Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.11.12 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.11.12

Walter Pohl, Clemens Gantner, Richard E. Payne (ed.), Visions of Community in the Post-Roman World: The West, Byzantium and the Islamic World, 300-1100.   Farnham; Burlington, VT:  Ashgate, 2012.  Pp. viii, 575.  ISBN 9781409427094.  $165.00.  

Reviewed by Alexander Angelov, The College of William and Mary (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Many visions of community intersect in this collection of essays. We encounter medieval Tibetans, ancient Nabataeans, Armenians, Franks, Vikings, Saracens, Byzantines, Seljuks and many other protagonists set in their historical context. Each article has its own particular objectives, but the conceptual axis of the book revolves around “how ethnic identities, civic and regional communities, religious beliefs and political allegiances interacted in shaping different social worlds” (1). Thus, the polemics of ethnicity and identity formation are revisited here, but with the ambitious objective to produce the first comparative study in the period. In effect, we are taken through a world of case studies, broadly organized in three thematic units, where the overarching emphasis falls on the constructed nature and contextual basis of identity and community. As in most collections of articles, there are many perspectives and approaches here as well, so I will first sketch out the primary objectives of each contributor before I turn to my general comments at the end of the review.

Part I, broadly organized under the rubric of ethnic differences, opens with two anthropological essays that set the general theoretical outlook of the volume. Andre Gingrich introduces the understanding of ethnicity – conventional among anthropologists – as a fluid marker of social identity dependent on historical context and shaped by cultural interactions with perceived “others”. Guntram Hazod adopts this definition and studies how the Silk Road’s political and economic network transformed the religious and tribal dynamics into what became imperial Tibet. Fritz Mitthof’s essay also engages with the general theme of creating common identity and interprets Hadrian’s imperial coinage as a way to relate the disparate provincial peripheries to a common imperial center. In turn, Jan Retsö reveals how the Romans managed to erase the term Nabataea when they brought into existence the Provincia Arabia in 106 C.E.. Even the seventh-century Monophysites, according to Bernhard Palme, did not focus on doctrinal differences when pressed between the political structures of the Chalcedonians and the Umayyads.

Imperial formation is the theme of the first few articles. The opposite process, that of emerging native identities, connects the following three essays. Herwig Wolfram shows that there were many ethnicities among early medieval groups, and each could be evoked depending on particular political expediency. “Each individual could hold several passports” (105). Only in the modern period, Wolfram points out, has “nation” come to designate a restrictive sense of identity and has become an exclusivist ideological concept. Unlike the political exclusivity of the modern period, the early Middle Ages, according to Helmut Reimitz, display fluid and interchangeable visions of community, and Catherine McKenna draws attention to the emergence of Welsh ethnicity that revolved around the elastic concepts of Britain and the ethnonym Cymry. As it turns out, it was precisely the ambiguity of the two referents that brought about “the invention of Wales” as an accommodationist process.

Religion does not seem to have had much effect on the ethnic emergence of the Welsh, but it played a critical role in early Islamic communities. Michael Morony contends that religion sustained the multi-ethnic societies of the late-antique Islamic world, and Walter Kaegi illustrates the stringent tightening of Muslim control over North Africa in the seventh century. The earlier openness of Muslims to accommodate Christians in their polity ended with the close of the seventh century, and the social and cultural diversity of North Africa was transformed into a “recognizably Muslim” community (179).

Religion as the primary organizing force of community also steered the social identities of medieval Christians in the Middle East. Bas ter Haar Romeny charts out how the development of a Syrian orthodox historiographical tradition in the period up to 1300 effectively brought about their ethnic identification. Interested in “recovering” their past from biblical accounts and local traditions, the Syrian clergymen created normative ethnic boundaries. In contrast to the Syrian ethnogenesis that emerged out of the elites’ historical writing, northern Mesopotamian Christians articulated their own social identity, as Richard Payne explains. Locality and nobility guided the Sasanian Christians who sought to define themselves within the Persian empire (214). Art and ceremonial, too, played a critical role in building and sustaining political allegiance. Thus, Lynn Jones urges us to take seriously the Armenian adaptations of material culture and explores how local aristocrats employed them as strategies of social control (239). Hartmut Leppin, on the other hand, stresses the performative aspects of ethnicity, and George Hatke offers a detailed analysis on the forging of specific political communities different from Byzantium in the late-antique Red Sea region.

