15.05.25, Watkins and Reyerson, eds., Mediterranean Identities in the Premodern Era

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Sarah Davis-Secord

The Medieval Review 15.05.25

Watkins, John, and Kathryn L. Reyerson, eds. Mediterranean Identities in the Premodern Era: Entrepôts, Islands, Empires. Transculturalisms, 1400-1700. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2014. pp. xiii, 272. ISBN: 9781409455998 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Sarah Davis-Secord
University of New Mexico

The value of a well-prepared volume of interdisciplinary essays is that multiple perspectives on a question can help to illuminate a topic in a multi-faceted way that a typical monograph cannot, with its singular focus on one time, place, or methodology. This volume, containing fourteen essays and an introduction by the editors, sets out to do just that for the questions of identity and identity formation in the premodern Mediterranean. The editors assert, indeed, that interdisciplinarity is the best way to get a handle on the complexity of the region and the topic of identity, and I would agree that no single monograph could approach the question of Mediterranean identities--personal, communal, and regional--from such a broad swath of time and place.

Chapter one provides a brief introduction, not only to the volume's contents but also to the historiography of the premodern Mediterranean--both as a unit of study and as an arena for the examination of "the complexities of human social identity" (4) writ large--and of the concept of identity itself. Both the Mediterranean as a region and identity as a lens for understanding social behavior are of great contemporary interest among scholars, so the volume is well-timed and can provide a solid basis for further discussions, either in the classroom or future research. This brief historiographical introduction is especially helpful if the volume is to be used in a seminar setting or by students new to the field. So, too, is the attention paid to the question of how to define identity as an analytical category. The editors decide on the following: "categories by which premodern people made sense of the social environments that they inhabited" (5); that is, the classifications by which Mediterranean peoples characterized themselves and others within various relationships. Such categories of identity include not only those of religion, language, or ethnicity, but also gender, profession, free/slave status, and region of origin--categories that could be overlapping, compounded, and fungible, as we see fleshed out in many of the volume's essays. By choosing identity as the lens through which to view the premodern Mediterranean, the volume's editors and contributors have chosen to focus largely on people--both as individuals and as groups--and their interactions as a defining characteristic of the region itself. The choice to focus on self-definition also opens the door to a theme found in many of the essays in the volume, that an individual's identity could be shifted or rebalanced depending on the context of their interactions and the particular priorities at play in each local context or relationship. Because of the broad range of times, places, and types of interaction discussed throughout the volume, we see a wide variety of ways in which identity could be crafted and utilized.

This volume is, in fact, quite broad in chronological range, geographical scope, and disciplinary approach. While part of a series called "Transculturalisms, 1400-1700," the essays in this particular volume range from the eighth to eighteenth centuries. Each of the three sections, corresponding to the entrepôts, islands, and empires of the subtitle, progresses essentially chronologically, so that each section begins with a medieval example and ends in the early modern period. Disciplinarily broad as well, we find archaeology and material culture, literary studies, and history. Geographically, we find an even wider scope: the essays span from Spain and Mallorca, across the central Mediterranean region of Sicily and Venice, to the Crusader East, Rhodes, and Constantinople. In addition, several of the essays attempt to bring "into" the Mediterranean regions farther afield and not typically identified with the Mediterranean basin, such as Charlemagne's empire, England, and the Ukraine, and the final essay reaches across the Atlantic into the "New World." Such broad geographical and chronological range allows the volume to set a wide lens upon the questions about how identity was formulated, operated, and could be transformed within the wider Mediterranean region across the medieval and early modern periods.

Despite the ambitious scope of the volume, however, it is to be expected that not every subject or discipline of interest is covered here. While several essays focus on Ottoman Constantinople, for example, none examines the Byzantine Empire; only one essay treats lands directly under Islamic rule, although several discuss Muslims and Islamic culture. Likewise, none of the essays directly focuses on questions of gender identity, although several mention women as part of their larger investigations (Dursteler, Netzloff, Mummey, Yermolenko). The essays also vary in level of detail and methodological rigor--some present an overview of the topic at hand with a few conclusions, while others argue for new interpretive paradigms concerning the question of identity.

