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

Working in the Archives – Manuscript Research at the Khizana al-Hasaniyya, Rabat

One of the major manuscript collections in Morocco is currently the property of His Majesty, King Mohammad VI. The Khizana al-Hasaniyya or the Bibliothèque Royale as it is known, is housed in the royal palace in Rabat and directly attached to the royal residences. The Researcher Annex where most guests of the library work, is detached from the palace yet located within the palatial environs.

Due to the personal nature and physical location of this library, it is necessary for the aspiring researcher to observe security protocol and to put their best professional foot forward. Like many things in Morocco, the rules will not be explained in detail but everyone will act as though you know them. When in doubt, ask questions.

Basic Details

The Khizana al-Hasaniyya is part of the Qasr al-Malik or Palais Royale in Rabat and consists of the main manuscript library attached to the royal residences and the Researcher Annex. The Researcher Annex is opened from 9am-4pm Monday – Friday. Most work is done in the Researcher Annex, a new building completed sometime after 2014 and staffed with computers for manuscript consultation. Be advised that electronic devices such as phones, tablets, and laptops are forbidden in the Researcher Annex, and all bags must be stored in the small cupboard in the corner of the Researcher Annex.

At the time of the visit, the Khizana al-Hasaniyya manuscript library was open only to those researchers with specific codicological research though it is possible for one of the librarians to give you a tour of the Khizana. The manuscripts they have on display are stunning, from early Qur’ans to musicology texts to a copy of Ibn Khaldun’s al-Muqaddima copied by one of his students and annotated in the margins by Ibn Khaldun himself.

Researcher cards can be obtained by contacting the director of the Khizania al-Hasaniyya, Dr. Ahmed Chouqui Binebine (a.binebine@gmail.com), and requesting a meeting with him to discuss your research. Dr. Binebine speaks Darija (Moroccan dialect of Arabic), Fusha (Modern Standard Arabic or MSA) and French; if you do not speak these languages, it is best to arrange your meeting with the help of another scholar with current researcher privileges; that way, they can advocate on your behalf while translating as needed.

If you arrive in Morocco and you don’t have someone in country who can pull strings for you at the Hasaniyya, contact Dr. James Miller, the director of MACECE in Rabat.  He is used to helping Americans make connections with Moroccans and may know someone who can help.

Bring your passport and a copy of the passport face page and the page with your date of entry to Morocco or your Carte de Séjour, your research clearance and/or Lettre D’Attestation, and two passport sized photographs to your meeting. Unlike the BRNM, there is no fee associated with this card. It is unclear as to whether or not researcher cards are valid for a specific amount of time or if this time can be negotiated.

For the record, I was able to gain a researcher card valid for three months. This card is an index sized paper card written in Arabic and stamped with the official seal; you will need it for subsequent visits to the library.

During your meeting, you can also request a copy of the General Index for the Khizana al-Hasaniyya along with other catalogs relevant to your research.  This is invaluable as copies of the General Index are quite hard to come by in the United States (Emory and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have copies of the General Index).

The General Index of Manuscripts for the Khizana al-Hasaniyya. All entries are in Arabic.

While the General Index just lists the manuscripts alphabetically and with little information about the manuscript, the more in-depth catalogs, such as the catalogs on Ash’arite manuscripts and those concerned with Islamic law, are much more detailed.  You can request copies of these subject-specific indexes from Dr. Binebine.

Additional manuscript catalogs; text in Arabic.

Dr. Binebine and other librarians at the Khizana may also give you additional texts, such as their publications on codicology. Dr. Binebine’s 2015 book, Histoire des bibliotheques au Maroc, is worth having for any medievalist or manuscript specialist.

The dress code is business wear, with many Moroccan researchers wearing traditional Moroccan clothes such as djellabas. Looking like you have a valid reason to go to the royal palace will help convince the guards and employees that you are not some random tourist hoping to see the king.

For those spending the day or at least the lunch hour at the Khizana al-Hasaniyya, there is a small arcade opposite the soccer field near the Researcher Annex where you can get a pizza (15 MAD) and fresh orange juice (10MAD) as well as a sandwich on occasion or snacks from the nearby hanout (kiosk). It is best to be discreet about drinking water in the Researcher Annex just to avoid any problems.

Getting There

The Qasr al-Mālik is a massive compound located at the end of the Avenue Mohammed V in downtown Rabat and is guarded around the clock. For your first visit, you will need to present your passport and tell the guard that you have an appointment with the director of the Khizana; the guard will then phone to confirm your visit. For subsequent visits, saying that you are a researcher (chercheur/chercheuse) at the library and presenting your researcher card is enough to get in, though it never hurts to have your passport and your Lettre D’Attestation in case someone asks for it.

Unlike European palaces, the Qasr al-Mālik is more akin to a city within a city, making it difficult for the first time visitor to get to where they are going. For the person going alone, it is best to take a petit taxi to the main gate, Bab Soufara, and then have the cab driver continue through the gate and take you directly to the Khizana.

