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

Over the past several years, scholars around the world have begun to adopt an expansive view of the medieval world as an interconnected and culturally diverse landscape. While notions of the “Global Middle Ages”[1] will continue to be debated, the concept has provoked critical conversations about the ways in which the migration of people, the exchange of ideas, the circulation of commodities, and the spread of disease shaped the medieval world.  Whether the motivation was exploration, piety, diplomacy, knowledge, or profit, the movement of people was a fundamental characteristic of the late medieval Mediterranean world (ca. 1250-1500).  While these networks certainly formed the basis for establishing transregional connections, itinerant scholars, merchants, soldiers, and pilgrims were not the only travelers in the medieval world.

The Catalan Atlas, ca. 1375, produced by Abraham and Jehudà Cresques in late 14th-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.

Migration could also be involuntary (exile, expulsion and enslavement), prompted by violent repression, or driven by economic necessity. The last few years has seen increased attention to the histories of religious refugees, economic migrants and political exiles in the medieval and early modern world. One important recent contribution, Migrants in Medieval England, c. 500-c. 1500, for example, draws on interdisciplinary research in genetics, linguistics, archaeology, art and literature to illustrate the social and cultural effects of migration on medieval English society.[2] Investigating the phenomenon of migration induced by religious persecution and expulsion, Nicholas Terpstra’s Religious Refugees in the Early Modern World has demonstrated how the forced migration of millions of Jews, Muslims, and Christians across Europe and around the globe shaped the early modern world and profoundly affected literature, art, and culture.[3] Another recent book, Migration Histories of the Medieval Afroeurasian Transition Zone,[4] covers migration histories of the regions between the Mediterranean and Central Asia and between Eastern Europe and the Indian Ocean in the centuries from Late Antiquity up to the early modern era. It includes essays by experts in Byzantine, Islamic, Medieval and African history that provide detailed analyses of specific regions and groups of migrants, both elites and non-elites as well as voluntary and involuntary to enrich our understanding of migration as a complex transhistorical phenomenon that has shaped (and continues to shape) human societies.

Cantino World Map, 1502.

As a modest contribution to this larger scholarly discussion, 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.

These short textual fragments appear to suggest that on two separate occasions, in February 1463 and June 1463, small numbers of Muslim inhabitants of Misrata, near Tripoli (modern-day Libya), along with their families, voluntarily migrated to Malta to live as farmers under Latin Christian rule. It demonstrates the tremendous agency of these individuals, who sought to escape injustice and hardship by undertaking the (highly) perilous journey to Malta, an island inhabited almost entirely by Christians and which was part of the extensive domains of the Crown of Aragón. The fact that these migrants were welcomed and granted land in Malta is all the more interesting in light of the broader geo-political context and cultural context of the mid-15th century Mediterranean world, which witnessed heightened anxieties, religious tensions and millenarian sentiments following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople (May 1453) and the imperial expansion that characterized the reign of Mehmed II (r. 1452-1481).

Accession of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in Edirne 1451, Topkapi Palace Museum, Hazine 1523, Hüner-name.

It reflects the importance of local arrangements, and individual relationships in structuring the politics of the Mediterranean world. While religious hostility, confessional tensions and violence were undoubtedly an important reality that shaped attitudes and policies during this period, this did not preclude collaboration and negotiation across religious and cultural boundaries. There may have even been a demographic and agricultural demand for the types of skills and labor provided by the migrants. Throughout the 15th century, Malta’s population remained relatively small, and was constantly depleted as a result of emigration and enslavement. This meant that there was a surplus of land and a dearth of labor, which posed major problems for an economy that was primarily agricultural. An important testimony of the importance of Malta’s agriculture is provided by the traveler Anselm Adorno, who visited Malta in 1470 and noted that the economy was based largely upon the growth of cotton and cumin.[7] This demand for labor, particularly in the cultivation of cotton, might explain the willingness of the local authorities in Malta to welcome the migrants and grant them land.

Mdina, Malta, which was the most important town on the island of Malta during the Middle Ages. It was also the location of the Università, the representative body of government which collected taxation and administered the island.

The details mentioned by ‘Abd al-Bāsiṭ, including the language of sovereignty and mutual obligations, security of lives and property in exchange for a tax, and the specific amount (one-third) of land-tax (kharāj), reflected the particular administrative and political tradition of Muslims residing under Latin Christian rule as laborers, farmers ad tax-paying subjects. There were important antecedents for this arrangement in the medieval Mediterranean, particularly in medieval Spain, Norman Sicily and the Crusader Kingdoms in the Near East.[8]

Spanish Muslims in the presence of Jaume I of Aragón. Cantigas de Santa María, 13th century.

