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Crossing Boundaries? Trade & Connections on the Medieval Mediterranean

Published May 14, 2019 by Alasdair Grant

Crossing Boundaries? Trade & Connections On The Medieval Mediterranean, Merchants, Mediterranean Sea, Medieval Mediterranean Studies, Christian, Italian, Cross-cultural Interactions, Iberia, Jewish, Middle Ages, France, Muslims, Commerce

Conference Report: Crossing Boundaries? Trade & Connections on the Medieval Mediterranean

Organisers: Mike Carr (University of Edinburgh) and Jessica Tearney-Pearce (University of Cambridge & Woolf Institute)

Date, Location: 10-12 April 2019, Woolf Institute and St John's College, Cambridge


The conference 'Crossing Boundaries? Trade & Connections on the Medieval Mediterranean' was organised by Mike Carr and Jessica Tearney-Pearce under the aegis of grants from the Leverhulme Trust and Woolf Institute respectively, with additional support from a range of academic societies and publishers. Its focus concerned merchants as interlopers between different confessional and/or cultural groups, and what their experiences may reveal of connectivity and its disruption across the fullness of the Mediterranean Sea in the later Middle Ages. Contributions came from a diverse range of scholars from across Europe, North America and the Middle East, with doctoral candidates presenting alongside senior academics. The organisers placed emphasis on both the conference's far reach within Medieval Mediterranean Studies, and on its importance as a forum for academic communitarianism within the field.

Following a brief introduction by the organisers, the substantial programme of the conference was opened by Adrian Boas (Haifa), who considered the disproportionately large influence that Italian merchants exerted on the coastal communities of the Crusader States. Drawing on a wide range of written, visual and material evidence, he argued that Italian interest in the region was largely confined to establishing commercial footholds in port cities - and not their hinterlands -, and had neither proselytising nor territorial intent. John Dotson's (Southern Illinois) appraisal of the Genoese Annales of Caffaro for the twelfth century provided a thoughtful foil, remarking that scholarly separation of patriotism, profit and faith as motives for Italian crusading is a product of modern conceptions of conflicting motives that are anachronistic when applied to the crusaders of the maritime cities. Michael Lower (Minnesota) concluded the panel with a consideration of the Tunis Crusade of 1270 (traditionally called the 'Eighth Crusade'): his paper problematised contrasting ideas of cross-cultural conflict versus pluralism and concluded that conflict could serve as a means of galvanizing relationships, while suggesting that the Tunis Crusade involved diplomatic and commercial connections that spanned the known world. Key to all three papers was a consideration of how historians approach behavioural motives.

The conference's second panel began with a literary analysis by Sharon Kinoshita (UC Santa Cruz) of the mercantile narratives of Boccaccio's Decameron, particularly the Parisian-Alexandrian-Genoese triangle of Day 2, Story 9. Her paper revealed the contextual contingency of descriptions of merchants' origins (e.g. 'Italian' versus 'Genoese'), and highlighted the importance of literary scholarship alongside the more strictly historical. Cristian Caselli (Göttingen), drawing on the enormous richness of Italian archives, then explored the overlapping spheres of Christian commerce and espionage in the later fifteenth-century Ottoman Empire. He noted the importance of Florentine merchants as conduits of intelligence for the Kingdom of Naples, and Venice's problematic role as the Ottomans' Christian friend. Lastly, Jonathan Harris (Royal Holloway, London) considered the nobleman Theodoros Palaiologos Kantakouzenos as an exemplar of the late Byzantine super-rich elite, characterised by investment in Italian trade, pro bono participation in diplomacy, and donations to ecclesiastical foundations, all to a backdrop of imperial impoverishment. The day concluded with a conversation between Mike Carr and David Abulafia (Cambridge), which considered Abulafia's scholarly formation, career path, and approaches to the study of the medieval Mediterranean.

The conference's second day commenced with a contribution from Michel Balard (Paris), who drew on many decades of research in the archives of Genoa to present a tableau of the numerous cross-cultural interactions engendered by the formation of a Genoese mercantile community at Caffa (Feodosia), on the Crimean coast. His paper included some fascinating personal photographs from early research trips behind the falling Iron Curtain. Alasdair Grant (Edinburgh) then offered a survey of Christian diplomacy and papal embargo against trade with the Mamlūk Sultanate, between the fall of Acre and the Mamlūk invasion of Cyprus, noting that many Christian merchants became captives of the Sultanate, and that the redemption of these captives was regularly the necessary first stage of diplomatic rapprochement and of the relaxation of embargo. Roser Salicrú I Lluch (Barcelona) continued the theme of captivity with a detailed examination of remarkable 'confessions' of captives from fifteenth-century Iberia, preserved in the archives of Barcelona. Through a series of case studies, she noted the volatility of captives' experiences: long-distance mobility, the risk of multiple captivities, difficulties in re-integration into home communities, and the ambiguities of conversion narratives.