NB: Make sure the driver takes you to the right spot; simply asking for the Khizana al-Hasaniyya might bring you to the Researcher Annex or it might bring you to the Khizana itself. The same is true when it comes to asking for directions inside the compound. If the cab driver wants to leave you at the gate, it is a 10-15 minute walk to the Researcher Annex from Bab Soufara.

Conducting Research

As previously mentioned, the physical manuscripts are largely off-limits to most researchers, meaning that the majority of manuscript work is now done digitally. To request a copy of the manuscript, you will need to fill out a small request form at the desk in the Researcher Annex and give it to the librarian sitting there; they will then call up the digital copies of the manuscript and load them on one of the computers lining the walls. When the files are ready, the librarian will call you over to the computer.

To request digital copies of the manuscripts, you will need to write directly to the director of the Khizana, Dr. Binebeine, and state what it is you want and why you need it. Do not email Dr. Binebine but present a printed and signed copy of your letter to the librarian at the Researcher Annex and ask them to give it to Dr. Binebine. The librarian will then convey your request and, if it is approved, a digital copy of the manuscript will be given to you within 24-48 hours.

Prior to 2013, digital copies were presented to researchers on CD but as of March 2017, a colleague was able to load the files directly onto a USB stick.

NB: One might be limited to the number of folia they are allowed to request per manuscript. Some have reported that they were only able to request 10 folia of a manuscript, while others said they were able to get 40-50 folia. As such, plan your requests and research accordingly.

Language

The Khizana al-Hasaniyya runs on Arabic, especially Darija. The various manuscript indexes, from the General Index to the more thematic indexes of manuscripts, are in Arabic, along with the manuscript request forms. Researchers should have a solid command of the Arabic script and decent penmanship in order to correctly write out their requests.

Spoken French can get one by in a pinch, especially if one’s vocabulary related to manuscripts is not as strong in Darija or Fusha (MSA) as it is in French. For those researchers who are Caucasian or black, the staff may speak to you in somewhat broken French, assuming that you either come from France (if white) or one of the francophone African countries (if black).

The computers in the Researcher Annex all run Microsoft OS and are in French, not English. The screens are touch screens, meaning that you can pinch and zoom in on the images, as well as swipe back and forth. However, most of the other researchers in the Annex use the mouse so it’s probably best to follow their lead.

When it comes to writing a manuscript request letter, the letter must be in Arabic (MSA) or French. If you are unsure about the protocol or language within the letter, ask the librarian in the Researcher Annex if they have a copy of a request on file for you to use.

Misc.

The Royal Palace is a trip for a medievalist not in the least because it is a functioning palace on the scale of medieval administrative cities.  Those who live on the palace grounds and who work there inherited the position from their family members, many of whom may have been part of the royal slave retinues just under two hundred years ago.  To see the Royal Palace in Rabat gives one a good appreciation for the scale of medieval administrative cities like Baghdad, Samarra, Qayrawan, Cairo, Fez, and Marrakech and for the way in which such palaces were cities in their own right.

For additional resources on the Hasaniyya as well as other manuscript libraries in Morocco, see J. Hendrickson and S. Adil, “A Guide to Arabic Manuscript Libraries in Morocco: Further Developments,” (2013)

The World is not Flat; It Is Interdisciplinary

This past week, I and a number of my Fulbright colleagues here in Morocco traveled to Amman, Jordan in order to participate in a regional Fulbright conference.

Over three days, Fulbright researchers from Israel and Palestine, Jordan, and Morocco presented a snapshot of our current in-country research, discussed the various issues and challenges we faced along the way with the regional, cultural, and linguistic differences between our respective host countries, and got to know one another over numerous cups of coffee.  We not only came from all across the United States, but we also came from just about all the different academic and professional disciplines:  social work, medicine, sociology, art history, literature, economics, political science, education, and medieval history.  In short, we were living up to the stated mission of the Fulbright Program: to foster international exchange in order to increase mutual understanding and diminish the threat of conflict based upon an inability to see the world as interconnected.

While the architects of the Fulbright Program imagined this exchange happening at an international level in order to lessen conflict and promote peace, it also works on a domestic level.  By offering the grant to those in the sciences and in the humanities, Fulbright illustrates the fundamentally interdisciplinary nature of our world and how much we rely upon the expertise of each other in their respective fields order to proceed with our own research.  The following sketches are but a few examples of the ways in which each of us Fulbrighters depend upon one another and our various subjects of expertise in order to complete our own projects.

