14.11.30, von der Höh, Oesterle, and Jaspert, eds., Cultural Brokers

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Albrecht Classen

The Medieval Review 14.11.30

Von der Höh, Marc, Nikolas Jaspert, and Jenny Rahel Oesterle. Cultural Brokers at Mediterranean Courts in the Middle Ages. Mittelmeerstudien, 1. Paderborn and Munich: Wilhelm Fink / Ferdinand Schöningh, 2013. Pp. 282. ISBN: 9783770553648 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Albrecht Classen
University of Arizona

Both the term 'cultural broker' employed and developed further here, and the contributions to this volume illustrating the specific content in historical terms prove to be most exciting and informative. The contributions derive from a conference organized at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum on 28-30 October 2010, where a number of fascinating case studies were presented. The focus rests on the Mediterranean, where traditionally the three cultures and religions--Islam, Christianity, and Judaism--have regularly been in contact with each other or faced each other in hostile terms. The emphasis rests on courts because they have always been the hubs of major political, cultural, administrative, scientific, medical, and religious exchanges. Diplomats come and go, financial advisors, astrologers, physicians, poets, musicians, architects, and many others from various origins find employment or are consulted, and in this entire process countless cultural exchanges take place. A similar situation can be found also at courts in the countries north of the Alps, and it would have been most useful if the editors had outlined in a comparative and contrastive manner whether the Mediterranean world was really more inclined and prepared for such exchanges. The court of London or the court of Vienna in the Middle Ages were certainly not provincial or hinterland locations. What was the situation in Baghdad like? How much did foreigners assemble at courts such as Paris, Brussels, or Bergen? Trade has always been of major importance to bring foreigners to new locations, so a focus on the Hanseatic League might have been very productive as well, perhaps for a future collection of articles. But science, scholarship, and religion initiated the same process. The term 'cultural broker' would work in many other contexts as well, but here it is applied to the Mediterranean, where it certainly makes perfect sense.

The editors differentiate between three groups of 'cultural brokers': first, those who come from afar and do not integrate easily or willingly, such as slaves, merchants, and experts. The second group comprises those individuals who travel as missionaries, diplomats, authors, and representatives of different religions. Would merchants not also fit into this group? The third group consists of mediators between two religions and/or cultures, such as Jews, who are not fully acknowledged by the new environment. Again, this would apply to experts (e.g., architects) or missionaries as well. It remains a difficult task to discriminate precisely among the many different types of 'cultural brokers,' and it will be best to recognize all those individuals as connecting agents, whether they assumed that task voluntarily or not.

To prepare us better for the subsequent articles, the editors discuss the highly complex structure of medieval courts, which were, for instance, centers of communication, often connected with urban spaces, and focal points of scientific/medical and artistic/literary exchanges. To what extent religious exchanges actually took place--despite some efforts by Mongol rulers, for instance, to learn about the various aspects of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam--remains doubtful, and in the Mediterranean we can actually exclude it almost entirely, whether we turn to Byzantium or Venice, Alexandria or Tunis. We also have to keep in mind that courts represented centers of government, which automatically entailed intense exchange with many foreigners on a daily basis. It is quite understandable that this made possible the appearance of numerous 'culture brokers.'

The volume consists of twelve articles, all of them in English (some of them translated from German). Each author endeavors to bring to light one particular court where such 'brokers' were active. Reuven Amitai studies the role of Jews at the Mongol court in Iran; Wolfram Drews focuses on the influence of Arabic-Islamic culture on high medieval Judaism in the wake of the Maimonidean controversy among some French Jews, but he wanders across various cultural regions, combines Baghdad with western Europe, examines various translations, and leaves me somewhat baffled. Jenny Oesterle discusses the role of officials, advisors, and missionaries at the Fatimid court in Cairo, which experienced a kind of multicultural transformation. The topic of Ana Echevarria's article is the role of translators, or rather mediators between the different cultures (trujamanes) at Iberian royal courts. Barbara Schlieben focuses on erotic relationships between Christian royalties and nobilities and Jewish women in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Castile, while Nikolas Jaspert studies the interactions among mendicants, Jews, and Muslims at the court of Aragon, which does not imply 'tolerance,' though certainly a form of 'toleration'--as reflected by numerous religious debates, for instance.

During the fifteenth century the Curia in Rome proved to be, as Claudia Märtl convincingly argues, a unique center for Christian and Islamic contacts, since numerous Christian experts shared their knowledge about Islam in order to support missionary activities. Marc von der Höh focuses on Muslim embassies in Renaissance Venice, the first of which had arrived there from Tunis in 1329. Sebastian Kolditz turns to late medieval Byzantium, where the court had to operate most careful to maintain a workable relationship with the great variety of forces influencing the eastern Mediterranean. Transcultural mediators, as he calls them, were thus crucial for the diplomatic balance necessary for the very survival of Byzantium. The role and work of vice-chancellors of the Hospitallers on Rhodes, such as Caoursin, fr. Bandini, Elisseo de la Manna, or Bartolomeo Policiano, is the topic of Jürgen Sarnowsky's contribution, who investigates their highly international perspectives and relationships, as documented by a very rich political correspondence composed in a variety of languages. The court of Lusignan Cyprus, where numerous 'cultural brokers' operated, is highlighted in Nicholas Coureas's article. Finally, Michael Borgolte views the role of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim travel writers in the high and late Middle Ages as 'cultural brokers,' a topic which is now also intensively discussed in East Meets West in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age, ed. Albrecht Classen (Berlin and Boston, 2013) and would have needed a much broader and more intensive treatment than this short article can accomplish.

These few remarks have certainly not done justice to the rich spectrum presented here. The term 'cultural broker' proves to be highly productive, forcing us to revisit many of our traditional perspectives toward the ordinary relations among representatives of many different cultures, religions, languages, and political systems in the wider world of the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, neither Toledo nor Salerno--the two most important gateways for ancient Greek knowledge entering medieval Latin Europe via Arabic scholars and then via Jewish rabbis--are discussed separately. I would also have liked to see some work on Frederick II's court. We could have further expected the consideration of Barcelona or Lisbon, but the range of topics dealt with here is already considerable. The discussion of the Mongol court in Persia and the one in Baghdad waters down the purported focus on the Mediterranean, but strengthens the understanding of 'cultural brokerage.' This highly informative and exciting volume concludes with an index.

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Author Biography

Albrecht Classen

University of Arizona