15.10.15, Rodriguez, Muslim and Christian Contact in the Middle Ages: A Reader

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Samuel Claussen

The Medieval Review 15.10.15

Rodriguez, Jarbel, ed. Muslim and Christian Contact in the Middle Ages: A Reader. Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures, 18. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015. pp. xiv, 441. ISBN: 978-1-4426-0066-9 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Samuel Claussen
California Lutheran University
samclaussen@gmail.com

"To study the interactions between Christians and Muslims in the medieval period is to study a history of conflict and coexistence" (xi). These words are an apt and perhaps even understated opening to Jarbel Rodriguez' Muslim and Christian Contact in the Middle Ages: A Reader, which serves to bring together more than ninety documents and selections from documents relating to interactions between the medieval Islamic and Christian worlds. The task Rodriguez has set for himself is monumental, covering some thousand years of history and a geography stretching from Morocco to central Asia and from England and Germany to Arabia and Egypt. Although every scholar and student might be disappointed not to see their own favorite document appear in this volume, Rodriguez has largely met the challenge of producing a broad, deep, and useful collection of sources dealing with Muslim and Christian interaction.

The book is organized at first chronologically, with the first chapter examining documents primarily from the early Middle Ages, roughly the seventh through ninth centuries. Several documents here deal with major and familiar events during which the ascendant Muslim world encountered the Christian. The Iberian Chronicle of 754 and both Christian and Muslim accounts of the Battle of Tours, for example, offer a narrative of Muslim conquest in western Europe even as they express sentiments of Christian doom or Islamic glory. This first chapter lays the groundwork for what comes after, suggesting that there exist some basic characteristics of Muslim-Christian interaction throughout the spaces and time of the Middle Ages. While some documents in the early section of the book tend to belabor their purpose in the collection through dry and minute points (for example, doc. 5, an account of the embassy of Abu Ishak ibn Shahrām to Constantinople), most are expertly selected, translated, cropped, and arranged in a manner such that the reader not only comprehends each individual source, but begins to see the outline of the larger narrative of the early Middle Ages. Rodriguez has skillfully paired Islamic and Christian accounts of the same events, offering a multidimensional perspective to his reader. Throughout the book, but especially in the first chapter, readers will also be pleased with the wide selection of types of sources Rodriguez has selected, including chronicles, statements of law, and royal correspondence.

The second and third chapters continue to function as a narrative of Christian and Islamic encounters through the high and late Middle Ages. Chapter two focuses on warfare in the eastern Mediterranean, while chapter three focuses on warfare in the western Mediterranean. For a historian of the crusades, chapter two will read as boilerplate; Pope Urban's call to the First Crusade, accounts of Richard I and Saladin, the chronicle of Jean de Joinville, etc. Even military historians, however, will find a few bits and pieces that may be new to them interspersed among these more famous accounts. The records of eastern warfare display the real strength and value of Rodriguez' book. Far from being designed as a source for accomplished historians in their narrow fields of study, these accounts serve primarily to introduce students to the rich history of Christian-Muslim interaction and secondarily to broaden the perspectives of historians in different compartmentalized fields. Chapter three continues this effort as Rodriguez supplies sources that deal with the western Mediterranean. If there is a bias in the geographical selection of Rodriguez' sources, it becomes apparent in chapter three. Although it is titled "Warfare in Spain and the Western Mediterranean," the first half of the title would be sufficient. The book has a preference for Spanish history as it reveals the multiple avenues for interfaith encounters. Far from being detrimental to the book, though, immersion in Iberian history serves to strengthen our geographical lens by examining in greater detail the truly complex history of Iberian Muslims and Christians. Dual Muslim and Christian accounts of the life of El Cid and the Castilian and Aragonese efforts to conquer the peninsula not only fill out our narrative, but complicate our understanding of events and individuals which might otherwise suffer from romantic visions.

The remaining seven chapters each deal with a thematic issue in medieval history and draw on sources from diverse times and places. Chapter four deals with diplomacy and alliances, confirming what is by now widely acknowledged by historians: that Muslims and Christians regularly set aside religious allegiances as they focused on more immediate concerns. The documents assembled here (such as an Ottoman treaty with Venetians, the behavior of Frederick II, and the relationship between a Christian lord and Muslim vassal in Iberia) will be indispensable in guiding students to an understanding of the complexity of politics in the religious frontiers of the Middle Ages.

