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Mediterranean History as a Medieval Panacea, or, the Difficulties of European-based Medieval World History

This is perhaps something that should be prefaced by saying that I aspire to be a medieval Mediterranean historian, so this critique is more from the inside than the outside.  I was recently reading Olivia Remie Constable’s excellent Housing the Stranger in the Mediterranean World: Lodging, Trade, and Travel in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, which using the institution of the funduq to explore notions of hospitality and commerce in the Mediterranean world.  It is, in my opinion, an excellent example of what Mediterranean history should aspire to—a broad-based approach using Greek, Latin, Arabic and vernacular sources, covering a wide geographic and temporal range, and showing that commonalities existed among all of the represented polities and cultures.

When medieval historians talk about Mediterranean history, we see the map above.

It’s a lovely map, covering the sea itself, and bringing in France, Italy, Spain, the Balkans, Turkey, the Levant, and the top half of north Africa.  It reinforces the idea of a Europe in dialogue with the greater Muslim world, and if we really want to be broad-based the Slavic world as well, with the Adriatic and Black Sea tacked on.  It puts people like Iberian and Crusade historians (I am one of the latter) in a greater context, allowing us to branch out as part of a wider field of study; it allows historians of more traditional Europe to put their work in a World History context, kind of a Golden Ticket into modern relevancy with buzz-words like “Christian-Muslim relations”.  Is this a cynical view of Mediterranean History?  Yes.  Is it more accurate than we’d like? Probably.

Here’s the problem (beyond the deep-seated cynicism apparently being inculcated into graduate students about selling themselves professionally):



This is the world.  See the Mediterranean up there?  It’s very small.  The rest of the world is very large.  That’s problem one—we’re still talking about a very narrow strip of land around a sea that is traditionally the focus of European energies.  Here’s problem two:

That’s the Indian Ocean.  If we look at economic interests in the Middle Ages, it is access to this body of water that is the Holy Grail.  The Persian Wars between Byzantium and the Sasanids were largely fought over access to this body of water, and thus access to spices, silks and other luxury goods; the Mamluks spent much more time and energy enjoying this body of water than they did worrying about control of the Mediterranean.  S.D. Goitein’s classic series A Mediterranean Society, based on the Cairo Genizah documents, began as a side project while he was working on the Red Sea-Indian Ocean trade of that same community.  Even Constable, while working on the Mediterranean, makes repeated mention of a similar institution, the khan, that was much more prevalent in the Muslim East and in their Indian Ocean and other major field of trade:

That’s Central Asia. The other major trade route, the overland route to China—the “Silk Road”. These are the two major areas of Islamic trade, especially in the Later Middle Ages. And perhaps we should use this fact to simply redefine what it is we are doing with Mediterranean History.

Because Mediterranean history is not a bad thing; in fact, it will significantly enhance our understanding of medieval Europe, and may someday lead to the rehabilitation of things like Byzantine studies, or integrate frontier zones like southern Italy, Spain, and the Balkans back into the greater narratives that are taught in undergraduate medieval history classes. What we need to not do, however, is claim that Mediterranean history is a form of World History. The Islamic World is one of the core areas of world history (well, from the time period corresponding to Early Medieval European history on), and Europe is distinctly on the fringe. The Mediterranean is vastly important for the development of Europe, but we need to put that into a greater perspective.