Early Medieval Southern Italy in Transregional Perspective

By Kordula Wolf

When the Aghlabids and later Kalbids were ruling the emirate in Sicily (ca. 831–1091), the island was not a space separated from the southern part of the Italian peninsula. Therefore, the term “southern Italy” used in this blog post relates to both regions (and actually also includes a few more small islands near the coast which will not be covered further here). The political, cultural and religious inhomogeneity of this macro-region has always been a challenge for those who seek to analyze and narrate its history. By questioning Henry Pirenne’s assumption that the Islamic conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries wrecked the ancient unity of the Mediterranean world,[1] some scholars have emphasized southern Italy’s bridging function between East and West, and at times even idealized contact and cohabitation in the region. In contrast, others have maintained the idea that, despite mutual exchange, there was a kind of iron curtain across the Mediterranean Sea – and across the Strait of Messina (and partly other southern Italian territories) – that separated Islamic from Christian areas. Either way, a cross-border approach has been implicit in many studies ever since. But it was, and still is, often superimposed by local-, national- or empire-oriented interpretation frames that entail a focus on boundaries between political spheres of influence and, correspondingly, between larger groups such as Lombards, Franks, Byzantines, Jews, Arabs/Saracens, or between ‘religions’, i.e. western/eastern Christianity, Judaism and Islam. As a consequence, the general view of a Muslim Sicily, a Byzantine south, and a fragmented, mainly ‘Latin’, peninsula is quite firmly anchored , and has been spread in historical maps, for instance on the Euratlas website or in the popular Italian Zanichelli dictionary. Both maps are vivid examples of the present-day mental imaginary, but they do not really mirror the understanding of many specialists, who in their respective fields of research have dealt and continue to  deal with the complex history of southern Italy in a very stimulating way. Against this background and picking up with the recent growing interest in cross-cultural aspects and processes of entanglements in pre-Norman history, the collective volume, Southern Italy as Contact Area and Border Region During the Early Middle Ages. Religious-Cultural Heterogeneity and Competing Powers in Local, Transregional and Universal Dimensions (table of contents here), uses a multi-perspective and interdisciplinary approach when dealing with dynamics of bordering, de-bordering and re-bordering and when calling attention to the interplay between the local and the trans-regional. Was southern Italy just a peripheral border zone of Byzantium, of the Carolingian (later Ottonian) Empire, or of the North-African Islamic dominions, and that’s why it was characterized by internal struggles and continuously changing frontiers? What role did religion play in this context? And how were physical and non-physical spaces socially constituted, controlled, imagined and lived in everyday practice? These are only some questions taken up by the authors of the above volume which is intended as a kind of laboratory for (re-)thinking and discussing pre-Norman southern Italy as a multiple border region and contact area. In four thematic chapters, different transregional aspects become opened up. The first section ponders the idea of Mediterraneans in the plural;[2] it discusses whether it can make sense to see Early Medieval southern Italy as belonging to different ‘sub-Mediterraneans’ and broadens our horizon through a look at the whole Muslim world and at Jewish networked communities. The second part is dedicated to the transformations and challenges linked to the Muslim presence in Sicily and on the Italian peninsula, while the third deals with the multi-layered connections and local dynamics between Byzantium and southern Italy by examining social networks, migration, integration, exchange and their long-term impact, and by offering a differentiated picture for Sicily, Calabria and Apulia. The fourth and last chapter entitled “Latin Configurations of Power – Perceptions and Contacts” concentrates on several other local and transregional actors like the Lombard rulers, the popes or the Carolingians who were all competing for political and symbolic power in southern Italy.

Hence, instead of understanding the Early Medieval centuries as a time of decline, transition, or failed ‘universal’ claims in terms of political frontiers, the volume considers this period as highly dynamic and characterized by multi-layered, ambiguous processes of de-/re-/bordering. In this way, we gain a greater awareness to problematic geopolitical, ethnical, cultural or religious demarcations provided by both medieval and ‘modern’, often Eurocentric, interpretations which oversimplify complex historical situations. Neither ‘culture’ and ‘religion’, nor people, halted at political borders, especially when they were in constant transformation through the shifting relationships between those holding local power and those claiming universal authority. Vice versa, a territory-linked dominion does not reveal much about the values, identities and ideas of its population. Latins, Greeks and Arabs, Christians, Muslims and Jews in Early Medieval southern Italy are only broad categories that we use to describe groups of people with different identities, living in entangled, hybrid spaces. Boundaries were repeatedly transgressed and negotiated, so that theoretical hierarchies between the faithful and infidel were frequently brought into question in  daily interactions. Among many aspects that need to be investigated further, future studies could look into the specifics of Early Medieval empires and imperial borders by reflecting upon conceptions related to processes of power formation in southern Italy. In summary, the essays collected in the volume do not intend to give conclusive answers, but they offer a range of approaches, perspectives, interdisciplinary viewpoints and new insights that will hopefully stimulate further research, debate and reflection – not only about Early Medieval southern Italy as a border region, but also about our own premises and projections.

Kordula Wolf, Klaus Herbers (eds.), Southern Italy as Contact Area and Border Region during the Early Middle Ages. Religious-cultural Heterogeneity and Competing Powers in Local, Transregional and Universal Dimensions, Köln-Weimar-Wien: Böhlau, 2018.

[1] Henri Pirenne, Mahomet et Charlemagne (Paris-Bruxelles: Alcan, 1937).

[2] David Abulafia, Mediterraneans, in: William V. Harris (Ed.), Rethinking the Mediterranean (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 64–93.

About the Editor

Kordula Wolf has been a researcher at the Deutsches Historisches Institut in Rome since 2009. During the last few years, she worked on a project about southern Italy as a fluid border region in Early Medieval times, paying particular attention to Christian-Muslim relations.

Citation: Kordula Wolf, Early Medieval Southern Italy in Transregional Perspective, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 03.12.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/14952.

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