Chapter five, which treats economic relations between Christians and Muslims, is one of the most interesting for historians who deal with famous individuals, large ideas, or grand military campaigns. Instead, the reader glimpses moments of what must have been ordinary life for so many people in the Mediterranean basin. We have letters from a Tunisian leather merchant hoping to compel his Pisan customers to pay what they owed him. We have regulations for the Muslim market in the city of Seville, detailing what can and cannot be sold, to whom, and in what manners. In short, chapter five offers us a great diversity of sources that illuminate some very basic realities of medieval life all too often overlooked in the teaching of medieval history, as we focus on conquest, crusades, and other large topics.

Chapters six and seven deal with questions of religion and theology and include well-known sources (Boccaccio, Ramon Lull, St. Francis' encounter with the sultan) as well as less ubiquitous ones which touch on these questions (Muslim polemics on the Gospels, Pierre Dubois' comprehensive plan to recover the Holy Land). These chapters address some very large issues of theology and, more importantly, understandings and misunderstandings between Christians and Muslims. The sources presented here are perhaps the best and most direct means available to have students of the Middle Ages begin to sort out how well (and how poorly) Muslims and Christians knew what the other religion was all about. At other times, though, students will be struck by the apparently progressive nature of medieval thought. The stories of Boccaccio and Llull, in which the three Abrahamic religions are presented as perhaps all equally valid, are likely to rankle with simplistic notions of medieval intolerance. These two chapters deftly communicate what is possibly the most important contribution of this volume, namely that the relationship between Muslims and Christians in the Middle Ages was infinitely complicated and nuanced. Through it all, there are also surprising and amusing anecdotes which will remind readers that the medieval Christians and Muslims were very real and not always obsessed with great intellectual questions. Document 58, a selection from Usamah Ibn-Munqidh's Kitab al-I'tibar details two elderly women racing through the mud to win a pig as well as a Frankish knight's fascinated excitement when he realizes that medieval Muslims might trim or shave their body hair and that he and his lady might do the same. While educating, Rodriguez' volume will surely also entertain.

Chapter eight, dealing with minority communities continues to drive home the point about complexity in interfaith relations. In document 64, for example, Rodriguez presents the strict regulations that were theoretically imposed by Muslim authorities on dhimmis before showing in document 66 how such regulations might be applied very lightly and unevenly depending on local needs and conditions. Chapter nine sets out to examine intellectual contacts between Christians and Muslims, though many of the sources speak less to intellectual exchange than they do to intellectual pursuits of various Christians or Muslims. There are some references to contacts and to the value that later medieval Christians placed on Avicenna and Averroës, but these points are not as clearly demonstrated in the sources. In short, chapter nine's value would be in a parallel study of medieval science in the Christian and Muslim worlds, but is perhaps less useful in a study of Muslim-Christian contact. The volume concludes with chapter ten, which deals with love and captivity across religious boundaries. These documents are a bit more typical in that they illustrate the forbidden nature of love across these boundaries, even as such taboos were broken. They also illustrate for the student of the Middle Ages the heavy emotions that were bound up with the question of coreligionists suffering long-term captivity at the hands of their religious enemies. As with so much of this volume, chapter ten dwells on the complexity of medieval Muslim-Christian contacts.

Jarbel Rodriguez has accomplished something truly special in this volume. Not only has he collected a number of older translations of key sources, but he is the translator of many of the sources in the collection, bringing previously unknown sources (primarily from the Iberian corpus) into the mainstream of medieval studies. The volume is useful in dispelling notions about the simplicity of the medieval period, demonstrating instead the true diversity and complexity of the lives of medieval Christians and Muslims. The final characteristic which recommends this book is Rodriguez' editorial hand. In selecting, arranging, and cropping his sources, Rodriguez has allowed the documents to speak for themselves but still serve as starting places for discussions among students of medieval history. The didactic opportunities which Rodriguez has cultivated through his editorial hand are invaluable. When discussing Christians opting for martyrdom at the hands of Muslims, for example, a teacher could naturally move a discussion from martyrs to crusading knights, making the whole medieval world fit together in all its messiness and confusion. Most useful as a classroom text or for the novice medievalist, this excellent assembly of chronicles, law codes, literature, poetry, correspondence, and moral instruction, commands a strong recommendation.

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