The Multicultural Middle Ages: An Annotated Bibliography for Teachers of Middle and High-School Students
State University of New York, Geneseo
In the popular imagination, the European Middle Ages are inhabited solely by blonde princesses, valiant knights, and peasants in dirty clothing, who are all Christian, white, and speak with anachronistic British accents. Yet medieval Europe was a more diverse place than we often imagine it to be—home to many different religions, languages, and points of view. Blonde princesses co-existed with Muslim physicians, valiant knights with Jewish traders, and soil-bound peasants with polyglot scholars. The medieval period was not a static one. Demographics changed across the centuries, languages evolved, and new faiths emerged. The pace of these changes, and the degree of cultural diversity, in medieval Europe may have been less marked than in the twenty-first century, yet they often outstrip the bounds of the contemporary imagination.
Pilgrims, traders, colonisers, and raiders from across the Mediterranean basin, Africa, and Asia were present in northern and western Europe throughout the Middle Ages. Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived and worshipped side by side for many generations in medieval Iberia and Sicily. Black, mixed-race, and Jewish people appear in vernacular literature composed across Europe during the Middle Ages. The grave of a Germanic warrior laid to rest in the early seventh-century contained gold coins struck in imitation of those issued in the Byzantine Empire, and a sword of Damascene steel that had been fitted with a grip made of the ivory of an Atlantic narwhal.1 These movements and mixtures had been a feature of life in Europe long before the Middle Ages; advances in archaeological methods in recent years have, for instance, allowed for the identification of many sets of human remains from Roman Britain as belonging to people who were raised in Africa before migrating north.2 The standard “clash of civilizations” narrative employed about the Middle Ages, with “Western Civilization” placed in a binary opposition with the rest of the world, lacks in nuance and ambiguity, and is in many ways a misleading one.3 After all, Europe was not hermetically sealed from the rest of the world during the Middle Ages. Europeans married, debated, studied with, travelled alongside, loved, and traded with people of many cultures and all skin tones. If students are to gain an accurate conception of the medieval world, it is crucial that they learn about the ways in which diverse communities interacted with one another during that time period.
Representing the Middle Ages as a time of cultural interaction, exchange, and migration has a pedagogical advantage: it helps to broaden the range of students who feel like they have a personal investment in understanding this part of the deeper past. Many students think of the Middle Ages as something that happened only to white-seeming people in northwestern Europe.4 They were the “Dark Ages,” a time of unrelenting and universal violence, cruelty, and oppression which can serve only as a cautionary tale for a more enlightened present. Students of color, students raised in non-Christian environments, students of varying sexualities and genders, often believe that the medieval past is not a place in which they can see people who looked like them, who shared something of their life experiences and values. These beliefs are inculcated by modern pop culture and even by high school textbooks, but they are not true. All of this is not to say that there were necessarily non-white populations present in medieval Europe in similar proportions or numbers to those living within the borders of the twenty-first century European Union, or that one can easily map modern understandings of gender and sexuality onto medieval ones. Yet brown and black people lived in medieval Europe, even if in small groups—and after all, small group size or exceptional status are never touted as reasons why one should not study the royal families of the Middle Ages. Scholars increasingly stress the need to account for all the populations present in medieval Europe in order to better understand the past, and point to how doing so can give us new tools to cope with the present. For instance, medieval understandings of the body can seem surprisingly modern, or at the very least thought-provoking, when juxtaposed with a burgeoning contemporary conversation about transgender people.5 Practicing a culturally relevant and inclusive pedagogy can help to improve the performance of students in historically marginalized groups by giving them a stake in the history that they are studying.6
The Middle Ages have long been co-opted as a proxy for hashing out political debates and framing ideologies, which makes delving into a diverse medieval world and its legacy a good means of generating conversation with students about important issues of ethics, civics, and citizenship.7 For instance, the son of the founder of the hate website Stormfront made national news headlines in late 2016 when he publicly renounced racism and white nationalism. He attributed this shift in his thinking in part to learning more about medieval Europe in courses he undertook at a public liberal arts college. Rather than finding that western Europe in the Middle Ages was a “great society of genetically superior people,” he was confronted instead by evidence that the region had been less technologically advanced than comparable parts of the contemporary Islamic world. He looked in vain for medieval ideas of race and whiteness similar to the ones with which he had been raised, and which therefore forced him to grapple with the ways in which race is socially constructed and with his own racist beliefs.8 The sheer difference of the past made him realize that the structures of modern society were not as innate and immutable as he had always supposed.
Learning about the later histories of medieval manuscripts can also help students to begin to question simplistic assumptions they may have about how interactions work both within and between faiths and ethnicities in the present day. I have seen students react with curiosity and interest to learning about the Malian librarians who in recent decades have, at risk of their own lives, protected thousands of medieval Islamic manuscripts from the Al Qaeda militants who seek to destroy them.9 In doing so, these librarians have preserved great swathes of the output of some of the most important institutions of learning in the Middle Ages, which were centred around the mosques of Sankore, Djinguereber and Sidi Yahya, all located in the city of Timbuktu. This is a good springboard for conversations about the fact that Islam is not monolithic and never has been, that there are many different ways in which individual Muslims interact with and understand their faith’s past, and that medieval Muslims could and did create many artistic treasures. Students have also been moved by the story of the Sarajevo Haggadah: an illuminated Jewish devotional text, made in fourteenth-century Barcelona which had made its way to the Balkans by the late nineteenth century. During World War II, the manuscript was kept from the clutches of the Nazis thanks to the bravery of some Muslims from Sarajevo who hid it under the floorboards of a local mosque.10
Engaging students in conversation about these events, their significance and consequences, are useful ways of letting them enter into debates which are ongoing among medievalists while also starting to question the ways in which the past is employed as a rhetorical tool in modern political discussions.11 The concept of the multicultural Middle Ages is therefore one which can be usefully employed in the classroom as a way of making the distant past more clearly relevant.
Though most of the entries in this bibliography should appeal to students of all ages, I have selected them primarily with middle and high schoolers in mind. This bibliography should be of particular use to instructors at those levels, who are seeking appropriate and reliable resources for use in their classrooms but for whom time is a scarce resource. The entries in this bibliography therefore were chosen with an eye towards practicality, utility, and accessibility for a broad audience. Readers who would like to deepen their understanding of critical theories of race and ethnic construction in the Middle Ages, particularly as it relates to medieval English literature, are encouraged to refer to the bibliography by Ashley R. Conklin which appears in the previous issue of this journal.12
The following books have been selected as useful orientations to some of the latest scholarship on historically excluded groups and cultural interchange in the Late Antique and medieval worlds between approximately 300 and 1500. All are written to be accessible to non-specialists and are reasonably priced. However, as they are often dense reads, they are most likely only suitable for very advanced students, or for teachers who wish to understand the larger framework of the topics which they are teaching.
Chazan, Robert. The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom, 1000-1500. Cambridge Medieval Textbooks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Robert Chazan is one of the foremost experts on medieval Judaism and has written a number of books on the subject. The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom is perhaps the most accessible to the general reader. It first explores Judaism in relation to Christianity and Islam, and then presents a series of case studies: the older Jewish communities of southern Europe, and the newer ones of France, England, Germany, and eastern Europe which grew in size and importance after the first millennium. The book is particularly useful for its information on demographic shifts in the Jewish population over the course of the Middle Ages, on the development of distinct north-south divides in Jewish culture, and on the vibrant intellectual life of medieval Jews.
Frankopan, Peter. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.
The Silk Roads’ narrative starts long before the Middle Ages and ends in the present day, but its sweeping synthesis provides an excellent overview of several centuries of history and the origins of many different world cultures and religions such as Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. Frankopan’s main argument is that central Asia is far more integral to world history than is popularly thought, and it is a well-made argument throughout. The book’s size might make it intimidating for high schoolers, but selections from the first half of the book in particular might work well with older classes. These chapters provide a broad-brush history of the cultures of ancient and medieval Eurasia, and the trade routes which connected them.
Herrin, Judith. Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.
This book is the product of many years of scholarship on Herrin’s part. Each of the twenty-eight chapters is themed around a particular monument, event, or person, allowing for coverage of the grand arc of Byzantine history from the foundation of Constantinople by the Emperor Constantine the Great in the fourth century, through to the city’s capture by the Ottoman Turks in the fifteenth century. Herrin argues that rather than being a forgotten remnant of the Roman Empire, Byzantium was a global crossroads and a key part of the development of the European world. In a particularly useful comparative element, she emphasizes the relationship of Byzantium to other contemporary societies throughout, which should be fodder for ways of framing classroom coverage of the empire.
Kennedy, Hugh. The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2007.
Historians have long struggled to explain the explosively fast expansion of Islam. Within a hundred years of the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Muslim armies were pushing north across the Pyrenees into what is now France, while 5000 miles to the east their counterparts were on the borders of Tang China. In this political history, Hugh Kennedy—a specialist on the early Islamic period—works to fill that historiographical gap. He draws extensively on medieval Arabic sources and provides a clear narrative of the Arab conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries, and the contexts which allowed for them to be so successful. Kennedy points in particular to strong leadership, tactical mobility, genuine enthusiasm for Islam, and lucky timing. The text is complemented by good notes, a bibliography, and several maps.
Menocal, María Rosa. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. New York: Little, Brown, 2002.
In this dynamic and engaging work of popular synthesis, Menocal explores the period between the eighth and fifteenth centuries when Muslim-ruled kingdoms existed in Iberia and the cities of Toledo, Seville, and Córdoba flourished. She argues that this was a period of cultural tolerance and symbiosis, when Muslims and their fellow “peoples of the Book”—Christians and Jews—lived largely without ethnic strife. As evidence, she points to the emergence of sophisticated blended cultures like the Mozarab (“wanna-be Arab,” as she defines the term) Christians, the boom in commerce, and the great architectural achievements of southern Spain. Though it does not include references or a bibliography, the Little, Brown edition of Ornament of the World does have a useful brief list of questions for discussion which should help students to engage more deeply with the text.
