Peoples on the Periphery: Religion and Culture on the Frontiers of Late Medieval Empires

AHA Session 144
Saturday, January 8, 2011: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Arlington Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Jonathan Decter, Brandeis University
Valerie Ramseyer, Wellesley College

Session Abstract

This panel explores religious communities on the edges of medieval empires, from the Andalusian Muslims of Almohad Iberia to the Jews of Venetian Crete and the Muslims of Timurid Central Asia.  Though spread widely across Europe and Asia, and differing in their particularities, each of these communities existed in a peripheral space and constantly intermingled with peoples different from themselves.  These encounters with the other, whether Berber Muslim or Castilian Christian, Venetian Christian or Mongol pagan, informed religious communities’ senses of themselves, and differentiated them from their coreligionists in more homogeneous geographies.

The later Middle Ages (here 1150-1500 CE) were marked by the dissolution of great medieval empires, including the Abbasid and the Byzantine, and the rise of new powers, which fought over the territories left vacant by their fall.  These new powers emerged across the Mediterranean and Central Asia, and included the Berber empires of North Africa and Iberia, the city-states of Italy, the Mongols and then the Timurids of Central Asia, and the Mamluks in the Near East. These empires added another layer of culture to their territories’ already multi-lingual and religiously diverse communities. 

The papers in this panel examine three loci of religious and cultural interaction along the porous borders of these empires. They aim to elucidate how religious communities defined themselves against, and alongside, others.

Each of the papers on this panel employs a different approach.  Abigail Balbale’s paper uses Castilian, Latin and Arabic chronicles to examine attitudes toward ethnicity and religion in twelfth century Iberia.  Rena Lauer’s paper conducts an onomastic survey of notarial documents on Venetian Crete to determine how naming practices reflect the Jewish community’s understanding of itself vis-à-vis the surrounding culture.  Rubina Salikuddin’s paper looks at documents describing popular religious rituals in Timurid Central Asia and examines the extent to which encounters with non-Muslims affected manifestations of piety.  These three papers, combining political, social and cultural approaches, offer perspectives on patterns of acculturation common to many other places, and many other periods of history.

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