The essays also vary in the degree to which they directly engage with historiographical questions about what exactly forms an individual's or group's identity and how it can be determined by scholars of the premodern past. It is not until the eleventh essay in the volume, in fact, that we get a direct discussion of the two schools of thought on the question of identity--as either fixed and essential or malleable and socially constructed. The majority of the essays in the volume implicitly support, or indeed take for granted, the argument that personal, communal, or regional identity was multiple, context-specific, and could shift based on current needs (practical, interpersonal, commercial, familial, or rhetorical); indeed, this is the school of thought in the ascendancy in recent scholarship. Nonetheless, readers interested in the historiographical debate and desirous of an introduction to identity studies might want to read first the introduction (essay one) and then the piece by Schryver (essay eleven) before reading the rest of the volume.

The decision to focus on the geographical-functional categories of entrepôts, islands, and empires for the section organization is one of many that the editors could have made. Indeed, several of the locations or issues in one section are found again in other sections, and cities such as Venice and Constantinople could function as both entrepôts and empires at the same time. Likewise, several important topics are found in numerous of the volume's essays, such as slavery (Bradley, Mummey, Yermolenko), conversion (Bradley, Mummey, Kadi, Yermolenko, Matar), hybridity (Bradley, Mummey, Surtz), language (Dursteler, Kadi, Irigoyen-García), warfare (Vann, Bachrach), profession (Bradley, Netzloff, Mummey, Kadi), and the trans-regional movements of material goods, cultural elements, and information (Perry, Netzloff, Smit, Mummey, Schryver, Irigoyen-García, Surtz). Indeed, trans-regional travel and cultural hybridity define the Mediterranean Sea perhaps most fully, and many of the essays discuss these themes.

The first section, "Entrepôts," focuses primarily on Venice and Constantinople, each as it related to its wider regional contexts. The first essay in this section, by David M. Perry, examines objects (books, relics, and spolia) that originated elsewhere but traveled to Venice and, along with the stories about where they came from and how they connected Venice with other spaces of influence, helped the Venetians understand who they were as a city and as a people, as well as their position within larger trans-regional and trans-cultural webs of power. Perry also makes a larger methodological claim that studying "vectors" of trajectory and power can aid understanding of how motion and mobility itself could help create and transform regional identity within the larger networks of interaction in the Mediterranean. Eric R. Dursteler, in the next essay, contrasts the modern notion of national identity as founded upon linguistic homogeneity with the premodern Mediterranean world of flexible and porous linguistic borders, where communications were prioritized in a web of tangled networks, and thus multilingualism abounded. Examining in turn Venice, the Republic of Ragusa, and the Ottoman Empire, he concludes that "linguistic pragmatism" (47) prevailed, meaning that languages were used for communication, not identification, and that there was little effort to impose a central language on the external regions within each of these commercial or administrative empires.

The third, by Cameron W. Bradley, examines janissaries and renegades (converts to Islam) in sixteenth-century Ottoman Constantinople. He argues that for both groups of men, born as Christians in Europe but converted to Islam either willingly or under duress, their identities as Europeans did not necessarily disappear but were robed in new Ottoman Muslim ones that they could employ or discard when desired--their personal identities were indeed "hybrid," because they were both amalgamative and fluid (57). The final essay in the first section, by Mark Netzloff, argues that the early modern state and its need for intelligence from outside its territorial boundaries led to the development of rubrics by which English travelers abroad were encouraged to produce travel diaries as "objective protocols" (81) within a necessarily subjective and mediated form of information-gathering. Sixteenth-century English travelers in Venice, he finds, thus crafted multi-layered identities as tourists, diplomats, and spies within the web of information circulating inside Venice and between the city and England.