Primary Source Texts: Print
These anthologies are particularly useful starting points for instructors who are unfamiliar with the Middle Ages, as they are generally well contexualized and contain edited excerpts in translation chosen with teaching in mind.
Allen, S.J. and Emilie Amt, eds.The Crusades: A Reader. Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures Series. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014.
Very helpfully, this reader covers a broad range of medieval and modern sources on the Crusades. The sources presented here will introduce students to many different voices and points of view from the distant past—popes, Muslim pilgrims, legislators, Christian theologians and Jewish merchants. Their continuing relevance is made clear through a section on popular perspectives on the Crusades from the Enlightenment to the present. Modern documents are carefully framed so as to present the resurgence of Crusading rhetoric in the West after 9/11, or the way in which Saddam Hussein co-opted the medieval leader Saladin as a nationalist icon, in their appropriate historical contexts. Overall the editors work hard to avoid taking any overt political or moral stances. More than one hundred sources are presented in chronological order, with study questions for each texts, and divided into the following categories:
- Background and Origins
- The First Crusade
- The Crusader States
- The Second and Third Crusades
- Setting Out and Returning Home
- The Age of Innocent III
- Crusades of the Holy Roman Empire
- Conflict and Coexistence in Spain
- Crusades at the Crossroads
- Modern Perceptions of the Crusades
Constable, Olivia Remie, ed. Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources. Second Edition. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.
The documents gathered here by Constable represent, in English translation, a wide array of original languages and cultures: Latin, Arabic, Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic, Castilian, Catalan, and Portuguese. They are taken from a variety of genres—chronicles, religious writings, poetry, and memoirs among others. The chronological scope of this book allows for an overview of Iberian history from the conflicts between different Christian denominations during the Visigothic period, through to Portuguese voyages to the Americas in the early sixteenth century. Constable presents the sources chronologically, but a useful “Contents According to Subject” listing near the beginning allows quick access to topics for teaching purposes.
- Agriculture, Landholding and Rural Life
- Belief, Practice, and Religious Life
- Conquest and Reconquest
- Festivals, Ceremonies, and Entertainment
- Food, Drink, Daily Life, and Household Affairs
- Interfaith Relations
- Philosophy, Theology, and Morality
- Politics, Nobility, and the Royal Court
- Slavery and Unfreedom
- Travel, Geography, and Natural History
- Urban Life and Town Administration
- Warfare and Military Administration
- Women, Marriage, and Family
A number of family trees, a glossary, and a bibliography of works in English are also useful aids for the general reader.
Muslim and Christian Contact in the Middle Ages: A Reader. Ed. Jarbel Rodriguez. Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures Series. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015.
This collection of more than eighty sources from Jewish, Muslim, and Christian (both Byzantine and western Catholic) authors covers a thousand years of history. Though it is weighted in favour of sources from Iberia, the reader draws on texts a vast territory, stretching from England and Morocco to Egypt and central Asia. The editor often, and very usefully, pairs sources so that students can easily compare Muslim and Christian accounts of the same event. Some of the sources like the law codes or passages on moral instruction may be dense, but others contain elements of humour sure to tickle a student’s fancy—for instance, a selection from Usamah ibn Munqidh’s twelfth-century Kitab al-I’tibar (“Book of Learning by Example”) recounts in part a story of two elderly women racing one another through the mud in order to win a pig, or the tale of a French knight’s amazement at the realisation that medieval Muslims trimmed or shaved their body hair, a far cry from contemporary practice back in western Europe. The index, sadly, is not particularly good and students will need to rely on the table of contents in order to navigate:
- Origins and Background to Christian/Islamic Interactions
- Warfare in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Holy Land
- Warfare in Spain and the Western Mediterranean
- Diplomacy and Alliances
- Economic Relations
- Religious Interactions
- The Views of the Other
- Lives of Minority Communities
- Intellectual Contacts
- Of Love and Bondage
Art History: Print
When used thoughtfully, art historical images are a wonderful way for instructors not just to catch the student’s eye, but to get students to think more meaningfully about how material objects shape the world around them and have a past of their own.13 All of the works listed here provide dozens of images which could profitably be used in the middle or high school classroom.
Art of the Islamic World: A Resource for Educators. Eds. Maryam D. Ekhtiar and Claire Moore. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012.
This handsomely produced volume is designed to provide an introduction to the art and culture of the Islamic world, in addition to content which can be used to support studies of language, math, science, social studies and the visual arts in the middle and high school classroom. The book’s first section includes maps, chronologies, dynasty lists and suggested “Curriculum Connections.” The rest of the text is divided into seven units: Islam and religious art; Arabic calligraphy; geometric design; science and art; the artistic cultures of the courts of Al-Andalus, Ottoman Turkey, Persia, and Mughal India; daily life in medieval India, Syria, and the central Asian steppes; and artistic exchange. The units are well-illustrated and the images are used as the foundation for accompanying full lesson plans that are linked to National Learning Standards and Common Core State Standards. Each unit is also accompanied by an annotated list of related reading and resources, with indication as to appropriate age ranges.
Robin Cormack. Byzantine Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
This is a comprehensive single volume overview of the art produced in the Byzantine Empire between 330 and 1453. It has some flaws. The text is densely written, there are no maps, and Cormack’s argument about change versus continuity in Byzantine art over long periods will likely be too technical for even the most advanced high schoolers. However, Cormack is highly knowledgeable and the images are of good quality. Byzantine Art covers both the better known works such as the great Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and the mosaics of the emperor Justinian and empress Theodora in the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, but also lesser known masterpieces such as icons produced in Syria or the sixth-century Rabbula Gospels. A useful timeline at the back of the book gives the dates of the various artworks in relation to key events and rulers in Byzantine history. There is also a glossary, a list of suggested further reading, and a guide to reliable websites on the topic.
The Image of the Black in Western Art. Eds. David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates. 10 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010-14.
The cost of these volumes means that they are is likely out of the reach of all but specialist libraries. However, it would be remiss not to mention them. The Image of the Black in Western Art—originally published in the 1960s and revised in the 2010s—is an excellent and comprehensive resource, and well worth consulting if you have access to it. The first four volumes are most likely to be relevant for the purposes of this article: Volume 1 covers the period from dynastic Egypt to the end of the Roman Empire; the two parts of Volume 2 run from the origins of Christianity to the Age of Exploration; the first part of Volume 3 covers the Renaissance and the Baroque period. The accompanying essays are of uniformly high quality, covering topics like St. Maurice, the black man who was adopted as the patron saint of the Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages, or depictions of the black Magus in paintings of the Nativity. The accompanying website is <http://www.imageoftheblack.com/>.
The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256-1353. Eds. Linda Komaroff and Stefano Carboni. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002.
The Mongols are more associated with death and destruction in the popular imagination than they are with art and architecture, yet their empire—the largest the world has ever known—was equally a place of cultural synthesis and transformation. This book, produced to accompany a museum exhibition, shows how Mongol rule spurred contact between cultures across Europe and Asia which directly influenced indigenous central Asian art forms. More than two hundred artefacts are depicted this catalog, including Qur’ans, pages from the great Persian epic the Shahnahma, glazed ceramic tiles, and jewelry. Accompanying essays cover topics including the Mongol legacy; artistic exchange and stylistic dissemination; courtly, religious, and literary life in Ilkhanid Iran; and close technical examinations of manuscript leaves and press-molded tiles. Use of the text is aided by maps, a genealogy of the Mongol khans, and a bibliography.
Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts. Ed. Marc Michael Epstein. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.
This gorgeously illustrated and well laid-out volume brings together almost 300 full-color images of manuscripts made for Jewish audiences between the twelfth and twenty-first centuries. It effectively challenges any notion that Jewish artistic and intellectual cultures were not at least as vibrant as those of their Christian or Muslim counterparts during the Middle Ages, or that there was little artistic cross-pollination between the faith communities. The illustrations here will bring students face to face with everything from Bibles, to legal texts, to versions of contemporary romances rendered into Hebrew. The fourth chapter of Skies of Parchment is particularly worth noting, as it surveys medieval Jewish manuscript production in Israel and the Middle East, Italy, Ashkenaz (Franco-Germany, England, central and Eastern Europe), and Spain. As the book is targeted at a broad audience, the language is pitched at a level which should be accessible to non-specialists; the introductory chapter provides explanations of all necessary terms.
These novels can be used either to reach students who have difficulties with reading comprehension, or to help engage reluctant students who have a preconception of the Middle Ages as boring and far removed from their everyday experiences. They can also usefully be contrasted with material from textbooks as a means of sparking imaginative discussion about the different choices which novelists and historians make when engaging with the past.
Barrett, Tracy. Anna of Byzantium. New York: Laurel-Leaf Books, 1999. [Ages 12+, Grades 7+]
In late eleventh-century Byzantium, the princess Anna Comnena (1083-1153) struggles to maintain her place in the succession to the imperial throne. This text is a good way of sparking discussion about political intrigue, gender inequality and women’s roles in medieval society: Anna’s gender means her less able younger brother will rule, and even when she is still in her early teens, Anna is smart enough to realise it. (See below in the ‘Case Studies’ section for more on Anna Comnena).
