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22.03.08 Holmes et al (eds.), Political Culture in the Latin West, Byzantium and the Islamic World

22.03.08 Holmes et al (eds.), Political Culture in the Latin West, Byzantium and the Islamic World

The current volume under review grew out of a series of panel discussions and symposia organized by the authors and undertaken over most of a decade, with the participation of not just the present contributors, but with a host of other scholars, some of whom have published their own works from the project as well. The aim of the editors is set out in the introductory first chapter where they note, “With the globalising of historical studies across all periods, medievalists are eager to explore broader trans-regional contexts and to break out of long-standing disciplinary and area-studies silos” (1). Their aim is a worthy one, within this context, as they attempt to gather research on political culture across the “three spheres” of Latin Christendom, Byzantium, and the Islamic world and publicize it for a wider audience. However, the editors are also quick to point out that what they have done in this volume is not to do comparative history; they “do not offer systematic comparison between spheres, nor do we attempt an overarching grand narrative” (2). This leaves the reader with a question of intent and audience, though on the same page the editors note that their “aim is to provide a set of parallel studies to enable readers with experience in the history and historiography of one sphere to gain grounding in the fundamentals of the political cultures of the other two.” An aim which is achieved, at least in part.

The text, as a whole, is broken down into four main sections on “Sources,” “Historical Contexts,” “Norms, Values and Their Propagation,” and “Practice and Organisation.” These sections each include a chapter on the Latin West (which was chosen as the opening example because it was considered to be most familiar to audiences [xii]), Byzantium, and the Islamic world. These four sections are bookended by a two-chapter introduction and then a conclusion. The second chapter of the introduction is written by R. Stephen Humphreys and usefully discusses one of the core questions of such a study: what does “political culture” mean? His definition (found on p. 18) is a solid one, and whether one agrees with it or not, it is quite useful to define one’s terms for such an exercise.

The section on “Sources” covers each of the three areas with an introductory, comparative, essay by Jonathan Shepard who also wrote or co-authored all of the pieces in this section. Shepard’s comparative essay foregrounds one of the key problems in a work of this sort, when he points out that one “reason for foregrounding the Latin sources is their capacity to illustrate dynamics and currents of political culture which may have existed in other spheres but are less intensively documented in the surviving record” (33). This is obvious from the subsequent chapters as well, given that the chapter on the Latin West is approximately twice the length of the Byzantine and Islamic world chapters.

This same issue of the breadth of the discursive category of the Latin West is on display in the section on “Historical Contexts,” as Len Scales acknowledges that there is no real unity to this grouping and that it changes size and shape over the course of the period. His section, like most of those on the Latin West other than Weiler’s, is really an examination of Western Europe, rather than Latin Europe. Catherine Holmes’s chapter on Byzantium here focuses not just on Byzantium, the polity, but on the Byzantine Commonwealth--which makes a very strong showing here overall. She manages to include the larger Slavic world in very broad strokes in her treatment of the context of Byzantium. The chapter on the Islamic world, written, as all of the Islamic world chapters are, by Andrew Marsham, Eric Hanne and Jo van Steenbergen, conforms the most to what one might think of in relation to “Historical Contexts” and provides a cogent and well-written overview of the political history of the Islamic world.

“Norms, Values, and their Propagation” is, for me, the strongest part of this volume. Weiler’s chapter on the Latin West starts off with a case study, Wipo’s Gesta, which he uses as a framing tool to discuss “the development of thinking about power, the nature of those debates, and the wide range of materials containing evidence for political values” (253). Weiler covers a wide expanse of Latin Europe, and even notes that Latin Europe was more than just Latin Christian, including references to Jews, Muslims, and pagans as well. Judith Herrin frames her chapter on Byzantium as quite clearly about the court in Constantinople and the image, often self-proclaimed, of the emperor. In so doing, she elucidates the ways that the emperor and his court functioned and interacted with the various bodies, such as the church, which enhanced or impeded that functioning. The Islamic world continues Herrin’s focus on imperial monarchy and the authors highlight four features which made up the “main foundations of legitimate, divinely approved, power: kinship, piety, victory, and justice” (333). These features, laid out at the beginning, help to organize the piece as a whole and keep the reader focused on the ways that the court, and its authors, defined their own power. The authors also dip into the issues of terminology of power, a discussion ongoing in rulership studies, when they note the differences between potestas (power) and auctoritas (authority), suggesting (accurately) that “power is, after all, a ‘fluid concept, manifesting itself in any number of social relationships,’ while authority, as derived from the social mores of a community, is a less malleable concept” (343).

