Summer Reading

These are some books I’m planning to read over the summer.

1) Joan A. Holladay, Genealogy and the Politics of Representation in the High and Late Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

“Images and image cycles with genealogical content were everywhere in the high and later Middle Ages. They represent families related by blood as well as successive office holders and appear as family trees and lineages of single figures in manuscripts, on walls and in stained glass, and in sculpture and metalwork. Yet art historians have hardly remarked on the frequency of these images. Considering the physical contexts and functions of these works alongside the goals of their patrons, this volume examines groups of figural genealogies ranging across northern Europe and dating from the mid-twelfth to the mid-fourteenth century. Joan A. Holladay considers how they were used to legitimize rulers and support their political and territorial goals, to reinforce archbishops’ rights to crown kings, to cement relationships between families of founders and their monastic foundations, and to commemorate the dead. The flexibility and legibility of this genre was key to its widespread use.”

https://www.cambridge.org/us/academic/subjects/history/european-history-1000-1450/genealogy-and-politics-representation-high-and-late-middle-ages?format=HB

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Il-Kantilena: A 15th-century Poem in Medieval Maltese

Il-Kantilena by the Maltese poet and philosopher Pietru Caxaro (d. 1485) is the oldest known literary text in the Maltese language, and dates to the late 15th century. Since its discovery in the 1960s, much has been much written about this text and the implications for the historical understanding of medieval Malta. Unlike modern Maltese, which has a large number of loan words from Italian and English, Il-Kantilena is notable for its extensive Arabic vocabulary, demonstrating its relationship and proximity to the Sicilian Arabic spoken in Sicily during the 11th-13th century. The earliest comprehensive study of the poem is G. Wettinger and M. Fsadni. Peter Caxaro’s Cantilena (1968).

Il-Kantilena(Manuscript of Il-Kantilena. Source)

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Modern Monuments and Medieval Mythologies: The Statue of Avengalvón in Burgos

While exploring the beautiful town of Burgos in northern Spain, the traveler will be struck by the many medieval sites, including the monumental Cathedral and the ruins of the fortress. In addition to the remnants of actual structure from the medieval periods, many plaques, street names, pamphlets, and books that one encounters throughout Burgos celebrates the medieval history of the town, with particular attention to the deeds of its past kings, nobles, and prominent citizens.

 

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(Catedral de Santa María in Burgos, constructed between the early 13th and 16th centuries . Source)

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(Interior of the Cathedral of Burgos. Source)

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(Castle of Burgos, originally built in the early Middle Ages. Source) Continue reading

“Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time” Exhibit (Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University)

About two weeks ago, I had the privilege of visiting the wonderful “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time” exhibit at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University. It was a truly wonderful experience and the curator Dr. Kathleen Bickford Berzock should be congratulated on such a monumental achievement. As many observers have noted, this is the first major exhibition in the United States to closely consider the material culture of early trans-Saharan trade and to offer strong evidence of the central but little-recognized role Africa played in global medieval history. Among the materials on view are sculptures, jewelry, household and luxury objects, manuscripts and architectural remnants, all united by their connections to routes of exchange across the Sahara from the eighth to the 16th centuries. The exhibit includes an excellent collection of treasures and artifacts from West Africa, North Africa, the Middle East & Europe from late antiquity to the 20th century. It showcases the immense importance of trans-Saharan Africa as a pivotal part of the medieval world, and embodies the heart of the interconnected universe that many scholars are increasingly referring to as the Global Middle Ages. Weaving together art, archaeology, cartography history and literature to tell the story of an economically-vibrant and culturally-diverse medieval Africa, the exhibit has received an overwhelmingly positive reception, with one reviewer stating that

“Caravans of Gold” creates new points of reference by not only reveling in the beauty of the objects but also introducing viewers to the idea of a vibrantly interconnected global culture, including the sophisticated social, political, cultural, and economic systems of West Africa. So much of Africa’s relationship to Europe has involved defamation, appropriation, and control. Narratives highlighting the agency of West African people in the medieval period allow for a rediscovery of the continent’s rich history, cultures, and contributions to the evolution of global trade and culture. “Caravans of Gold” is an important gesture in helping people understand that Africa has always been connected to the world and can share its story on its own terms.

Another reviewer observes that the exhibit

doesn’t aim for less than decentering the idea that the medieval epoch should only be envisioned through a European lens, which are typically stories of feudalism, war, chivalry, and the Bubonic plague. These European sagas are the ones I grew up with, saw dramatized on television, and valorized in film. Caravans of Gold also seeks to put Islam at this reconstructed world’s fulcrum and regard it as a force which impelled cultural advance, rather than to associate it with iconoclastic destruction of historical patrimony — stories we know too well. Even more, it subtly raises up the entire African continent, which becomes through this retelling, a force of profound socioeconomic change at the global level.

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650th Anniversary of the Assassination of Pedro I of Castile-León (r. 1350-1369)

The past week (March 23rd to be exact) marked the 650th anniversary of the assassination of Pedro I of Castile-León (r. 1350-1369), one of medieval Iberia’s most controversial, enigmatic and interesting sovereigns. For some, he represents a vicious tyrant whose repressive policies were catastrophic for Castile. Meanwhile, others have memorialized him as a sovereign who promoted a culture of toleration, employed Jews and Muslims in significant numbers within his administration, and sought to curb the power of the nobility. Far from attempting to grapple with or unpack his complex legacy, this post introduces the English-speaking reader to this complicated sovereign in order to encourage further inquiry into his life and times.

