18.09.15, Dangler, Edging toward Iberia

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Miriam Shadis

The Medieval Review 18.09.15

Dangler, Jean. Edging toward Iberia. Toronto: UTP, 2017. pp. vii, 161. ISBN: 978-1-4875-0123-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Miriam Shadis
Ohio University

In this short, dense book Jean Dangler grapples with the myriad epistemological and methodological problems confronting scholars of the Iberian past. Traditional arrangements of "reconquest" or "medieval Spain" are Euro-centric and Christian focused, Dangler claims, and more important, continue to dominate medieval Iberian studies. Instead, Dangler argues, the approaches of sociologist Manuel Castells and historian Immanuel Wallerstein--Network Theory (NT) and World Systems Analysis (WSA)--allow scholars more honestly, with less bias and making fewer assumptions--to understand the economic, historical, religious and cultural relationships of "non-modern" Iberia, both on a micro level (individuals, localities), and a macro level ("Iberia's profound interaction with global realms" (4).) In this, she suggests, we "edge" toward Iberia.

Dangler's proposal is predicated upon a startling understanding of medieval Iberian, Mediterranean, and Islamicate studies. While certainly "Western elites created medieval studies and used it to ennoble modern nations by identifying national roots in the heroic endeavors recounted in medieval texts, and by contrasting the ostensible barbarism of the past to modern Europe" (5), it is not obvious that such agendas continue to inform Iberian scholarship. Dangler critiques Iberian studies as wedded to status, hierarchy, limits, power struggles, and conquests. She discusses "the biased characterization of the medieval world as an unavoidable clash between so-called Muslim and Christian civilizations" (14); historians make "anachronistic claims" about feudalism (82) and have "overstated" the roles of "force and military battle as central factors in non-modern sociopolitical change" (96). Overall, Dangler claims to challenge the "view of non-modern Iberian politics as a struggle between Christianity and Islam, or between east and west..." (18).

The book is divided into parts, each consisting of two or three short chapters. The first part sets the methodological stage. Chapter 1 reviews the perennial problems associated with periodization and geographical framing. While Dangler successfully illuminates the ways in which 1492 or 1500 artificially mark the end of "medieval" Iberia, she does not challenge the beginnings associated with 500, 507, or 711. Dangler correctly observes an almost overwhelming bias in modern constructions and delineations of the past, recognizing that "medieval" itself is an inherently problematic term, and with no "flawless substitute" (26). Instead, she adopts José Rabasa's proposal to use "non-modern" as it is non-teleological and non-exclusive, prioritizing the "quality of an event, concept, memory, or thing, rather than...its circumscription in time" (27). Dangler criticizes current geographical demarcations, and suggests multiple ways to reframe places and their relationships: there is al-Andalus, the Hispanicate Kingdoms, the Maghreb, North Africa, the "Western-most regions of Islamicate empire" (29) (what is the "empire?"), Iberia, the Islamicate world. "Iberia," she points out, is inclusive but "fails to capture the peninsula's profound historical, political, economic, and cultural connections with North Africa, Europe and the Middle East" (31). The significance of these connections are key to the overall proposal of Edging toward Iberia.

Chapter 2 introduces and critiques the theories and analytical approaches of Castells and Wallerstein. Dangler observes that NT is thoroughly embedded in modern contexts, but argues nevertheless that its emphasis on nodes, shifting associations, horizontal relations, and conceptualizations of power can be adapted for medieval Iberia, "including vertical and horizontal arrangements, the role of technology, collective and individual identities, conditions of exchange, regulations in commerce and travel, and the organization and function of political realms" (42). Wallerstein's key ideas are that communities do not exist in isolation, societal trends follow cycles or patterns, and above all, political and economic relationships are organized around cores, and peripheries (43.) Dangler proposes that combination of NT with WSA--not without a very particular relationship to modern capitalism itself--can allow scholars to "edge toward" Iberia and its past in a new way.

In the second part, Dangler seeks to demonstrate how scholars have already used (essentially, if not explicitly) these principles, in studying travel, for example, or economic-social relations, and their application to literary and cultural studies. Chapter 3 examines the world of Islamicate trade, primarily through the scholarship of Olivia Remie Constable. Al-Andalus's "variable role" in the Islamicate trade system (notably the gold trade) reveals the variety of shifting associations and unexpected social relations that were particular to the "non-modern" (12-13). Chapter 4 focuses on non-modern travel, especially the Islamicate travel system, which Dangler identifies as having four distinct categorizations: trade, pilgrimage, intellectual pursuits, and saints' veneration.

Chapter 5 examines the paradigms or economic-social relations of feudalism, slavery, and poverty; it is highly problematic and challenging, and will bear disproportionate weight in this review. In discussing feudalism, Dangler uses the economic models put forward by Thomas Glick, which themselves conform to those of Marc Bloch, emphasizing the imposition of feudal relations over kinship structures, and social organization (79). She is keen to debunk any vestigial view feudalism as a hierarchal system oppressing peasants, and emphasizes elite political relations and dependencies through network analysis. Dangler, following Glick, contrasts the conditions of Castile and Catalonia with al-Andalus, distinguishing between Christianate and Islamicate approaches to tribal, familial and political power structures. That "non-modern Iberian "feudalism" consisted of a complex set of relationships with variability across communities and through time" (82), is not particularly arguable nor new, except inasmuch as Dangler comes to her conclusions through the prisms of NT and WSA.