The final section on “Practice and Organisation” digs down into practical examples, as one might imagine. Daniel Power, again, notes the problem with the category about which he is writing: “In contrast to the Byzantine and Islamic spheres, it is difficult to tell a single narrative of the development of political organisation in Latin Christendom between the eighth and fifteenth centuries” (367). In response, he focuses on just a few areas such as Italy, the Alps, and north of the Alps and on a few issues such as the Investiture Controversy and taxation. Rosemary Morris delves into elite power in Byzantium, which is a nice addition to the imperial focus of Herrin’s chapter in the previous section. Here she examines the ways in which elite families gained and held power, as well as the ways that they paid for that privilege and gathered wealth. This theme of taxation, tribute taking, land holding, runs from Power’s piece through to the chapter on the Islamic world, and is one of the most interesting elements, drawing, as it does, on the ongoing conversation about the role of taxation in medieval Europe, to which Chris Wickham has recently added.

Shepard’s concluding thoughts offer a vision for what happens after 1500 as well as a rationale for the book: “What we offer is merely an outline of how their foremost monarchical formations developed, along with sidelights on alternative structures, noting change over time and attempting to chart the rhythms of competition, conflict and consensus that drive any multi-part political culture” (490). In this way, he both weaves together what has been presented and notes what is to come in these same regions.

Taking the volume as a whole, it is certainly possible to learn a great deal from it, but I am still unclear on the audience or what it would be used for. Leaving that aside, the largest problem that I had with the book is with the framing and use of scholarship. As someone who focuses on eastern Europe, it is saddening to me to see huge swaths of medieval Europe not included, or simply mentioned as the hinterland of Byzantium. Dmitri Obolensky’s Byzantine Commonwealth was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary the year this book was published and though many have forecast its demise, given the copious footnotes to it in this volume, it is clearly “not dead yet!” The prevalence of this fifty-year-old construct is matched by the lack of reference to new, cutting-edge scholarship by scholars such as Anthony Kaldellis and Leonora Neville. Neville gets a few citations, and Kaldellis a token mention, but the importance of their work and the ways that it reshapes Byzantine governance and rulership are left out, as is Neville’s treatment of Anna Komnena and Byzantine gender. [1] All in all, the book conforms to the worldview articulated by Wickham in his Framing the Early Middle Ages where the west, Byzantium, and the Islamic world were important to consider and include in an expansive definition of “medieval,” but the Slavic world was not. [2]

Globalizing medieval studies is an important endeavor in the twenty-first century. However, what seems to be happening is that often it becomes a discourse of “Western Europe and...” rather than something much broader. Even if we keep to medieval Europe, this is still an adequate discursive category, and as such, can be examined in more depth; but only if all of Europe is included. Political Culture attempts to do something in relation to globalization, but often retains the focus on well-studied areas, using oft-repeated methodologies. Within that framework, the editors do gather information on political culture in the three designated spheres, some authors more successfully than others, and present those silos to the readers for their own interpretative use. It is then in the hands of the readers what to do next.



1. For instance, Anthony Kaldellis, The Byzantine Republic: People and Power in New Rome (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2015); Anthony Kaldellis,Romanland: Ethnicity and Empire in Byzantium (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2019); Leonora Neville, Anna Komnene: The Life and Work of a Medieval Historian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016); Leonora Neville, Byzantine Gender(Leeds: Arc Humanities Press, 2019).

2. Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), wherein Wickham notes that he “excluded the Slav lands, both in the Roman empire (in the Balkans) and outside it, because of my own linguistic weakness” (5) while “my Arabic, Coptic, and Irish are almost non-existent (here I have relied on translations)” (8).