The articles in Part I unveil a story of shifting ethnic differences. Part II explores integration and successful building of political allegiance. Mischa Meier opens up the section by making clear the powerful ways in which intellectuals molded historical memory to form political authority, and Ralph-Johannes Lilie investigates the pragmatic ways in which the Byzantines employed soldiers disregarding their religious or ethnic background. John Haldon and Hugh Kennedy finish the section with a keen investigation of how the changing political and military structures of the Byzantine and Umayyad states affected tribal and regional identities. The making of Christian Europe in the Middle Ages is a fascinating subject, and Stefan Esders shows how the Byzantines employed oaths of allegiance to forge “faithfulness,” to unite different ethnic groups, and effectively to consolidate their political authority. Steffen Patzold describes Carolingian society as a powerful symbiosis of “the kingdom of the Franks” and the “people of God,” different social forces that ultimately combined to build a single community. Wolfram Drews explores the dramatic consequences of the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem and shows that in the medieval diaspora it was religion that held together and sustained Jewish identity (401). Clemens Gantner turns to the papacy and explores the great repercussions of the Saracen attacks on Rome in 846 and 849. First, he argues, they consolidated the pope’s political power in Italy, and then the conflicts were used to justify a fundamental change in the prevalent theology of war that would come to serve as a basis for the eleventh-century crusades (421). Gantner’s essay closes Part II.

Part III, the last section of the volume, focuses on the three broad visions of community that have historically intersected in Europe: Islamic, Byzantine, and Western. Daniel König begins with an argument that there is no clear notion of “Latin-Christian Europe” in Arabic-Islamic sources written between the ninth and the fifteenth centuries. Over time, however, Arabic-Islamic scholars isolated as critical markers of difference Roman history, Christianity, and the nature of institutional organization (444). Ann Christys shows how the Arabs stitched together their cultural notions of the Vikings out of received traditions and a rich legacy of ethnographic references. Przemysław Urbańczyk explores Arabic conceptions of the Slavs and the Rus. Ultimately, time and the ever-expanding research of Arab scholars shifted stereotypes and ethnic appellations, but traditions remained powerful.

The theme of reframing culturally entrenched stories or signs for new usages carries over into Wolfram Brandes’s essay on Byzantium. He traces the biblical tradition of Gog and Magog and shows how it motivated the Byzantines during the Arab siege of Pergamon. Alexander Beihammer studies how the Byzantine views of the Seljuks were formed not out of direct cultural encounter but within a complex literary and historical context. There was no vacuum for new strategies of identification since earlier traditions always affected patterns of perception.

John Tolan moves the discussion to the West and shows the rich composite behind the appellation “Saracens.” Latin scholars traced it back to the Old Testament and charged it with meanings that were deployed according to contextual exigencies. Ian Wood writes the final essay of the volume. He explores how the notions of “the monstrous” and “the exotic” were used in the past to define and normalize particular communities and enforce specific political structures.

As is clear from this survey, this is a kaleidoscopic book with an ambitious scope. Two separate conclusions attempt to bring all points together. First, Leslie Brubaker explores the volume’s focus on “religion” and “power”. Then Chris Wickham revisits the theme of “ethnicity” itself. In the end, he wishes for a Weberian, ideal-type application of the term, “stripped of as many implicit values as we can manage” (554). “If we employ it, then, instead of saying, ‘Is this a real ethnic identity or not?’, we would say, ‘What elements of ethnic identity does this social group stress, and how/why do they do so?’” (555). Besides sharpening the analytical focus, comparisons based on this methodological premise bring the added benefit of working across any pre-existing historiographical or chronological divides. If explicit comparisons are what we want, future projects need to take Wickham’s (and Weber’s) suggestion seriously. The present volume is for those who seek varieties of approaches and perspectives through which they are bound to find complex “visions of community” past as well as present.

