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21.06.14 Carpentieri/Symes (eds.), Medieval Sicily, al-Andalus, and the Maghrib

The Medieval Review

21.06.14 Carpentieri/Symes (eds.), Medieval Sicily, al-Andalus, and the Maghrib


This special edition of The Medieval Globe came to my attention at the perfect moment, as I have been thinking quite a bit about the direction of Mediterranean studies this spring. I had just finished reading David Wack's very newMedieval Iberian Crusade Fiction and the Mediterranean World, and have recently revisited The Tunis Crusade of 1270: A Mediterranean History by Michael Lower. [1] These two excellent books are terrific examples of the robust health of the field of Mediterranean studies right now, and primed me to appreciate the seven fascinating articles, which comprise Medieval Sicily, al-Andalus, and the Maghrib.

Medieval Sicily, al-Andalus, and the Maghrib is volume 5, issue 2 of The Medieval Globe, a relatively new journal published by Arc Humanities Press, both online and in print. The journal is, I believe, best described as digital-native and open-source (at least for older issues, like their excellent inaugural issue on the Black Death). The journal's self-described focus on "convergence, movement, and interdependence" (ii) makes it a perfect venue for this collection of studies, all centered on the complex world of the medieval western Mediterranean.

The volume opens with an introduction written by the editors, Nicola Carpentieri and Carol Symes. Pairing the writings of the eleventh-century Andalusi poet, Ibn Shuhayd, with those of his near contemporary, the Sicilian-born poet, Ibn Ḥamdīs, the editors situate the volume in the tumultuous era of the collapse of the Umayyad caliphate in al-Andalus (1009-1031) and the Norman conquest of Sicily (1061-1091). These years were marked by war, political collapse, and fitna (Arabic for strife or conflict, but a word which holds an array of nuanced meanings, as demonstrated by the several of the volume's authors). But against this chaotic background, the "dialectical relationship" (1), which bound together the people who called the western Mediterranean home remained resilient and vital, especially in the realm of written/literary culture. Each of the seven authors explores a different aspect of this written culture and how these literary products were shaped by the dynamics of conflict and coexistence.

The articles are arranged in roughly chronological order, beginning with Andrew Sorber's study of the famous ninth-century Cordoban polemicist, Paul Alavarus, and his Indiculus Luminosus. While the story of the "Martyrs of Córdoba" is well-documented, Sorber offers an innovative read of Alvarus's writing, highlighting his use of prophetic discourse, which had become a regular feature of contemporary Carolingian political writing. This prophetic style was especially appropriate for anti-Islamic polemic, as it could be used to counter and discredit the status of Muhammad himself as a prophet. Sorber effectively demonstrates Alvarus's intellectual engagement with both his fellow Christians beyond the Iberian Peninsula and his Muslim neighbors/opponents.

Natalie Dawn Levin's "Empire and Caliphate in the Life of John of Gorze" examines the fascinating narrative of an Ottonian diplomatic mission to the court of ̇the Caliph ʿAbd al-Raḥmān III. Levin argues that Cordoban episodes of this Latin hagiography used Arabic sources and formulaic scenes drawn from adab literature--guides to etiquette, moral behavior, and especially in this context, good governance. Through this borrowing, and by portraying ʿAbd al-Raḥāman as "wise foreign ruler propping up Ottonian claims to international importance" (53), Levin shows that the Life of John of Gorze served to promote the image of the dynasty as legitimate claimants of imperial authority.

The third chapter, by Aslisho Qurboniev, handily contextualizes the accounts of two disputations from the early Fatimid period in "the rhetorical battles between two opposing worldviews of early Islamic thought, traditionalism and rationalism, as well as in the "cold war" among the Fatimid, Umayyad, and Abbasid caliphates"(79). Qurboniev's article stands out for its clear narration of stories of the Mālikī scholar, Saʿīd ibn al-Ḥaddād and the Fatimid ʿī Ibn al-Haytham, the figures at the heart of these munāẓarāt, and the complex ways in which they illuminate the broader ideological struggles of the tenth century.

Alex Metcalfe, author of The Muslims of Medieval Italy (2011) is the author of the volume's fourth chapter, which highlights the role of short notes and messages in the western Mediterranean. The article first focuses on the "survival" of many such notes in the Life of Master Jawdhar, an official in the court of the late tenth-century Fatimid Caliph, al-Muʿizz. The richness of this source is juxtaposed with the relative paucity of message-form in the sources of the Norman conquest of Sicily. While these sources often relate the use of notes and messages (many perhaps oral), the text of these "low forms" of written records do not survive as they do in the Fatimid source.

Roberta Denaro's discussion of the "Historiographical Patterns in Recounting the End of Muslim Rule in Sicily and al-Andalus" offers an insightful examination of the motif of defeat in Arabic history writing. She clearly establishes this genre as the "antipode of the futūḥāt", the celebratory accounts of the victories of the early Islamic conquests, and traces its appearance in sources that wander widely from the eleventh-century collapse of these western regions of the Islamicate world.

Despite the very specific focus indicated by the title, "A Wondrous Past, A Dangerous Present: The Egyptian Temple of Akhīma and the Martorana Church in Palermo, as Seen Through Ibn Jubayr's Travelogue", Giovanna Calasso's sixth chapter neatly weaves together a number of themes: the collapse of Muslim-ruled Sicily and al-Andalus, theMashriq/Maghrib dichotomy in Islamic discourse, Ibn Jubayr's Almohad partisanship (but admiration for Saladin), and medieval Muslims' fascination with Ancient Egyptian ruins. The article is capped off with a splendid discussion of fitna (here meaning temptation or seduction) in Ibn Jubayr's reaction to the beauty of Norman Palermo's churches and the hospitality of its Christian residents.

The final chapter, by Keith Budner, examines two versions of the romance of Flores and Blancaflor, the first from the thirteenth century Alfonsine Estoria de Espanna, and the second a printed version of the story from the early sixteenth century. Budner demonstrates how both stories fit into their respective periods of Christian expansion over al-Andalus, but the primary focus of the article is on the 1512 version, and its connection to the uncertain status of the Moriscos of Granada. Despite being somewhat distant chronologically from the rest of the chapters of the volume, the attention to this later period provides a satisfying thematic bookend.

While it is certainly the case that readers will find particular value in the individual articles that make up Medieval Sicily, al-Andalus, and the Maghrib, the thematic coherence of the parts creates a valuable whole that should not be overlooked. This volume demonstrates the advantages of using wide geographic perspectives and examining not just the poles of conflict and coexistence, but the ways in which the turmoil of life in the complex world of the Mediterranean was a culturally "generative process" (1). Though one might quibble with some design decisions (why are the abstracts at the end, rather than the beginning of each article?) and regret the format (the advance of the digital at the expense of print is bound to be good for optometrists!), this is a solid book and a good example of Mediterranean studies done right.

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1. David A. Wacks, Medieval Iberian Crusade Fiction and the Mediterranean World (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019); Michael Lower, The Tunis Crusade of 1270: A Mediterranean History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).