Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.04.37 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.04.37

Jonathan Harris, Catherine Holmes, Eugenia Russell (ed.), Byzantines, Latins, and Turks in the Eastern Mediterranean World after 1150. Oxford studies in Byzantium.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2012.  Pp. xi, 378; 8 p. of plates.  ISBN 9780199641888.  $150.00.  

Reviewed by Brian A. Catlos, University of Colorado at Boulder (


The volume Byzantines, Latins, and Turks grew out of a two-day colloquium held at Oxford in 2005, and its thirteen essays include contributions from leading scholars on various aspects of the Medieval Mediterranean. The virtue of such collections is that they gather the work of diverse scholars around a determined period or theme and are often rich in their variety of approach and perspective; on the other hand, it is a challenge to maintain overall coherence precisely due to that characteristic. The essays gathered here range from religion to economics and from politics to literature, bridging the worlds of Latins, Greeks, Mamluks, and Turks, and spanning over five centuries – discrete and independent snapshots that editor and contributor, Catherine Holmes endeavours to tie together in her substantial introduction to the collection, and in the lead essay, “‘Shared Worlds’: Religious Identities – A Question of Evidence.”

In the introduction Holmes stakes out the volume’s purpose as “to make sense of the region’s highly fragmented and fluid polities, economies and societies… which may allow us to speak with confidence about the late medieval Eastern Mediterranean as a coherent field of historical inquiry” that “by identifying unities amid disunity we can begin to construct a framework which current and future research into the region as a whole and into its component parts may be conducted.” (p. 1). Holmes notes the prevalence in recent historiography of the region of themes relating to “fragmentation, plurality, hybridity and interconnectedness” (p. 9) and of the difficulty of “making general sense out of highly localized studies.” (p. 10). The importance of Horden and Purcell’s Corrupting Sea is acknowledged; although, as Holmes points out, the jury is not quite yet in as to how well their model holds up against “limited periods of time or particular zones” (p. 14) (although they themselves might not make firm claims in that regard).

In fact, the Introduction serves also as the volume’s conclusion, in which, after reviewing the various chapters, Holmes concludes that it is unclear as to whether the Mediterranean (or more narrowly, the Eastern Mediterranean) should be considered a distinct unit or region, and as to how useful Horden and Purcell’s distinction between scholarship “in” versus “of” the Mediterranean is. In her view some of the studies presented here seem to undermine the Horden-Purcell view of the Mediterranean, while others seem to resonate with it, and she closes the introduction/conclusion rather tentatively, unsure of what we can say the Mediterranean (Eastern or not) meant for even the people who inhabited it, and suggesting that “all-encompassing histories of the Byzantines, Ottomans, Mamluks, Venetians, or Genoese must surely be written within a framework which pays close attention first to the profound fragmentations within the late medieval eastern Mediterranean world, and second to the common cultural, political, and economic practices which united such a plurality of communities” (p. 25; her emphasis).

In fact, the thirteen essays can be divided fairly clearly along the lines of the Horden-Purcell “in”/”of” binary. Over half of the chapters, including Jonathan Shepard’s “Imperial Constantinople: Relics, Palaiologian Emperors, and the resilience of Exemplary Culture,” Jonathan Harris’s “Contantinople as a City State, c. 1360–1453,” Theresa Shawcross’s “Conquest Legitimized: The Making of a Byzantine Emperor in Crusader Constantinople (1204–1261),” Christopher Wright’s “Byzantine Authority and Latin Rule in the Gattilusio Lordships,” David Abulafia’s “Aragon versus Turkey – Tirant lo Blanc and Mehmed the Conqueror: Iberia, the Crusade and Late Medieval Chivalry,” Judith Ryder’s “Byzantium and the West in the 1360s: the Kydones Version,” and Kate Fleet’s “Turks, Mamluks, and Latin Merchants: Commerce, Conflict and Cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean” can be seen as falling into the former category by virtue of the approach, and emphasis on discrete events, locales or scenarios. The balance, including Catherine Holmes’s “‘Shared Worlds’: Religious Identities – A Question of Evidence,” David Jacoby’s “The Eastern Mediterranean in the Later Middle Ages: an Island World?” Eurydice Georgantelli’s “Transposed Images: Currencies and Legitimacy in the Late Medieval Eastern Mediterranean,” Dmitris Kastritis’s “Conquest and Political Legitimation in the Early Ottoman Empire,” Christopher Tyerman’s “‘New Wine in Old Skins’? Crusade Literature and Crusading in the Eastern Mediterranean in the Later Middle Ages,” and Robert Irwin’s “Palestine in Late Medieval Islamic Spirituality and Culture,” fall into the “of the Mediterranean” approach.