  • One of the Jordan-based grantees is looking at the various hurdles faced by entrepreneurs and small-business owners in Jordan and in Palestine, including the time it takes to register a business, the types of documentation required, the amount of capital needed at the start, and the laws governing ownership.  It turns out that for Palestine, one needs an expert in the Ottoman legal code, the Mecelle, in order to start a business in 2017.  Not only does this mean that potential entrepreneurs need translations of the Mecelle from Ottoman Turkish to modern Turkish (which also involves a shift from an Arabic alphabet to a Latin one), Modern Standard Arabic, or English for consultation, but they also need historians and legal scholars to explain how the code functions, what its restrictions are, and its various historical precedents.  This particular Fulbright researcher needs articles summarizing all of this in order to gain a deeper understanding of the various hurdles their colleagues face and proceed with their own research.  In short: to study current business practices in Palestine, someone with a financial or business background has to rely upon the work of historians, lawyers and legal scholars, and translators.
  • On a similar note, one of the Morocco-based grantees who is studying divorce proceedings in Morocco needs to rely upon the work of theologians in addition to historians, lawyers and legal scholars in to order to understand divorce proceedings in Morocco and conduct their research.  Although much of Moroccan law is based on French civil law —which in turn requires them to depend upon the work of experts in French legal history— the family code is based upon Islamic religious law (Shari’a law).  However, the foundation for Morocco’s family code (as well as its name) comes from the Mudawwana, a 9th century book of juridical opinion based upon the legal writings of 8th and 9th century scholars and written in Classical Arabic.  It is also a code that is unique to the Maliki school of Sunni Islam, a school that has its origins in the Arabian peninsula rather than North Africa. Like all legal codes and religious texts, the Mudawwana also has numerous compendiums and guides for its interpretation and implementation. Thus, this particular Fulbrighter needs medieval historians (such as myself) to explain how the code came to Morocco and gained favor among the jurists during the Middle Ages, modern historians to explain the creation of a mixed civil and religious code during the Protectorate and post-colonial periods, linguists to help translate and explain Classical Arabic terms in Modern Standard Arabic and in French (the language of civil law in Morocco), and legal scholars to interpret the laws themselves and explain how they influence current rulings on divorce.

Such an illumination of intellectual interdependence needed to answer contemporary questions could not come at a more dire and drastic time.  The release of the the 2018 Fiscal Budget, with its draconian cuts to both the Sciences and the Humanities along with programs and initiatives designed for the public good such as the State Department (which runs Fulbright), is predicated on the idea that grants such as Fulbright and fostering intellectual and geographical exchange among grantees is not a priority.  The proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities is a sign from the US Government — the same institution that created the Fulbright Program in 1946—that the government (and by extension, its citizens) have no role in funding the study of humanity itself. Wrapped up in all of this is the idea that “academics,” especially those in the Humanities, are not “useful” for anyone outside of their narrow specialty, and that funds should be allocated to those fields which promote business and long-term employment.

Yet these ideas did not begin at the federal level, nor did they begin with this Administration.  The shift away from fostering intellectual exploration, research, and an interdisciplinary framework began at the state and local level as a way to resolve budget crises (often not brought about by education spending), and it has been pushed by many in higher-ed including College and University boards and deans.  As colleges and universities continue to push the idea that their graduates are “successful” and that such success is only measured by the imagined direct causation of undergraduate degree and major to one’s income across their lifetime, they re-write their curriculum requirements to discourage interdisciplinary study among the majority of their students.  Cutting or eliminating requirements to take a number of classes outside of one’s concentration while allowing SATII or AP courses to “count” for college credit means that our students will not be prepared to engage in intellectual exchange, much less have the tools necessary to turn to other fields and experts in order to answer their own questions.

Toting the equation of “undergraduate specialty = personal wealth” and “interdisciplinary study ≠ “gainful employment” (an argument that does not hold much water) undercuts the very support needed to answer legal and economic questions posed by these two Fulbright researchers.  If there are no specialists in Ottoman law, medieval history, legal codes, and Islam — to say nothing of language teachers and translators required to make these documents available to your average Anglophone who does not speak or read Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic, Ottoman Turkish, or French—then it is impossible for these projects to move forward.  Yet in order to have specialists, you must have an education system that allows them to study the materials they need without telling them directly or indirectly that their choices are “economically precarious”  and hold “little to no weight in ‘the real world.’” You also need a civil society that promotes intellectual exchange, that underwrites programs dedicated to interdisciplinary study, and says that spending a (very very very small ) portion of taxes on such programs is necessary in order to create forums of intellectual exchange that lead to international understanding and peace.

The skeptic always asks “What’s the worst that could happen?” when faced with a narrative.  The answer in this case, I believe, lies within Jordan.  As part of the conference, we were treated to presentations by development experts about the various challenges within the kingdom today.  One of the most acute revolves around education and the lack of a robust civil society.  In Jordan, any degree other than one in engineering, medicine, or law is viewed as socially and economically worthless, because there are no jobs other than laborer or service work and because jobs themselves are not determined by aptitude or interest but by your high school exit exam scores, which then determine your university education and subsequent career path.  As a result, Jordanians themselves must depend upon the knowledge, insight, and vast amounts of money and trained foreigners in order to run their own country, understand their past, and answer basic questions.

Unlike Jordan, there is no other country who can underwrite the educational failings of the United States.

The world is interdisciplinary by default. Trying to understand our present relies upon the study of the past and the necessary experts to guide and shape that study.  Institutions such as liberal arts colleges dedicated to a broad education for all of their students (not just humanities majors), intellectual centers such as the Medieval Institute, and government programs like Fulbright not only recognize this inherent interdependence but point to it as the avenue in which additional interdependence can be and needs to be fostered in order to increase mutual understanding.  To insist upon the opposite against all evidence to the contrary and to do so by forcing our students into strict, narrow categories would raise generations against the very grain of their human nature and their environment and leave us utterly unprepared to see the world as it truly is.