Significantly, while underscoring the perceived transgression of social and religious boundaries in the migration of these individuals from Islamic lands to Latin Christendom, ‘Abd al-Bāsiṭ does not seek to represent the migrants themselves as particularly nefarious. Rather, the emphasis on the fact that they were compelled by necessity and desperation to “flee” and “seek refuge” from the injustice of the Hafsid governor of Tripoli reflects a particular concern with social injustice and political repression as a cause of migration. ‘Abd al-Bāsiṭ describes the governor of Tripoli, whose name was Abū Naṣr [b. Jā’ al-Khayr], as “among the worst tyrants who had no fear of God and governed his subjects in the worst possible way.” He also states that “I have been informed that each year he sends over 100,000 gold dinars…which he extracts through an oppressive regime of taxation that imposes hardships on the people.”[9] This explicitly connected Abū Naṣr’s oppressive conduct with his burdensome fiscal policies. Significantly, the emphasis in his passage about the migrants to Malta was not that they would be paying considerably less taxes, since it is stated that they would pay the amount that “they had been accustomed to paying to the governor of Tripoli.” Rather, ‘Abd al-Bāsiṭ suggests that they would “be protected from injustice and secure in their lives and property.”  As such, the inclusion of this anecdote was an attempt to make a broader claim about the nature of justice and its importance for establishing a stable society. ‘Abd al-Bāsiṭ considered the migration of the inhabitants of Misrata to be a lamentable and deplorable state of affairs, which reflected poorly upon both Abū Naṣr as well as the Hafsid sovereign Abū ‘Amr Uthmān, who he represents as showing little interest in the well-being of his own subjects. Migration, then, could be seen as constituting part of a larger polemic that sought to cast aspersions upon the legitimacy of Hafsid rule. The idea that the inhabitants of Misrata preferred to reside under Latin Christian rule than under Islamic political authority would have been an effective way to emphasize this point.

Representation of Malta in the early 16th century. Piri Reis, Kitab-i Bahriye, Walters manuscript W.658, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

So, one might ask, why Malta? What factors shaped the decision of these migrants to sail to this Christian island? It is particularly significant that they chose to migrate to Malta in particular. It demonstrates the importance of linguistic affinities, as well as the practical considerations of migration. Their decision to journey to Malta was probably motivated by the fact that the Maltese vernacular was essentially a dialect of Arabic which was intelligible to the inhabitants of Misrata. This fact is attested by many of the surviving documents and literary sources from this period.[10] One of the most important of these is the Il-Kantilena, the oldest known literary text in the Maltese language, authored by the Maltese poet and philosopher Pietru Caxaro (d. 1485) during the late 15th century.[11] Il-Kantilena is notable for its extensive Arabic vocabulary, demonstrating its relationship and proximity to the Siculo-Arabic spoken in Sicily during the 11th-13th centuries. The close association between Malta and the Arabic language of its inhabitants was frequently invoked as a fundamental characteristic of the island well into the early modern period. The Morisco notable Francisco Núñez Muley (d. after 1567), for example, writing in Granada (Spain), proclaimed that “those who live on the not-so-distant island of Malta are Catholic Christians and nobles who speak Arabic and use Arabic to write texts having to do with the Holy Catholic faith and other Christian matters. I also believe that they say mass in Arabic.”[12] Despite the religious differences between the Maltese Christians and the Muslim inhabitants of Misrata, the Arabic language and shared history would have served as a common source of affinity. This did not preclude the existence of serious tensions, of course, but it would have certainly enabled the migrants to communicate with their new hosts and negotiate the terms of their arrival and settlement.

Pietru Caxaro, Il-Kantilena, 15th century, the oldest known literary text in the Maltese language.

There was also another, more practical reason why these migrants would have sailed to Malta. The island was located nearby, approximately 400 km north of Misrata, directly off a major sailing route (as indicated by the many portolan charts from the 15th century). Malta would also have been quite familiar to the inhabitants of Misrata as a result of the various connections, including both trading and raiding, which had existed for centuries. In addition to being under Islamic rule from 870 to 1091, there is evidence to indicate that there were still numerous Muslim families living on the royal estates of the islands of Malta and Gozo as late as the mid-13th century.[13] Several decades before the migrants from Misrata made their journey, the Hafsid royal fleet had besieged Malta in September 1429, devastating the island and enslaving a large part of the island’s population.[14] It is plausible that many of these enslaved peoples would have been known to the inhabitants of Misrata, and some of them may have even been among the migrants themselves.Commercial activity and intermittent warfare would have intimately bound the two regions together, and fostered a certain familiarity between the inhabitants of the Muslim-Christian borderlands in the central Mediterranean.

It is also plausible that these individuals from Misrata were following a common route of migration, and were hardly the first to make the journey. The phenomenon of migration from North Africa to Malta during the late 14th and early 15th century may also be attested by onomastics. As Godfrey Wettinger has shown, the name “Muhammed” and its various forms (muhumudi, muhamud, muhumud) appears as a surname for several individuals in a 1419 militia roll from Malta, but is unattested as a surname in the rosters of 1480.[15] Without further research and evidence, it is difficult to speculate, but the questions remain: did this name belong to migrants from North Africa? What explains its disappearance by 1480? Does this reflect the processes of conversion and assimilation as part of the integration of these individuals into Maltese Christian society?