Burns, Khephra. Mansa Musa: The Lion of Mali. New York: Harcourt Children’s Books, 2001. [Ages 8+, Grades 3+]
This picture book is intended for those aged 8-10, but the beautiful, deft illustrations of life in fourteenth-century West Africa are sure to draw in teenage readers as well. Burns blends fact and fiction to tell the early life of Mansa Musa (ca. 1280-ca. 1337), one of the region’s greatest kings and one of the wealthiest people to ever live. His enormous fortune, based in large part on the produce of Mali’s gold mines, was such that when Mansa Musa went on the hajj to Mecca, his entourage was supposedly 60,000 strong. Moreover, he dispensed so much in alms to people along the way, he inadvertently caused the price of gold in the regions through which he passed to collapse for several years. A brief author’s note provides some context and recommendations for further reading.
Gidwitz, Adam. The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog. New York: Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2016. [Ages 10+, Grades 5+]
Set in thirteenth-century France, The Inquisitor’s Tale follows the three main characters (and their dog) as they try to escape the clutches of the Inquisition and prevent sacred texts from destruction. William is an oblate, or child intended for the monastic life; Jeanne is a peasant girl who receives prophetic visions; and Jacob is a Jewish boy who has fled the destruction of his home. This Newbery Honor-winning novel delves into some complex topics—xenophobia, religious co-existence, zealotry, and censorship—which makes it useful as a jumping-off point for discussion. However, it’s also funny, with lots of fart jokes, close-call escapes, and dragons, calculated to draw in the reader.
Grant, K.M. Blood Red Horse. New York: Walker Children’s, 2005 [Ages 11-14, Grades 6-9]
Two English boys, Will and Gavin, set off for the Holy Land, after their king, Richard Lionheart (1157-1199) calls a Crusade; waiting for them in the Muslim camp is Saladin (1137-93), sultan of Egypt and Syria, and his young ward, Kamil. Kamil and Will are linked thanks to the book’s eponymous horse. Alternating between England and the Middle East, this fast-paced adventure story brings to life historical figures like King Richard and his formidable opponent, Saladin. There is plenty for students to engage with here about the contrast between the glorification of warfare and its reality.
Park, Linda Sue. A Single Shard. Boston: HMH Books for Young Readers, 2011. [Ages 10-12, Grades 5-7]
Set in twelfth-century Korea, this Newbery Medal-winning novel follows the thirteen-year-old orphan Tree-Ear as he struggles to become a master potter and gain royal attention. It is useful for encouraging students to think not only about the history of Korea, but also about the kinds of technology that existed in the medieval world and about social hierarchies. A solid afterword provides historical context about Tree-Ear’s world. (This novel has also been adapted into a play for audiences aged 8+ by Robert Schenkkan. See <https://playsforyoungaudiences.org/scripts/single-shard-a>)
Yang, Dori Jones. Daughter of Xanadu. New York: Penguin Random House, 2012. [Ages 12+, Grades 7+]
Emmajin is the fictional heroine of this novel, a Mongol princess and a granddaughter of the Great Khan Khubilai, who wants to win fame as a warrior. Marco Polo is a visitor from far-off Italy, who has no interest in the traditional Mongol martial arts of archery, horse racing, and wrestling that fascinate Emmajin. Together, they travel across thirteenth-century China. There’s lots of adventure to engage the teenage reader, but also lots of fodder for talking about cultural interactions and miscommunications. A glossary provides word definitions and historical information. (There is also a sequel, Son of Venice , set in Europe.)
There are regrettably few films or documentaries which deal with a diverse Middle Ages and which are also accurate and engaging. While some of the documentary options below may lean on clichéd and cheap re-enactments of historical moments, they should still make for reliable resources in the classroom. Most of the more medieval-centered recent offerings from the likes of the History Channel; however, they should be avoided for their often dubious use of evidence in the service of sensationalism. Good fictional offerings are even rarer. While some medieval-themed films fall into the category of so-bad-they’re-good and make for decent camp entertainment (like The Vikings, 1958), starring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis, where the cast can be spotted wearing gold wristwatches and wielding rubber swords with wobbling blades), the problems with others can be more difficult to spot for a general audience. For instance, Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005) is not only historically inaccurate, but also wildly anachronistic in its depiction of intercultural interactions.
Africa’s Great Civilizations. PBS, 2017. [360 min., TV-PG, English, Color]
This recent documentary, helmed by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and underpinned by the contributions of many notable scholars, manages the feat of propelling the viewer at great speed across Africa and through millennia from pre-history to the nineteenth century while being admirably clear in its presentation of the continent’s history from a firmly African point of view. The cinematography is excellent quality, and provides some breath-taking shots of archaeological sites that are rarely showcased in western media, such as the pyramids of Meroë and the ancient churches carved out of the living rock in Lalibela, Ethiopia. There a number of topics covered which are ideally suited towards comparative historical work—the arrival of Christianity and Islam on the continent; the manuscripts created at the great medieval university of Timbuktu—and the narrative stress on Africa’s strong and continual presence in global culture will encourage students to think about long-term interconnections. Students might find the pace of the episodes, and the number of unfamiliar names, difficult to keep up with; however, use of subtitles should help with this.
Cities of Light: The Rise and Fall of Islamic Spain. PBS, 2007. [117 min., TV-PG+V, English, Color. Also available in condensed 47 min. version]
The central argument of this documentary is that Al-Andalus—the term scholars use to refer to the period when some or most of the Iberian peninsula was under Muslim political and cultural control—was a time of progressive diversity, with Muslims, Christians, and Jews for the most part cohabiting peaceably. Cities of Light does make claims that are at times lacking in nuance and qualifications, such as for example claiming that the Renaissance had its origins in tenth-century Spain, and the scenes featuring historical re-enactments are rather cheap and wooden. However, the talking heads who appear are often noted experts in the field and there are some wonderful shots of medieval Spanish architecture. There are some scenes of physical conflict which you may want to pre-screen before showing to younger audiences.
Crusades. BBC/A&E, 1994. [200 min., Not Rated, English, Color.]
The host of this documentary is the comedian Terry Jones of Monty Python fame, which gives you a clue that its tone is somewhat lighthearted and irreverent. However, Jones does have a background as a medievalist, and a number of notable historians of the Crusades appear.14 The four episodes cover the calling of the First Crusade and the subsequent pogroms against Jews in the Rhineland; the difficult travel conditions encountered by the Crusaders as they headed east; the Arab counter-attacks led by Saladin; and the Third and Fourth Crusades. The series does tend to flatten out all parts of the Islamic world into a monolithic whole. Still, the documentary is visually engaging and students will appreciate the occasional (and sometimes literal) insertion of Pythonesque humour.
Islam: Empire of Faith. PBS, 2000. [160 min., Not Rated, English, Color.]
This three-part documentary, narrated by Ben Kingsley, covers the life of Muhammad; the development of the early Caliphate and the impact of the Crusades and the Mongol invasion; and lastly the rise of the Ottoman Empire and the Iranian Safavid dynasty. The first episode is particularly good for the overview it provides of the life story of Muhammad, and the basic tenets of Islam; the importance of literary culture in the religion and why Muhammad is seldom represented visually; and why the Kaaba is the physical focal point of Islam. Educational resources to accompany the documentary are available on the PBS website. <http://www.pbs.org/empires/islam/eduk12plan.html>
Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan. Dir. Sergei Bodrov, 2007. [125 mins., R, Mongolian and Mandarin with English subtitles, Color.]
Scenes of sex and violence mean that this movie is better suited for classroom viewing only through carefully selected excerpts. There are also some historical inaccuracies. However, the movie’s cinematography beautifully showcases the Central Asian steppes, a landscape likely to be alien to most middle and high schoolers, and gives a good feel for the nomadic lifestyle and for the Mongols’ material culture. The film is the first of a projected trilogy (though there are as yet no signs of the remaining instalments being made) so it only covers the first portion of Genghis Khan’s life.
Online Resources: Texts and Databases
These resources allow students to explore historical research on various aspects of cultural interaction and the Middle Ages on a more independent and interactive basis. Some were designed with use in the classroom in mind while others are aimed more directly at scholars; depending on their ages, students may need help in navigating some of the latter resources.
England’s Immigrants, 1330-1550. University of York; University of Sheffield. Web. 2012-15. <https://www.englandsimmigrants.com/>
This searchable database contains the names of more than 64,000 people who migrated to England during the Late Middle Ages. Some came from as close as Ireland and the Channel Islands; others from as far away as the Baltic, Turkey, and India. Visualizations and maps provide interpretation and context for students, while exploring the records of individual people will give them a taste of independent research and how historians can use primary sources like tax records, legal documents, and letters in order to tell someone’s life story. There is a section on the website containing resources for teachers; it is tailored for the British curriculum but should still be universally useful.
Global Middle Ages. University of Texas. Web. 2015. <http://globalmiddleages.org/>
This project will eventually bring together a large number of different sub-sites on a range of topics. Not all of them are yet live, but at present students can go on a three-dimensional walk-through of the Spanish town of Plasencia as it would have appeared in the fifteenth-century, when it was ruled over by Castilian Catholic monarchs but was home to sizeable Jewish and Muslim populations; learn about “discoveries” of the Americas around the year 1000; and track the development of the medieval and early modern legend of Prester John, a fabulously wealthy Christian ruler whose kingdom was believed to perpetually lie just beyond the boundaries of the known world. The site also hosts a small selection of teaching resources and some readings.
The International Dunhuang Project: The Silk Roads Online. International Dunhuang Project. Web. 1994-2016. <http://idp.bl.uk/>
Dunhuang is a city on the edge of the Gobi Desert in what is now northwestern China; for centuries it was a major way point on the trading route known as the Silk Road. A nearby network of cave shrines called the Thousand Buddha Grottoes kept thousands of ancient and medieval manuscripts and art objects hidden away until the early 1900s.15 A collaboration of major academic institutions across Asia and Europe, the International Dunhuang Project was launched in 1994 to digitize the artefacts, which are now scattered around the world. The online IDP database now contains over half a million items, including prayers written by a medieval Jewish merchant trekking from what is now Iraq to China, and images of Christian saints depicted in an artistic style reminiscent of Buddhist bodhisattvas. A portion of the digitized manuscripts are available in modern English translation, such as the letters of passage (a form of early passport) written for the Chinese monk Daozhao going on pilgrimage through central Asia in the tenth century. An “Education” section of the website provides resources for instructors.