Session 4 began with Antonio Musarra (Rome) returning to the Genoese archives with an exposition of cross-cultural encounters aboard galleys, which carried large numbers of crew members 'foreign' to their port of origin, many of whom, in Venetian cases, were recruited mid-voyage. This paper was followed closely by Pol Junyent Molins' (Barcelona), who considered the comprehensive list of crew names from the campaign against Djerba in 1430-32 of Alfonso the Magnanimous of Aragon, offering a detailed case study of recruitment. He highlighted the extraordinary demographic range of the crews, which comprised people of many different socio-economic groups, including people whose lives had hitherto been lived quite apart from the sea. The panel's naval theme continued with licensed skipper Renard Gluzman's (Haifa) closing contribution on the use of banners. He noted that banners were widely employed, despite the absence of obligations in the Rhodian and Catalan Sea Laws to fly them, and considered the ambiguities entailed in flying certain flags - or none - and the consequent possibilities of disguise but also of misunderstanding. The three papers demonstrated the fluidity, diversity and pluralism of life at sea.

The fifth panel remained rooted in the Iberian peninsula. Rodrigo Garcia-Velasco Bernal (Cambridge & Woolf Institute) spoke on the connectivity evident in legal documents (fueros) from the Ebro Valley of al-Andalus, following Aragonese-Catalan conquests in the twelfth century. Moving somewhat later, Clara Almagro Vidal (Frankfurt am Main) then considered the important role that the Mediterranean played in the major initiatives of the reign of King Alfonso X of Castile, giving particular emphasis to his significant law code, Las Siete Partidas, which contains substantial ordinances pertinent to the sea. The panel finished with the contribution of Damien Coulon (Strasbourg) on the 'Christians of the Girdle', a group of Syrian Christian refugees who came to Barcelona in the early fifteenth century. These Christians worshipped and confessed in Catholic churches, and might therefore perhaps be identified as Maronites. Coulon suggested that a mixture of instability in Mamlūk Syria together with the invasions of Tīmūr-i Lang in the Middle East may have forced this migration, which had as its endpoint a region closely linked at that time to the ports of the Levant by particularly frequent mercantile voyages.

There then followed two papers focused on West and East Africa respectively. Ingrid Houssaye Michienzi (CNRS, Paris) delineated the trading routes of late medieval Florentine and Jewish merchants from their bases in the thriving commercial centre of Mallorca to entry points on the Maghribi coast and onwards into the continental interior, considering some of the merchandise that was transported across these land caravan routes, often in huge quantities. Verena Krebs (Bochum) brought to light remarkable episodes of diplomatic exchange between Venice and the Kingdom of Ethiopia in the first decade of the fifteenth century. She considered Ethiopia's drive to recruit foreign craftsmen, and the considerable barriers usually faced by any of these recruits should they attempt to return home. Her paper also examined the Venetian Latin travel guide and phrasebook for use in the Ethiopian highlands, containing carefully - and usually successfully - transliterated glossaries of Amharic, Arabic, and Tigrinya terms. Thirdly, Ruthy Gertwagen (Haifa) surveyed Venice and Genoa's interactions with the Muslim-ruled polities of the eastern Mediterranean, highlighting Venice's strong sense of maritime empire, but also challenging the belief that the city already had designs on Crete, which would become its most significant colony, before 1204. Her paper complemented many of the themes introduced in the very first session of the conference.

The second day was then concluded with a lecture by Thomas Madden (St Louis) on the War of St Sabas in Acre, which he argued might more accurately be called the 'War of the Towers'. Madden considered that the experience of this war, focused as it was around defensive residential towers, would have been familiar in its form from home-city experiences to Genoese, but not to Venetians. The paper highlighted the importance of later chronicles as a corrective to contemporary and heavily partisan accounts of the conflict, and considered some material evidence in Venice with provenance in Acre, and its later reception.

