The Medieval Review 14.01.08

Aigle, Denise and Stéphane Péquignot. La correspondance entre souverains, princes et cités-états: Approches croisées entre l’Orient musulman, l’Occident latin et Byzance (XIIIe-début XVIe s.). Miroir de l'Orient Musulman 2. Turnhout: Brepols, 2013. Pp. 240. €55.00. ISBN: 978-2-503-53147-2.

Reviewed by:

Kaya Şahin
Indiana University

This edited book brings together articles that are based on presentations made at an eponymous conference, organized at the école Pratique des Hautes études in Paris, on December 2-3, 2008. The book includes an introduction by Denise Aigle, nine articles, and concluding remarks by Stéphane Péquignot. The notes are provided at the bottom of the page, and separate bibliographies follow each chapter. These features are particularly important for articles that are heavily based on primary sources, since they allow the reader to easily follow the dialogue between the text and its references.

This volume is, in a sense, the latest in a series of recent works devoted to the study of diplomatic correspondence among the Latin Christian, Eastern Christian (Greek Orthodox, Armenian), Mongol and Muslim power-holders, with a particular focus on the late medieval period and the Eastern Mediterranean. [1] This is a period characterized by the Crusades and the creation of "Outremer," the rise of the Italian city-states as commercial and political actors in and around the Mediterranean, the Mongol invasions and the establishment of several Mongol "successor kingdoms" in the Middle East and the Eurasian steppe, the emergence of the Mamluk Sultanate in Egypt after 1250, and the weakening of the Byzantine Empire. As such, it is a time when an unprecedented level of cultural, political and commercial contact was established between the eastern and western halves of Eurasia. Diplomatic correspondence, conducted through various actors and in several languages and idioms, was one of the forms of contact to emerge from this violent, messy, yet fascinating period of swift changes and profound transformations.

In her introduction, Denise Aigle sets the tone for the rest of the volume, through her discussion of the general significance of the project (i.e. a comparative study of the diplomatic cultures and practices of the Latin West, the Muslim Orient, and Byzantium through a joint use of diplomatics, philology, and linguistics), and her brief exploration of the state of the sources available to the researchers. Indeed, all the remaining articles address these important issues to varying extents, as will be discussed below.

The first article, by Frédéric Bauden, deepens the question of archives and archival materials in medieval Islamic societies. At the onset, Bauden recognizes that all medieval European political entities do not necessarily have large archives, and that the nature and quantity of their archival materials vary widely depending on local conditions. (In this sense, he is more careful than Aigle in not pitting an 'archive-less' medieval Islam against a medieval Europe endowed with rich archives.) At the same time, from a strictly positivistic standpoint, the medieval Muslim societies seem to have left behind fewer materials that may be identified as surviving official/original copies of diplomatic correspondence. This is particularly puzzling since the same societies produced a rich chancery culture, as seen in a fairly large number of works on secretarial practice, and the collections of letters that reproduce several documents. While Bauden does not necessarily offer a solution out of this seeming impasse, his article leads the reader to question the positivistic search for originals, and to adopt different criteria while defining the work and output of medieval Islamic chanceries.

Benoît Grévin ventures into a similar discussion about the originality of documents through the fictional pieces of correspondence between Latin Christian and Muslim interlocutors, which were composed and circulated for the benefit of late medieval European audiences. As an instrument to measure authenticity, he convincingly suggests that those documents where the flow of the Latin rhyming prose is often broken, and where the text is simpler, are more likely to reflect an original correspondence written in a non-Latin language. Related to this, Grévin addresses the crucial issue of translation and language skills available in this particular period. By definition, these diplomatic letters use a sophisticated, indeed contrived language that is rich with metaphors and allusions to religious history and literature; they are written in a rhythmic prose (and the Muslim chanceries are not different than the Latin ones, since they often write according to the conventions of saj' i.e. rhyming prose) that is difficult to replicate in other languages. Also, there are cases when the recipients of a letter may be unable to read and understand the letter's contents due to a lack of linguistic knowledge, or only partially and/or erroneously translate the contents. This article thus invites the readers to consider the issue of reception more carefully; it also points us in the direction of interpreters and other middlemen who played a crucial role in the circulation, translation and (mis)interpretation of diplomatic messages, regardless of what an "original" letter may intend to convey.

