‘The Mediterranean Other and the Other Mediterranean: Perspective of Alterity in the Middle Ages’:
For many decades, the medieval Mediterranean has repeatedly been put to use in order to address, understand, or explain current issues. Lately, it tends to be seen either as an epitome of transcultural entanglements or – quite on the contrary – as an area of endemic religious conflict. In this paper, I would like to reflect on such readings of the Mediterranean and relate them to several approaches within a dynamic field of historical research referred to as ‘xenology’. I will therefore discuss different modalities of constructing self and otherness in the central and western Mediterranean during the High and Late Middle Ages. The multiple forms of interaction between politically dominant and subaltern religious communities or the conceptual challenges posed by trans-Mediterranean mobility are but two of the vibrant arenas in which alterity was necessarily both negotiated and formed during the medieval millennium. Otherness is however not reduced to the sphere of social and thus human relations. I will therefore also reflect on medieval societies’ dealings with the Mediterranean Sea as a physical and oftentimes alien space.
‘Drawing Boundaries: Inclusion and Exclusion in Medieval Islamic Societies’:
The Arab expansion of the 7th and 8th centuries created a new political and social community that was defined by certain elements, both ideological and cultural, that were partaken by all its members. Shared religion and language played a prominent role, but crucially some of these elements were also visible, as shown by recently uncovered evidence from seals, cemeteries, or early archaeological sites. Yet by defining itself, medieval Islam also defined ‘the others’, those who simply did not share in these identifying features. However, these features were also social and cultural, which tended to blur the lines between Muslims and non-Muslim communities living within recently-conquered territories. Recent research demonstrates that, although the conquests were an important milestone in the creation of this new community, its formation was far from complete. Close contact with the conquered populations helped to shape the traits of the community, which refused to be assimilated into pre-existing ideological or cultural frameworks. Thus, otherness in medieval Islamic societies reveals itself to be more nuanced concept than is usually perceived: rigid and uncompromising when it helps to draw distinctions in order to prevent any form of assimilation; flexible and adaptable when it fosters processes of social integration.
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