16.08.27, Safran, The Medieval Salento

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Valerie Ramseyer

The Medieval Review 16.08.27

Safran, Linda. The Medieval Salento: Art and Identity in Southern Italy. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. pp. 469. ISBN: 9780812245547 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Valerie Ramseyer
Wellesley College

Linda Safran's book provides a regional "real-life" microhistory of the Salentine area of southern Italy based on a wide variety of visual and material sources. Utilizing a pre-Renaissance definition of art in which the various features of the visual landscape were "produced or enacted for public consumption, crafted with the express intent of communicating information and initiating or shaping human (re)action," (3) the author not only examines physical evidence such as buildings, sculpture, inscriptions, graffiti, and graves but also looks for information about rituals and practices surrounding built environments in order to "read" buildings, images, and inscriptions in a culturally specific way. While the author acknowledges the existence of multiple and fluid identities in medieval Salento, one the book's main arguments is that over the course of the Middle Ages a regional Salentine identity emerged that crossed over the boundaries of religion, language, and social class. Thus the book moves beyond restrictive categories such as religious affiliation or ethnicity to create a local history that incorporates the whole of the region's population.

After a brief introduction to the history of Salento from the ancient Greek to the early modern era, the first chapter focuses on names, which the author believes can inform us about kinship, innovation, and tradition. Names connect people to ancestors, places of origins, social and religious communities, as well as to larger cultural groups. While the author acknowledges that Jewish and Christian communities had different naming practices, she also points out similar beliefs regarding names. For example, both groups believed that names held power. For Christians names at baptism brought protection and the ability to enter heaven, while for Jews there was an intimate connection between one's name and one's essence. The author also traces changes over time for Christian naming practices, including the development of surnames beginning in the 11th century and the introduction of Mendicant names in the 14th century.

Chapter 2 examines languages based mostly on a study of inscriptions. According to the author public texts were "visible social statements" that both constructed and communicated individual and communal identity. In medieval Salento, a wide variety of languages were used for inscriptions, including Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, and to a lesser extent Aramaic, Old French, and pseudo-Kufic. Bilingual inscriptions were also a feature of the region. In some cases these inscriptions used two languages in the same sentence, in other cases they provided the same text in two different languages, and in other instances they used different languages for different parts of the inscriptions. Some of the texts also included features of spoken language. Similar to names, language is not always a sure indicator of a person's ethnicity, and different languages were used at different times, depending on the situation. In the case of Christian religious houses, bilingual inscriptions suggest that Christians of different confessional backgrounds frequented each other's churches. Finally, the author traces the emergence of regional linguistic forms as phrases from one language were adopted and/or translated by members of a different linguistic community. For example, both Latin and Greek devotional texts almost always began with the injunction "Remember," and the author posits that the Greek phrase "Μνήσθητι Κύριε," unknown in other Byzantine regions, could be connected to the Latin phrase "Memento Domine." Similarly, the unique salutation "u salamelecche," used to greet penitents walking to venerate tombs in Taranto's churches during Holy Week, most likely derivers either from the Arabic "salaam aleikum" or the Hebrew "shalom aleichem."

In the next chapter the author focuses on appearance through an examination of portraits, images, and texts, paying particular attention to physiognomy, dress, and jewelry as signs of identity. She notes how clothing revealed little about a person's religious affiliation before the Late Middle Ages. Instead distinctions in clothing mostly related to gender, age, profession, and, above all, social status. She also demonstrates how the identification of Greek men with beards and Latin men with shaved faces is misleading, especially for laymen. Beards went in and out of fashion, as did short versus long hair. Similarly, Jews in Christian art did not have distinctive hair, appearance, or clothing. Instead they looked like their neighbors of similar social status. Again the author tries to show how certain practices and beliefs were common to everyone, regardless of their religious affiliation. For example, members of all religions believed that things seen by a pregnant woman would affect the appearance of the child: attractive objects would make a child attractive, while ugly ones would make him/her ugly.

Turning next to social status, defined by the author as an individual's position in relation to others, Safran demonstrates how material remains, tombs, images, and inscriptions can all reflect a person's wealth and standing in a community. For example, some families used their resources to build churches or renovate parts of synagogues. High status Christians were buried in churches, in either arcosolia or sarcophagi. Some graves included items such as jewelry or clothing. Women were of a lower status than men and thus appeared less frequently in inscriptions. The author also discusses the growing popularity of heraldic imagery in the 13th century, noting how even some Jewish families adopted heraldic symbols.

