, very broadly defined, in the same locations. Then, one section treats locations of images and organization of images, the next deals with segregated spaces, the third with bodies, signs, and attributions, and the last with owning and descriptions. These terms do not make much sense, either in the original German or in the English translation, hence the need to turn to the individual contributions.

As Esch indicates, in many Italian cities people lived who had come from numerous parts of the world, especially north of the Alps, either for economic or religious reasons. They had difficulties with the language, they faced xenophobia, irrespective of their origin, and had to adapt to foreign conditions. Artists often made efforts to depict them, whether in friendly or in hostile terms, so the art historian can point out numerous examples of images that depict even black slaves. Monika E. Müller discusses the presentation of Saracens/Muslims, and then also of Turks in Apulian capitals from the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries as expressions of religious opposition. Alberto Saviello alerts us to the peculiar interest of Venice to reflect on the countless foreigners who regularly visited this lagune city through biblical motifs of the Pentecost miracle in San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale. German merchants had to utilize the Fondaco dei Tedeschi as their hostel and the site where they could sell their wares, which was both a privilege and a legal limitation on them, as Uwe Israel presents in his contribution.

Gabriele Köster examines the reasons why the Greek Cardinal Bessarion was welcomed by the Venetians and fully integrated, and especially points out his highly impressive level of learning. The extent to which the central pilgrimage site Rome attracted foreigners from all over Christianitas is the topic of Christiane Esche-Ramshorn's article, in which she alerts us to the multi-ethnicity of the stream of visitors. Most fascinating proves to be Benjamin Scheller's analysis of how converted Jews were treated in the town of Trani during the late Middle Ages, considering the degree of distrust and continued hatred leading to the expulsion of the entire group of converted Jews and real Jews at the beginning of the sixteenth century. This case tragically illustrates how little conversion was accepted by the Christian population even hundreds of years later, since the need for scapegoating was so enormous.

Michail Chatzidakis takes a very different approach, investigating the perception of ancient Greek culture through the eyes of the merchant and subsequent researcher Ciriaco d'Ancona, who entertained as good relationships with the German emperor Sigismund as with the Ottomans and other rulers in Egypt and elsewhere in order to promote his epigraphic research. In this regard Ciricaco can be regarded as one of the major initiators of the reception of ancient art, philosophy, and literature in Florence. However, as interesting as this article proves to be, it does not really fit into this volume, since the xenological dimension is not well integrated. Peter Bell then studies a variety of markers which foreigners or members of religious minorities had to wear in late-medieval Italian cities. Surprisingly, he is not aware of the origin of the yellow patch for Jews which was instituted at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.

Martin Przybilski discusses the presentation of Jews in medieval literature, introducing a number of texts that have normally not been considered in this context, but he also ignores a vast number of major documents, and hence also much of the current research oriented toward this topic. One example among many might be his reference to Freidank's famous didactic narrative Bescheidenheit as evidence for the use of the triadic formulation attacking heretics, Jews, and heathens, which goes back to many earlier sources, including Walther von der Vogelweide, who is not even mentioned here. Again, considering the special focus of this volume, this article falls somewhat outside of the parameters.

Perhaps the best contribution proves to be Philine Helas's study of the representation of black Africans in fifteenth-century Italian art, offering a wide range of examples, through which she can confirm the surprisingly complex approach to Africans at that time, who were by far not all treated just as slaves. Some of them gained considerable respect, others rose in political power and personal wealth, depending on the circumstances. So, Shakespeare's Othello was not at all completely fictional, we might claim. This is followed by Megan Holmes' remarkable analysis of the presentation of Blacks in Christian Renaissance art in Florence, especially in miracle stories, where at times an unfortunate birth of a black child comes to a good end through the child's transformation into a white person. Racism, of course, continues to play a big role here, yet the authors and artists allowed at least a window toward the real world where black children were born as the result of rape, or even of a white and a black person who had joined in mutual consent.

Dirk Suckow next attempts to trace examples of texts and images from the entire Middle Ages in which Blacks are included, but the evidence remains rather elusive, as he admits himself. Finally, Christoph Cluse discusses the representation of slaves in statutes and notarial documents in Italian cities from around 1400, which has particular weight because the number of slaves actually grew considerably in Italy from the last quarter of the thirteenth century. In order to recognize them, in case they fled and were recaptured, or for many other reasons, the documents contain precise bodily descriptions. Resorting to a quite meaningful pun, Cluse identifies this process as "exclusionary inclusion" into the civic world of Italian cities.

The volume concludes with a summarizing epilogue by Gerhard Wolf, a list of all illuminations, the excellent illustrations themselves, and short biographical blurbs of all contributors. As fascinating and impressive as virtually all articles are, there are some points of distraction, if not irritation. In their introductory study Bell and Suckow refer too flippantly to the "gypsies" (Zigeuner), though they use each time single quotation marks. At least the terms "Sinti" and "Roma" should have been used. In Esch's paper the footnotes and the bibliography are partly erroneous, partly imprecise. Some of the authors reveal a tendency to replace ordinary and precise German terms with English words, obviously trying to impress their readers with their global linguistic skills, which really reveal an impoverishment of their own native lexicon. "Jewishness," for example, is not a German word, whether scholars globally rely on it or not. In Przybilski's article it is often quite difficult to verify his sources, since he tends to draw from secondary or tertiary studies, without having consulted the original texts. One major area has been mostly ignored, that is, the direct contacts between Christians and Muslims, and hence the topic of a Muslim population in late-medieval Italy. I sorely miss an index for the entire volume. Overall, however, the contributors can be praised for their excellent and highly stimulating research into an ever-fascinating topic of great relevance.

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Albrecht Classen

University of Arizona