Skip to main content

IMC 2020: Sessions

Session 1: Keynote Lectures 2020: Borders in a Borderless Empire? - Political, Ecological, and Cultural Borders in Mongol Eurasia (Language: English) / Right Time, Wrong Place? - Navigating the 'Territorial Trap' in the Study of Medieval Religion (Language: English)

Monday 6 July 2020, 09.00-10.30

Speakers:Michal Biran, Department of Islamic & Middle Eastern Studies Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Ryan Szpiech, Department of Romance Languages & Literatures / Jean & Samuel Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, University of Michigan

Abstract Borders in a Borderless Empire?:
The Mongols’ belief that they were destined to conquer the world and their great success in doing so especially during the United Mongol Empire (1206-1260), led them to see the world as having no borders, its regions either already under Mongol rule or on their way to becoming subject to it. Reality, however, eventually limited even Mongol expansion and led to the dissolution of the empire into several polities, thereby creating several levels of borders: both among the various Mongol polities, which saw themselves belonging to one Chinggisid space (‘the Mongol commonwealth’) and outside this space. However, even after the political borders were stabilised, the huge migrations triggered by the Mongol conquests and their imperial policies meant that the cultural and economic borders in Mongol Eurasia remained highly permeable.

This paper analyzes some aspects of borders in Mongol Eurasia, highlighting both political and cultural aspects. It focuses on the stabilisation of the empire’s borders in the post-1260 period, stressing the role of ecology and politics in halting Mongol expansion and creating inter-Khanate borders; the fate of the border regions and the means of securing and ruling them. It stresses the permeability of these borders due to connections - of friendship, kinship, or ethnic solidarity - between the garrisons securing both sides of the border, a phenomenon that promoted desertions (and sometimes peace as well).

The second part of the paper explores the open cultural borders of the Empire, manifesting how knowledge and skills enabled people to cross social and cultural borders. It analyses the locations and institutions that facilitated such border crossing (the mobile courts [ordo]; the royal guard [keshig]), while also emphasising the difficulties that border-crossing migrants tackled in their new environments or caused their host societies, giving examples of compelling life stories from across Eurasia. It concludes by analyzing how the mobile empire of the Mongols reshaped political, cultural, and religious borders across Eurasia

Abstract Right Time, Wrong Place?:
At the turn of the 14th century, Dominican Riccoldo da Monte di Croce affirmed that the 'nearness' of non-Christians - in space and on the scale of truth - was inverse to their openness to conversion. His words make use of a common metaphor in which religious difference is defined in terms of physical space and distance is a proxy for heresy and infidelity. This lecture will discuss the use of spatial language in the study of medieval religious contact, paying particular attention to such language in polemical writing between Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the (mostly western) Mediterranean. It will consider how polemical debate is characterized in terms of a battle for territory, conversion as a kind of departure or migration, and apologies in defense of religious belief as defenses of the spaces of salvation - bounded communities, walled cities, purified bodies, or closed gardens. We will ask how such perspectives can be historicized from a scholar's present vantage point, 'from a distance', so to speak. In taking up these questions, this lecture will consider the pitfalls of adopting such metaphors of geography in critical language, chief among which is the ease by which spatial metaphors impose a conceptual uniformity on understanding that can gloss over the particularities of historical circumstance. It will propose that, in approaching medieval sources about polemical contest and conversion, we must find a way to criticize the metaphors of space and place as figures of thought, without falling into the 'territorial trap' that these metaphors lay before us.

Please note that admission to this event will be on a first-come, first-served basis as there will be no tickets. Please ensure that you arrive as early as possible to avoid disappointment.

Michal Biran, Department of Islamic & Middle Eastern Studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Ryan Szpiech, Department of Romance Languages & Literatures / Jean & Samuel Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, University of Michigan

Introduction: Nora Berend, Faculty of History / St Catharine's College, University of Cambridge