The concept of a Global Middle Ages has shifted the paradigm of medieval studies over the past two decades.  It’s impelled scholars to look beyond their particular region or language of expertise to explore the interconnectivity of the world circa 500 to 1500 C.E. New research and publications are examining how commercial, intellectual, artistic, and cultural exchange brought different areas of the globe into contact. New graduate programs and undergraduate courses are training students to dialogue across disciplines, combining the humanities with computer science and bioarcheology. This approach promises to transform medieval studies for the twenty-first century.
Transformation is needed if we want secondary-school students – our future undergraduates – to continue learning about this period. Many state curricula have dropped the requirement to study anything premodern, implying that history began in 1500.
Happily for us, talking about the Global Middle Ages sparks young peoples’ curiosity. They are intrigued by historical narratives that overturn popular notions of the Dark Ages and lift up the cultural achievements of places other than Western Europe.
I speak from experience. This spring I taught an introductory medieval studies course at John Adams High School in South Bend, IN, through a partnership between Notre Dame’s Medieval Institute and the South Bend School Corp. The MI approached John Adams because it is an International Baccalaureate (IB) World School. The IB is a global educational program that aims to form “internationally minded young people” ready to meet the challenges of world citizenship in the twenty-first century. The IB history curriculum is designed to “develop intercultural understanding” though the comparative study of more than one region. The ultimate goal is to “increase students’ understanding of themselves and of contemporary society by encouraging reflection on the past.”
Teaching the Global Middle Ages can meet these IB learning objectives by introducing high schoolers to the pluralistic cultures of the deep past. By reading travel narratives students learn that medieval merchants, envoys and missionaries needed to develop intercultural understanding in order to survive. After a guest lecture on trade, travel and migration by MI Mellon Fellow Mohamad Ballan, the John Adams students read excerpts from the tenth-century Travels of ibn Fadlan and the thirteenth-century Journey of William of Rubruck. These texts helpfully debunk the myth that all cross-religious encounters in the Middle Ages erupted in violence.
At the same time, medieval travel narratives describe the terror that humans feel when interacting with those who do not speak the same language or who subscribe to alternate belief systems. Students reading these texts come to see the difficulty of acquiring cultural competence – a task that remains difficult today. That knowledge can foster humility, a virtue needed in globally minded citizens.
The John Adams course succeeded in helping students perceive the medieval globe as a place of cultural and religious diversity. One wrote in a final reflection:
One aspect of the Middle Ages that I was clueless about at the beginning of the semester is the significance of Islam in the medieval world, and the effect that Muslims had on architecture, technology, language, and philosophy in the Middle Ages.
Another reported gaining an “understanding of how every country and culture was connected and in relation to one another. It would be unfair to continue believing that the Middle Ages were this dark and clueless when it came to things that they had to use in their everyday lives.” Looking ahead to next year, I’m excited to help students explore this interconnectivity in greater depth and breadth.
The MI hopes our school partnership will serve as inspiration for other medieval studies programs wanting to do public humanities and engagement work. Collaborating with an IB school proved fortuitous. Both parties share the goal of enabling students to understand our world today by reflecting critically on the deep past.
Annie Killian, Ph.D. Public Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow Medieval Institute University of Notre Dame
 On coining the term and conceptualizing “The Global Middle Ages,” see Geraldine Heng, “The Global Middle Ages: An Introduction,” Elements in the Global Middle Ages, November 2021. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781009161176.
 On Rubruck’s disorienting experience at a Mongol court, see Shirin Azizeh Khanmohamadi, “Worldly Unease in Late Medieval Travel Reports,” in Cosmopolitanism and the Middle Ages, ed. John M. Ganim and Shayne Legassie (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 105-20.
Today’s blog continues from last week’s discussion of the Nasrid College and the multicultural exchange it fostered in Medieval Iberia by shifting the focus to the intellectual and political.
