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15.10.01, Hudson and Rodríguez, eds., Diverging Paths?

The Medieval Review

15.10.01, Hudson and Rodríguez, eds., Diverging Paths?

This sophisticated volume illustrates the impressive, thought-provoking results an accomplished, diverse group of scholars can produce in pursuit of a simple and open-ended yet ultimately difficult and complicated question. Based on the level and manner of institutionalization of Islamic and Christian societies in the early medieval period, one would have expected their respective development by the late Middle Ages to be the reverse from what, in fact, transpired. For example, whereas Christendom witnessed the development of sophisticated medieval states and other exclusive economic and political organizations, Islamic societies were seemingly prevented by the nature of Islamic law from developing similarly elitist institutions. How can scholars account for this unexpected reversal in "institutionalisation and institutional continuity" (xi)? Funded by Spain's Ministry of Science and Technology, a gathering of handpicked experts on premodern Islamic and Christian societies from around the world (but predominately Europe) participated in a number of meetings convoked by Ana Rodríguez and Eduardo Manzano at their Centro de Ciencias Humanas y Sociales of the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC) in Madrid between 2009 and 2013. The project took the same name now borne by this handsome volume and pursued a fascinating and timely inquiry into the comparative institutional development of societies of the premodern Mediterranean, a topic that has of course interested historians for generations. Yet with a plethora of highly trained and interested experts and arguably more collaboration between scholars working on the formerly much too isolated Islamic and Christian sides of the Mediterranean world (encouraged by numerous and proliferating networking associations), academia has never been better prepared to tackle such a project.

As with most edited collections to emerge from academic gatherings, this volume does not posit a central argument per se, although a number of its contributors did achieve a certain degree of synergy with their work. What the collaborators did come to share--in ways that the editors note in their brief preface and Gadi Algazi proposes in the first piece within the first part of the volume, entitled "Approaches and Exploration"--is a general set of methodological and theoretical assumptions and guidelines. For instance, all of the participants seem to have agreed that institutionalization was a better common theme than other candidates, such as culture, and all appear to have shared common goals such as eschewing teleological models. In other respects, however, the contributors diverged in their approaches to the thorny issues raised by the theme. For instance, a consistent definition of institution and institutionalization across time and place proved difficult to pin down, although many of the scholars tended to adopt a "narrower understanding of what is meant by institutions" that enabled them "to describe their actions, to treat them as both powerful, seemingly unified actors and as arenas of internal social conflict" (6). In the second piece in "Approaches and Exploration," Caroline Humfress adds to Algazi's considerations in a comparative analysis of Roman and Islamic law in which she suggests that "the study of legal institutions and processes of legal institutionalisation" needs to be made "from the bottom up." She adds that the studies on "Law and Codification" within the second part of the volume accomplish this objective by examining the development of codified law "within the framework of institutions and institutional practices," thus eschewing overly simplistic "theory-practice" or "center-periphery" models (28-29). In the final preliminary essay devoted to theoretical issues, Susana Narotzky and Eduardo Manzano reexamine an Islamic institution (the ḥisba as practiced by the office of the muḥtasib) using a modified framework borrowed from the New Institutional Economics School. They come to the conclusion, in keeping with many of Algazi's observations about the collection, that "institutions are not organisations as they are in permanent change" (53).

These three theoretical essays effectively introduce and frame the ensuing studies presented in the second part of the volume ("Themes and Investigations"). Each section of this latter two-thirds of Diverging Paths? also bears its own brief prefatory remarks as well as a short, yet sophisticated and useful, conclusion. Indeed, it is clear that the editors of this volume put a great deal of thought and effort into equipping it with all of the necessary supplementary tools so that its readers would be able to reconstruct to some degree the complex interactions that had apparently transpired in the meetings of this project. Under "Law and Codification," Bernard Stolte, Emanuele Conte and Magnus Ryan, and Maribel Fierro collectively emphasize the diversity of "codification" projects in Byzantium, Europe, and the Islamic West. What these processes seemed to share in their diversity was notably that they deviated sharply from the expansiveness and level of control from above of the creation of the Justinianic code, to the extent that Conte and Ryan posit that the very expression "codification" really "has little descriptive value for the phenomenon under discussion, beyond its familiarity and except as a starting-point for debate" (97). Under "Resources and Power," four essays by Sandro Carocci and Simone Collavini, Hugh Kennedy, Vivien Prigent, and Anneliese Nef consider how and with what particular fiscal institutions premodern states, from the early to high Middle Ages in Christian and Islamic societies, drew resources from their societies and promoted social interactions that drove economic growth. These contributions expose how the institutions governing medieval economies operated in ways that were heavily informed by their administrative and political frameworks and, as such, were not usually organized to extract resources systematically. Finally, "Palaces and Places" considers the spatiality of institutions and institutionalization. Stuart Airlie, Simon MacLean, Michel Kaplan, and Nadia Maria El Cheikh consider how palaces and monasteries representing governmental authority served as sites for processes of institutionalization and all of the tension that surrounded them, and constituted expressions of power in their own right.

It is uncommon to find an edited volume for which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Nevertheless, such is the case with Diverging Paths?, which manifests an impressive degree of synergy among its widely varied contributions. Nearly every essay could stand alone as a significant contribution to its respective field, yet the individual arguments become all the more intriguing and meaningful when presented within the broader context and comparative framework generated by the volume. This cumulative effect must be at least partly the result of sustained collaboration by these scholars over several years, enabling them to tweak their theoretical approaches and assumptions and ruminate adequately over the meanings of their results. It is also clearly owing to the hard work of the editors, who were evidently committed to expending the additional thought and work to generate the introductory and concluding materials necessary to tie these diverse studies together into a more meaningful aggregate for their readership. In sum, this well-presented volume offers its readers an array of perspectives on a subset of the comparative historical issues that are intriguing premodern scholars in a mode that will be challenging yet still accessible to non-specialists, while both highly engaging and valuable for experts.