Islamic Medical Manuscripts at the National Library of Medicine. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Web. 2004-14. <https://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/arabic/welcome.html>
This site brings together about 300 medieval Persian and Arabic medieval manuscripts held at the U.S. National Library of Medicine, many of which are richly illustrated. Students will find the brief biographies of key figures in medieval Islamic medicine, together with the glossary of scientific and medical terms used on the site, to be very helpful in interpreting the manuscripts.
Online Medieval Sources Bibliography. Ed. Maryanne Kowaleski. Fordham University. Web. 2004-15. <http://medievalsourcesbibliography.org/>
While perhaps not the most visually attractive website in the world, this tool allows students to search an annotated bibliography of medieval primary sources for which editions exist, whether printed or online. This includes letters, wills, legal records, literary and philosophical works, and many more; the bibliography is currently weighted towards sources relating to England, Ireland, and France, but the geographical scope is expanding as more sources are added on an ongoing if slow basis. Students can choose to narrow their search results to editions in modern English, as well as to search by date, original language, record type, subject, and geopolitical region.
The Tombouctou Manuscripts Project. Gerda Henkel Stiftung; University of Cape Town. Web. 2004-17. <http://www.tombouctoumanuscripts.org/>
Registration is required to view this online database of digitized African manuscripts, and it can take a few days for authorisation to be granted. However, it is well worth the patience in order to gain access to one of the best online resources for the history of the book in Africa. The project initially focused on digitizing manuscripts from Mali—hence the name—but has since expanded to encompass collections from Mozambique, Madagascar, Tanzania, Somalia, Ethiopia, and more. The site allows students to see what manuscripts written in Arabic, Amharic, Swahili and Malagasy look like, while also letting them think and talk about the very work of scholarship: how historians, archivists, and curators collaborate in order to preserve the past.
The Zamani Project. University of Cape Town. Web. 2015. <http://www.zamaniproject.org/>
This project uses technology to allow students to interact with the spatial elements of African heritage, particularly from sites in eastern and southern Africa, on a scope which would not have been possible even a decade ago. It hosts 3D models of archaeologically significant structures like the Roman ruins of Djemila, Algeria, or the Djenne Mosque in Timbuktu, Mali; panoramic views of sites like the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia, or the Swahili trading town of Kilwa, Tanzania; plans of the port city of Lamu, Kenya, and many more. Some of the file sizes are large and so students will need to access the site on devices which have adequate processing power over a robust internet connection.
Online Resources: Images, Artefacts, and Manuscripts
These resources represent just a tiny fraction of those available online to teachers and students; newly digitized images and artefacts from the medieval world are continually being made available online. Those listed here have been selected with an eye to their representative nature and to their ease of use for middle and high schoolers.
The Catalan Atlas. Ca. 1375, Barcelona. Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS français 2754 <http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b55002481n>
The Catalan Atlas is one of the most well-known medieval mappa mundi (“maps of the world”). It was made in 1375 in Catalonia—northeastern modern Spain—by the Jewish book illuminator Abraham Cresques. It is presently housed in the Bibliothèque nationale de France (National Library of France). The Atlas consists of six parchment pages. The first two contain texts in Catalan discussing astronomy, astrology, and sailing knowledge. The remaining four pages are made up of the map, which was a synthesis of much of the knowledge Europeans then had about the world. It is richly illustrated and students should be able to compare the ways in which the peoples of various regions are depicted: for instance, Mansa Musa, a fourteenth-century ruler of Mali, and the biblical Queen of Sheba. Unlike most modern maps, the Catalan Atlas is oriented with north at the bottom. Scans of the full atlas can be found at Gallica, the digital collections website of the Bibliothèque nationale. The site is in French, but should be navigable even for people with no knowledge of the language.
The Erdapfel of Martin Behaim. 1492, Nuremberg. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département Cartes et plans, GE A-276 (RES) <http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b55008737g/f1.medres3d>
The Erdapfel (lit. “Earth Apple”) is the world’s oldest surviving globe, and was made by the German mariner and cartographer Martin Behaim (1490-1507). Originally from Germany, the young Behaim worked as a merchant first in Flanders and then in Portugal, where he became interested in overseas exploration. Behaim accompanied Diogo Cão on a voyage along the west African coast in the 1480s. In about 1492, he was commissioned to make the globe now known as the Erdapfel, which is presently in the collection of the Germanisches Nationalmuseum (German National Museum); the scan hosted on the Bibliothèque nationale’s website is of a facsimile globe made in 1847. Produced just as Europe’s knowledge of the world was about to be altered irrevocably by the Age of Exploration, the Erdapfel shows the culmination of late medieval geographical understanding: the world is round, not flat; the Americas and Australia are absent; the Atlantic is filled with mythical places like the Isle of St Brendan; and Japan is within easy sailing distance of the Canary Islands. Students should be intrigued at the opportunity to see the world from the same perspective as Christopher Columbus.
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web. 2000-17. <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/>
This thoughfully laid-out website allows students to explore some of the highlights of the Met’s collection, accessed either chronologically, spatially, or through thematic essays which lay out the importance of, and connections between, groups of artifacts. Each artifact is presented in high quality photography, and with links back to its entry in the museum’s online catalogue. This encourages the student to explore more of the Met’s holdings, to think about what decisions curators make when cataloging objects, and to discuss how artifacts from around the globe have made their way into major museum collections in the West. For the purposes of this article, the essays “Artistic Interaction Among Cultures in Medieval Iberia,” “The Birth of Islam,” “Jews and the Arts in Medieval Europe,” and “The Crusades” are particularly recommended.
The Polonsky Foundation Catalogue of Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts. The British Library. Web. 2013-16. <http://www.bl.uk/hebrew-manuscripts>
An enormously ambitious project, this site brings together over a thousand digitized manuscripts produced across the Jewish world—from Europe and North Africa to the Middle East and China—between the tenth century and the early twentieth century. The goal of the project is to facilitate new scholarship, and it is unlikely that there will be many students in the average American high school classroom able to read medieval Hebrew scripts. However, many of the featured collection items are beautifully illuminated manuscripts which are visually appealing and clearly interpreted for the general reader. The accompanying thematic essays are mostly accessible to high schoolers and will allow them to gain a broader sense of this important part of medieval Jewish material culture.
The Virtual Hill Museum and Manuscript Library. St John’s University. Web. 2015-17. <https://www.vhmml.org/>
This site hosts high-resolution images of some of the holdings of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library, which itself contains manuscripts from across from Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, particularly those which are endangered or largely inaccessible to scholars. The “Reading Room” section of the site allows users to view manuscripts (after free registration; processing sometimes takes until the next working day). The “Folio” section provides pages from a variety of manuscripts, each with a detailed layout and full transcription, so that students can see how writing systems change over time, and how a single alphabet can be used for many different languages. Last, the “School” section introduces students to the disciplines of paleography (the study and deciphering of ancient writing systems) and codicology (the study of how manuscripts and books are physically constructed) in various manuscript cultures.
The following is a selection which is not at all comprehensive, but which strives to be representative of a broad range of interactions between peoples of different ethnicities and faiths, of medieval understandings of physical difference, and of the ways in which abstract forces like trade and pandemic illness could shape the lives of people across vast distances in the Middle Ages. Each case study consists of a brief introduction to the topic, a list of primary sources recommended for use in the classroom, and suggested secondary readings to provide further background. In most instances, the secondary readings will be best suited for instructors.
- Anna Comnena and the First Crusade
- The Black Death in Eurasia
- The Cairo Genizah and Preserving Jewish History
- The Epics of Medieval West Africa
- Medieval Jews and Persecution
- The Mongols
- Parzival and People of Color in Medieval Europe
- Pilgrimage in the Middle Ages
- The Reconquista
- The Travels of Ibn-Jubayr
Anna Comnena and the First Crusade
Anna Comnena (also anglicized Komnene) (1083-ca. 1153) was the eldest daughter of Alexius I (r. 1081-1118), emperor of Byzantium, and his wife Irene Doukaina. She was of imperial descent through both her parents, a fact of which she was very proud. Anna was extremely bright, highly educated, and ambitious. She aspired to the Byzantine throne, but her conspiracy to overthrow her brother was discovered and she was confined to a convent where she wrote her famous history, the Alexiad. Named for her father, the book chronicles his reign during the First Crusade (1096-99). As it was in part an attempt at image management by Anna, and in part very consciously modelled on the style and structure of ancient Greek historians like Thucydides and Xenophon, the Alexiad cannot be taken at face value. However, the book remains a valuable record of the often contentious interactions during the Middle Ages between eastern, Greek-speaking, Orthodox Christians and western Roman Catholics whose church services were conducted in Latin, and is the only Byzantine eye-witness account of the First Crusade. The Alexiad also demonstrates that it was possible for a privileged woman in the Middle Ages to gain a wide-ranging education, and to show a strong grasp of military tactics.
Anna Comnena, The Alexiad, ed. and trans. E.R.A. Sewter. London: Penguin Books, 1969 (repr. 2003).
Sewter’s translation is the most accessible available in modern English, though the scope and large cast of characters mean that most high school students will find it easier to cope with excerpts than with the full text. A 1920s translation by Elizabeth Dawes is now out of copyright and available online at the Internet Medieval Sourcebook, but students will probably find its language heavy going.
“Anna Dalassena and Imperial Power.” In Women and Writing in Medieval Europe: A Sourcebook, ed. Carolyne Larrington. New York: Routledge, 1995, 175-77.