Maymūnah Stone, Gozo Museum of Archaeology, Victoria, Gozo. This 12th-century marble tombstone, inscribed in Arabic, commemorates a Muslim girl named Maymūnah who died on 21 March 1174. It is one of the most important Islamic archaeological remains from medieval Malta.

While it is plausible that ‘Abd al-Bāsiṭ’s account about the migration from Misrata to Malta in the 15th century was a didactic story that sought to caution readers against political injustice and fiscal oppression, this post has attempted to encourage further inquiry into the question of economic migration in the medieval Mediterranean world. While much more research into the extensive and well-preserved Maltese archives will certainly bring much more evidence about the relationship between medieval Malta and North Africa to light, this particular episode underscores the importance of economic and political circumstances, individual agency and religious boundaries in shaping the history of migration in the late medieval Mediterranean world. Although distinctly medieval in a number of ways, it raises important questions about the role of migration, voluntary or otherwise, in shaping human societies over the centuries.

Mohamad Ballan
Mellon Fellow, Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame (2021-2022)
Assistant Professor of History
Stony Brook University


[1] For an important overview and discussion of this concept, see Catherine Holmes and Naomi Standen, “Introduction: Towards a Global Middle Ages,” Past & Present, Volume 238, Issue suppl_13, November 2018, pp. 1–44, https://doi.org/10.1093/pastj/gty030

[2] W. Mark Ormrod, Joanna Story, and Elizabeth M. Tyler (eds.), Migrants in Medieval England, c. 500-c. 1500 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).

[3] Nicholas Terpstra, Religious Refugees in the Early Modern World: An Alternative History of the Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[4] Johannes Preiser-Kapeller, Lucian Reinfandt, and Yannis Stouraitis (eds.), Migration Histories of the Medieval Afroeurasian Transition Zone: Aspects of Mobility between Africa, Asia and Europe, 300-1500 C.E. (Leiden: Brill, 2020). Available in Open Access : https://brill.com/view/title/55556

[5] Zayn al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Bāsiṭ b. Khalīl al-Ḥanafī, Kitāb al-Rawḍ al-Bāsim fī Ḥawādith al-‘Umur wa-l-Tarājim (Beirut: al-Maktabah al-‘Aṣriyyah, 2014), ed. ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Salam Tadmuri, 2: 214.

[6] Zayn al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Bāsiṭ b. Khalīl al-Ḥanafī, Kitāb al-Rawḍ al-Bāsim fī Ḥawādith al-‘Umur wa-l-Tarājim (Beirut: al-Maktabah al-‘Aṣriyyah, 2014), ed. ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Salam Tadmuri, 2: 224-225.

[7] Brunschvig, Robert Brunschvig, Deux récits de voyage inédits an Afrique du Nord au XVe siècle (Paris : Maisonneuve & Larose, 1935), 143.

[8] For an important study of this phenomenon, see Brian Catlos, Muslims of Medieval Latin Christendom, c. 1050-1614 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

[9] Zayn al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Bāsiṭ b. Khalīl al-Ḥanafī, Kitāb al-Rawḍ al-Bāsim fī Ḥawādith al-‘Umur wa al-Tarājim (Beirut: al-Maktabah al-‘Aṣriyyah, 2014), ed. ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Salam Tadmuri, 2: 220-221.

[10] For a discussion of Maltese vernacular during the medieval and early modern period, see Godfrey Wettinger, “Plurilingualism and Cultural Change in Medieval Malta,” Mediterranean Language Review, Vol. 6-7 (1990-1993), 144-160

[11] M. Ballan, “Il-Kantilena: A 15th-century Poem in Medieval Maltese” https://ballandalus.wordpress.com/2019/04/08/il-kantilena-a-15th-century-poem-in-medieval-maltese/

[12] Francisco Núñez Muley, A Memorandum for the President of the Royal Audiencia and Chancery Court of the City and Kingdom of Granada (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), trans. Vincent Barletta, 92.

[13] Ayşe Devrim Atauz, Eight Thousand Years of Maltese Maritime History : Trade, Piracy, and Naval Warfare in the Central Mediterranean (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2008), 53.

[14] Robert Brunschvig, La Berbérie orientale sous les Ḥafṣides des origines à la fin du XVe siècle (Paris : Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1940), 230-232.

[15] Godfrey Wettinger, “The Distribution of Surnames in Malta in 1419 and the 1480s,” Journal of Maltese Studies 5 (1968), 42; Godfrey Wettinger, “The Militia List of 1419-20 : a New Starting Point for the Study of Malta’s Population,” Melita Historica, 5 (1969), 80-105.


Could Medieval Women Read?

As a specialist in the study of women’s education and literacy in England in the Middle Ages, I’m asked this question a lot. I’ll cut to the chase: YES. 

How do we know this? 

