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

Broken Water Law? Put Some Icelandic on It

Last week, a small newspaper in Storm Lake, Iowa won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Editorial Writing for the editor, Art Cullen. Cullen’s campaign against agricultural run-off into the Raccoon River was praised as “editorials fuelled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.”[1] Unfortunately, last month the judge dismissed the Des Moines Water Works’s legal suit against Sac, Buena Vista, and Calhoun Counties because agricultural drainage doesn’t count as “point source” pollution covered under section 301 of the federal Clean Water Act (1972).[2] The utility has no legal recourse for the damage of nitrate pollution to the drinking water source for 500,000 Iowa residents.

Water is different from most other legally protected resources because of its mobility and mutability. It doesn’t respect political boundaries despite legal statutes; water cannot be separated out from the physical world we inhabit – not even our own bodies. Stacy Alaimo emphasizes the ineluctable character of material agencies, “the often unpredictable and always interconnected actions of environmental systems, toxic substances, and biological bodies,” that cannot be ignored no matter how hard we try to control our environments. Ursula Heise, analyzing systems rather than agentic intra-action, argues that “what is crucial for ecological awareness and environmental ethics is arguably not so much a sense of place as a sense of planet—a sense of how political, economic, technological, social, cultural, and ecological networks shape daily routines.”[3] In other words, the local environment experienced by an individual cannot be separated from the multifarious aspects of global networks, nor can the global be understood without the local experience of limited primary interaction. We need a system that recognizes the physical and social interconnectivity of water as a part of our bodies, our basic rights, our livelihoods, and our common good.

Since our modern legal system is ill-equipped to deal with these challenges, I suggest an alternative model from the medieval period when people were more cognizant of their dependence on nature. Jónsbók represents an integration of the pre-existing Icelandic legal codes – primarily known to us from the Grágás law codes – and the Norwegian law code, Nyere Landslov (1271-74).[4] The Grágás law codes developed from an oral tradition whereby one-third of the legal code was recited each year at the annual Alþingi, or national legislative meeting where legal claims were resolved. The Jónsbók laws were written down in 1117 by unanimous consent (as the story goes) and two early fragmentary copies survive: Konungsbok (Copenhagen, Royal Library, GKS 1157 fol, c. 1260) and Staðarhólsbók (Reykjavik, Árni Magnússon Institute, AM 334 fol, c. 1280). A later manuscript – Reykjavik, Árni Magnússon Institute, AM 351 fol, fol. 1ra-64rb – provides the best manuscript witness since it includes the complete text of Jónsbók along with the 1294, 1305, and 1314 amendments.[5]

The most significant difference between the medieval Icelandic law code and modern U.S. water laws is in the rights and significance given to in-stream use of water, particularly fishing rights. To understand the U.S. system of water law one must first understand the 100th meridian division and how the landscape and precipitation patterns influenced the historical development of the law. Essentially, riparianism in the Eastern states functions through “the sharing of a watercourse by all of the landowners bordering it, regardless of whether a user had ever put water to work previously.”[6] West of the 100th meridian, precipitation is significantly less due in part to the impact of the Rocky Mountains on rainfall patterns.[7] Prior appropriation – qui prior est in tempore potior est in jure as the California Supreme Court wrote in the seminal case Irwin v. Phillips (1855) – holds that whoever is first to use the water has the first right to the water regardless of land ownership. Over time states began to protect certain uses or adapt riparian principles into the prior appropriation system, but although “[a] states constitutions or statutes declared water to public, … nearly all water was appropriated for private gain.”[8] Neither the riparian nor the prior appropriation systems originally included in-stream usage.