In his article on the correspondence between the Mongols and the Papacy in the 13th century, Thomas Tanase succinctly discusses the re-assertion of the Papacy as an important international actor in this period (and the concomitant re-organization of its archives), and shows how the Papacy's diplomatic activities (in the form of letters as well missions sent to the East) were closely related to its hopes of benefiting from the Mongol invasions to expand Latin Christianity. He also brings an important contribution to the discussion on "original documents" by showing that, next to the Papal archives, correspondence related to the Papacy's activities in this period may be found in chronicles, manuscripts penned by the missionaries sent to evangelize the Mongols, and miscellaneous collections. In this sense, even in the case of the Latin West, there is still a new documentary corpus that has to be discovered, in order to arrive at a more detailed picture of the diplomatic exchanges in this period. In a related article, Jean Richard draws attention to the fact that, before the Mongol invasions connected the two halves of Eurasia, there already existed a certain level of diplomatic communication between the Papacy and various Muslim rulers.

Anne Troadec ingeniously supersedes the discussion on the existence or absence of the "originals" in her analysis of a letter from the Mamluk sultan Baybars to Count Bohemond VI of Tripoli in 1271, following the former's capture of a fortress. After a concise historical background, a French translation of the letter and the Arabic text (which is reproduced on the basis of its extant versions in near-contemporary chronicles and a collection of letters), Troadec shows how the letter was intended to reach both Frankish and Arab audiences, and leave to posterity a particular image of Baybars. Here, Troadec suggests a multifaceted approach that takes into account the multiplicity of audiences, and emphasizes the importance of analyzing these documents as literary texts with plural meanings. éric Vallet's article on an Egyptian secretary who finished his career in Yemen, at the service of the Rasulid dynasty, further expands our knowledge of the extent and nature of the era's chancery culture. Musa b. al-Hasan al-Mawsili, the secretary studied in the article, produced a secretarial manual that was somehow less detailed than those produced in Egypt; his manual was also adopted to the specific political milieu that he found himself in Yemen. This, in itself, may be interpreted as an indication about the dynamism and malleability of the Arabic chancery literature of the period.

élisabeth Malamut's study of the diplomatic activity of Andronicus II, Byzantine emperor between 1281 and 1328, addresses one of the most important scholarly challenges faced by the field of diplomatics, namely, the prevalence of oral communication, and the disparity between the number of diplomatic missions and the extant copies of letters from the Byzantine emperor to his interlocutors. The Byzantine Empire, due to its perilous existence among several hostile entities, maintained an active diplomatic relationship with the Papacy, Latin Christian kings and princes, the Italian cities, minor and major powers in the Balkans, the Mongols, small and large Muslim entities to the East, etc. Only some of the letters sent out by the Byzantine emperor have been preserved, and all of them are addressed to Latin Christian interlocutors, such as Jaime II of Aragon, Pope John XXII, Charles IV, etc. The activities of the Byzantine chancery also allow us to talk about multi-lingual communication, since Troadec shows that the Byzantine chancery often prepared a Latin translation to be dispatched together with the Greek original.