Medieval England (on which I’ll focus this blog) was a multilingual nation.1 English had been its primary vernacular from the time of the Anglo-Saxons (about 450) until the Norman Conquest of 1066, when French became the language of the nobility, government, and diplomacy.2 By the mid-fifteenth century, though, English had reasserted dominance as the primary vernacular language, while the Church, clerics, and higher education continued to use Latin.3 Because medieval English people would have heard and used all three languages in daily life, children were taught to read and speak all of them.4 Whether children’s reading knowledge became advanced depended on the importance of reading in their lives and what socioeconomic station they attained. In fact, most of the evidence for literacy survives from the upper classes; uncovering the history of less privileged groups remains difficult. 

In infantia

Medieval scholars commonly thought of childhood in three divisions: infantia (birth to about 7 years), pueritia (about 7 to 14 years), and adolescentia (about 14 to 21 years).5 The teaching of reading began in infantia with parents and nurses, if the family could afford such help. 

Girls and boys began by learning the letters of the Latin alphabet and the sounds they made. In this way they acquired the basic skills of early reading, called contemporaneously sillibicare (sounding out syllables) and legere (sounding out words), even if they didn’t understand what those sounds or words meant.6 Singing might have been used as well to teach pronunciation, as sung Latin was used in church services. Because reading was important to promote spiritual instruction, and had indeed been cited at least as far back as Jerome in the fourth century as a reason girls should be taught to read, some of the earliest texts learned were the Pater Noster, the Ave, and the Creed. Alphabets and these simple prayers could be written out on a variety of surfaces: boards, painted walls, wooden trays covered in ash or sand, ceramic or metal vessels, or hand-held tablets made of materials such as slate, horn, or board covered in parchment (more on this below).

Beginning around 1300 in England, medieval parents had a model of teaching in St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary. Depictions of her teaching Mary to read appeared in stained-glass windows, manuscript illuminations, wall paintings, and other artistic representations.7 One such survives today in the Church of St. Nicholas in Stanford-on-Avon, Northamptonshire, England.

Image of stained glass window of Saint Anne teaching the Virgin Mary to read
“Saint Anne teaching the Virgin to Read,” about 1330­–50, the Church of St. Nicholas, Stanford-on-Avon, Northamptonshire, England; south aisle, east window, farthest left panel. Image from Painton Cowen’s The Online Stained Glass Photographic Archive

In this window, Mary is shown sitting in Anne’s lap and holding a bound book with letters written on its pages. She holds the book open so the text is visible to the reader. Her mother Anne points upward, in a gesture both teacherly and pointing heavenward, perhaps emphasizing the importance of reading for spiritual development.8

This beautifully-painted miniature from a Book of Hours shows Anne and a young Mary holding a book together. With her right hand, Anne isolates text for Mary to examine.  

Saint Anne Teaching the Virgin to Read, a miniature painted by Master of Sir John Fastolf (French, active before about 1420–about 1450), in a Book of Hours created in France or England about 1430–1440. Tempera colors and gold ink on parchment. Los Angeles, Getty Museum, MS 5 (84.ML.732), fol. 45v

Other surviving representations show Anne using a hornbook (mentioned above) to teach Mary to read. This illustration comes from a Book of Hours that originated in England around 1325­–1300. 

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 231, fol. 3 

This detail shows the hornbook more closely. 

Though the hornbook was at least a medieval invention (discussed recently by Erik Kwakkel and Trinity College, Cambridge, librarians), it survives only from early modern centuries, as in this example, created in London around 1625. The text is printed on sheepskin parchment and fixed to an oak paddle with a brass frame and iron nails; the handle is used for holding the hornbook. The parchment is laminated over with a processed animal horn (hence the name) to protect the text. 

“Aabc (English hornbook),” Washington, Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 13813.6 (dated 1625).

A text from the 1230s, written by a layman, Walter of Bibbesworth, also reveals much about how boys and girls learned, especially languages, in a gentry household. Bibbesworth was a wealthy English landowner and a knight who wrote this book for his neighbor and fellow member of the gentry, Dionisie de Munchensi. Dionisie had three young children to educate, and as part of the expectations of their class, they would have needed to learn a French more advanced than what they would have picked up through everyday living. The image below shows the opening leaf of Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz

The opening leaf of Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz. The manuscript dates from 1325. London, British Library, Additional MS 46919, fol. 2r. 

Walter addresses Dionisie in column 1, lines 10-20, identifying the purpose of his text: “Chere soer, pur ceo ke vous me / pryastes ke jeo meyse en ecsryst [sic] / pur vos enfaunz acune apryse / de fraunceys en breve paroles” (Dear sister, because you have asked that I put in writing something for your children to learn French in brief phrases). What follows is a narrative poem, beginning in column 1, line 21, that describes childhood, starting with birth and ending in young adulthood with a large household feast. In each scene, Walter presents French vocabulary for Dionisie’s children to learn.