Jónsbók VII,56 creates a community obligation when it delineates the process for reclaiming one’s rights when in-stream rights have been compromised. Blocking the stream and passage of fish triggers the community obligation:

Each man may place nets in his part of the stream, but in such a way that the fish are able to swim up into every part of the stream. God’s gifts [i.e., fish] are to go to the mountain as well as to the shore, if they want to go. If, however, a man blocks the stream, then those men who own the stream higher up are to issue a five days’ notice summons from the assembly to the one who blocked the river to come and remove the blockage. If he refuses to move the blockage, then they are to ask for help to remove it. Each householder who refuses to go with him is fined an ounce-unit to the king. Those who illegally blocked the stream are to pay a mark to each man who lives higher up and who lost the right to fish because of the obstruction in the stream.[9]

Unlike earlier passages which limited recompense to the damages done (to land and animals) and a trespassing fee, persons who block the passage of fish in the river are required “to come and remove the blockage” upon notice by the local assembly. If the offender refuses to remove it, the burden passes to the community at large. Jb. VII,56, therefore, creates a community obligation to correct the damage to the free movement of fish within the river, presumably because it affects all the householders in the assembly regardless of whether they utilize their fishing rights. The damages owed are extended not just to the individual who lost the right to fish but to the king and to “each man who lives higher up” due to the obstruction. In this way, community obligation for the shared right for in-stream supersedes the diversion or obstruction needs of individual users while explicitly recognizing the necessity of river passage for fish populations. The fishing rights section of Jónsbók makes clear that while primary water rights conflict occurs at the immediate interpersonal level, the ripples of such actions impact other riparian owners, local householders, district assemblies, and the super-national treasury, as well as impacting the ability of fish populations to survive human intervention.

Medieval Icelandic code of water rights represents a more ethical and holistic perspective on water rights. Jónsbók-style limitations on water removals and blockages that impede fish migration and movement might have served as a restraining force on the proliferation of dams, water treatment facilities, and industrial waste discharge on the waters of the U.S. by requiring proponents to more thoroughly take into consideration not just other human users, but also the impact on nonhuman organisms, i.e. the flora and fauna that developed within and alongside the riparian biomes.[10] While the Clean Water Act (1972) has attempted to redress the problem of longterm environmental damage due to human actions, it is fighting an uphill battle against long-established rights where individual (mostly corporate) extraction rights are privileged over in-stream usage, the local community’s needs, the larger public good, and environmental concerns. We would be better served by a legal code that recognizes the intersections of needs and rights and Jónsbók provides us with a foundation to build on.[11]

Mae Kilker
University of Notre Dame

[1] Staff & Agencies, “Tiny, Family-Run Iowa Newspaper Wins Pulitzer for Taking on Agriculture Companies,” The Guardian, April 10, 2017, sec. US news,

[2] Donnelle Eller, “With Water Works’ Lawsuit Dismissed, Water Quality Is the Legislature’s Problem,” Des Moines Register, sec. Money, accessed April 15, 2017,

[3] Ursula Heise, Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global, (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008), 55.

[4] Jana K. Schulman, Jónsbók: The Laws of Later Iceland, (Saarbrücken, Germany: AQ-Verlag, 2010), xv.

[5] Schulman, Jónsbók, xxii-xxiii. The amendments, in manuscript order, are King Erikr’s Amendments (1294/1295), King Hakon’s Amendments (1305), King Hakon’s Amendments (1314), and King Hakon’s Amendments (1308), which latter pertain only to Norwegian law. It excludes only three sections: royal women’s inheritance, the earl’s oath, and the presiding judge’s oath. Schulman terms the three omitted sections “unnecessary” in the new legal context of the late 14th century.

[6] “A Universal Sense of Necessity and Propriety” in History of Water Rights, n.p.

[7] Excluding, of course, portions of the Pacific Northwest where the biome is a temperate rainforest.

[8] “A Universal Sense of Necessity and Propriety” in History of Water Rights, n.p.

[9] Schulman, Jónsbók, VII.56 (263).

[10] For more on the co-evolution of human culture and nonhuman species within specific geophysical boundaries, see Wendy Wheeler, “‘Tongues I’ll Hang on Every Tree’: Biosemiotics and the Book of Nature,” in Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Environment, ed. Louise Westling. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014, 121-35.

[11] I’ll be presenting more on water law issues and the approach codified in Jónsbók at the ASLE biennial conference in Detroit (June 20-24).

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 (, 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.


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.


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)