The second section, "Islands," deals in three essays with Sicily, Rhodes, and Mallorca. Timothy Smit's essay explores the multiple religious identities involved in the commercial environment of twelfth-century Sicily. Muslims, Jews, and Christians participated in both the production and the local and regional trade relationships of the island. Theresa M. Vann argues that the Hospitallers of Rhodes crafted an image of themselves for western Christian audiences that foregrounded their warfare against the infidel and obscured their diplomacy (hostage exchange, negotiation, envoys) and trade with Muslims (and protection of Muslim merchants in and around Rhodes). Kevin Mummey examines the ethnic and religious backgrounds of slaves in fourteenth-century Mallorca to argue that "slave" was not one single identity but that slaves in this society could express a number of different identities based on their work, appearance, origin, price, gender, and relationship to their masters.

The final section, "Empires," expands the definition of the Mediterranean by linking more distant regions into the patterns of Mediterranean communications and explores the wide variety of "imperial" identities therein. The section begins with an examination by Wadad Kadi (al-Qāḍī) of the bureaucratic secretaries of the Umayyad caliphate, many of whom were from convert families. One of these men, ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd, imagined a distinct professional identity for secretaries that also intersected with their private lives, as it concerned ethical characteristics, behavior, training, their proximity to royal power, and the relationships among secretaries outside of work. Such a functional identity made more sense in the Umayyad caliphate than one based on ethnic origin since the non-Arab converts were highly varied in language, status, and power. Bernard S. Bachrach's essay repositions Charlemagne's empire as one that was both in and highly interested in the Mediterranean. James G. Schryver turns to the Crusader East and argues that the material objects created by Christians there demonstrate that identity--in this case as expressed in images of the True Cross--could shift based on particular local contexts, such as high value Crusader coins that were crafted to closely imitate regional Muslim coinages and did not include images of the Crusader cross.

Galina I. Yermolenko explores the early modern Ukraine, linking it to the Mediterranean through the institution of slavery in Ottoman lands. Songs from Ukrainian communities encoded the emotional responses of the community to the problem of captivity and both created and upheld links between captive individuals and their natal community: they were "psychologically therapeutic" (206) and also provided culturally- and gender-specific models of slave behavior and resistance to conversion. Nabil Matar, too, explores conversion, this time of Muslims to Christianity in the sixteenth-eighteenth centuries, arguing that in the early modern period the needs of the state and European economy were reasons for promoting conversion of Muslims among both Catholics and Protestants.

The final two essays deal with early modern Spain's attempts to formulate a new national identity vis-à-vis both Islam and the Americas. Javier Irigoyen-García examines Spain's drive to outlaw "Moorish" cultural elements and the linguistic work done to salvage a particular horse riding game that had Islamic origins but was also claimed for the classical past. That is, he finds a form of classicism that did not necessarily supersede Islam but could be syncretic: "different versions of a common Mediterranean identity" (244). Ronald E. Surtz also finds syncretic, or hybrid, identities in the Americas, which became "another site for the consolidation of established identities and the creation of new identities" (249). One American mestizo who traveled to Spain wrote about the process of hybridizing plants and animals in the Americas in the same way that he proudly wrote of himself as a mixed-race individual. Thus the "New World" could be imagined, at least by some, as a place that produced better versions of plants, animals, and even people through the creation of hybridized identities.

Altogether, the volume's essays emphasize the flexibility, contextualized nature, multiplicity, and performativity of premodern identity. Each individual, group, or sub-region within the wider Mediterranean world had multiple identities that could be shifted and emphasized differently depending on context and need. Another overall takeaway of the volume is that the Mediterranean region itself cannot, either in one period or across many centuries, be said to have had one identity. Following the leads of Horden and Purcell, in The Corrupting Sea, and David Abulafia, in The Great Sea, these essays stress the diversity of the Mediterranean over its unity. What binds the region together was not a singular "Mediterranean identity" but rather the travel, communication, and negotiations that connected various sub-regions and their people within multi-faceted commercial, cultural, personal, and professional relationships.

This is a well-edited volume with a helpful index and a map of the wider Mediterranean world and Europe. Each essay is followed by a short bibliography of primary and secondary works, which will make the individual essays easier to assign in the classroom. These fourteen diverse essays speak to vital issues in the current study of the medieval Mediterranean, and those interested in either the premodern Mediterranean or in the concept of identity will want to consult this volume.

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