Many clues in the text demonstrate that the physical book was shown to children so they could learn the reading of words on a page, not just the sounds of them. Walter gives many homophones, for example, that would only make sense in writing, rather than in pronunciation. Some of the vocabulary also has English translations written in between the lines of the main text. You can see this in the image above in the poem, which starts at column 1, line 21, and goes into column two. All the smaller words written between the lines give the English translation of the main text, which is written in French.

In pueritia and adolescentia

Once they moved into pueritia (about 7-14 years of age), girls of the upper classes would often transition into the care of a mistress (called at that time magistramagistrix, or maitresse). The mistress provided education in such things as deportment, embroidery, dancing, music, and reading.9 For any skills the mistress did not herself have, she could bring in other household members, such as the minstrel for musical training, the chaplain for more advanced reading and spiritual instruction, and the huntsman for hunting. Specialized academic tutors could teach girls more advanced academic subjects. Sometimes these well-to-do girls were sent to other households to be fostered, serving as ladies-in-waiting to upper-class women. Girls, especially those of the upper classes, could be sent to nunneries as well (sometimes beginning in infantia) for education. Not all girls sent to nunneries were meant for the vocation of nun.10

As their reading abilities progressed, girls and boys moved on to reading comprehension (intelligere) and began to read more sophisticated spiritual texts, such as prayer-books, books of hours, psalters, antiphonals, and saints’ lives. They also would continue on, as personal libraries grew in the thirteenth century, in reading romances, histories, poetry, classical authors, theology, philosophy, and more. It is most likely, given that women were not admitted to the university (unlike boys, who could progress from this stage to Latin grammar school and then on at a university level to the study of business, liberal arts, medicine, canon or civil law, or theology), that the reading of these last few would have been limited to girls whose families could afford private tutors.

Miscellany of religious, medical, and secular verse and prose in French, Latin and English. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS Digby 86, fol. 68r. Produced in Worcestershire, England, c.1271–83, this “common-place book” contains French, Latin and eighteen English texts of various genres including fabliau, romances, devotional and didactic texts, prognostications, charms and prayers, among others written between 1271 and 1283. The manuscript was written by its owner and has amateurish scribal drawings and decoration. This image shows three sections of French text: the end of the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus (Come, Creator Spirit) (top 11 lines); a list of the unlucky days in the year (middle section of the text); and at the bottom a list of Arabic numerals 1 through 46. Three shields decorate the bottom. 

In adulthood

By the time they reached adulthood, women who were privileged enough to have obtained a sophisticated education and their own libraries could be avid readers. 

Gospel lectionary written in Latin, made in England c.1025–50, later owned by St. Margaret of Scotland. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Lat. liturg. f. 5, fols. 21v–22r. This opening shows St. Luke with the start of his gospel reading. The Bodleian Libraries digital Treasures exhibition notes: “A compact selection of passages from the Gospels, this finely illustrated book was Margaret’s favourite, and one she read and studied closely, even when she travelled. A poem added at the front describes how this very book was dropped into a river but remained almost unharmed: this miracle contributed to her growing reputation for holiness.”

The historical and literary records provide examples of such sophisticated learning, primarily among the nobility. For example, the Norman monk and chronicler Robert of Torigni (c.1110–1186), praised the education of St. Margaret of Scotland (d. 1093) and her daughter Matilda (1080–1118), wife of Henry I, writing, “Quantae autem sanctitatis et scientiae tam saecularis quam spiritualis utraque regina, Margareta scilicet et Mathildis, fuerint” (Of how great holiness and learning, as well secular as spiritual, were these two queens, Margaret and Matilda).11

In a different Latin life, commissioned by Matilda about her mother Margaret, the biographer describes how Margaret from her childhood would “in Divinarum lectionum studio sese occupare, et in his animum delectabiliter exercere” (occupy herself with the study of the Holy Scriptures, and delightfully exercise her mind) and notes that her husband, King Malcom III, cherished the “libros, in quibus ipsa vel orare consueverat, vel legere” (books, which she herself used either for prayer or reading), even though Malcom himself could not read Latin.12

London, British Library, Harley MS 2952, fol. 19v. Book of Hours, made in France c.1400–1425. 

This image above shows the unidentified female patron of this Book of Hours kneeling on a prie-dieu, her prayer book open to the text “Maria mater gratiae” (Mary, mother of grace). This open book with its discernable text has several functions: it leads the reader into the  prayer; it demonstrates the piety of the patron, kneeling in prayer before both her spiritual book and the Blessed Virgin and Christ (illustrated on the facing leaf); and it shows one of the primary purposes of teaching children to read: being able to use spiritual texts in personal devotion. 

Even women who were not noble and who were not able to read much Latin possessed and used books such as the one pictured above. In the mid-fifteenth century Englishwoman Margery Kempe wrote through her scribe of a memorable time in her church of St. Margaret in King’s Lynn when a chunk of masonry fell from the ceiling down onto her as she was praying with her prayer book in hand.