This brief excerpt from The Alexiad is a character sketch of Anna Comnena’s paternal grandmother, Anna Dalassena (ca. 1025/30-1100/02). It also demonstrates Byzantine rhetoric about how power should be expressed.
Recommended further reading:
- Asbridge, Thomas S. The First Crusade: A New History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
- Herrin, Judith. Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.
- Herrin, Judith. Women in Purple: Three Byzantine Empresses. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.
- Norwich, John Julius. A Short History of Byzantium. New York: Knopf, 1997.
The Black Death in Afro-Eurasia
The Black Death was the most severe pandemic known to human history. In the mid-fourteenth century, the Y. pestis bacterium swept from its likely origin point on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau in what is now western China across Asia, Africa, and Europe infecting a large proportion of the populations which it encountered. Archaeologists and historians estimate a mortality rate of 40-60% in many areas. The illness’s spread was facilitated by the steady rise in trans-continental trade during the High Middle Ages, together with the sometimes forcible cultural interactions facilitated by events like the Mongol conquests. Unsurprisingly, a death toll on this scale had an enormous impact on society, particularly since medieval people had little understanding of what the disease was or how it spread—many could interpret it only as divine retribution against a sinful world. Trade suffered; food supplies failed for want of people to till the soil; family members abandoned sick loved ones out of fear; urban populations plummeted. “God is deaf nowadays,” wrote the English poet William Langland in despair. Yet historians debate what the long-term social and economic consequences of the Black Death were, and to what extent if any it directly shaped society in Afro-Eurasia in the decades and centuries following it. Was it a short-term shock or the catalyst for a longer-term social revolution? Ongoing medical studies and archaeological research are continually refining our understanding of the Black Death and what lessons it has for the prospect of pandemics in the twenty-first century.
“The Black Death and the Jews.” In The Jews in Christian Europe: A Source Book, 315-1791, edited by Jacob Rader Marcus and Marc Saperstein, 153-59. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.
Desperate Christians, looking for an easy scapegoat to blame for the unprecedented suffering around them, blamed the Jews, whom they accused of entering into an international conspiracy to poison Christians. Many Jews were tortured and killed in entirely unjustified retaliation. The first of the primary sources in this collection is the coerced confession of a Jew called Agimet; the second recounts the destruction of the Jewish community of Strasbourg; the third is the epitaph of a fifteen-year-old Jewish boy, Asher, who died of the plague in 1349. The sources are accompanied by a bibliography.
W.B. Ober and N. Aloush, “The plague at Granada, 1348-1349: Ibn Al-Khatib and ideas of contagion” in Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 58:4 (1982), 418-24. <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1808550/>.
Lisan ad-Din ibn Al-Khatib (1313-1374) was a Muslim physician and historian from what is now southern Spain, where he was vizier at the court of Muhammad V. In about 1362, he wrote a text called On the plague, which is believed to be the earliest known formulation of the idea of contagion. Ober and Aloush’s article summarizes what is known about Ibn Al-Khatib’s life and work, and his firmly empiricist stance on the spread of disease: rather than accept the Muslim orthodoxy that the plague was not contagious, Ibn Al-Khatib wrote that the elements of proof —”experience, investigation, insight, personal observation, and reliable reports”—showed otherwise. The editors also provide a modern English translation of the section of On the plague in which Ibn Al-Khatib discusses contagion.
Testament of a Mother During the Black Death, trans. Shona Kelly Wray, Children and Youth in History. George Mason University. <https://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/case-studies/167?section=primarysources&source=181>.
This will, now preserved in the state archives in Bologna, gives us a glimpse into the response of artisan classes in Italy to the Black Death. Here, Ursollina, the widow of a parchment worker, decides how she wants to leave her property to her heirs. It shows how her family circle had already been devastated by the plague. Ursollina’s will can usefully be juxtaposed with other primary sources about the Black Death hosted on this website, which also incorporates a bibliography, lesson plan, and teaching strategies.
Recommended further reading:
- Benedictow, Ole. The Black Death, 1346-1353: The Complete History. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2004
- Green, Monica H., ed. Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death, special issue of The Medieval Globe (2014). <http://scholarworks.wmich.edu/medieval_globe/1/>
- Horrox, Rosemary. The Black Death. Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1994.
- Slack, Paul. Plague: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012
The Cairo Genizah and Preserving Jewish History
A genizah (also spelled geniza) is a room attached to a synagogue used to house obsolete, damaged or otherwise worn-out Hebrew-language texts before they can be given a ritual burial. This is because of a Jewish religious prescription against throwing away writings containing the name of God, even if that is just a brief reference in an otherwise secular personal letter or legal contract. The most famous example of these genizot is from the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, Egypt. Discovered by western scholars in the late nineteenth century, the Cairo genizah was in use from the eleventh century onwards and contains over 200,000 text fragments. Over a century after their discovery, the manuscripts are still being processed, catalogued, and conserved, and they are continually yielding up new insights into life in the medieval and early modern Mediterranean world. They are particularly valuable for what they show us about the long-distance links in existence between the communities of the Jewish diaspora. Most of the documents are now at the Cambridge University Library, England, and the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York. Many of the fragments are now being scanned and made available online, allowing students a glimpse of everything from certificates testifying to the kosher status of eleventh-century cheese, to marriage contracts, to fragments of Hebrew Bibles.
“The Cairo Genizah.” Excerpt from The Story of the Jews. PBS, 2014. 3:30mins, Streaming or download. <https://ny.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/sotj14.socst.world.cairogenizah/the-cairo-genizah/>
In this short excerpt from historian Simon Schama’s documentary The Story of the Jews, Schama visits the Ben Ezra Synagogue and the site where the genizah was once housed. The clip also shows Schama examining some of the Cairo genizah fragments held at the University of Cambridge.
The Friedberg Genizah Project. Friedberg Jewish Manuscript Society, Toronto. Web. 2008-2010. <http://www.jewishmanuscripts.org/>
The Cairo Genizah Collection of the Bodleian. Bodleian Library, Oxford. Web. 2017. <http://genizah.bodleian.ox.ac.uk>
The Taylor-Schechter Cairo Genizah Collection. Cambridge University Library, England. Web. <https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/collections/genizah>
The three websites listed here provide an excellent sense of the scale and scope of ongoing scholarly work on the genizah fragments. The Friedberg Genizah website contains more than 100,000 high-resolution manuscript scans. Many of the scans are available in transcription or translation, which is particularly useful since many of the languages represented in the genizah’s documents—such as Judaeo-Arabic, Judaeo-Spanish, and Judaeo-Persian—are little known even to medievalists. Free registration allows for access to all of the site’s holdings. However, no registration is required for access to a page displaying several manuscript samples accompanied by brief descriptions and contextualising information. <http://www.genizah.org/Manuscript_Samples.aspx> The collection at the Bodleian Library contains about 4,000 fragments. Students can browse the catalog entries on its site to see full descriptions of the library’s holdings, together with scans of the fragments. The site is aimed primarily at scholars, so there is minimal interpretation provided for the viewer, and no transcriptions or translations. However, the scans are of such good quality that students will still be able to get an excellent sense of how conservators are able to piece back together often very damaged pieces of paper, vellum, and papyrus. The Taylor-Schechter Collection comprises some 18,000 digitized fragments, which are hosted on this Cambridge University website. Transcriptions and translations are available for some of the fragments, but it is not possible to narrow down a search to just this subset of images.
Recommended further reading
- Greenhouse, Emily. “Treasures in the Wall.” The New Yorker, May 1, 2013. <http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/treasures-in-the-wall>
- Hoffman, Adina and Peter Cole, Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza. New York: Shocken Books, 2011.
- Rudoren, Jodi. “Computer Network Piecing Together a Jigsaw of Jewish Lore.” The New York Times, May 26, 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/27/world/middleeast/computers-piecing-together-jigsaw-of-jewish-lore.html>
The Epics of Medieval Africa
The great epics of West Africa were traditionally passed down by a griot or jeli: a prominent figure who is part troubadour, part storyteller, part historian, and part satirist or advisor on contemporary political events. The griot is found in a number of peoples including the Mande, Fulbe, Hausa, Wolof, and Songhai. In the past, he or she often held a leading role at royal courts—though in the modern world tends to be freelance. The stories they tell are learned by heart and passed down orally from one generation of griot to the next. The epics of West Africa tend to be mythological or historical in nature, though the dividing line between the two can be blurred, and there are obvious difficulties with relying on oral traditions in order to understand what happened in the medieval past. The epics also have moral functions which can be at odds with the goals of modern historians: the epics are as concerned with explaining the invisible as they are the visible, and djinns and monsters can make appearances alongside historical figures. However, these stories are some of our best sources for how African peoples understand their medieval past, and provide insights into the origins of modern ethnic and linguistic groupings. Reading them can help students to think about what makes a source “historical.”
The Epic of Askia Mohammed, ed. and trans. Thomas A. Hale. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996.
“The Epic of Askia Mohammed.” In Oral Epics from Africa: Vibrant Voices from a Vast Continent, eds. John William Johnson, Thomas A. Hale and Stephen Paterson Belcher. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997: 126-32.
Askia Muhammad I (also known as Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr Ture) ruled over the Songhai Empire in West Africa from 1493 to 1528. Under his rule, the empire reached its territorial apogee, trade with Europe and Asia flourished, scholarship was encouraged, and a governmental bureaucracy and navy were organized. In 1496, he undertook the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, and was thereafter a devout Muslim who worked to promote the religion in his empire. In 1528, he was deposed by one of his sons. The first edition of the Epic of Askia listed here contains the full epic, together with an accompanying genealogy, introductory chapter, annotations, and a bibliography; the latter is an excerpt of this edition.
Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali, ed. D.T. Niane and trans. G.D. Pickett. Revised edition. Harlow: Pearson, 2006.
