18.09.02, Davis-Secord, Sicily in the Early Medieval Mediterranean

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Joshua C. Birk

The Medieval Review 18.09.02

Davis-Secord,Sarah. Where Three Worlds Met: Sicily in the Early Medieval Mediterranean. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2017. pp. xvi, 295. ISBN: 978-1-50170-464-2 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Joshua C. Birk
Smith College
jcbirk@smith.edu

Linguistic barriers and disciplinary divides have long plagued the study of medieval Sicily. Contemporary scholars have traditionally partitioned the island's history into periods marked by political dominance; Greek Sicily, Arab Sicily or Latin Sicily. Though recent scholarship has attempted to blur those boundaries, few scholars have attempted to offer any sort of holistic history of Sicily in the Middle Ages. In Where Three Worlds Met: Sicily In the Early Medieval Mediterranean, Sarah Davis-Secord attempts to address this lacuna by exploring Sicily as a nexus for travel, communication and trade. Davis-Secord centers the accounts of transient populations moving in and out of the island in the sixth through twelfth centuries, not to view Sicily as a timeless crossroads of the Mediterranean, but as an island whose connections to the Greek, Muslim and Latin worlds shifted considerably based on the political circumstances of the moment.

In the sixth through eighth century, Sicily marked the western edge of Constantinople's empire. Davis-Secord asserts that it was the center from which the Byzantine empire to projected its power in the Western Mediterranean, as well as being a distant political frontier, the residence of political exiles and the staging ground for rebellions. Narrative histories and diplomatic correspondence illustrate that Sicily was the central hub for correspondence between Rome, Constantinople and the Frankish court. Bioi of Greek saints show similar patterns of movements, with holy men often traversing Sicily en route to either Constantinople or Rome. Davis-Secord draws on Michael McCormick's work to argue that, in the absence of direct textual evidence for patterns of trade, historians can use the existence of these networks of travel to underline Sicily's role in a robust network of economic exchange.

Davis-Secord argues that the expansion of Muslim political dominance across North Africa in the seventh century also expanded the importance of Sicily, opening vectors of communication with these newly emerging powers, while simultaneously maintaining its connections to the Latin and Greek worlds. More often than not, the Muslim visitors came to Sicily to carry out raids. Davis-Secord uses Arabic chronicles, many of them written several centuries later, and reads them against religious vita and papal records to reconstruct Muslim interest in the potential wealth Sicily had to offer. These raids became regular, semi-annual affairs in the eighth century, occasionally broken up by diplomatic efforts between Sicily and polities in Egypt and Ifrīqya to negotiate short term peace agreements. As raiding intensified, the Byzantine empire placed a renewed emphasis on Sicily, dispatching armies and military officers to protect this increasingly vulnerable frontier. The movement of displaced Christian refugees from Carthage, Muslim raiders from North Africa, Byzantine armies, and then merchants and diplomats from all sides characterize the travelers frequenting Sicily from the second half of the seventh century to the early ninth century. These movements increasingly pulled Sicily into the sphere of influence of the dār al-Islām and ultimately sparked Aghlabid interest in not just raiding but occupying the island. Davis-Secord frames the ninth century Muslim conquest of Sicily not as a dramatic break but as the culmination of these long-developing trends.

For Davis-Secord, Aghlabid dominance over the island radically reorients Sicily. The island ceases its role as meditator between Christian and Islamic polities, and loses its influence as the nexus of communication between Byzantium and the Latin world. Instead, it becomes the edge of the Muslim world, and travelers to Sicily increasingly come from Egypt and Ifrīqya. Davis-Secord argues that Sicily played a marginal role in Muslim conceptions of the Mediterranean, pointing to tenth century Islamic geographical treaties which regularly erased the existence of the island, depicting the Mediterranean as a sea devoid of islands, and to raiding campaigns against Southern Italy, which only occasionally used Sicily as a staging base, more regularly embarking from North Africa. Though the later observation may result from the absences of extant contemporary chronicles that could attest to such ventures, Davis-Secord convincingly illustrates the decreasing political import of the island in the tenth century. The status of Sicily is perhaps best illustrated by the tenth century intellectual ibn Ḥawqal, who depicted Sicily as a backwards and underdeveloped frontier zone, and its inhabitants as uneducated, barely capable of speaking Arabic, and practicing a deficient form of Islam, which had been contaminated by the adoption of a number of Greek and Berber cultural practices. For ibn Ḥawqal and many Muslims beyond the islands, Sicily was a peripheral frontier defined by cultures which fused Christian and Muslim practices.

Despite ibn Ḥawqal's depiction of the backwards ways of the island, Davis-Secord uses scholarly biographies to show a vibrant intellectual life in Sicily. Scholars regularly moved between al-Andalus, Ifrīqya and Sicily, suggesting that, though the western Mediterranean may have been remote from the perspective of the Islamic heartland, a vibrant intellectual community existed within the region. Additionally, Islamic political domination of the Island also made visible the role of Jewish peoples operating in and around Sicily. Davis-Secord uses documents from the Cairo Geniza collection, buttressed by North African fatāwā addressed to Muslim merchants, to provide direct evidence for economic exchange that the author theorizes must have existed in earlier periods. Sicily served as a central node for mercantile activities across the Mediterranean, stretching from Ifrīqya to Egypt.

In examining the eleventh century Norman conquest of Sicily, Davis-Secord initially shies away from an analysis of political realignment, or of the ways in which Norman rulers emulated cultural or administrative elements of Muslim courts, and first focuses on understanding how this political shift effected economic exchange. Again, relying primarily on Cairo Geniza documents and fatāwā, the author argues that, despite some disruption, no impenetrable divide emerged between Sicily and Ifrīqya in the late eleventh century. Davis-Secord concedes that frequency of this trade waned, particularly with Egypt, but stresses that the boundary between Christian Sicily and the Islamic southern Mediterranean remained permeable. Though the Norman conquest of Sicily ushered in a demographic shift in which many Jews and Muslims fled Sicily for Egypt and Ifrīqya, this movement was hardly unidirectional. Famines and political turmoil in Ifrīqya during the latter half of eleventh century would prompt Muslim and Jewish families in the region to resettle in Sicily.

Politically, Davis-Secord asserts that the Norman rulers emphasized Sicily as a central hub in the Mediterranean. Norman kings extended their military influences into Africa, Greece and the Balkans, while engaging in cultural and diplomatic exchanges across the whole of the Mediterranean. Increasingly, Sicily became a crucial point of connection between Christian and Muslim markets. However, this centrality of Sicily proved short lived, with Italian maritime states coming to dominate cross-Mediterranean trade by the late twelfth century. While twelfth century Norman rulers engaged in diplomatic correspondence with Muslim polities Egypt and Ifrīqya, Muslim intellectuals frequently moved through the elite circles of the Sicilian royal court. Despite these movements at the elite levels, the bulk of the island's Muslims found themselves increasingly isolated from the coreligionists beyond the island's shores and restricted in their ability to travel across the Mediterranean.

Where Three Worlds Met is important for helping to understand medieval Sicily. It covers a sweeping chronological scope, not just synthesizing a broad range of scholarship, but also crafting a new lens through which we can view the island. By locating her study not on the island itself, but viewing it as the nexus for traveling soldiers, merchants, intellectuals, holy men and refugees, Davis-Secord charts the shifting import of Sicily. Sicily was not simply a timeless crossroads of the Mediterranean. An examination of the travelers who visited it the island illustrates the way its connections to the rest of Mediterranean, and to Greek, Latin, and Muslim polities as they waxed and waned across its history.

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