The image below comes from her Book of Margery Kempe as preserved in London, British Library, Additional MS 61823. Lines 24-28 narrate, “Sche knelyd upon hir / kneys heldyng down hir hed. and hir boke in hir hand. / prayng owyr lord crist ihesu for grace and for mercy. Sodeynly fel / down fro þe heyest party of þe cherche vowte fro undyr / þe fote of þe sparre on hir hed and on hir bakke a ston / whech weyd .iii. pownd” (She knelt on her knees, bowing down her head and holding her book in her hand, praying to our Lord Christ Jesus for grace and mercy. Suddenly fell down from the highest party of the church out from under the foot of the rafter onto her head and her book a stone which weighed three pounds). She survived, for which she credited the mercy of Christ.

The Book of Margery Kempe, online facsimile and documentary edition hosted by Southeastern Louisiana University, project director Joel Fredell. London, British Library, Additional MS 61823, fol. 11r.

Finally, a note on those of the working classes. I have not discussed them in detail as it is unfortunately difficult, in fact nearly impossible, to say much about the reading skills of those who left few or no records behind: the great majority of women (and men) of the medieval population were laborers who left little trace in the written record. Yet as we see from the image here below, even for working women, especially in the last few centuries of the Middle Ages, possession and use of books was within the norm, provided those books could be afforded. 

A woman attendant reading a book, from La Bible historiale of Guyart des Moulins, c. 1470s. London, British Library, Royal MS 15 D I, fol. 18.

Conclusion

My focus here has been tightly on the teaching of reading to medieval English girls. Girls and boys alike were taught to read, and began their reading education in the same ways. Boys alone could attend the medieval university and reach the highest (and best educated) ranks of clerics, but if girls had access to the right resources, they too could be highly educated. The evidence demonstrates that the teaching of reading was not linked specifically to gender; rather, it was a function of both socioeconomic station and the usefulness of such skills for one’s life.

If you’re interested in this topic, I cover the subject in much greater detail, with many other examples and suggested readings, in my article, “Women’s Education and Literacy in England, 1066–1540,” in the “Medieval and Early Modern Education” special issue of History of Education Quarterly, and the accompanying HEQ&A podcast.

Megan J. Hall, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame

Twitter @meganjhallphd


[1] On languages in medieval England, see Amanda Hopkins, Judith Anne Jefferson, and Ad Putter, Multilingualism in Medieval Britain (c. 1066–1520): Sources and Analysis (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2012).

[2] W. M. Ormrod, “The Use of English: Language, Law, and Political Culture in Fourteenth-Century England,” Speculum 78, no. 3 (July 2003), 750–87, at 755; and William Rothwell, “Language and Government in Medieval England,” Zeitschrift für französische Sprache und Literatur 93, no. 3 (1983), 258–70.

[3] David Bell, What Nuns Read: Books and Libraries in Medieval English Nunneries (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1995), 57.

[4] On the complexities of a trilingual England, with a number of helpful citations therein for further reading, see Christopher Cannon, “Vernacular Latin,” Speculum 90, no. 3 (July 2015), 641–53. 

[5] A variety of frameworks were imposed upon the ages of humankind, though these major divisions for the stages of childhood were fairly commonly accepted. For a discussion, see Nicholas Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry: the Education of the English Kings and Aristocracy, 1066-1530 (London: Methuen, 1984), 5–7; and Daniel T. Kline, “Female Childhoods,” in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women’s Writing, ed. Carolyn Dinshaw and David Wallace (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 13–20, at 13.

[6] Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, “‘Invisible Archives?’ Later Medieval French in England,” Speculum 90, no. 3 (July 2015), 653–73. For more on levels of reading Latin, see Bell, What Nuns Read, 59–60; and Malcolm B. Parkes, “The Literacy of the Laity,” in Scribes, Scripts, and Readers: Studies in the Communication, Presentation, and Dissemination of Medieval Texts1976 (London: Hambledon Press, 1991), 275–97, at 275.

[7] On the cult of St. Anne and the teaching of reading, see Nicholas Orme, Medieval Children (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 244–45; and Clanchy, “Did Mothers Teach their Children to Read?,” in Motherhood, Religion, and Society in Medieval Europe, 400–1400: Essays Presented to Henrietta Leyser, ed. Conrad Leyser and Lesley Smith (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011), 129–53. For further examples and a detailed analysis of the Education of the Virgin motif, see Wendy Scase, “St. Anne and the Education of the Virgin,” in England in the Fourteenth Century: Proceedings of the 1991 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. Nicholas Rogers (Stamford, UK: Paul Watkins, 1993), 81–98.

[8] For a discussion of this window, see Orme, Medieval Children, 244–45.

[9] Boys (especially royal princes) typically followed the same path of moving from the nursery into the care of an educator-caretaker: pedagogus (a term used into the eleventh century) or magister or me[i]stre (terms in use from the twelfth century forward) (Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry, 19).