Isabella Lazzarini's much-needed contribution veers the discussion towards the northern Italian powers such as Milan, Ferrara, and Mantua who joined this active diplomatic traffic in the 14th and 15th centuries. The article lists the important actors in the eastern Mediterranean world between the end of the Frankish presence in the Middle East and the consolidation of the Ottoman control over most of the area by the late 16th century: next to the northern Italian powers, whose entry into the limelight was preceded by the merchant city-states of the peninsula, we see the Mamluks of Egypt, the White Sheep Turcoman confederation, and the Ottomans (whose advances in the Balkans created a pressing factor for more diplomatic activity). Lazzarini does not ignore the importance of intermediaries such as the city-state of Ragusa, the (soon to pass into Venetian hands) Kingdom of Cyprus, and the Knights Hospitaller at the island of Rhodes. She also admits that high-level diplomatic/official correspondences cannot cover the multiplicity of exchanges, and the variety of intermediary agents, even though she does not extend her article into an exploration of these alternative sources. Lazzarini's emphasis on the importance of the Ottoman conquests in the Balkans paves the way for the last article of the collection, by Jean-Louis Bacqué-Grammont, on the letters sent by the Ottomans to Safavid Iran, the Uzbeks of Central Asia, and Mughal India from the first decades of the 16th century to the middle of the 17th century. This exploratory article, which is supplemented by a long list of documents, relies on the Ottoman chancery collections and chronicles, without discussing the issue of originality, or the multiple audiences of these letters. It is nevertheless useful in portraying the new, Ottoman, incarnation and creative reuse of the medieval Islamic chancery culture in the light of the international political and cultural agendas of early modern Ottoman imperialism.

In his concluding remarks, Stéphane Péquignot revisits the importance of the Mongol invasions as an event that connected a large zone and necessitated a higher level of diplomatic correspondence. These invasions coincided with the emergence of more organized and meticulous archival practices in the Latin West, particularly in the Papacy. The diplomatic literature produced by all sides, Papal, Byzantine and Muslim alike, relied on time-honored practices of writing and composition, but the respective chanceries were able to use the models in inventive ways while answering the political and cultural requirements of their era.

Péquignot's concluding remarks about the similarities that existed among different chancery traditions (the creation of chancery manuals; the use of special techniques, such as the rhyming prose; the advancement of universalist political and religious arguments, often couched in a flowery, highly metaphorical language) suggest an obvious avenue for future investigations by the practitioners of diplomatics: a truly comparative study of the ways in which these techniques and methods were utilized by different chanceries. The parallels are too obvious to be hidden behind an argument of "civilizational" differences, and a connected history of late medieval chancery practices from the Latin West into Western Asia is direly needed. To give an example, the increased use and impact of the Latin ars dictaminis and the Arabo-Persian insha, as both a technical political idiom and the cultural product of a milieu of upwardly-mobile secretaries, deserves more consideration, beyond being merely noted as a quaint coincidence.

This collection of articles is rather convincing in underlining the importance of diplomatics for a study of East-West relations. Next to the studies that focus on religious polemic, travel narratives and various literary representations, diplomatic correspondence crystalizes, in a nutshell, the political and cultural aspirations and yearnings of a political center at a given point in time. However, as the authors often argue, there has to be a constant interplay between this group of sources and others. The collection is comforting in the sense that most of the authors agree on superseding the positivistic definition of what constitutes an original document, and this must be seen as a salubrious development for the field of diplomatics, which is still haunted by the restrictions imposed by nineteenth-century positivism.

Beyond these issues, the present volume once again reminds us that the late medieval Eastern Mediterranean was a fascinating panorama of multilingual, multiethnic communities in constant economic, political, and cultural interaction. The advent of early modernity in the form of the imperial behemoths such as the Habsburgs, the Ottomans and the Safavids did not completely destroy this panorama, obviously, but the overall cultural and political importance of this period and this geography is often overshadowed by the histories of these empires. This volume is another reminder that the late medieval Eastern Mediterranean, and particularly the role of the Byzantine Empire as its most important nodal point, deserves to be revisited.



1. Two previous works are Denise Aigle and Pascal Buresi (eds.), Les relations diplomatiques entre le monde musulman et l'Occident latin (XIIe-XVIe siècle) (Rome: Ist. per l'Oriente C. A. Nallino, 2008), special issue of Oriente Moderno 88/2; Alexander D. Beihammer, Maria G. Parani and Christopher D. Schabel (eds.), Diplomatics in the Eastern Mediterranean 1000-1500: Aspects of Cross-Cultural Communication (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2008).

Copyright (c) 2014 Kaya Şahin

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