Robin Seignobos (Cairo) began the proceedings of the last day with a paper that offered a longue durée appraisal of slaves and freedmen from the Middle Nile Valley, noting many of the stereotypes associated with the appearance and behaviour of Nubian slaves in particular, and anecdotes that shed light on their roles in the societies further north that purchased them. Julien Loiseau (Aix-Marseilles) then presented an analysis of Arabic sources for the Horn of Africa in the fifteenth century that dovetailed neatly with Krebs' paper of the previous day. He focused in particular on the case of ʿAlī al-Tabrīzī, a merchant executed in Cairo after an Ethiopian document implicated him in arms trading with Christians. Azucena Hernández (Madrid) concluded the panel with a rich survey of the production of astrolabes across an axis stretching from al-Andalus to the Levant, introducing the audience to the form and function of the instrument, and tracing how the design and engineering of the instruments developed and changed across the Middle Ages.

The eighth panel was opened with the conference's second substantial Byzantine contribution, delivered by Brian McLaughlin (Royal Holloway, London). His paper charted the rise to prominence in the later Middle Ages of the (Eu)Daimonoioannes family of the important and imperially privileged port city of Monembasia in the eastern Peloponnese, revealing their participation in patronage and diplomacy as great nobles, and their later decline under the Ottomans. Anthony Luttrell (Bath) then moved proceedings slightly further east in exploring the commercial life of Hospitaller Rhodes. The Hospitallers created an agricultural workforce of manumitted Greeks taken from outside Rhodes, and enjoyed trade with Italy, southern France and Catalonia (with the Venetians comprising the least significant of these mercantile diasporas), later legislating to temper the autonomy of foreign administration on the island. Nada Zečević (Royal Holloway, London) then brought the panel to a close with a study of the treatment of merchants and their relationships with centres of power along the Dalmatian coast, particularly Ragusa (Dubrovnik). The rich selection of evidence her paper employed included the fifteenth-century handbook of Benedetto Cotrugli, diplomas conferring commercial privileges - including some examples in Glagolitic script -, and onerous demands on merchants such as a request to import a pipe organ.

Jochen Schenk (Glasgow) opened the ninth and final session with an evaluation of the challenges facing historians of slavery in the Crusader States of the Holy Land. His paper highlighted the conflict, volatility and transience characteristic of the phenomenon: the equating of 'slaves' with 'Muslims', the prominence of war and raiding as sources for enormous numbers of captives and the connection of slave trading to military expansion, the high turn-over rates of slave ownership and the high rates of abscondment due to the proximity of many slaves' families. Peter Edbury (Cardiff) next introduced a little known Genoese perspective on events in the Lusignan Kingdom of Cyprus during the reign of King Henry II. The illustrated Italian Cocharelli Codex, now dismembered, contains a treatise on the Seven Deadly Sins and Four Cardinal Virtues, in which the discussion of Avarice comprises an exaggeratedly scandalous account of Lusignan dynastic intrigue, independent of Genoese civic chronicles. Remaining rooted in the Kingdom of Cyprus, Nicholas Coureas (Cyprus Research Centre, Nicosia) proceeded to analyse bequests in merchants' wills surviving in the notarial chartularies of the Genoese Lamberto di Sambuceto, who was active in Famagusta at the turn of the fourteenth century. His contribution noted such trends as a handful of Latins donating to non-Latin religious foundations, the manumission of slaves, and bequests for the redemption of Latin captives. Yuri Stoyanov (SOAS, London) then rounded off the conference by returning to the Adriatic geographical canvas introduced by Zečević, and examined the importance of routes created by maritime trade for the dissemination of dualism, and the movement and establishment of organised networks between and within dualist communities.

The strengths of 'Crossing Boundaries?' lay in its expansive geographical and thematic reach, and in the many opportunities it afforded for the forging of new networks within the academic community. Commerce and cross-cultural exchange on and around the later medieval Mediterranean were represented fully and robustly - from the Black to the Red Sea, and from the ports of the Levant to the trade routes of the Maghrib. The approaches of the many contributions varied greatly, ranging from biographical micro-histories (Harris, Loiseau) and close readings of individual sources (Salicrú I Lluch, Edbury) to comprehensive prosopographical studies (Musarra, Junyent Molins) and broader reflections on lifetimes of detailed archival research (Balard, Luttrell). 'Crossing Boundaries?' testified to the connections, conflicts, diversity and debates that bring such richness to Medieval Mediterranean Studies, and offered an open and welcoming forum for the exchange of ideas across several generations of an international group of scholars.

This conference report was written by Alasdair Grant who is a PhD scholar in History at the University of Edinburgh.

The organisers would like to thank the sponsors of the conference: the Woolf Institute, the Leverhulme Trust, the Society for the Medieval Mediterranean, the G. M. Trevelyan Fund, Medium Aevum, the Society for the Study of the Crusades & the Latin East, the British Academy, St John’s College Cambridge, Brepols Publishers and Brill Publishers.



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