[10] Excellent reading on the education of girls in nunneries is found in Eileen Power, Medieval English Nunneries, c. 1275 to 1535 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1922); Alexandra Barratt, “Small Latin? The Post-Conquest Learning of English Religious Women,” in Anglo-Latin and Its Heritage, Essays in Honour of A. G. Rigg on His 64th Birthday, ed. Siân Echard and Gernot R. Wieland (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2001), 51–65; and J. G. Clark, “Monastic Education in Late Medieval England,” in The Church and Learning in Late Medieval Society: Essays in Honour of R. B. Dobson; Proceedings of the 1999 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. Caroline Barron and Jenny Stratford (Donington, UK: Shaun Tyas/Paul Watkins, 2002), 25–40; and Dorothy Gardiner, English Girlhood at School: A Study of Women’s Education Through Twelve Centuries (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1929).

[11] Robert of Torigni [Robertus de Monte], Historia nortmannorum liber octavus de Henrico I rege anglorum et duce northmannorum, ed. J.-P. Migne, Patrologia cursus completus, series latina 149 (Paris, 1853), col. 886; translated in “History of King Henry the First, by Robert de Monte,” ed. Joseph Stevenson, The Church Historians of England vol. 2, part 1 (London, 1858), 10.

[12] Transcribed in Symeonis Dunelmensis Opera et Collectanea, ed. J. Hodgson Hinde, vol. 1 (London, 1868), at 238, 241, from the version preserved in London, British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius D iii, fols. 179v–186r (late twelfth century).

Religion and Pluralism in the Medieval Mediterranean: An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Middle Ages

A few years ago, the Medieval Institute launched a new scholarly initiative. Designed to highlight the wealth of scholarly information here at Notre Dame while increasing scholarly community and cross-communication across disciplines and ranks, the Medieval Institute Working Groups were established as a means of creating such an academic crossroad.

One of these groups, Religion and Pluralism in the Medieval Mediterranean, sought to push against the popular image of the Middle Ages as a uniquely Western European Catholic phenomenon. The organizers, Dr. Thomas Burman (Director, MedievaI Institute), Dr. Gabriel Reynolds (Professor, Theology) and Andrea Castonguay (Ph.D. Candidate, History), believed that by shifting the geographical parameters from Northwest Europe to the Mediterranean basin and opening up the confessional borders of scholarly investigation that had previously segregated the Middle Ages into self-contained Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish, and Muslim spheres, the Working Group would bring new perspectives to the idea of the Middle Ages and facilitate an interdisciplinary approach to the period.  If a topic was somehow tied to the peoples, cultures, and civilizations active in the Mediterranean at some point during the Middle Ages, the Religion and Pluralism Working Group judged the topic fair game for discussion, inquiry, and exploration.

The Catalan Map, c. 1525.  British Library Add. MS 31318 B

While this rubric for a field of critical inquiry might be seen by some as generous to a fault, its breadth is actually the Working Group’s greatest strength. By casting a wide net, the Religion and Pluralism Working Group attracted a diverse group of members and speakers, most of whom would not necessarily interact with one another in an academic setting outside of a social hour.

During our first year in 2017-2018, we hosted 8 sessions where the topics of discussion and the presenters themselves reflected the group’s diverse make-up. The inaugural session was led by Dr. Jeremy Pearson (Bryant University), then a postdoctoral fellow at the Medieval Institute, who presented an article on William of Tyre (d. 1186), an archbishop and Dominican friar of European origin born in the Crusader kingdoms and privy to a unique perspective on the interplay between European Christians, Levantine Christians, and their respective relationship to the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Although not by design but by happenstance, the Working Group continued to focus on Christians in the the Middle East and how they responded to Islam during Fall 2017 by reading Michael Penn’s Envisioning Islam: Syriac Christians and the Early Muslim World (UPenn, 2015) and hosting Dr. Jack Tannous (Princeton University) for a lecture and discussion on Syriac Christian sources and their importance for understanding the early centuries of Islam, the establishment of the Umayyad (661-749/750) and Abbasid caliphates (749/750-1258).

William of Tyre discovers Baldwin IV’s leprosy, from Histoire d’Outremer, British Library, MS Yates Thompson 12, f. 152v, mid 13th century. Image Source: Wikimedia .

During our Spring 2018 sessions, our attention turned to other parts and peoples of the Mediterranean and other types of scholarship. Whereas our Fall 2017 sessions focused on using religious texts to understand historical events, our Spring sessions turned to the ways in which different types of physical evidence, from archeological records, material culture, personal journals, could tell us about the medieval past. Dr. Sarah Davis-Secord (University of New Mexico) joined us for a discussion of her book, Where Three Worlds Meet: Sicily in the Early Medieval Mediterranean (Cornell UP, 2017) and spoke about the pros and cons of reconstructing centuries of history from physical objects in the absence of written records. Eve Wolynes (Ph.D. Candidate, History) presented a chapter from her dissertation on Venetian and Pisian merchant families and the various differences between Italian merchant families and commercial practices during the Late Middle Ages that her source material revealed over the course of her investigation.