In Muḥarram 750/April 1349, the Nasrid College, located directly across from the former Great Mosque of Granada (today the cathedral) and near the main market, was completed. It reflected the intersection between knowledge and power, cosmopolitanism and learning, in Nasrid Granada. Although the Nasrid College was certainly the most significant example of an Andalusi madrasah during the Middle Ages, the Granadan scholar-statesman and historian Lisān al-Dīn ibn al-Khaṭīb (d. 1374) states that “the admirable college was constructed during the reign of Yūsuf and was the most illustrious of all the colleges in his capital,” indicating that there may have been other such colleges in the kingdom. The Nasrid College sought to establish the preeminence of the Granada as a leading intellectual and cultural center in the Islamic West. Its prominence reflected the transformation of Granada from an embattled frontier polity into a major center of learning in the Islamic West, competing with other intellectual centers such as Fez, Tlemcen, Tunis, Marrakesh and Meknes. Although law, Arabic grammar, and theology constituted the integral components of the curriculum, the subjects taught at the Nasrid College encompassed both the “traditional sciences” (al-‘ulūm al-naqliyyah) as well as the “philosophical sciences” (al-‘ulūm al-‘aqliyyah), and included jurisprudence, logic, medicine, astronomy, philosophy, mathematics, arithmetic, and geometry. Some of these subjects would also be studied with professors from the Nasrid College in other spaces in Granada, including the home and chancery. The students and teachers at the Nasrid College included some of the greatest luminaries from al-Andalus as well as North Africa during the 14th and 15th centuries. The Nasrid College contained a significant library that housed many of the most important works produced in the late medieval Islamic West, as well as many books from across the Islamic world. According to a note by the 15th-century Andalusi scholar Abū ‘Abd Allāh Muḥammad b. al-Ḥaddād al-Wādī Āshī, for example, an ornamented and calligraphic manuscript of the monumental “Comprehensive History of Granada” (al-Ihāṭah fī Akhbār Gharnāṭah, authored by Ibn al-Khaṭīb) was deposited in the library of Nasrid College during the reign of Muḥammad V (r. 1354-1359, 1362-1391), where it remained as an endowment (taḥbīs), and was consulted by subsequent generations of scholars.
Following the Iberian Christian conquest of Granada in 1492, the Nasrid College survived largely intact, until much of it was demolished during the early 18th century to make way for a new Baroque structure. Although only the prayer niche (miḥrāb) and the Oratory of the Following the Iberian Christian conquest of Granada in 1492, the Nasrid College survived largely intact, until much of it was demolished during the early 18th century to make way for a new Baroque structure. Although only the prayer niche (miḥrāb) and the Oratory of the Nasrid College survives to the present day, recent studies by historians and archaeologists have sought to reconstruct the original structure, which included a monumental gate and pool.
The survival of several contemporary Marinid colleges in North Africa, including those in Fez, Meknes, and Salé built during the 1340s and 1350s, may also provide an idea of both the scale and style of the Nasrid College.
Like the monumental colleges constructed by Marinid rulers in North Africa, especially Abū al-Ḥasan ‘Alī (r. 1331–1348) and Abū ‘Inān (1348–1358), this structure was intended to c
Like the monumental colleges constructed by Marinid rulers in North Africa, especially Abū al-Ḥasan ‘Alī (r. 1331–1348) and Abū ‘Inān (1348–1358), this structure was intended to celebrate the elaborate wealth and power of the sovereign, while proclaiming his commitment to knowledge. There are remarkable architectural and artistic similarities between the Nasrid College and other royal monuments in Granada, including the Alhambra, as well as with Marinid colleges in North Africa, particularly the College of Abū al-Ḥasan ‘Alī in Salé, which was built several years earlier. Similar to the Marinid colleges, the verses inscribed on the walls of the Nasrid College, which were preserved in medieval and early modern texts, were authored by leading scholars, litterateurs and courtiers. These celebrated the patronage of learning by Yūsuf I, and illustrate the interrelationship between royal power and learned elites in the Nasrid kingdom.