Sunjata: A West African Epic of the Mande Peoples, ed. and trans. David C. Conrad. Cambridge, MA: Hackett Publishing, 2004.
Sundiata (d. 1255) founded the Empire of Mali, eclipsing the previous regional superpower of Ghana. Under his rule, trans-Saharan trade—particularly in gold—flourished and Sundiata was able to win the support both of the predominantly animist population and the Muslim majority upper classes. These two editions present the Sundiata Keita, or Epic of Sundiata, in modern English translation. This is probably the best known of the African epics in the modern West. In the former edition, historical and cultural context is provided by a prefatory glossary, pronunciation guide, and introduction to the oral tradition. The latter edition presents substantial excerpts from the epic as translated from a specific performance by the griot Djanka Tassey Condé. It is accompanied by scholarly notes, a glossary, and a bibliography.
The Ife Head. Ca. 1100-1400, Nigeria. British Museum. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/Z1CgMudYTJWzpTi-TW1IAA>
When this head, and more than a dozen others, were found during building works at Wunmonije Compound in Ife, Nigeria, in the late 1930s, many European scholars refused to believe that such skilled artworks could have been made by medieval Africans at a time when portrait-like realism and the lost-wax casting method were both beyond the abilities of European artists. One even suggested that the heads must have been the remnants of the lost civilisation of Atlantis. However, such racist assertions are entirely unfounded, and this copper-alloy sculpture is one of the masterpieces of Yoruba art. The BBC’s “A History of the World in 100 Objects” website provides high-resolution 3D images of the Ife Head—which is now held at the British Museum—and a downloadable podcast about the artefact.
Recommended further reading:
- Conrad, David C. Empires of Medieval West Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songay. Revised Edition. New York: Chelsea House: 2010.
- Ehret, Christopher, “Africa in World History Before ca. 1440” in Africa’s Development in Historical Perspective, eds. Emmanuel Akyeampong et al, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014, 33-55.
- Northrop, David. Africa’s Discovery of Europe. Third Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
- Oliver, Roland and Anthony Atmore. Medieval Africa, 1250-1800. Second Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Medieval Jews and Persecution
Jewish communities were present around the Mediterranean basin from the time of the Roman Empire onwards, and most of the global Jewish population was concentrated in that area during the early Middle Ages. However, Jewish communities appear in increasing numbers in northern Europe—particularly in the Rhineland and what is now northern France—from about the year 900. Some were drawn there because of new economic opportunities; others were explicitly invited by towns and cities eager to benefit from pre-existing Jewish trade networks. Christianity had developed out of Judaism, which was the cause of long-standing ties between the two faith communities but also of conflict. Some Christians wanted to learn more about Jewish thought and practice; others felt threatened by the continuing existence of Judaism. In many times and places during the Middle Ages, Jews and Christians were able to live in relative accommodation—if not always perfect peace—and Jewish communities could prosper and produce scholarship and works of art. However, there were several marked periods of persecution of Jewish people. The First Crusade in 1096, the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century, the Inquisitions, and the expulsions of the Jewish populations from England, France, Spain and Portugal in various periods are all notorious moments of anti-Semitic cruelty. The sources listed here will provide students with ways of thinking about ethnic tensions and the line between peace and persecution.
Baskin, Judith R. “Dolce of Worms: The Lives and Deaths of an Exemplary Medieval Jewish Woman and her Daughters.” In Judaism in Practice: From the Middle Ages through the Early Modern Period, edited by Lawrence Fine, 429–437. Princeton: 2001.
This article brings together all the known primary sources about Dolce of Worms in English translation; the texts do contain explicit descriptions of physical violence. Dolce lived in the twelfth century and came from Worms, a city in what is now Germany, and was born into a wealthy Jewish family. Her husband, Eleazar ben Judah, was a rabbi. Dolce’s work as a moneylender supported the family financially while her husband devoted himself to the study of the Torah. Her successful economic activities appear to have attracted the attention of criminals, who broke into the family home and killed Dolce and her daughters. This text is useful for exploring themes of female Jewish piety in the face of anti-Semitism.
“The Burning of the Talmud. Paris, 1239-48.” In The Jews in Christian Europe: A Source Book, 315-1791, edited by Jacob Rader Marcus and Marc Saperstein, 127-35. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.
In 1239, a French Jewish convert to Christianity by the name of Nicholas Donin denounced the Talmud (a key text of Rabbinic Judaism which contains the body of Jewish civil and ceremonial law) to Pope Gregory IX. This resulted in a public trial of the holy text in Paris, involving a debate between Donin and four of France’s leading rabbis, and eventually a royal decree was issued proclaiming that all Talmudic manuscripts should be destroyed. Approximately 10,000 to 12,000 Hebrew manuscripts were publicly burned in 1242. This incident has clear relevance for discussions of religious freedom, tolerance, and pluralism in general, as well as anti-Semitism in particular. This excerpt presents a letter from a papal legate (member of the clergy representing the pope) reporting on his findings; the legate’s condemnation of the Talmud; the story of an archbishop who tried to help the Jews save their books; and a lament written by a Jewish eyewitness. The sources are accompanied by notes and a bibliography.
“The Expulsion from Spain.” In The Jews in Christian Europe: A Source Book, 315-1791, edited by Jacob Rader Marcus and Marc Saperstein, 181-92. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.
In 1492, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile brought to an end centuries of Jewish life in Spain with the issuing of an Edict of Expulsion. The monarchs justified the mass expulsion by claiming that the Jewish community had been working secretly to bring the conversos—Jews who had converted to Christianity, or Christians of Jewish heritage—back to Judaism. This excerpt presents the text of the Edict, together with a near-contemporary account of what happened to Spanish Jewry, written by an Italian Jew in 1495. Both sources are accompanied by notes, a bibliography, and a list of historical fiction inspired by these events.
Recommended further reading:
- Lipton, Sara. Dark Mirror: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Jewish Iconography. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014.
- Moore, R.I. The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe 950-1250. Second edition. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2007.
- Nirenberg, David. Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.
The rise of the Mongols in the early thirteenth century, and their subsequent establishment of the largest contiguous land empire in history, had an enormous impact on the later political and social development of Europe and Asia. The Mongols’ first and best-known leader was Chingis Khan (1162-1227; also transliterated as Genghis Khan; lit. “Universal Leader”), who united formerly disparate nomadic clans under his leadership. While their empire was concentrated in Asia, Mongol raids pushed as far west as what is now Russia, Hungary, and Poland. The death in 1241 of their then leader, Ögedai, caused the Mongols to pull back from their threatened expansion into western Europe, but for decades after this retrenchment, Europeans lived in fear of them. Yet despite the Mongol reputation for brutality—one that is not without merit—their rulers also encouraged trade, stimulated the production of luxury goods, and patronised artists across the Asian continent to the extent that historians have sometimes referred to a Pax Mongolica (“Mongol Peace”) that prevailed much as once a Pax Romana had at the height of the Roman Empire centuries before. Though the Mongol Empire fragmented in the decades after the death of Chingis Khan—into the khanates of Yuan dynasty China, the Golden Horde (stretching from eastern Europe across the Urals and into Siberia), the Chagatai Khanate (central Asian steppes) and the Ilkhanate (most of modern Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Afghanistan)—the Mongols’ legacy remained as much one of innovation and synthesis as it was of conquest.
The Secret History of the Mongols: A Mongolian Epic Chronicle of the Thirteenth Century, trans. Igor de Rachewiltz. 2015. <http://cedar.wwu.edu/cedarbooks/4/>.
The oldest surviving literary work in the Mongolian language, The Secret History is one of our best sources for the early years of the Mongol Empire. It begins with a semi-mythical family tree of Chingis Khan’s family, then recounts his childhood, his reign, and his succession by his third son, Ögedai. The edition linked here is an abridged, open access version of the much longer—and prohibitively expensive—edition produced by the same author for an academic publisher. This edition lacks most of the exhaustive bibliography and accompanying notes of the earlier one, but there are still all the footnotes needed for students to make sense of what they are reading. It also includes a brief introductory essay, genealogy and maps.
Marco Polo, The Travels, trans. Nigel Cliff. London: Penguin, 2016.
Most of what we know of the Venetian explorer Marco Polo (ca. 1254-1324) comes from the book which he wrote about two journeys to China: the first undertaken in 1260 by his father and uncle, Niccolò and Matteo Polo, and the second by all three Polos in 1271. The second journey took them through modern Syria, Turkey, Armenia, Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China, which last region was then under the control of Kublai Khan (1215-1294), a grandson of Chingis Khan. Along the way the Polos saw sights such as Mount Ararat (traditionally claimed to be the place where Noah’s Ark landed after the biblical Flood), Balkh (where the emperor Alexander the Great was believed to have married the daughter of Darius, ruler of Persia), and the Great Wall of China. Marco spent almost two decades in Kublai Khan’s service, and travelled as far south as modern Burma and Vietnam. In 1292, the Polos returned to Venice, sailing from China to Iran, on to Constantinople, and finally reached Venice three years later. While historians debate the accuracy of Polo’s writings, and the extent to which he exaggerated some of his experiences, or may have claimed to be an eyewitness to some things which he only saw at second hand, there is no denying the enduring power of his narrative. This new translation of Polo’s work by Nigel Cliff renders his writing into clear and modern English; the previous Penguin edition of the text by Ronald Latham is also very good and should be readily available in secondhand copies.
Mohamad Ballan, “The Letter Exchange Between Pope Innocent IV and Güyük Khan in 1245-1246”, Ballandalus, June 1, 2015, https://ballandalus.wordpress.com/2015/06/01/mongol-papal-encounter-letter-exchange-between-pope-innocent-iv-and-guyuk-khan-in-1245-1246/.