Last but not least, the three co-organizers of the Religion and Pluralism Working Group, Tom Burman, Gabriel Reynolds, and Andrea Castonguay, all took turns presenting various works-in-progress to the group.  Gabriel Reynolds presented book chapters on sinners and sin in Islam from his forthcoming book, Allah: A Portrait of God in the Qur’an, while Andrea Castonguay presented a dissertation chapter on Muslim dynasties and competing Islamic sects in early medieval Morocco.  Tom Burman closed the 2017-2018 year by presenting with Dr. Nuria Martínez de Castilla (École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris) and Dr. Pearson the fruits of their collaborative project on the purported correspondence between Byzantine Emperor Leo III (r. 717-741 ) and the Umayyad caliph ‘Umar II (r. 717-720) and its dissemination in Latin, Armenian, Arabic and Aljamiado (medieval & early modern Spanish languages written in Arabic script) literature during the Middle Ages.

Poema de Yuçuf, c. late 14th century. Manuscript B; Author and copyist unknown. Image source: Wikimedia.

As the Working Group moved into its second year, its members sought to keep up the momentum while upholding the group’s commitment to rethinking the traditional academic boundaries of the Middle Ages. Noticing the lack of sessions devoted to Byzantine scholars and studies during the previous year, the members of the Working Group rectified that by asking the resident Byzantine postdoctoral fellows, Dr. Lee Mordechai and Dr. Demetrios Harper, for their recommendations. As a result, the group read Phil Booth’s Crisis of Empire: Doctrine and Dissent At the End of Late Antiquity (UCalifornia, 2017), which explored how monasticism, initially a very vocal way of rejecting centralized power and empire, became an important component of both the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Byzantine Empire during the 6th and 7th centuries. In addition, Dr. Paul Blowers (Milligan College) was invited to speak about the interplay between the pre-Christian Classical world and the Christian Byzantine world in theatrical literature. Issues related to the Byzantine world and its relationship with the former Roman Empire were also discussed during a presentation by Dr. Ralf Bockmann (German Archaeological Institute Rome; Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton) by way of changes to church structures and saint veneration in Christian North Africa during the transition from the Vandal (435-534) to the Byzantine (mid 6th- mid 7th century) period.

In a similar vein, the organizers sought to diversify the Working Group’s membership by reaching out to new members of the wider Notre Dame and St. Mary’s community and asking them to present their research. Dr. Hussein Abdelsater, a new member of both the Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies Department and Medieval Institute Faculty Fellows at Notre Dame,  presented a paper on the miracle of the splitting of the Moon and the ways in which it was discussed in Qur’anic exegesis. Dr. Jessalynn Bird (Humanistic Studies, St Mary’s) presented early work on Jacques de Vitry (1180-1240) and and Oliver of Paderborn (fl. 1196-1227) as part of a new book project on Mediterranean geography in the writings of Western Europeans. Dr. Robin Jensen (Patrick O’Brien Professor of Theology) gave a presentation on the tension between early Christians, their adherence to the commandment to have no false idols, and the presence of Classical deities and statuary in the Late Antique Mediterranean landscape.

Falnameh: The Book of Omens,  16th Century Persian manuscript; Artist unknown. Image source: Source: US Library of Congress.

Moving outside of the South Bend community, Dr. Mark Swanson (Lutheran School of Theology, Chicago) was invited to speak about the ways in which Copts in Mamluk Egypt read various Arabic works such as the writing of Moses Maimonides (c. 1135-1204) and the Pentateuch of Saadia Gaon (c. 882 -942) and incorporated their ideas into Copic liturgy and liturgical writings. This presentation along with Dr. Swanson’s generous show-and-tell of publised Coptic primary sources was especially interesting to several upper year Theology Ph.D. Candidates working on Near Eastern Christian communities, who were pleased to learn more about the various resources available for the High and Late Middle Ages.

From its inception, the goal of the Religion and Pluralism Working Group was to bust down the various walls that silo academics and scholars into a specific discipline while reminding others–ourselves included–that the Middle Ages was a long historical period encompassing many different civilizations, peoples, faiths, and geographies, and that we need that multiplicity of specialists in order to understand this period in history. There is no such thing as a medievalist who can act as the sole representative of the discipline, nor can they bear the discipline’s weight all by themselves. Rather, there are medievalists working in concert with and parallel to one another and the strength of the discipline rests upon their abilities to connect with one another, share information, and challenge their own understanding of the Middle Ages through repeated exposure to the different flavors and facets of the period.

In order to best represent and reflect the multi-faceted nature of the Middle Ages and the diversity of contemporary medievalists, an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the period is in order.  The Religion and Pluralism in the Medieval Mediterranean Working Group provides such a space, and it is our intention to keep this momentum going during the 2019-2020 year and beyond.  Stay tuned to MI News and Events for details and future meetings!

A. L. Castonguay
Ph.D. Candidate
Department of History
University of Notre Dame