In addition to reflecting a shared idiom of sovereignty and learned kingship across both Islamic Spain and North Africa, the similarities between these colleges, which were built within several years of one another, provides an important indication of the cultural and artistic exchange across the Islamic West. It also illustrates the role of interregional connections in strengthening the ties of affiliation and the diffusion of institutions between Iberia and North Africa during this period. Itinerant scholars, administrators and artisans served as cultural intermediaries and conduits for the exchange of ideas and institutions between Nasrid Granada and Marinid Morocco. The Nasrid College was merely one illustration of this broader phenomenon.
While the College came to be known in later sources as al-Madrasa al-Yūsufiyya or “The College of Yūsuf,” and came to be associated with the name of Yūsuf I (r. 1333-1354), it was in fact the creation of Abū Nu‘aym Riḍwān al-Naṣrī (d. 1359), this Nasrid sovereign’s royal chamberlain. Abū Nu‘aym Riḍwān was a prominent example of a particular class of Nasrid society that modern scholarship has referred to as “renegades,” enslaved people and freedmen and their descendants who were an integral part of Granada’s population. Riḍwān was born into a Castilian Christian family in Calzada de Calatrava before being enslaved as a child during a Nasrid raid in the late 13th century. Following his captivity, he was converted to Islam and manumitted, received an education in the Nasrid court, and eventually appointed to leading positions of executive authority, including royal chamberlain, chief minister and commander of the military. The rise to prominence of Riḍwān during this period is also corroborated by contemporary Castilian and Aragonese sources, including the Crónica de Alfonso XI, which describes him as “a Muslim knight known as Reduan, the son of a Christian man and Christian woman, whom the king of Granada trusted immensely (un cavallero moro que dezian Reduan que fuera fijo de christiano e de christiana e era ome quien fiava mucho el rey).” There is substantial evidence that Riḍwān served as an intermediary with the Iberian Christian kingdoms, and corresponded directly with Alfonso IV (r. 1327–1336) and Pedro IV (r. 1336–1387) of Aragón in order to secure a peace treaty between the Nasrids and Aragón. In these documents, four of which have been preserved in the Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, Riḍwān consistently refers to himself as “Riḍwān, son of God’s servant, the chief minister of the Sultan” (Riḍwān ibn ‘Abd Allāh wazīr al-sulṭān).
This concerted program of urban expansion and elaborate construction in Granada during the 14th century was accomplished through the close collaboration between the secretarial class, nobles, artisans, and craftsmen. The establishment of the Nasrid College and its transformation into one of the most important institutions of learning in Granada was made possible by the close relationship between the sovereign, leading statesmen such as Riḍwān and the various secretaries and functionaries within the Nasrid chancery. The construction of the Nasrid College and the circumstances surrounding it demonstrate that, far from being a period of “intellectual decline,” the 14th and 15th centuries in the Islamic West witnessed the emergence of a rigorous scholarly culture that produced brilliant individuals and prolific scholars. The Nasrid College, which has now become the subject of numerous interdisciplinary studies that have included historians, philologists, and archaeologists, has the potential to shed light on this larger cultural renaissance.
Mattei, Luca. “Estudio de la Madraza de Granada a partir del registro arqueológico y de las metodologías utilizadas en la intervención de 2006.” Arqueología y Territorio 5 (2008): 181-192
Prado García, Celia. “Los estudios superiores en las madrazas de Murcia y Granada. Un estado de la cuestión.” Murgetana 139 (2018): 9-21.
Rodríguez-Mediano, Fernando. “The Post-Almohad Dynasties in al-Andalus and the Maghrib.” In The New Cambridge History of Islam, Volume II: The Western Islamic World, Eleventh to Eighteenth Centuries, edited by Maribel Fierro, pp. 106–143. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Rubiera Mata, María Jesús. “Datos sobre una ‘Madrasa’ en Málaga anterior a la Naṣrí de Granada.” Al-Andalus 35 (1970): 223–226
Sarr, Bilal and Luca Mattei. “La Madraza Yusufiyya en época andalusí: un diálogo entre las fuentes árabes escritas y arqueológicas.” Arqueología y Territorio Medieval 16 (2009): 53–74.