One of the most fascinating examples of the clash of two very different world views in the Middle Ages are these letters, exchanged between Pope Innocent IV (1195-1254) and Güyük Khan (1206-1248), a grandson of Chingis Khan. Here, Ballan brings together translations of the three surviving letters which record Innocent’s attempts to persuade the Khan to convert to Christianity, and the Khan’s blunt response; as far as the Mongols were concerned, the pope and all the rulers of Christian Europe should travel to the Mongol court in order to perform obeisance to Güyük Khan. Both Catholic Christendom and the still predominantly animist Mongols were convinced of their respective superiority.
Recommended further reading:
- Rossabi, Morris. The Mongols: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
- Saunders, J.J. The History of the Mongol Conquests. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
- Weatherford, Jack. The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire. New York: Random House, 2011.
Parzival and People of Color in Medieval Europe
Wolfram von Eschenbach (ca. 1170-ca. 1220) was a knight and poet, whose works include the epic Parzival. Written probably between 1200 and 1210, this 25,000 line poem is in medieval German. Part of the epic deals with the fact that the eponymous hero Parzival has a half brother, Feirefiz. They share a father, Gahmuret, a king of Anjou, a region of what is now western France. Gahmuret travels to Zazamanc, a fictional kingdom in Africa, where he marries the local ruler, Belacane, and she becomes pregnant. However, Gahmuret is bored by life in Zazamanc and abandons his wife, returning to Europe where he marries another woman, Herzeloyde. Gahmuret dies before he can meet either of his sons: Parzival, son of Herzeloyde, and Feirefiz, son of Belacane. Parzifal grows up ignorant of his brother’s existence. Once grown, Feirefiz travels to Europe at the head of a large army of Saracens (a term used in the Middle Ages to mean, interchangeably, “Arab”, “Muslim”, or both), intent on tracking down his wayward father. Because of his mixed race ancestry, Feirefiz is described as having skin “like that of a magpie”, mottled black and white. He encounters Parzifal and the two duels one another to a stand-still, realise they are brothers, and are reconciled. Parzifal and Feirefiz travel on together to the court of King Arthur and become knights of the Round Table. There, Parzifal becomes the new keeper of the Holy Grail and Feirefiz renounces his “heathen ways” (von Eschenbach describes him as a worshipper of Jupiter) and is baptized. Feirefiz marries the Grail Maiden, and they travel together into the East where they preach Christianity and become parents to the mythical king Prester John. This part of Parzival, and indeed the poem as a whole, contain plot twists reminiscent of modern soap operas, and von Eschenbach’s presentation of Muslims as heathens and the biracial Feirefiz as resembling a magpie must be framed carefully in a modern classroom setting. However, discussion of Feirefiz and his role in the story allows students space to grapple with the idea of a medieval Europe in which a non-white person could be presented as heroic and a member of the legendary court of King Arthur, and in which interracial marriages were not presented as problematic.16
Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival, trans. A.T. Hatto. London: Penguin Books, 1980.
This translation is the most affordable and accessible translation of Parzival into modern English. Feirefiz and Parzival’s meeting occurs in Book 16.
Lucas Cranach the Elder and Workshop, “Saint Maurice”, ca. 1520-25. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2006.469 <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/2006.469/>.
Matthias Grünewald, “Saints Erasmus and Maurice”, ca. 1520. Pinakothek Museum, Munich, 1044. <https://www.sammlung.pinakothek.de/en/bookmark/artwork/7yxYEPPxYm>
Students will likely not have encountered images of black men depicted as medieval knights. Both of these early sixteenth-century images depict Saint Maurice, a possibly mythical commander of a Roman legion from North Africa, who was believed to have been put to death for his refusal to persecute Christians. From the Middle Ages onwards, Maurice was the patron saint of the Holy Roman Empire, and the great cathedral church at Magdeburg is dedicated to him. His veneration was particularly promoted by Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250). St Maurice was usually depicted as a soldier in full high medieval armor.
Recommended further reading:
- Hasty, Will, ed. A companion to Wolfram’s Parzival. London: Boydell & Brewer, 1999.
- Poag, James F. Wolfram von Eschenbach. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972.
Pilgrimage in the Middle Ages
Warfare might draw lords and soldiers far from home, or economic prospects tempt merchants overseas, but for the vast majority of medieval people, life was lived close to home. However, one kind of journey was undertaken by people from all walks of life: the pilgrimage, a trip undertaken in pursuit of a spiritual goal. Pilgrims could and did travel long distances in search of the remission of sins or the cure of a painful illness.17 From the very earliest years of Christianity, believers had travelled to visit the sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem that were familiar from their sacred texts; other important and popular shrines were located at Rome, Constantinople, Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and Canterbury in England. For Muslims, the pilgrimage to Mecca, or the hajj, is a rite incumbent at least once in their lifetime on all believers who are physically capable of the journey; throughout the Middle Ages, people travelled from west Africa, Syria, Persia, and even further afield, to visit the holy city. It was also traditional for Muslims to make visits (ziyara) to the tombs of the pious dead, for instance to that of Muhammad’s grandson, Husayn ibn Ali (d. 680) in Karbala, Iraq, or that of Muhammad’s granddaughter Zaynab bin Ali (d. 683) in Damascus, Syria. In the Jewish tradition, pilgrims visited the site of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, particularly during the High Holy Days. As was the case with Muslims and Christians, Jewish people also visited the graves of their co-religionists who had a reputation for particular piety during their lives. While some pilgrimages were on a fairly local scale and could be accomplished within a day, others could encompass vast distances and allowed for pilgrims to interact with people of many faiths and cultures.
Charles West, “Constantinople, Jerusalem and Canterbury: Joseph the monk and the Norman Conquest”, MARCUS: The Medieval & Ancient Research Centre University of Sheffield Blog, May 3, 2016, http://marcus.group.shef.ac.uk/constantinople-jerusalem-and-canterbury-joseph-the-monk-and-the-norman-conquest/
Charles West provides the first translation into English of this short but fascinating account of an eleventh-century English monk’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Constantinople. It gives us a glimpse not only of an expatriate English community living in Byzantium, but also of the draw which relics had for medieval Christians.
The Monks of Kublai Khan, Emperor of China. E.A.W. Budge, trans. London: The Religious Tract Society, 1928. Online at http://www.aina.org/books/mokk/mokk.htm
Where Marco Polo travelled from West to East, his near contemporary, Rabban Bar Sauma, travelled from Beijing in eastern China all the way to the Atlantic coast of France. Born in Beijing around 1220, Sauma was a Nestorian Christian and an Ongud, an ethnic minority people of mixed Turkish and Mongolian ancestry. In about 1240, he became a monk, and some two decades later set out along the Silk Road on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Sauma never made it to the Holy Land, but only because he was appointed an ambassador to Europe by Arghun Khan, the Ilkhanid ruler. His task as ambassador was to urge European Christians to undertake a new Crusade. Sauma travelled first to Constantinople, then to Naples and Rome, where he met with Catholic cardinals. From there, he went on to Paris to meet with Philip IV of France, and Bordeaux where he met Edward I of England. Though Sauma was not successful in meeting his goals, he was greeted with honour on his return to the Ilkhanid court. He lived out the rest of his life in Baghdad. Sauma’s story shows how pilgrimage could bring someone from the shores of the Pacific to the Atlantic coastline in the Middle Ages. It also demonstrates how major world religions could be disseminated and mingle on the Silk Road. Budge’s translation is the most recent one available in English. It has the benefit of being freely available online as it is now out of copyright, but the language used is very archaic, and instructors will likely wish to prune excerpts of “knoweths” and “peradventures” before using them with high school students.
Naser-e Khosraw, Naser-e Khosraw’s Book of Travels, ed. Wheeler M. Thackston Jr. Albany: SUNY Press, 1985.
Naser-e Khosraw (also transliterated as Nasir Khusraw) was an eleventh-century Persian who wrote an account of a seven-year journey he undertook while fulfilling the Muslim religious prescription to go on the hajj. He travelled via what is now northern Iran, Turkey, and Syria, and also made a long sojourn in Egypt. Naser’s accounts of the cities of Mecca, Jerusalem, and Cairo provide excellent insight into life at the time, through descriptions of local shrines, customs, and folklore. The Thackston edition of the text includes a prefatory essay, glossary, bibliography, and appendices. A nineteenth-century, and thus out of copyright, English translation of the text can be found at http://www.masseiana.org/nasirikhusrau.htm. Despite the age of the translation, the language is simple enough that it should still be accessible to students. A digital mapping project based on the text can be found at http://nasirkhusraw.iis.ac.uk/, and allows users to explore in more depth the places mentioned by Naser.
Recommended further reading:
- Melczer, William, ed. The Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago de Compostela. Italica Press, 2008.
- Webb, Diana. Medieval European Pilgrimage, ca. 700-ca. 1500. London: Palgrave, 2002.
- Whalen, Brett Edward, ed. Pilgrimage in the Middle Ages: A Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.
In January 1492, Muhammad XII, Sultan of Granada, surrendered his territory to Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. With that surrender came to an end 781 years of Muslim rule on the Iberian peninsula, and many centuries of frequent conflict and occasional co-operation between Muslim and Christian states. The territories in Iberia ruled over by Islamic regimes between the eighth and fifteenth centuries are collectively referred to as Al-Andalus. These regions were home to a predominantly Islamic Mediterranean society, where people spoke both Arabic and the pre-existing Romance language, and communities of mixed ethnic background practiced Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The Reconquista therefore involved a great deal of demographic change, as Christian rulers from northern Iberian kingdoms brought Christian settlers south, particularly between the ninth and eleventh centuries. In 1492, the Jewish population was forcibly expelled, though the marranos—people descended from Jewish converts to Christianity, whether voluntarily or unwillingly—continued to live in Iberia. Communities of Muslims (mudejars) continued to live openly within territories conquered by Christians until shortly after the fall of Granada, when they were obliged to either convert to Christianity or be expelled. The history and legacy of both Al-Andalus and the Reconquista is still a controversial one. Later nationalist politics, particularly those prominent during the Fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco in the mid-twentieth century, heavily promoted the idea of the Reconquista as a “war of liberation”, while some historians have argued that the very idea of the Reconquista as a coherent and discrete series of events is a myth. Students will find much to discuss about ethnic conflict and cooperation, not to mention what makes a group identity, in sources related to the Reconquista.