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(Coin of Pedro I, minted in Seville. Source)

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Digitized 3D model of the sword of a 15th-c. Andalusi nobleman and military commander

An interactive 3D model of the sword of a 15th-c. Nasrid military commander can be explored here: https://sketchfab.com/3d-models/empunadura-de-la-espada-jineta-de-ali-atar-2b6ba5fcddbf4202874c2e8db67f1965

For the article in Spanish explaining the object and its digitization as a 3D model, see Margot Gil-Melitón & José Luis Lerma, “Digitalización 3D de la espada nazarí atribuida a Ali Atar” https://polipapers.upv.es/index.php/var/article/view/10028 (an English overview/summary can be read here. For some clarifications about the factual details mentioned in the article, see Dr. Josef Ženka’s Twitter thread here.

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New Exhibition: Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa (January 26 2019 – July 21 2019)

An exciting new exhibition organized by The Block Museum of Art and dedicated to the history and art of medieval Africa, has just opened in Chicago. The following is the description from its webpage:

Travel with the Block Museum along routes crossing the Sahara Desert to a time when West African gold fueled expansive trade and drove the movement of people, culture, and religious beliefs.

Caravans of Gold is the first major exhibition addressing the scope of Saharan trade and the shared history of West Africa, the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe from the eighth to sixteenth centuries. Weaving stories about interconnected histories, the exhibition showcases the objects and ideas that connected at the crossroads of the medieval Sahara and celebrates West Africa’s historic and underrecognized global significance.

Caravans of Gold draws on recent archaeological discoveries, including rare fragments from major medieval African trading centers like Sijilmasa, Gao, and Tadmekka. These “fragments in time” are seen alongside works of art that invite us to imagine them as they once were. They are the starting point for a new understanding of the medieval past and for seeing the present in a new light.

Presenting more than 250 artworks spanning five centuries and a vast geographic expanse, the exhibition features unprecedented loans from partner institutions in Mali, Morocco, and Nigeria, many of which will be seen in North America for the first time.

The Block Museum exhibition will travel to The Aga Khan Museum in Toronto (Sept. 21, 2019 – Feb. 23, 2020) and then to the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institute (April 8 – Nov. 29, 2020)

It’s wonderful to see the history and culture of such an important region of the medieval world finally receiving more public attention. For those unable to attend, the exhibition’s catalog, Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa (ed, Kathleen Bickford Berzock) can be purchased here.

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The Iconography of Royal Power in 12th-c. Norman Sicily

The reign of Roger II (r. 1130-1154), who had began his rule as Count of Sicily in 1105, became Duke of Apulia and Calabria in 1127, and then King of Sicily in 1130, has long fascinated everyone interested in Mediterranean history. It marks a particularly significant period for the consolidation of Norman rule in both Sicily and southern Italy. Roger II instituted a strong royal administration, overcame various challenges to his authority (in the form of rebellions) and inaugurated an expansionist foreign policy that resulted in the incorporation of substantial territories in North Africa into his realm (discussed further here).

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(Image source: http://almostforgotten.squarespace.com/podcast/2018/3/13/episode-35-norman-in-italy-part-2-roger-ii)

In addition to overseeing the transformation of the Norman kingdom into a Mediterranean power that controlled Sicily, southern Italy and parts of modern-day Tunisia and Libya, Roger II’s reign is also distinguished by his patronage of a courtly culture colored as much by Arab-Islamic and Eastern Roman (“Byzantine”) influences as by Latin Christian culture. This is unsurprising, given the rich Islamic and Eastern Roman history of Sicily in the preceding centuries. Indeed, the island’s large population of Christians, Muslims and Jews was predominantly Greek and Arabic speaking during the early 12th century.  This variety of cultural influences and convergence of diverse communities is indicated by the distinctive culture of the Norman kingdom, perhaps best embodied by the wonderful architecture patronized and constructed by Roger II and his successors during the 12th century.

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(Muqarnas in the Palatine Chapel/Cappella Palatina in Palermo, constructed between 1132 and 1180. Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bautisterias/24595747119/)

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The Last Almohads? Two Descendants of the Almohad Caliphs in 14th-c. Nasrid Granada

The Almohads (r. 1121–1269) were the first (and last) Muslim dynasty to politically unify the entirety of Islamic Spain and North Africa since the Umayyad conquest of the region in the 7th and 8th centuries.[1] The Almohads, whose name (al-Muwaḥḥidūn) literally means “those who affirm the unicity of God,” were a religio-political movement rooted in the theological and legal principles preached by Ibn Tūmart (d. 1130), referred to by his followers as the Mahdi, to the Berber tribes of the High Atlas Mountains.[2]
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(Mosque of Ibn Tūmart , High Atlas Mountains)

The founder of the Almohad dynasty was ‘Abd al-Mu’min b. ‘Alī al-Kūmī (r. 1130–1163), an early and close follower of Ibn Tūmart, who proclaimed himself caliph (amīr al-mu’minīn) in 1130, went on to conquer large swathes of North Africa and Spain, destroying the Almoravid polity, and establishing the Almohad empire, which dominated the region until the early 13th century.

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Following the decline of Almohad power during the early 7th/13th century, between roughly 617/1220 and 669/1270, four successor states emerged in the lands formerly ruled by this dynasty: the Marinids (r. 1244–1465) in Fez, the Nasrids (r. 1232–1492) in Granada, the Zayyanids (r. 1235–1556) in Tlemcen, and the Hafsids (r. 1229–1574) in Tunis.[3] Another successor kingdom, that of the Banū Hūd, also emerged and was based in Murcia but was short-lived. Although Almohad sovereign rule was finally ended by the Marinid conquest of Marrakech in 1269, with the Hafsids of Tunis and the Hintātah tribes of the High Atlas Mountains continuing to claim the mantle of Almohad ideology, there were a large number of descendants of ‘Abd al-Mu’min who remained in North Africa, including the children and grandchildren of former Almohad caliphs.

So, what exactly happened to these princes? Continue reading