Muslim Refugees in Medieval Malta (ca. 1463)? Mobility, Migration and the Muslim-Christian Frontier in the Mediterranean World

The following is an excerpt from my recent contribution to the Medieval Studies Research Blog, hosted by the University of Notre Dame’s Medieval Institute. It looks at an instance of economic migration from North Africa to Malta during the mid-15th century.

Cantino World Map, 1502.

As a modest contribution to a larger scholarly discussion about migration in the medieval world, this piece seeks to draw attention to one particular author, the Muslim traveler Zayn al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Bāsiṭ b. Khalīl (1440-1514), whose writings constitute a valuable source for the history of a late medieval Mediterranean world defined by mobility and migration. ‘Abd al-Bāsiṭ, a scholar and merchant, was born into a family of administrators and statesmen in Malatya, in eastern Anatolia. He traveled across Syria, Egypt, North Africa and Islamic Spain during the 15th century, and meticulously documented his experiences and observations in his monumental four volume work titled “The Joyous Garden: A Catalogue of the Events and Biographies of the Age” (al-Rawḍ al-Bāsim fī Ḥawādith al-‘Umur wa-l-Tarājim), written around 1483. The pleasant and cheerful title of the work, however, does not reflect its contents, which depicts a complex world that was defined by mass violence, political turmoil and social injustice, as well as by religious coexistence, trade and intellectual exchange. ‘Abd al-Bāsit also provides important evidence for migration that was shaped by economic and political necessity. Perhaps the most important example of this can be seen in two particular anecdotes about a small wave of migration from North Africa to the island of Malta:

“On Wednesday 4 Jumādā II 867/February 24 1463, news spread that a group of people from Misrata, nearly 60 in total, set sail on the Mediterranean and made for the Christian [lit: Frankish] island of Malta, in order to place themselves under their protection and power. They did this because they sought refuge from the oppression and injustice of the military commander Abū Naṣr [b. Jā’ al-Khayr], the governor of Tripoli appointed by the [Hafsid] ruler of Tunis [Abū ‘Amr] ‘Uthmān [r. 1435-1488], who seemed unconcerned and untroubled by this. Verily, there is no power or strength except by God![5]

[…]

“On Thursday 19 Ramadan 867/June 7 1463, we were informed that a group of people from Misrata, nearly 15 in total, sailed for the island of Malta in small boats, along with their families, children and elders in order to settle there under the protection and power of the Christians of the abode of war, in order to flee from the oppression and injustice of the governor of Tripoli. There came news from Malta that the Christians were welcoming, permitting them to settle and granting them land. The [Maltese] stipulated that [the migrants] would pay them as a land tax about one-third or slightly less, as they had been accustomed to paying to the governor of Tripoli, while being protected from injustice and secure in their lives and property. Verily, we are from God and unto him we will return!”[6]

Grazioso Benincasa, Portolan Chart, 1470.

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Library of Arabic Literature Blog: A Connected World: Exploring the Early Middle Ages with Ibn Faḍlān

The following is a short blogpost that I wrote on the Library of Arabic Literature’s blog about my experiences using Ibn Faḍlān’s Mission to the Volga to teach about travel in the medieval world. The following is a short excerpt, and the full blog can be read here: https://www.libraryofarabicliterature.org/2021/exploring-with-ibn-fadlan/

Travel was a central feature of the medieval world. Whether the motivation was exploration, piety, diplomacy, knowledge, survival, or profit, the act of travel involved the travelers in larger processes of interaction and exchange between cultures and contributed to the diffusion of ideas between Europe, Africa, and Asia. These travelers’ surviving writings and accounts illuminate the realities of the medieval world and provide windows into the travelers’ own worldviews, providing students with the tools to question assumptions about a “clash of civilizations” and the supposed uniformity of either Latin Christendom or the Islamic world during the Middle Ages.

For the Early Middle Ages, in particular, an emphasis on interconnectedness, mobility, and exchange undermines and problematizes antiquated notions of “the Dark Ages.” This endeavor to better understand medieval travelers and their world has been facilitated by the translation and publication of medieval texts over the past several years, which has contributed to the emergence of the field of the “Global Middle Ages.” One such text is Mission to the Volga by Ibn Faḍlān, translated by James E. Montgomery, which I have used in courses with my students at Stony Brook University over the past two years.

The Catalan Atlas, ca. 1375, produced by Abraham and Jehudà Cresques in late fourteenth-century Majorca, provides a vision of a highly connected medieval world characterized by ethnic, cultural, and political diversity woven together through a web of trade routes and mercantile networks. The full manuscript has been digitized by the Bibliothèque nationale de France: https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b55002481n

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MESA 2019–Medieval and Early Modern Panels

The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) is holding its annual conference, one of the largest gatherings of scholars working on the history of the greater Middle East and North Africa region from Late Antiquity to the present, in the amazing city of New Orleans this November. Based on the conference program (available here or here),  it looks like a particularly good year to attend, with excellent panels covering a wide range of topics and chronologies.

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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

holladay

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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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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.

sword 1

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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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Upcoming Conference. “Of Blood and Milk: Race and Religion in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Iberian Worlds” (Madrid, Feb. 6-8)

I’ll be heading back to Madrid for a few days. Greatly honored to be participating in what looks like an excellent set of conversations with leading scholars about questions of lineage, race, and religion in the late medieval and early modern Iberian worlds. Full  program available here: http://www.proyectos.cchs.csic.es/corpi/es/activities/blood-and-milk-race-and-religion-late-medieval-and-early-modern-iberian-worlds .