“Grant of Privileges to the Castilians, Mozarabs, and Franks of Toledo, 1086-1118” in Medieval Towns: A Reader, ed. Maryann Kowaleski. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006.
In this document, Alfonso VII of León and Castile (1105-57) reconfirms the privileges and rights which his grandfather, Alfonso VI, had granted to the inhabitants of the central Spanish city of Toledo shortly after he captured their city in 1085. The document shows some of the ways in which people were distinguished by ethnicity and religion, and the ways in which some rights were racialized. For instance, a Muslim or Jew could not be a judge in a case involving a Christian. The document also shows the kinds of systems which were in place to organize Christian knights for military campaigns against Muslim kingdoms.
The Song of the Cid, trans. Burton Raffel. London: Penguin Books, 2009.
This epic poem is one of the most famous pieces of Spanish literature. It tells the story of the eleventh-century Christian knight, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (1043-99) known as el Cid, or the lord, who was banished from the Castilian court and set out to restore his reputation in the battlefields of the Reconquista. The poem allows students to explore the ways in which a male identity was constructed within the chivalric culture of medieval Christian Spain. It also shows the ways in which interaction between polities in medieval Iberia was more complicated than is often assumed. In his youth, El Cid fought as part of the Christian Castilian forces in defense of the Muslim taifa (or petty kingdom) of Zaragoza, then an ally of Castile. During his exile, El Cid fought as a mercenary for the taifas of Valencia and Zaragoza. Raffel’s translation is a solid recent one, with parallel text in English and Spanish, and includes an introduction by the historian María Rosa Menocal.
The Great Mosque of Córdoba. UNESCO World Heritage List. Web. 1992-2017. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/313/
The Mosque-Cathedral (La Mezquita) of Córdoba in southern Spain is one of the most recognisable symbols of the Reconquista and its legacy, and of the multifaceted nature of Iberian history. The earliest layer of construction on the site appears to be that of a temple built by the Romans when Iberia was part of their empire. In the sixth century, it was converted into a Christian church by the Visigoths, a Germanic tribe which had invaded and conquered much of the peninsula. The Muslim Umayyad dynasty then turned the building into a mosque, recycling ancient Roman columns to create the famous large prayer hall, and decorating the whole with intricate calligraphic and geometric tile and mosaics. In the thirteenth-century, Córdoba was taken by Christian forces and the building was reconsecrated as a Christian church. During the Renaissance, the most dramatic alteration to the structure was made when a cathedral nave was inserted into the Islamic prayer hall. The UNESCO site includes maps, photographs, and video clips of this site and its architectural context within the city center of Córdoba.
Recommended further reading:
- Constable, Olivia Remie. Medieval Spain. Revised edition.
- Menocal, María Rosa. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. New York: Little, Brown, 2002.
- O’Callaghan, Joseph. Reconquest and Crusade in Medieval Spain.
- Starr LeBeau, Gretchen D. In the Shadow of the Virgin: Inquisitors, Friars, and Conversos in Guadalupe, Spain. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.
The Travels of Ibn Jubayr
Abu ‘l-Husayn Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Jubayr (1145-1217) was a Muslim geographer, poet, and traveller from Spain. He made the hajj to Mecca—the pilgrimage which all Muslims are obliged to make at least once in their lifetime if they can afford to do so—during 1183-85, and left behind an account of his journey, the Rihla (lit. “Travel”). The hajj took him across the Mediterranean to Cairo on ships operated by Christian Genoese merchants. From there he travelled up the Nile River, and then across the Egyptian desert and the Red Sea to Mecca and Medina. Ibn Jubayr was also a curious traveller, and one whose writings show that he reflected deeply on the new peoples, places, and cultures that he encountered. His return journey was not a direct one; he travelled north through modern Iraq and Syria before returning west towards Al-Andalus. On the way, he stopped off in Sicily, an island under Norman Catholic rule which nonetheless had substantial populations of Muslims of Arab or North African descent, of Jews, and of Orthodox Christians of Greek descent. Ibn Jubayr’s account of the architecture, people, and customs of the capital city of Palermo is one of our best sources for the history of the island during this period. Students should find his descriptions of cross-cultural mixings intriguing—for instance, his account of the Christian women of Palermo attending Christmas celebrations while wearing hijab and with hennaed hands and feet.
The Travels of Ibn Jubayr, trans. R.J.C. Broadhurst. London: Goodword Books, 1952.
Broadhurst’s is the standard edition of the text available in English, and is a fairly faithful translation. It contains an introductory essay, full notes, and a glossary of Arabic terms.
Recommended further reading:
- Donaldson, Dwight M. “Ibn Jubayr’s Visit to Al-Medina.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 50 (1930), 26-42.
- Weber, Elka. “Construction of identity in twelfth-century Andalusia: the case of travel writing.” The Journal of North African Studies 5:2 (2000), 1-8.
1 Karen Schousboe, “The Prince from Beckum, AD 600”, Medieval Histories, accessed April 17, 2017, http://www.medievalhistories.com/prince-beckum-ad-600-650/.
2 Caitlin Green, “A note on the evidence for African migrants in Britain from the Bronze Age to the medieval period”, Dr. Caitlin R. Green: Blog, May 23, 2016,
3 Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah delivered a 2016 Reith Lecture, entitled “Culture”, in which he dissected the concept of “Western Civilization” and its history. The text of the lecture is reprinted in edited form as Kwame Anthony Appiah, “There is no such thing as western civilisation”, The Guardian, November 9, 2016, accessed April 17, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/09/western-civilisation-appiah-reith-lecture.
4 Paul Sturvesant, “Based on a True History?: The Impact of Popular ‘Medieval Film’ on the Public Understanding of the Middle Ages” (PhD diss., University of Leeds, 2010).
5 For an overview of the historiography of medieval transgender studies, see Karl Whittington, “Medieval,” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly 1-2 (2014): 125-129.
6 A number of pedagogical studies have supported this approach. See for example Christopher C. Martell, “Race and Histories: Examining Culturally Relevant Teaching in the U.S. History Classroom”, Theory and Research in Social Education 41:1 (2013): 65-88; Terrie Epstein, “History and Racial Identity in an Urban High School”, Perspectives on History, accessed April 17, 2017, https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/december-2001/history-and-racial-identity-in-an-urban-high-school; Richard Harris and Rosemary Reynolds, “The history curriculum and its personal connection to students from minority ethnic backgrounds”, Journal of Curriculum Studies 46:4 (2014): 464-86.
7 Indeed, the very concept of the Middle Ages was invented by self-congratulatory Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers who sought to mark themselves out as distinctive from and better than their predecessors.
8 Eli Saslow, “The white flight of Derek Black,” The Washington Post, October 15, 2016, accessed April 17, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/the-white-flight-of-derek-black/2016/10/15/ed5f906a-8f3b-11e6-a6a3-d50061aa9fae_story.html.
9 For an account of this focusing on the work of librarian Abdel Kader Haidara between the 1980s and 2010s, see Joshua Hammer, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016).
10 A fictionalized account of the manuscript’s history is presented in Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book (New York: Penguin, 2008). Brooks also wrote an article about the haggadah’s twentieth-century history. Geraldine Brooks, “The Book of Exodus: A double rescue in wartime Sarajevo”, The New Yorker December 3, 2007, accessed April 17, 2017, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/12/03/the-book-of-exodus.
11 The website The Public Medievalist ran a series beginning in February 2017 in which a number of academic guest bloggers have explored race, racism, and the Middle Ages. See the entries on this table of contents page: <http://www.publicmedievalist.com/race-racism-middle-ages-toc/> Instructors should find it a useful resource on the broad outlines of contemporary academic debates on these topics.
13 For useful guides to using images in teaching, together with visual source analysis worksheets designed for the K-5 social studies classroom but also more broadly applicable, see the Bringing History Home website <http://bringinghistoryhome.org/curriculum-resources/general-resources>
14 Terry Jones holds a BA in History. His writings on medieval topics include Terry Jones, Chaucer’s Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary, revised edition (London: Methuen, 2007), Terry Jones et al, Who Murdered Chaucer? (London: Methuen, 2003), and Terry Jones and Alan Ereira, Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives (London: BBC Books, 2009).
15 For more on the discovery of the manuscripts, see Jacob Mikanowski, “A Secret Library, Digitally Excavated”, The New Yorker, October 9, 2013, accessed April 17, 2017, http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/a-secret-library-digitally-excavated
16This is not the only Arthurian romance to feature a person of color in a key role. Indeed, Morien, the black son of Sir Aglovale of the Round Table, is the protagonist of the thirteenth-century Middle Dutch romance Moriaen. However, the only English translation of this is from 1901 and is rendered into such archaic English that middle- and high-school students would find it extremely challenging to read. Jessie Laidlay Weston, trans., Morien: A Metrical Romance rendered into English from the Middle Dutch (London: Nutt, 1901).
17The grave of a young man excavated at a leper hospital in Winchester, England, indicates that he may have travelled to Santiago de Compostela in search of a cure. Kristina Killgrove, “Archaeologists Uncover The Skeleton Of A Medieval Christian Pilgrim With Leprosy,” Forbes, January 26, 2017, accessed April 17, 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/2017/01/26/skeleton-and-artifacts-expose-medieval-christian-pilgrim-with-leprosy/#1ea5793770b7.