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15.10.22, Öztürkmen and Vitz, eds., Medieval and Early Modern Performance in the Eastern Mediterranean

The Medieval Review

15.10.22, Öztürkmen and Vitz, eds., Medieval and Early Modern Performance in the Eastern Mediterranean

This ambitious volume attempts to discuss and contextualize the idea of performance--in both its traditional sense of public reception of embodied or voiced art and a wider sense of "performance as enactment," including rituals, political ceremonies, and visual or textual representations of live performances--in the medieval and early modern Mediterranean. Performance is thus defined broadly and emerges from the theoretical framework of folklore studies, centering itself on the artistic communicative process. In the over thirty articles included in the book, the editors aim to consider a wide range of performative communications across a broad timescape, from the Crusader era to the early modern Ottoman period, intending to emphasize the important scholarly contributions of cultural historians of performance to the investigation of past societies.

Öztürkmen and Vitz are also concerned with expanding the cultural history of performance beyond the "national" and "ethnic" boundaries which have previously characterized much of the work done on the subject in the region in question--thus the focus on the "Eastern Mediterranean." This attempt to de-nationalize medieval and early modern performance studies is borne out in the volume's inclusion of an entire section of articles focusing on "Performance under Imperial Realms," as both the Byzantine and Ottoman imperial formations provide an innately pluralistic and multi-modal conception of the region. The volume notably also ranges through the edges of the "Eastern Mediterranean" zone, including work on Armenian, Croatian, Hebraic, and Alevi performances. The editors note that this book was ten years in the making; its heft and range support the major intervention into performance studies which it attempts.

The essays are divided into six thematic sections. The first, "Verbal Art as Performance," "addresses both the visibility of 'performability' in textual sources and the ways in which oral transmission of stories were performed. Of note is a posthumous essay by the distinguished Metin And, which provides an overview of storytelling as performance in Arabic, Turkish, and Persian-speaking areas, concentrating on the maqama form and its regional variations, a subject which is also taken up by Rivital Yeffet-Refael's essay, which extends the analysis of maqama into Hebrew. Also of interest are a group of essays which consider the links between performance and religious storytelling, pointing out the strong performative features in works as disparate as hagiographies (Marija-Ana Dürrigl, Evelyn Birge Vitz), Joinville's Credo (Michael Curschmann), and folktales which emerge as an important part of sermons (David Rotman).

The second group of essays discuss "Performance Under Imperial Realms," and are concerned primarily with the political context of cultural performances. Two essays discuss the Byzantine mime, reflecting on this aspect of the "performative turn" visible in Byzantine studies recently: both Przemysław Marciniak and Tivadar Palági point out the merits of investigating the Byzantine response to mime and comic performance as opposed to merely attempting to prove that this performance occurred or define precisely what it involved. Koray Durak's contribution, however, is especially intriguing, as it discusses the performative aspects of Byzantine-Islamic prisoner exchange, and brings up questions of ritual and performance enabled Byzantium and the Islamic polities to both present and defend ideological constructs of one another. Three articles discuss aspects of performance in the Ottoman world: Suraiya Faroqhi on fireworks, Özdemir Nuktu on clowning, but most interestingly, Ehud R. Toledano on the use of performance by enslaved Africans living amidst Ottoman society in maintaining aspects of their cultures of origin. This essay presents intriguing possibilities for performance studies to reveal the histories of marginalized groups in the Eastern Mediterranean. Finally, Danielle Haase-Dubosc's essay in this section considers the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu as performative actions which portray her "Turkish encounters" to her audience back in England, reminding us that epistolary writing is also a "performed" activity with a specific audience.

The third section of the volume addresses "Modes and Varieties of Entertainment" and ranges from discussions of coffeehouses in Istanbul (Cemal Kafadar) through performance practices of Armenian (Noune Zeltsburg-Poghosyan), Sephardic (Judith R. Cohen), and Balkan 'Gypsy' (Elena Marushiakova and Vesselin Popov) music. The section also includes two intriguing contributions on Turkish shadow-puppet theater. Daryo Mizrahi examines the use of comedy in Ottoman shadow-puppet performance as a method of playing with the social proprieties of Istanbul society: temporarily lifting limits on sexual and linguistic boundaries within "a well-defined artistic context" which neutralizes and renders such transgressions comedic and shared. Conversely, Mas'ud Hamdan looks at the shadow theater, especially the character of Karagoz, as a lens to illuminate the work of the modern Syrian playwright Duraid Lahham.

The fourth section of essays is titled "Iconography," which is not an immediately obvious choice of organizational theme for a volume on performance. However, what is actually being explored here is the visual record of performances which is visible in manuscripts and religious art: this is not iconography in its traditional scholarly sense, but iconography in its meaning of visual representations and descriptions thereof. Several interesting articles deal with the presence of theatricality or theatrical/performative images in Byzantine and Armenian manuscripts, of which a notable example is Viktoria Kepetzi's analysis of images of Byzantine performers in illuminated manuscripts and on other religious art, which draws an interesting conclusion that scenes of profane activity might have been used to reinforce the religious sense of those objects, "an element of synthesis where the secular and the religious form a unity." The section concludes with the volume's only article on sound as a category of experience (as opposed to music, analyses of which are amply represented): Gabriela Currie's masterful interrogation of sources as varied as Liutprand of Cremona, frescoes at Kiev's St. Sophia church, and the Ottoman narration of a public festival, the Surname-i Vehbi, combines urban-spatial analysis with concepts of spectacle, public display of power, and the employment of entertainers as imperial propaganda.

The final section of the volume, "Ritual Roots of Performance," returns to its introduction's promise to treat "performativity" as a sociological and folkloric concept. Of all of the work represented here, these final articles are most interested in tracing the deep roots of medieval and early modern performance into their more present-day sequelae, and thus in examining the social groups who engage in these art forms. An excellent example is Fahriye Dinçer's work on Alevi ritual movement, which contextualizes this unorthodox sect's ritual practice by linking its present-day visibility to its fifteenth and sixteenth-century roots.

Medieval and Early Modern Performance in the Eastern Mediterranean concludes with a summary essay on "The Performative Turn in Recent Cultural History" by Peter Burke, which provides a useful overview of the recent developments in the field, and presents some context for the unfamiliar reader, as well as opening up new problems and possibilities: particularly the possibility--and problem--of extending the definition of "performance" beyond its traditional stricter boundaries to include written texts, buildings, and images as "performances."

This collection is ambitiously large, and the editors have done yeoman's work in keeping it thematically coherent, at least within the individual sections; some of the essays are exceptional in their reach and originality, and overall Medieval and Early Modern Performance in the Eastern Mediterranean will have a place as a general reference to the state of the field of historical performance studies.