More challenging is Dangler's discussion of slavery. Dangler insists on "slavery" in scare quotes, partly to distinguish the experiences of enslaved people in non-modern Iberia from those victimized in the Atlantic Slave trade of later centuries, and partly because the experiences of the enslaved in non-modern Iberia were extremely varied and contingent, e.g., a slave in 14th century Valencia might not look anything like a slave in 11th century Córdoba. Dangler uses the examples of some concubines' great wealth and power in the Cordoban and Ottoman courts, as well as the opportunities some eastern European slaves had in the Islamicate world as evidence that we should understand "non-modern "slavery" as a multifaceted, transregional system with a polycentric formation comprised of interactive social networks, in which definitions of labour varied culturally and geographically" (82-83). This is contentious, and disturbing that the discussion focuses on a tiny minority of exceptional experiences, and does not engage with the work of scholars like Debra Blumenthal, Rebecca Winer, or Sally McKee, among others, to examine the more common and profoundly exploitative experiences of the enslaved in the medieval Mediterranean and Iberia. Dangler claims that NT and WSA will bring precision to the concept of "non-modern" "slavery."

Finally, in this chapter Dangler turns to poverty. The rise of urban communities in the later medieval period, the role of charity in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, must all be taken into account when thinking about "non-modern destitution"--which is something quite different from poverty itself. Furthermore, problems with using unique and difficult sources (the Cairo Geniza; diverse and isolated episcopal archives, et cetera) and periodization make this subject unwieldy for scholars. Overall, according to Dangler, using NT and WSA "demonstrates that feudalism, "slavery," and poverty were malleable, relational circumstances whose definition changed over time" (78).

The third part of Edging toward Iberia points to specific arenas in which these combined theories may be applied going forward. Chapter 6 addresses non-modern politics and the idea of the polity, especially the limitations of thinking in strictly geographical terms. By viewing these topics through systems analysis and thinking about nodes of influence, shifting affiliations and border crossing (literal and figurative), Dangler suggests scholars can move away from religious conflict as a determining factor in Iberian political evolution and appreciate that "various Iberian realms operated in a fluid, interdependent political network" (94). Relying on Glick, James Watts, and Teofilo Ruiz, she discusses the problem of borders and frontiers, their relationship to sovereignty, and the emerging nation-state of Castile-Aragon. Dangler suggests that NT and WSA usefully encourage scholars to see polities as shifting centers and peripheries, changing over time, with constant realignment and enmeshment with other political forces.

In chapter 7, Dangler turns to the problems of individual and collective identity. Here, she relies on the work of Maria Rosa Menocal--simultaneously exposing the inadequacy of "convivencia" to explain much about Iberia as a whole while arguing that NT corroborates the theories of Américo Castro. NT and WSA tenets require "the interpretation of Iberia's history of identity as a series of fluid adjustments and realignments among groups of people across time, such as...result in part from changes in other overlapping systems, including the political and socio-economic orders" (100). Dangler turns to an analysis of the historical and fictional accounts of El Cid (relying primarily on El Cantar), and suggests scholars similarly re-evaluate other multi-cultural figures such as Alfonso X and Ramon Llull, reinforcing: "their characterization as ordinary and customary" and overturning "traditional interpretations of non-modern culture and history away from binary separations of Christians and Muslims, or East and West" (106).

Finally, Dangler proposes to remove religion as a primary signifier of identity. Challenging the static notion of religion (or ethnicity, race, or nationality) should "generate new ways" to describe interfaith relationships. Dangler suggests that a study of Hispanicate cultures could be entirely reframed in terms of participation in a system with al-Andalus. She boldly compares the ḥajj and the Camino, arguing that "it is possible that Hispanicate and European authorities began to construct the Camino de Santiago with the North African travel system and ḥajj to Mecca as models...that the Camino's rise constituted an honorific imitation of the Islamicate models..." (113-114). Overall, this discussion surprisingly echoed Castro's and Menocal's visions of convivencia.

In a brief Epilogue, Dangler makes a final plea that "Networks and systems propel analysis beyond the conventional limits of our disciplines" (115). Here she hints at other themes--particularly gender--that she does not discuss in this book. I would have appreciated more engagement with the problematic relationship of Iberian material culture to time and space (production, consumption, influence, movement) as well.

The book is clearly provocative. Frequently, Dangler alludes to what must be construed as narrow-minded or conservative practices of scholars whose standpoint blinds them to the complexities of Iberian history and culture; she is circumspect about naming these scholars, perhaps because in fact while her points are well taken, the problem has largely run its course. Every day, new books on Iberian history and literature are published which attend to the very challenges Dangler aims to address. Constructs such as "convivencia" and "Reconquista" are rarely, if ever, discussed uncritically. Throughout her essay, Dangler repeatedly hammers home the point that NT and WSA permit reconceptualization of relationships between communities, polities, cultures and systems. This is undoubtedly true. Dangler's insistence that a) such reconceptualization is currently necessary, and b) is the only way to achieve new perspectives, however, is not always persuasive.

Edging toward Iberia succeeds inasmuch as it will force scholars to stop and examine their assumptions. However, the book's utility will be affected by its highly condensed nature. Scholars seriously interested in NT and WSA will have to delve into Castells and Wallerstein on their own. Dangler's command of contemporary historiography and social science theory is impressive, if selective; her greatest influences, apart from Wallerstein and Castells appear to be Constable, Menocal, and Glick. Interested scholars must also therefore engage with more current scholarship than Dangler has been able to do in this short work--especially current Spanish archaeological and linguistic work. In the long run, this book may be more useful for teaching--for thinking about explaining or reframing the complex and contradictory communities that made up or engaged with "non-modern" Iberia. Dangler's manifesto succeeds in offering a tool to think with for scholars seeking to understand Iberia as a whole within the larger Islamicate, Christianate, and Hispanicate worlds.

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