Table of Contents

Walter Pohl. “Introduction: Ethnicity, Religion and Empire.” p. 1.
Andre Gingrich. “Envisioning Medieval Communities in Asia: Remarks on Ethnicity, Tribalism and Faith.” p. 29.
Guntram Hazod. “Tribal Mobility and Religious Fixation: Remarks on Territorial Transformation and Identity in Imperial and Early Post-Imperial Tibet.” p. 43.
Fritz Mitthof. “Zur Neustiftung von Identität unter imperialer Herrschaft: Die Provinzen des Römischen Reiches als ethnische Entitäten.” p. 61.
Jan Retsö. “The Nabataeans—Problems of Defining Ethnicity in the Ancient World.” p. 73.
Bernhard Palme. “Political Identity versus Religious Distinction? The Case of Egypt in the Later Roman Empire.” p. 81.
Herwig Wolfram. “How Many Peoples are (in) a People?”. p. 101.
Helmut Reimitz. “The Providential Past: Visions of Frankish Identity in the Early Medieval History of Gregory of Tours’ Historiae (sixth-ninth century).” p. 109.
Catherine McKenna. “Inventing Wales.” p. 137.
Michael G. Morony. “Religious Communities in the Early Islamic World.” p. 155.
Walter E. Kaegi. “Seventh-Century Identities: The Case of North Africa.” p. 165.
Bas ter Haar Romeny. “Ethnicity, Ethnogenesis and the Identity of Syriac Orthodox Christians.” p. 183.
Richard Payne. “Avoiding Ethnicity: Uses of the Ancient Past in Late Sasanian Northern Mesopotamia.” p. 205.
Lynn Jones. “Truth and Lies, Ceremonial and Art: Issues of Nationality in Medieval Armenia.” p. 223.
Hartmut Leppin. “Roman Identity in a Border Region: Evagrius and the Defense of the Roman Empire.” p. 241.
George Hatke. “Holy Land and Sacred History: A View from Early Ethiopia.” p. 259.
Mischa Meier. “Anastasios und die ‘Geschichte’ der Isaurier.” p. 281.
Ralph-Johannes Lilie. “Zur Stellung von ethnischen und religiösen Minderheiten in Byzanz: Armenier, Muslime und Paulikianer.” p. 301.
John Haldon and Hugh Kennedy. “Regional Identities and Military Power: Byzantium and Islam ca. 600-750.” p. 317.
Stefan Esders. “’Faithful Believers’: Oaths of Allegiance in Post-Roman Societies as Evidence for Eastern and Western ‘Visions of Community.’” p. 357.
Steffen Patzold. “‘Einheit’ versus ‘Fraktionierung’: Zur symbolischen und institutionellen Integration des Frankenreichs im 8./9. Jahrhundert.” p. 375.
Wolfram Drews. “Diaspora Jewish Communities in Early Medieval Europe: Structural Conditions for Survival and Expansion.” p. 391.
Clemens Gantner. “New Visions of Community in Ninth-Century Rome: The Impact of the Saracen Threat on the Papal World View.” p. 403.
Daniel G. König. “Arabic-Islamic Historiographers on the Emergence of Latin-Christian Europe.” p. 427.
Ann Christys. “The Vikings in the South through Arab Eyes.” p. 447.
Przemysław Urbańczyk. “Identities of the Ṣaqāliba and the Rūsiyya in Early Arabic Sources.” p. 459.
Wolfram Brandes. “Gog, Magog und die Hunnen: Anmerkungen zur eschatologischen ‘Ethnographie’ der Völkerwanderungszeit.” p. 477.
Alexander Beihammer. “Strategies of Identification and Distinction in the Byzantine Discourse on the Seljuk Turks.” p. 499.
John Victor Tolan. “‘A wild man, whose hand will be against all’: Saracens and Ishmaelites in Latin Ethnographical Traditions, from Jerome to Bede.” p. 513.
Ian N. Wood. “Where the Wild Things Are.” p. 531.
Leslie Brubaker. “Conclusions.” p. 545.
Chris Wickham. “Conclusions.” p. 551.
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