Secall, M. Isabel Calero. “Rulers and Qādīs: Their Relationship during the Naṣrid Kingdom.” Islamic Law and Society 7 (2000): 235–255
Seco de Lucena Paredes, Luis. “El Ḥāŷib Riḍwān, la madraza de Granada y las murallas del Albayzín.” Al-Andalus 21 (1956): 285–296.
 The most important scholarship about the Nasrid College includes La Madraza: pasado, presente y futuro (Granada: Editorial Universidad de Granada, 2007), eds. Rafael López Guzmán and María Elena Díez Jorge; La Madraza de Yusuf I y la ciudad de Granada: análisis a partir de la arqueología (Granada: Editorial Universidad de Granada, 2015), eds. Antonio Malpica Cuello and Luca Mattei.
 Ibn al-Khatīb, al-Lamḥa al-Badriyya fī al-Dawla al-Naṣriyya (Kuwait, 2013), p. 153. For a discussion of an earlier college built in the Nasrid kingdom, see María Jesús Rubiera Mata, “Datos sobre una ‘Madrasa’ en Málaga anterior a la Naṣrí de Granada,” Al-Andalus 35 (1970), pp. 223–226.
It is the work of public humanities to question how we wield memories of the past for present ends. Through community-engaged teaching and learning, medievalists have the opportunity to pass on memories of the Middle Ages that move us toward social justice. We must begin by telling the dangerous memories of suffering that marked the millennium between 500 and 1500 C.E.: the expulsion of Jews from Christian kingdoms, Crusades against Islamic rulers in the Holy Land, and other instances of violence against religious and ethnic minorities. However, violence is not the whole story. At different times and places during these 1000 years, people of different religions and cultures lived peaceably side by side. Jews and Christians in Islamic Spain shared new learnings from Greek and Arabic writings on theology and philosophy. In the Levant, crusaders of diverse ethnicities farmed alongside their Muslim neighbors, not only tolerating the other’s religion but even appreciating their style of worship. Many Christians converted to Islam. Travel along trade and pilgrimage routes brought medieval people into contact with cultural others as they traversed commercial networks spanning from China through Syria and around the Mediterranean to North Africa and Europe. Migration compelled people to settle far from home, carrying their culture with them and adapting to their new circumstances. This is the more complicated story we need to tell.
Through public humanities initiatives, medievalists can engage community partners in remembering a messier, more complex Middle Ages and discovering the relevance of that memory to our messy and complex world today. At Notre Dame, the Medieval Institute is animating students and faculty to engage the wider community on campus and beyond. This fall we hosted Game Day events during which the community could learn from local artisans who practice historically informed crafts. We sponsored roundtables that put MI faculty fellows in conversation with scholars working on labor and religion to discuss issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This spring we are partnering with a local public high school to offer an elective history course on the global Middle Ages and participating in the public library’s hands-on science programming. These initiatives invite our community partners to think critically with us about popular (mis)conceptions of medieval culture, to challenge modern assumptions about the past, and to lift up the stories of marginated medieval peoples: women, laborers, and religious and ethnic minorities.
It is challenging to envision ways of engaging a broad public in reimagining history and its meaning for us today. Nevertheless, I care about this work because the dangerous memories of the medieval past help me imagine – and hope for – a more just future. In the political theology of Johann Baptist Metz, the dangerous memory of Jesus Christ, executed by the state for challenging the power of empire, is subversive of the status quo and impels Christians to work for liberation. I perceive medieval art and literature to be full of similarly dangerous memories: of women who dared to write against the fearful and patriarchal theologies of their day, of poets who critiqued ecclesiastical abuses of money and power, of reformers who wanted all people to have access to sacred scripture in their mother tongue and who dreamed of “a poor church, for the poor.” Theirs are the stories I want to remember from the Middle Ages – stories that feel urgently relevant for our time, as dangerous then as they are now.
Annie Killian, Ph.D. Public Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow Medieval Institute University of Notre Dame