All together it is a rich collection, and the various contributions are impressive in their quality both as individual works and in their breadth as totality. That said, the predominance of Byzantinists and of the British academy among the contributors certainly should caution the reader as taking these pieces as necessarily indicative of the validity of the Mediterranean (or Eastern Mediterranean) as a frame of inquiry, or of concluding as does Holmes that history here must be conceived of first in terms of fragmentation.

Indeed, although the authors may not have set out to emphasize it, the Mediterranean comes out clearly in many of the pieces that fall into the first category. For example, although the word “Mediterranean” does not even appear in Shepard’s chapter, to this reviewer’s eyes the Mediterranean itself clearly does in the integration of Latin, Byzantine and extra-imperial Orthodox players that the author describes, and the fact that their expressions of sovereignty, legitimacy and authority are articulated within the framework of a common, or at least commonly comprehensible set of concepts, rituals and objects. The same might be observed regarding Shawcross’s chapter, which like that of Wright and of Harris, can be seen to illustrate how profoundly interdependent Latins and Byzantines were in the Eastern Mediterranean, irrespective of the formal identities and polities that divided them. Similarly, Abulafia reminds us that the Catalano-Aragonese attitudes to the Ottomans as evinced in the chivalric romance in Tirant lo Blanc must be considered also in the light of Catalano-Aragonese competition with Genoa.

The interconnected, and “corrupting” Mediterranean comes out even more clearly in the “of” chapters. Georgantelli’s fascinating essay on the shared symbols of later medieval Anatolian coinage shows how the borrowing of the symbols of authority across ecumenian lines was not limited to transitional periods of grand conquest, but took place throughout the Middle Ages in politically-contested Anatolia, as does Kastritis’s chapter on the early Ottomans. Irwin’s survey of religiosity in post-Hattin Palestine undermines the traditional, cataclysmic (from the Latin Christian perspective) view of the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem. The ambiguities of the use of Crusade rhetoric in the late Middle Ages and Early Modern era and its relation to Eastern Mediterranean politics and trade also comes out in Tyerman’s essay. And although Jacoby is somewhat restrained in his conclusion as to whether the Eastern Mediterranean can be described as “an island world,” focusing on the rivalry between Venice and Genoa, he notes that “interlocking an partially overlapping networks of communication linked insular and continental territories across political boundaries and the fault lines between zones of dominance.” (p. 112). Indeed, this is an observation that is all the more compelling when one considers that the rivalry between the two trading republics was only one of several overlapping nexus of competition in the region.

The Mediterranean, it seems, is there for those who look for it. But this is not to say that it is any less valid as a framework for inquiry or as a historical “region” than any other. As to the question posed in the introduction: whether the Eastern Mediterranean in the Late Middle Ages is a “coherent region” (p. 23), one might suppose that leans rather heavily on what one considers “coherent” and how one conceives of a “region.” And one wonders if this is a question that we even need to bother asking. Whereas on some planes the “fragmentation” of the Eastern Mediterranean in this era is clear, it is equally clear that integration and interdependence also drove the historical process, and that alongside the rhetoric and action of confrontation and conflict between Latins, Greeks, Mamluks and Ottomans, there was also rhetoric and action (typically more subtle and more self-conscious) of commonality and concord among players who identified with these larger and formally-opposed categories. Moreover, it seems that these latter forces—remarkable in view of the formal differences that distinguished rival religio-political cultures—were rooted to a great extent in the particular environment of the Mediterranean as described (if only obliquely in terms of political and cultural history) by Horden and Purcell. Historians should be prepared to account for both of these types of interaction and engagement. Considering the Mediterranean or even the Eastern Mediterranean as a “coherent region” does not eclipse the reality of the regional coherence of Europe, the Islamic World, or what have you, it simply serves to answer certain questions better. And taken both independently and as a whole, the fourteen excellent chapters in this collection demonstrate both the Mediterranean character of late medieval Anatolia and its environs, and also the ways in which it was an arena for conflict and competition among external regions that might be seen as non-Mediterranean.

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