The author next examines rituals connected to the life cycle, noting how women often acted as actors in or officiants of such practices. These rituals also show the various ways in which beliefs and activities crossed religious lines due to the fact that the rites evolved in conjunction to one another. For example, pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing were experienced in similar ways by Christian and Jewish women. Amulets, incantations, and prayers were used to ward off miscarriage and ensure safe delivery of babies, and both Christian and Jewish women believed in the existence of a female demon who attacked newborns. Christians used Jewish midwives and wet nurses and vice versa. The author also points out some of similarities between both Greek and Latin Christian baptism, as well as some parallels between Christian baptism and Jewish brit, even if circumcision was only performed on males. In both cases the ceremonies represented the child's acceptance into the community, and they offered the same salvific potential to the infant. Actual practices also converged, such as the washing and preparation of the child, the white cloth worn by the infant, the use of lights, and the importance of godparents. In addition, localized rituals developed for both Jewish and Christian marriage ceremonies, such as betrothal and marriage as separate acts and the crowning of the bride and groom. Christian and Jewish parents chose the marriage partners for their children based on the property and status of the potential spouse. Some local mourning rites also crossed religious lines, such as the abstention of meat during first week of mourning. The author does note some divergences, such as divorce which was not possible for Christians yet was relatively common for Jews. She also notes how religious authorities in the region opposed some of these localized rituals, such as the opening of a window or door after a person's death to facilitate the soul's release.

The author turns next to religious houses and practices, emphasizing the hybrid nature of Christianity in the region, evidenced in liturgical art found in churches that displayed scenes and images incorporating both Orthodox and Roman rites. Although in the past scholars have identified churches as either Latin or Greek rite based on the number of altars and the altars' proximity to the apse wall, Safran stresses that such building traits are not a sure indicator of whether the church was Roman or Orthodox. Similarly, Judaism developed into a regionalized, hybrid form. Although the author believes that Salentine Jews followed the Byzantine or Romaniote rite, they also adapted Italian and Ashkenazic practices. In addition, even as the Babylonian Talmud gained popularity in the region, older Palestinian customs persisted. The author ends with a discussion of graffiti on churches, which she does not see as a sign of vandalism but as a way of incising one's identity into a church. In some cases, graffiti could take on magical properties.

Next the author discusses rituals at home and in the community, such as holidays, processions, consecrations, and commercial gatherings. Some practices were concerned with communal health, some attempted to regulate time and space, some to create a communal identity, and some to maintain public and cosmic order. She notes that there was a lot of overlap between private and public spheres of wellbeing, and that Christian and Jewish communities offered common solutions to shared problems. Members of both communities utilized magic, which the author defines as specific actions, words, or objects that people believed could affect solutions to certain problems. A large variety of magical practices existed in the region, including amulets, hand gestures, symbols, and incantations. However, the author notes that people in medieval Salento turned to diverse sources when they needed aid in the face of illness or other calamity. They relied not only upon magic and saints, but also on medicine and communal rituals. In this chapter the author also discusses housing and diets, noting how Jewish homes looked the same as Christian ones and were interspersed with them. According to the author, Jews in the region had to relax some kosher laws due to the tradition of sharing ovens with Christians.

In her final chapter, the author muses on larger questions related to ethnicity, acculturation, and hybridity. She sees ethnicity as a cultural category in which groups choose to do things in similar ways, and believes labels such as Greek and Latin have been used in a reductive manner for convenience, and that there is little visual or material evidence to indicate an awareness of distinct ethnic groups among the population of medieval Salento. Moreover, ethnic and religious categories can mask the large variety of expressions found within the broader categories of Greek Christianity, Latin Christianity, and Judaism. None of these religions were ever homogeneous groups, and because of immigration, conversion, intermarriage, and close proximity to neighbors with different cultural features, boundary crossing was common. Following the ideas of Frederik Barth, the author sees boundary construction in Salento's pluralistic society as about relationships not to strangers but to adjacent and familiar "others." For artists in the region, the author believes that professional identity was more important than ethnicity or religious affiliation. The author ends with a discussion of the terminology that has been used to describe medieval Salento and other regions of contact and cultural mixing. She rejects the idea of influence and the use of the term acculturation because both suggest an imposition of artistic choices on less powerful recipients, as well as the idea that the subaltern culture merely imitates. Acculturation also implies that the cultural process at some point gets completed. Hybridity is problematic for the author because it takes agency away from both producers and users. She is more favorable toward the term appropriation, since it suggests agency, or even better the notion of transcultural because it assumes cultural contact affects both sides.

Safran has produced a thoughtful study of medieval Salento based on an impressive array of sources and an interdisciplinary approach that offers alternative ways of thinking about religion, art, and culture in the Middle Ages. She persuasively argues for the existence of a localized society in the region that crossed religious boundaries. The book also contains a highly detailed and useful catalogue of the visual material of medieval Salento. Although at times the author is required to draw conclusions based on evidence spanning many centuries, she is also careful not to generalize too broadly about topics for which there are few surviving sources. Safran's book is a welcome addition to the growing trend among medievalists to focus on the commonalities found among members of different religious communities as well as the permeability of religious boundaries in many parts of the medieval Mediterranean.

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